Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Of The Written Word from 2012

The world of books has always had a fantastical appeal for me. It is rich, wide, effervescent, dynamic, real, imaginative and so much more. Books are a panacea for troubled souls like me. They are constant companions – on journeys, in college and in bed too. For me, books are also a way to look back at a great year and relive fond periods by remembering the books I read then and how they affected and enriched my thought process. Here, I share with you the best picks of the written word from the year 2012, in two sections. The first of these two sections comprises of my pick of the critically acclaimed books from the past year, and the second section has my favourite five from the popular fiction category. If you missed out on any of these this year, worry not! Procure them still, for the written word does never lose its charm.

Critical Recommendations

Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma
In this record-making bestseller, Ruchir Sharma takes his readers on a tour of more than two dozen emerging market economies. Weighing in on economic and political factors, Mr. Sharma addresses the timeless question of what is it that makes some states succeed and others fall. In a very methodical narrative, this book tracks the basic data of these countries to suggest if these states are likely to sustain growth momentum or lose it gradually. It is an intensive book, thoroughly engaging for those with an interest in economics and geopolitics and one of the most read books of this year.
Publisher – Penguin
Price – Rs. 599

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Though criticised for lack of a coherent plot from more than one corner, this book is still high on my list of recommendations. This book not only managed to catch ample amount of international attention, but also realistically took its readers to the darkened alleyways of the drug-culture of Bombay, in a whirlwind commentary of abuse, sex, violence, love and death. There are many who were outright disgusted by the book, others left with mixed feelings. However, there is a great section of literary critics who paint this part cacophony, part symphony – Narcopolis – in glorious words. Not a must buy book, but a must notice book for all.
Publisher – Faber and Faber
Price – Rs. 499

           Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
Besides his deft writing, another thing which has given a definitive spurt to Rushdie’s image (and perhaps credibility) as a writer is his infamous tryst with a fatwa. Of all his works, The Satanic Verses is perhaps the most popular – not because people have read it, but because of the controversy which hijacked the literary merit of the book. In Joseph Anton, a biographical account, Rushdie shares his version of the story. And this attempt at telling an honest story is more gripping than most thrillers you would come across.
Publisher – Jonathan Cape
Price – Rs. 799

 Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Slumdog Millionaire opened the international audience to the dirt and squalor rampant in India. In her book, the Pulitzer Award winning author, Katherine Boo takes her readers on a microscopic expedition through the same decrepit world. This book centres on a slum called Annawadi, languishing somewhere in the underbelly of Mumbai and narrates the story of Abdul, who has a heart full of hopes and hands full of recyclable trash.
Publisher – Penguin India
Price – Rs. 499

             Return of A King by William Dalrymple
To be honest, I have not read this one. But Dalrymple is the kind of author whose works create buzz even before they hit the market. From the little I have read about the book, via tweets and reviews, this saga of the first Anglo-Afghan war is sure to keep you riveted. It also promises to provide you parallels in the contemporary world of an anachronistic event. Dalrymple has based this book on extensive research and facts gathered from all corners of the world. I am definitely going to lay my hands on this one as soon as I can!
Publisher – Bloomsbury
Price – Rs. 699

The next set of books is my favourite five from among those I received for review in my capacity as a book blogger. I must admit, the kind of talented writers being unearthed by publishing houses in India is incredible. The reading culture is on a high trajectory and so is the publishing industry. Yes, a lot of crap gets churned out in the process, but hey, I am here to pick out few of the better ones for you!

      The Taj Conspiracy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Even before I thought of making this list of the best, I knew this book would be on it! Manreet, a writer of tremendous reckoning, created an indigenous, gender variant of Robert Langdon – named Mehrunisa Khosa – who sets out to unravel a mystery woven around the Taj Mahal. Mehrunisa is a renaissance expert, and is well versed with the legends, facts, and myths surrounding this great monument of love. Find a hint of Ludlum, and sprinkling of Dan Brown, but a thoroughly enjoyable and fresh script of death, deceit, mystery and thrill in this book by Manreet.
Publisher – Westland
Price – Rs. 250

Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu
This is the second novel of author Amandeep Sandhu, and it takes a reader through the rough terrain of perhaps the most violent decade in India’s history since independence. Set against the backdrop of a decade which witnessed gory events including Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination and the consequent anti-Sikh riots, Sandhu narrates the story of Appu, a school prefect entering the senior most year of his military school, and his attempt to come face to face with his identity, his battle to preserve his friendships with friends from other religions amid venomous, vehement and provocative speeches made by his fellows influenced by the ideology of Khalistan. Vivid and hard hitting – the message of this book stays strong with me, months after reading it.
Publisher – Rupa Publications
Price – 275

           Marathon Baba by Girish Kohli
This is perhaps an unlikely entry on this list, but I cannot possibly ignore a book which began entertaining me from its first line and did not stop till the very end. Earmarking itself in the category of ‘kick-ass’ fiction, Marathon Baba, besides being a laugh riot, is an immensely witty and engaging book. What is it about? Well, it is about a man on the run, who has been warned that running is injurious to his health. Rest, I cannot possibly describe this awesome book by Kohli in any fitting words. This is the kind which has to simply be read and enjoyed!
Publisher – Fingerprint
Price – Rs. 150

Asura by Anand Neelkantan
This book is on my list of the best because of the skill, innovation and experimentation of the author, which lent a new hue to our ancient revered epic - Ramayana. Asura is the story of Ravana, his tails, travails, his failings, his ascent to power and his eventual defeat. This book should not be confused to be a mythological treatise – it is a light, intriguing read which fictionalises mythology to develop an easy narrative for entertaining a reader and making him empathise with the Ravana side of the story. I did think the concept of the book had more potential to be exploited. Having said that, this is definitely one of those books I will remember from this year.
Publisher – Leadstart
Price – Rs. 250

      Urban Shots Bright Lights (Edited by Paritosh Uttam)
This book is an anthology of short stories set against the urban landscape of India. It is one of the four books published under the “Urban Shots” series, giving a chance to several promising young writers to have their work published. The collection of stories in Bright Lights was the best of all the four, and I am bound to say it because one of the best short stories I have read in life – called Father of My Son – was its pick of the stories. The stories in this book cut across cultures, across feelings, faces, incidents, musings, recollections, realizations and much else. Few stories attempt to touch, few attempt to teach; but almost all attempt to give you a personalized glimpse into the life of a common, yet unique Indian inhabiting one little corner of the crazy cultural panorama that the Indian landscape is.
Publisher – Westland
Price – Rs. 199

As I always say, let’s make ours a book friendly world.
Have a great book-filled 2013!

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Picture Perfect - December

I know its a little early for this post, but the above picture left me so excited, that I had to share it on my blog, as soon as I could. This was taken on a chilly Delhi afternoon in Aurobindo Market areas, where the flower vendor was still putting his shop together, and was kind enough to let two mad women get themselves clicked in the company of his beautiful flowers. The other mad woman is my friend Neha, who has been complicit in most of my crazy plans in the past few months. You will find her picture below.

There is another reason why for me to have put this picture up. A dear friend of mine, Gopan, found this picture inspirational enough to convert it into a Christmas gift for me. In a beautifully crafted mini-story, called "Memory of a Winter Morning", he has inserted this picture to add a visual glow. And, to be honest, with the story about a girl who sold flowers running in the background, I think this frame looks a lot prettier. A heartfelt thank you to him. 

To all readers of my blog, a Merry Christmas! You all deserve a special thank you for being with me on this journey upto a lakh views. I usually give you all flowers when I need to express gratitude. This time is no different. Roses, gladiola, lilies, carnations - look to my left and take your pick. Thanks for dropping by and leaving your valuable feedback. It feels nice to know that whatever I write is not for nothing, that there will be people who will read it, and also, perhaps, get back to me on it. You make me want to continue writing. Thank you all so much. 

And here is my pretty friend, with more flowers - Neha!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"I Am Ashamed To Be An Indian Today"

It is the first emotional response, but this is what it needs to be. What kind of madness has been put on display outside the Rashtrapati Bhawan in Delhi? The Delhi police is acting like hired goons of the party in power. Tear gas shells and water canons are being unleashed on thousands of young protesters. And what is it that they are demanding? Not money, not jobs, not the sun and moon, but something as basic as protection.

This issue has flared beyond just a sexual assault case. Its an eye opener for the kind of polity we live in. Did someone just call our state a 'mecca' of democracy? I am sorry, our democracy, if anything, is hitting the nadir. Those brutal rapists used rods, and our honorable police force uses lathis - is there any visible difference to boast of?  And yes, the government issues statements asking protesters to maintain peace - those very protesters whose are hurt, both physically and mentally, at the kind of insanity and idiocy the state is treating them with.

Why would Pranab babu not come out? Is he afraid of being lynched or raped? It was never about a rape in the first place. It was about the way we allow the authority figures to trample on the perceived secondary groups in the society. The male dominates and feeds off the female, whom he perceives is nothing but a secondary accessory to him, who is here to satiate his needs. The state walks all over its subjects, thinks of the public as mere roadways to power, whose importance is understood only every five years. For rest of the time, they may rot, cry, suffer - unless their plight can become a political agenda, nothing about them matters.

Mrs. Dixit cried two nights ago on tv. But how could she cry alone? So now, she and her friends in the elite circles of Delhi ensure that the whole city cries with them. Tear gas shells. How does this idea even enter the heads of the police force? Are anyone of the political bandhs treated this way? Will tomorrow parliamentarians who protest and upset the function of the prime organ of democracy be treated the same way? Does the police even know why it exists? To protect PEOPLE. Yes. People. Here, however, a new tamasha, a new definition of the police is being invented. This is a force which protects just the state, the authority figures, the political class against the most vicious threat that they could ever face in life - public out rage. Our police is not longer a civil force. It is a state force. And these are the ones from whom we expect promises of safety. We sure must be a mad lot.

There were no politicians, even from the opposition, who took an immediate stand on the theatre of lunacy being played out on the Rajpath. Now, that is understandable, isn't it? The sons and daughters of India need to be protected, but that can happen only after press statements are cut to perfection, political agendas perfected, game plans initiated and party high command consulted. I heard such authoritarian tactics were employed in the North east and Kashmir region of our country. As a resident of the National Capital Territory of India, who thought her city is capable of being called the best in the world, my heart goes out to all those people who dare to stand up for what is right. Solidarity is the least minimum we can show, and that we will. Tweets are coming in from people associated with the protest, urging people to get out and join them and not let the movement fizzle out. I reiterate, it is not about a single girl falling prey to sexual inclinations of few perverted animals. It is about an entire generation falling prey to delusions of power.

The rape infants. They rape our elders. Now they rape democracy.

Hah. They are protecting themselves against the people who put them there. Theek hai. Galti toh hamaari hi hai.

The Sari Shop Widow by Shobhan Bantwal - A Review

Indian Mills and Boon anyone? Well, here is one! And what a grand book to lift my spirits.

The Sari Shop Widow is the quintessential romance, with desi twist in a foreign land. It is the story of an Anjali Kapadia, leading a widowed life since ten years. She is a designer, and runs a tasteful boutique in New Jersey. She is married to her work, but complications enter her life when her business faces troubled waters and her dreams stand jeopardized. Problems intensify further when Anjali's father calls over his elder brother - Jeevan - to save her troubled business, the only problem being his brother's reputation as a dictatorial, shrewd and ruthless businessman. The series of shocks doesn't end here. Jeevan brings with himself a suave, dapper, half-British business partner - Rishi Shah - in the form of a business consultant to resuscitate Anjali's drowning boat. However, Rishi Shah enters Anjali's life as something more than just a business consultant. He revives that corner of Anjali's heart which had been purposely locked away to avoid pains of getting hurt over love. She is aware of his intense gazes, but she does not trust him. If anything, she hates him for having come suddenly into her perfect little world, and turning it upside down. She hates the fact that Rishi Shah will take away from her the only thing she had built since her husband's death - her boutique, her work.

In this atmosphere of extreme hostility begins their story. She hates him, distrusts him, but is aware of the tremors which stir her body when he comes near her. Rishi, on his part is smitten with Anjali, but has a tough exterior - steel in his eyes - which keeps his tenderness hidden from her. To make matters worse, Rishi has a girlfriend back home, with whom he has shared half a decade of his life. How does the notion of romance even enter the picture then? Well, I was left wondering too. But there is a reason why over 1,00,000 copies of this book have been sold. The reason is author Shobhan Bantwal's extremely engaging and sensitively developed narrative. Take my word  for it, she is an author under the effect of whose pen, you as a reader are absolutely secure. By the end you realize that investing your heart and emotions in this story was absolutely worth it.

I have a weakness for love stories which have an element of forbidden in them - something which doggedly opposes the consummation of true love. The Sari Shop Widow is a rather modern, easy going story for very long, but at the point where emotions raise their head, I had to stop and catch my breath. Anjali and Rishi are characters who come alive with force. You feel for them at each twist and turn in the story. You take sides. You pray for them. You just hope they come together with fierceness. That is what an intense love story should do to you. That is precisely what this book does to you.

The Sari Shop Widow was a wonderful read through and through. I have no qualms, not one, with this lovely romantic tale, and this hasn't happened in a long time. There are sub plots, stories running in the background, a subtle mysterious touch, and absolutely no loose ends. The author maintains a cool control over her narrative. You flow, and gladly so. The descriptions in the book are not run-of-the-mill. At times, all romances seem alike in texture. However, this book might lend that slight touch of freshness that the romance genre so badly requires. A widow. A middle aged businessman. Their encounter in the most adverse circumstances. Inevitable romance. Order this book, prepare a cup of coffee when it arrives, tuck into your quilt - and savour some smouldering romance to beat the winters. Its a 4 star book for me!

Book Details - 
Author - Shobhan Bantwal
Book Source - Review Copy
Publisher - Fingerprint
Published - 2012
Genre - Romance
Price - ₹ 250
Pages - 361
Rating - 4/5

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Can't Stay Mum

Everyone is talking. Yes. Everyone. On facebook. On twitter. On TV news channels. On other mediums I do not care to surf. Something so repugnant has happened in city that our collective conscience has been shaken and invoked. There are cries of 'hang them' echoing across from some sectors. There is the customary government bashing which has begun. There are 'statements' from political leaders which are being circulated with a mock grin. There are silences which are being criticized. The world around me has plunged into rage and fury so deep that it has begun to asphyxiate me. Till a moment ago, I wanted to stay mum, and cut myself off, and hide from all this brouhaha. But how is that even possible when a woman my age, with bright possibilities, is battling for her life after suffering a deplorable and painful incident, one which is likely to alter the way she lives her entire life? I am pained, but what is my pain in comparison to that woman's, whose life is now the matter of public debate, of national shame?

A fresh chill of fear runs down my spine each time I think of the incident. Only a few days back I was thinking of rebelling against the evening curfews imposed on me, so that I could fall in love with the night-life of my city - one which I dearly love and pride upon. However, even my logical arguments now will have just one answer - I would be condescendingly reminded of the Munirka victim, and there closes my case, my attempt to be liberated from one among numerous restrictions. Honestly, I am not even sure if I want that bit of freedom now. What if its me the next time? What if its my sister, my friend? That's how we understand the magnitude of an event - by placing ourselves in it. The shudder comes again. And lasts a little longer.

Rape is an act of a diseased mind. It has little to do with sexual appetite, and is more of an expression of a violent streak, of a male ego needing that sick satiety of domination. That girl is a medical intern, who found just some time for entertainment. Medical students have a hectic life; a life they willingly devote to the cause of others. Little did she know that a hospital is what she would be immediately rushed back to, only now in a different role. And oh, not immediately. After suffering 45 minutes of excruciating pain, humiliation and violence. 45 long minutes. Her boyfriend, who came to her aid was brutally beaten and discarded along with her, reminding me of how hard is it in our society to stand up for something right. Shushed, maimed or murdered - people who dare to right a wrong meet similar fates. In that moving bus was being played the theatre of a severely rotten, barbaric psyche, while the city around continued to put up its façade of civilization.

Its immaterial what the CM of Delhi, or the Chairperson of NCW say on this incident. It is not their daughter who has suffered this humiliation. I, on my part, have no interest in determining the merits of capital punishment contextualized to such cases. I am more interested in knowing what is the psychology which makes man a predator on fellow human being. The humiliation of the Guwahati victim is fresh in my mind; and I cannot even begin to imagine the agony of that girl who had been repeatedly raped for several days by students of Jamia Law faculty. These are one-off examples. Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of cases which never even surface, which go unreported. It has been testified in many researches that many women have their first tryst with sexual violence at home. In most cases of molestation, the perpetrators are known to the victim, are her kins. This unleashing of sexual prowess has even come to be accepted as a matter of fact. Yes, ours is a patriarchal society, ascribing to the worst definition of the concept. The male world conveniently ignores the identity of the female world. Till there, albeit is should not be, it may be acceptable, but this male world also feeds off and preys upon its females - now draw lines somewhere, will you?

There are many parents with bright daughters who will sit down with them, tell them to be back home early, to be safe, to keep themselves, covered, to not travel alone, and who will also perhaps buy them a pepper spray. However, I do not know if there are any parents out there who will also sit down with their sons, and talk about this incident, about consensual sex, about respecting their female counterparts. How much can the authorities do when out entire value system is corrupt and ridden with worst kind of sexual politics? In this very world, coexisting with us are fathers who abuse their daughters (sons too), brothers who abuse their sisters and mothers who helplessly watch. The role played by women in this sexual politics is abhorrent as well - for it is them who meekly accept their status as the inferior, second sex, who do not fight for respect. In my little journey of life, I have been reminded of my weaker stature in the society more often by women I came across than men.

She, and I am glad her name is not being juggled around by the media, I am sure, was a girl with bright possibilities. earnestly hope and pray she recuperates well and soon, and comes out a winner a in life. Yes, I know it is too much to expect, but I still hope she turns those possibilities into opportunities and becomes a daughter whom her parents are proud of. The word 'daughter' reminds me of a small incident. A friend's mother was ecstatic when she delivered her, when she was blessed with her first daughter. Beaming, she went to share this news with the principal of the school where she worked. Matter-of-factly, the Principal responded - "Koi baat nahi, agli baari ladka ho jayega." Where in the world are we going wrong?!

To hell with all of you. Women are grand. Daughters are glorious.

A portrait by - Priyanka Tampi

Monday, December 17, 2012

And Innocence Cried

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” -  Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

            There are subjectivities in life. Subjectivities are not distortions, but beauties which the Creator has lent to this world so that we may enjoy it in myriad ways, with no scope of monotony. Our great misfortune, however, lies in the fact that we standardize life. We think our way of thinking supreme. And once convinced, we seek to impose our way on the rest of the world. One category which always emerges at the receiving end of this order is that of minors. Their innocence breaks our heart, but more often than not, we come across cases where the same innocence, or lack of worldly knowledge and etiquettes, becomes a reason for them being subjected to rigorous and cruel castigation. Corporal punishment, of which we have gotten used to reading in papers, is perhaps the worst way employed to shape a child’s psyche or to do the so called good deed of disciplining him.

            In a leading national daily, I recently read a horrifying account of what the cane-approach to disciplining a child can do. It can lead to his death. Yes. And the death of a child is an enormously saddening loss of potential and possibilities. A stray incident of callousness enraged a hapless child’s father so much that he dealt a quick blow at the back of the child’s tender head. The father, of course, by being a stickler and allowing no room for inconsistencies, was in his way, ‘disciplining’ his child. The only loophole which emerged in the whole exercise was that the child died. At this is the kind of incident which does not gain media mileage like instances of corporal punishment inflicted on students in large public schools do. Mass memory is short lived, yes, but can we really forget those many cases in which a teacher’s short temper led him to physically abuse a child and in the process severely dent his psychological well-being as well?

            Our educational set up follows the dogma of in loco parentis, whereby the school authorities have the same rights over a child as their parents. In a bid to mentor and shape future of children with similar zeal, teachers have been known to use infliction of pain as a tool to make them follow rules absolutely. A slap on the cheek and cane-blows on fists are thought to be miraculous devices which can, with minimum effort, reform a minor and make him a good student all of a sudden. These physical assaults are many a times reflexes of a teacher who prides himself for his no-nonsense attitude. At other times, public shaming is also employed as a pre-meditated and rationalized method to set right what could have in actuality been simple acts of naughtiness. The effects of ignominy are not entirely unknown to school or parental authorities. Rather than reform, they cause a child to withdraw, to be distrustful and to lose faith in himself. Incomplete homework, talking while lecture, inability to answer in class, low scores or committing mischief – any of these can invite severe retributions, disproportionately higher than the supposed ‘crime’. Yes, plain naughtiness or intrinsic incapabilities are crime for today’s students who are expected to ace the break-neck competition with their peers. Besides inflicting obvious punishments, I personally feel it is a great folly on the part of teachers when they establish gradations in their batch of students. Yes, it is good to set examples from within students, but not to the extent that it fosters disharmony and ill-will. There is some talent inherently present in each student; a teacher (and even parents) are responsible for helping their pupil realize and nurture it.

            I was lucky to have studied in one of the best public schools in Delhi, which honored tradition as much as it endeavored to keep pace with the racing times. I, personally, have not witnessed any incident where my teachers resorted to corporal punishment of any sort to ensure compliance. In fact, my school was the kind where talents were given a fecund climate to prosper and each child identified for his merit. However, I have known friends whose teachers have left no stone unturned to make them feel like they are a liability on this planet. I also know parents for whom red chilli paste is the formula for ensuring highest grades. At other places, in the name of tradition, students/minors are not allowed to embrace changing weather of the day. They are curbed, controlled, shamed and two firm deductions which I can draw from all the above is –

1.       Using reprimands, coercion, imposition, control, etc as devices to curb students from treading down the road deemed harmful for them is almost like making sure they go there. Nascent brains are supple and obdurate at the same time. Yes, they can be and should be molded, but putting them under sudden pressure just makes them go on the defensive, eventually closing them to any contradictory (and right) opinions.

2.       Even when he indulges in a wrongful deed, for once trying to understand why a child did it, using forgiveness in place of rebukes opens up an opportunity for an elder to mentor him for better actions in the future. When he sees concern and not anger, a young adult would feel secure, and then not just listen to your advice, but may be seek it too.

            This is not to say that elders are always right, but as far as I go, I feel they have an exclusive responsibility towards understanding the psyche of the generation they are nurturing towards maturity. A child can do wrong. He will do wrong. He has to do wrong – otherwise, how will he learn, grow and mature? 
Are you all aware of a helpline (1098) dedicated to protecting children against abuse, which includes harassment by his teacher? And here I was thinking that it is school is supposed to be that protective environment in which a child may explore his infinite possibilities. Ironical, isn’t it?

A child has often been likened to clay. He is like putty which bears and impression of everything it comes in touch with. He sees and observes and derives conclusions for himself. He trusts easily; but when chastised without explanation he can be confused and disoriented and can end up hating the very forces which are in a position to shape his future. The impressions a child’s mind forms in his early years of life are carried on throughout life. They go on to shape the person he eventually becomes. The responsibility on the shoulders of parents, thus, is superlative. This responsibility is not to control – which is what it is mostly misconstrued as – but to allow blossoming of a child’s potential. Given the present scenario, I do not think it is a child, but his mentors who need to be set right. 

(Originally written for )

Monday, December 10, 2012

Divinity In Motion

Maati ke tum deeware, jo suno hamaari baat,
 Aaj milawara piya ka, ve main jagiyoon saari raat.”

Have you ever had the good fortune of listening to voices steeped in divine fervour, belting out melody after melody, addressed to the Creator? Have you ever felt a part of the stupor which overtakes a throng which sits around the tomb of some saint as love-filled songs reverberate through the surroundings? Have you ever heard the music, the mere aura of which leads you to the Divine?

If any of the above sentences can be answered in a ‘yes’, you, in my opinion, have tasted music at its sublime best. As a generic statement, it can be surmised about music, that Great Music is such which makes you transcend your immediate environment, and elevates you to a level where you feel one with the Divine. It may also be stated specifically, that there is a kind of music which exists for the purpose of calling out to the Creator, and establishing an irrevocable bond of pious love with him. That music is what is known as Sufi music to all of us.

Delhi, labelled alternately as the city of romance, food, heritage and much else, is also the city which played home to many a sufi peers. It was Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, a scholar of the Chishti Silsila (order), who brought Sufism to Delhi. However, it was Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Auliya and his disciple, Hazrat Amir Khusrau, who lent that shape to Sufi tradition in Delhi which we recognize today. Who among as has remained untouched by the magical spirit behind the song ‘Kun Faya Kun’, sung unto celestial perfection by the new age sensation – Mohit Chauhan and Javed Ali? That song, was, obviously, a rendition to the venerable peer, Sultan-ul-Mashaikh Nizam-ud-din Auliya. If that is one song which has left you touched and inspired, you will find celestial magic in the live qawwalis which echo in the precincts of Auliya’s dargah.

Kun Faya Kun is not Bollywood’s first experimentation with the sufi genre. It was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwaalis, iconic when played in the background of a couple’s courtship, which elevated a mundane love narration to something above the ordinary. The very forgettable debut of Aishwarya Rai in Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya was made memorable only because of the genius of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who lent his voice and compositions to make soul-touching music. Qawwali is one of the most popular forms of sufi music, argued to have its origins in Persia. It was the 13th century saint, Hazrat Amir Khusrau Dehlevi, who is believed to have introduced this form of music to India. Khusrau, of course, is the genius also credited with significant contributions in Hindustani classical (vocal and instrumental) music. The orthodox Islam sees music, as other means of entertainment, with contempt. However, in Sufi tradition, which lays down the path of ecstatic union with God, music, as well as dancing, is an intrinsic part of treading on that path. Remember the Dancing Dervishes, anyone?

Sample the following lines sung at the beginning of a popular qawwali, Allah Hoo, by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan –

“Tere hi naam se har ibtida hai
Tere hi naam tak har intiha hai
Teri Hamd-o-sana, alham do lillah,
Ke tu mere Muhammad ka Khuda hai”

The above lines are what is known as a ‘hamd’. A hamd is type of qawwali which is sung in praise of Allah. A Naat is one which sings praises of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). There are other types as well, primarily categorised on the basis of the object of devotion and the basic essence carried in the lyrics. However, you need not know any of these technicalities in order to enjoy the radiance of sufi music. The traditions date back some 700 years, and the Indian subcontinent is rich with variegated varieties of sufi music. The Sabri brothers and the Wadali brothers are my personal favorites, especially when they use their rustic voice to give a melody to Bulleh Shah’s lyrics. Bulleh Shah, along with Amir Khusrau, is arguably India’s most popular sufi poet. However, had it not been for the singers and composers, a large chunk of their poetry would have never come in contact with the ordinary populace.

Sufism is described as that mystic part of Islam, which emphasises on love, tolerance and harmony, and in which, the sole objective of existence is to come closer and closer to the Lord, such that you feel Him in you, and yourself in Him. A simple trip to any dargah, that of Moinuddin Chishti, Haji Ali, Salim Chishti, or Auliya himself, would make you realize, however, that the devotees which throng them are nothing but a picture of secularism. The ideals of peace and devotion preached in Sufism transcend all communal barriers and are hence, as appealing to Hindus as to their Muslim brethrens. When we understand this basic definition of Sufism, we realise that Meera Bai, the most ardent and famous devotee of Lord Krishna, herself trod on the sufi path. She sought nothing but an image of Sri Krishna to forever envelope her heart; she too sought union with her Lord, one whom she considered herself married to. That famous saint has left behind her foot prints in some wonderful melodies. One which instantly comes to mind is “Sanware rang raachi..”, in which Meera Bai proudly sings about the colors of her Lord which are smeared all over her existence.

With Wafia, at Dargah Nizamudding Auliya
(Photo Credits - Aaqib Raza Khan)
When it comes to divine music, India has a tradition which can take a lifetime to discover. One sufi tradition, however, which I wish was as intrinsic to India as the qawwali culture, is the Mevlevi dance of dervishes, whose origin is attributed to Persian Sufi Poet, Jalalladin Rumi. Lost in a trance created by sufi music, the dervishes are elevated above all else when they start swirling with their head raised marginally in the direction of the Almighty. Modern day sufism has an over-simplified definition. We, the younger generation, associate Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s love lorn compositions with sufi spirit, which is not totally wrong since one of his earliest song, Mann Ki Lagan, did have notions of sufi poetry attached to it. However, a true experience of sufi music, the kind which gives wings to your heart, can only be found amid the qawwals singing like mendicants at dargahs of sufi peers with their eyes not leaving once the sight of their beloved, their object of devotion, their God.

“Khusrau baazi prem ki, main kheloon pi ke sang,
Jeet gaye toh piya more, haari pi ke sang.”

(This article had originally been written for

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Banquet On The Dead by Sharath Komarraju - A Review

My tryst with mysteries continues.

Sharath Komarraju is an author who knows his craft. I can say this, because Banquet On The Dead is his second book which has left me impressed. His first book - Murder In Amaravati - was a treat to read. Easy, laidback mystery, which makes you turn pages rapidly, but without making you feel edgy. Yes, I agree mysteries/thrillers are books which should make one jittery, accelerate palpitations and occupy the mind and heart of a reader, but Murder In Amaravati proved to be a delightful read precisely for not belonging to that racy-edgy category of books. Banquet On The Dead is a murder mystery which follows the same, calm, easy narrative style, and just about manages to satiate the reader in you.

Banquet On The Dead is an investigative journey into Kauveramma's murder. This old woman, owner of a huge estate, was found dead in the well in her compound. However, it was common knowledge that she was petrified of water, so much so, that she dreaded taking showers. Her death, then becomes more complex and intriguing a phenomenon than it was a at first understood to be. Kauveramma has a large family - full with sons, daughter, grandchildren - and almost all of them stand to gain some pecuniary advantage from her death. Who was it then, among all those, who made Kauveramma meet her end in such a grotesque manner - floating in the well, hair fanned out, limbs outspread?  The answer is discovered by an unlikely pair of detectives  - Inspector Valmiki Narayan, and a 'charming' rogue, Hamid Pasha.

Having mentioned Hamid Pasha's name in the last sentence, I must confess that he was perhaps the best takeaway from this book. Hamid Pasha's character has been fashioned very well, and if I may say, stylishly so. Among a deluge of characters, he is the one who becomes instantly recognizable and is the lynchpin for staying abreast with the storyline. And amusing too. He has his peculiarities and convictions as a detective, and his mind probes alleys of doubts which even his veteran police partner fails to conceive. More than anything else, it is the all-knowing, limping figure of Hamid Pasha, which stays with you once you close the book after a satisfied reading.

Besides brilliant characterization in terms of Hamid Pasha's, this book has many other upsides which keep you hooked onto it till the last page. Among its few negatives I would count, for starters, certain amount of tiring repetition. Too many characters in the book implies too many recounted stories, all similar except that one crucial aspect hidden as a tiny detail. The second issue I had while reading this book was the multitude of characters, who could sometimes leave you befuddled. It takes time to start differentiating one from the other, and if you, like me, are not good with names, the task only becomes more difficult. The language is simple and narrative lucid, and as reader you are aware that in the hands of a good writer, you are being securely led ahead on an interesting investigative trail. There is some local flavour interspersed in the script and the occasional linguistic transgressions make the reading a little more fun.

The climax of the story was rather creative, but it hits you in your face out of nowhere. It was entertaining and thrilling, for sure, but it the sub-plot which leads to it builds up rather late in the story. Few tiny sub-plots are also left unattended. Convincing, yes. But it does leave you asking for more. Just a little more. It is a good read for those of you who like the mystery genre. 2.5 stars on 5 is my verdict, and that is perhaps influenced by my attempt to establish a relative merit between Sharath's earlier book and this one. Between them, Murder In Amaravati would definitely be my pick! Oh, and Banquet On The Dead deserves a pat for the brilliant cover design as well.

(Reviewed on request by the author)

Book Details - 
Title - Banquet On The Dead
Author - Sharath Komarraju
Publisher - Westland
Published - 2012
Price - ₹ 250
Pages - 265
Genre - Mystery/Thriller

Friday, December 7, 2012

Quote Quintet - November

Aah yes. I am late by about a week. I have a decent excuse though - exams! They do not have a reputation of ever having spared anybody. The only concession I had this time was that I was writing papers in a subject I understood and enjoyed. This is not a privilege I have happened to carry with me for most of my life. If anything, its novel.

I am romancing the world of literature these days in Jamia Millia Islamia. Quite surprisingly, this new world encapsulates in itself vistas that from a distance I could not even have imagined. Being a literature student is fun and challenging at the same time. One needs not just the power of language but analysis as well, to develop discourses on themes which could be anachronistic, contemporary or even futuristic. However, these ramblings deserve a separate post of their own.

For now, the quintet. November was  a month full of mad-scurrying for notes, last minute completion of syllabus, confused/harried faces and other general attributes of exam times. November was also a month of bonhomie - pleasant classroom banter, close friends getting closer. For this month, I will not share some random lines drawn from newspapers (I had not been reading much of them anyway). I will share here excerpts from five best pieces of poetry which were taught to us by our wonderful professors at Jamia - Dr. Anisur Rahman and Dr. Ameena Kazi Ansari.

My favorite lines might mostly be the romantic ones. So, feel the love and read on!

A cordiform map projection
My face in thine eyes, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
- John Donne, The Good Morrow
John Donne is one of the great metaphysical poets whose poems speak a language of their own. His most prolific achievement, however, is that he is my friend, Mishail Sharma's favourite poet, and owing to her incessant and excited monologues, I have developed a mini-expertise on him as well. These lines are remembered fondly by me because of the way they philosophise on love, because of the way they make you see two lovers. As two hemispheres, the north of which is not too cold and the west of which is not declined towards darkness, these lovers complete a whole - they complete a world for their existence - beyond which nothing is desired. Donne goes on to say that such love is eternal. If it died, that love was not which could find a balance.

The handsomest among poets
There is not a joy the world can give like that it takes away
When the glow of early thought declines in feelings' dull decay
- Lord Byron, Youth and Age
Despite not preparing this poem for my examination, I remember vividly its first line. How very true, or as my teacher put it, very 'axiomatic'. We have heard of the cliché about the value of things becoming apparent only upon losing them. Byron has restated that very ideal, perhaps in a more provoking way. True it is - the most precious happiness is that which has been snatched from us. This poem is about what the title says it is - youth and the journey towards old age - and it reflects on that path and the things we lose on our way to the end of life. Byron is graceful in his acceptance of the ageing process, though a tinge of longing for the transience of youth is palpable in his tone. That sense of longing is what makes this poem remarkable for me.

When hearts have once mingled,
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled 
To endure what it once possessed.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, When The Lamp Is Shattered
It is another of those poems which deal with the concept of transience, thought Shelley succeeds in taking forward the concept of impermanence to the concept of death, which eventually leads to regeneration. In these particular lines, however, what catches my attention is the sensitivity which the poet displays towards relationship of lovers which is ephemeral like everything else. It is the weak one, the more attached one who is always left to suffer the pangs of longing for what once was his. I find these lines echoing in me because I can see their manifestation in many instances around me. My age, after all, is the age of heartaches and heartbreaks.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
- Alexander Pope, An Essay On Man, Epistle II
I will admit - Pope is not one of those poets I have understood well, yet, I remember the way our Professor delivered these lines in class and they instantly became a hit with me. I quote them frequently and ask my friends what they think of it. In this section of his extremely lengthy poem, Pope has urged mankind to stay away from prying into the affairs of God, and to seek answers for their own powers and limits, strengths and frailties, reason and impulse, within the ambit of worldly existence. To know his affairs, Man must study himself. However, I always feel a greater meaning lurks behind those lines. Does something pop up in your mind when you read these?

Purple flower by the moss
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
- William Wordsworth, She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways
Wordsworth is among my favorite poets, for the simple reason that he talks in a language I understand and he conveys ideas which touch my heart. In a set of five poems, together called the Lucy Poems, Wordsworth has concocted an iconic romantic character in the form of Lucy - one who can be romanced and loved, but never be achieved. No one knows the identity of Lucy for sure; not even if she was real or a figment of his imagination. But Lucy poems, taken together, are pregnant with a sense of an impending loss - of love, of Lucy. Of all the five, these lines reverberate often in my mind. His object of love, pristine and virginal and untouched - she lived hidden from the prying eyes of the world. But now, she is no more, and while the world might carry on at its pace, it makes a difference, a huge difference to him.

I should've perhaps undertaken this exercise before the exams. However, as they say, 'better late than never!' Hope you had a good time reading this one.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Picture Perfect - November

For this month, I am sharing the picture which remained my wallpaper for most of the month. I clicked this in early October, on one of my unique visits to Ajmer; unique because this trip signalled the close of a significant chapter in my life, it signalled the loss of someone very dear to me. Since I was a little kid, I have been visiting Mayo College - one of the best known institutions of our nation, where many a film-stars and politicians have accessed knowledge from - and I have always been enamoured by the pristine surroundings and the heritage buildings which define this place. I used to go their in summer holidays to visit my mamaji. The laidback, calm, and inviting warmth of my mamaji's house within this residential campus form few of my most prized memories of childhood. With mamaji, I gained knowledge of Hindi literature, of food and of Hindi cinema. He was the one who introduced me to Premchand, cheese omelettes and Manna Dey. All that love, care, guidance, unfortunately, is no longer with us. Mamaji left us, left this world sometime back, and I think it will take some more time before a lot of us accept the magnitude of loss we have suffered. I don't think I have been able to accept it till now. 

Wiping those tears away, here is my fondest click of the year - the building which Mamaji introduced me to, and which remains my definition of grandeur. 


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rich With Life!

Clouds gather lustre
Nature comes to life
Dew emits sparkles
All in her one smile

Makes me love her more, much more
It was an ordinary day when she came to my life. However, any day there after I spent with her, was anything, but ordinary. She has occupied my mind and heart for the better part of 2012. I know there are people convincing you that 2012 the world will end. I can confidently denounce their claims as grand 'rubbish', for it is in this 'doomed' year, that I got a new lease of life. In her.

She chirps to brighten my morning. She laughs like no one's watching. She is conscious of the world around her, yet, she dares to carve another, mini world of her dreams and fantasies around her. Gentle, and naive - she easily grants entry to anyone in her world - her realm of imagination, of blooming flowers, of flowing rivers, of magic, of angels, of darkness, of good triumphing over evil, of niceness pervading all hearts, of love binding people together. It is hard to imagine - a girl, whose visions hold so much piety, how pure would be her heart?

I began this post thinking, I will write her story. That, would be one of first birthday gifts I would surprise her with. However, when I closed my eyes, to conjure her face - my muse for now - only a million descriptions swam in my head.  It is her birthday today, a day no less special to me than her, for it is today I can celebrate her, her existence, her presence in my life. Actually, I do it each day, albeit secretly. Today, the show can be opulent. And it is not her story I need to write, that privilege is entirely hers. I can only cast a subtle impression in words of the grand personality my friend is. Tiny eyed, kind hearted, scared of traffic, proud of her friends, always available to help - all these words are but insufficient capsules to contain the phenomenon Neha is (yes, Neha, that's her name) - and it will take many, many more posts for me to chronicle what time spent with her has been like.

Coolest place in Delhi, and the coolest people in town!
Right now, as my eye lids become heavy, I plan to whisper these wishes into the cold air of night, hoping they are carried as a murmur to her ears.

Dear Neha, 
I pray for your life to be rich. Not (just) with wealth, but with love. You have so much in you too give, and you deserve so much more in return. Just know, you will always get your due, and rewards will always come your way, just not from the direction you expect. Have faith in the grander plans life has for you. Make your talents speak for you. Persevere and excel. 

My God protect you from pain.
May Life be kind on you.
May the stars watch you over.

Happy Birthday!


Your pictures look lovely with me, hence only 'couple' pictures allowed!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

When The Snow Melts by Vinod Joseph - A Review

My library has seen a flood of thrillers/crime novels finding their way in and stuffing themselves on every last inch of space available on any shelf. The latest entry, sigh, belongs to the same genre. However, a saving grace of all these books have been, that they have taken me through different terrains, different sub genres of thriller-writing. While the last thriller I reviewed was a medical mystery, and the book I am reviewing for this post had the promise of being an exciting spy novel - and exciting is only an understatement for what Vinod Joseph's book, 'When The Snow Melts' turned out to be.

It is easy to give views on a piece of writing when as a reader, you are friendly with the subject matter contained there in. However, my knowledge of spy-activities and intelligence sharing is limited to Bond movies and Ludlum novels - which is a fair knowledge, I feel. However, no novel have I read which explores fictional topographies constructed out of intelligence activities carried out by Indian or Pakistans spies. Yes, I have seen Ek Tha Tiger, but please - stop! To even mention that overtly (ridiculously) romanticized tale in the review of When The Snow Melts is to do injustice to the great fun and thrill I experienced while reading this novel. In long, I came across a book which I just HAD to finish in one reading. Two readings, spread over 2 days, is what it eventually took. I would not say it is the greatest spy-fiction ever written by an Indian, the novel does have its lackadaisical moments, but overall, I can already let it out - this review will sing strong praises of the author Vinod Joseph.

A little about the storyline before that. Ritwik Kumar is a veteran intelligence agent, who is working with Intelligence Assessment Group in London - a global terror fighting establishment where intelligence reports from across frontiers are pooled in to make the combat against terror outfits more cohesive and efficient. However, Ritwik is not quite the quintessential, invincible, extremely smart spy, who is all committed to the task of searching out Osama Bin Laden from his hideout in the hills of Afghanistan (well, that is what it was assumed for a long time, isn't it?) or purging the ISI, and the whole world, from fanatics and fundamentalists promoting violence in the name of religion. Ritwik is an alcoholic and gambler, snowed under debt, who defects over to nothing less than the al Qaeda! And from their begins the tale of finding his place in the midst of their ideological impositions, feeling titillations of a possible but forbidden love and saving not only himself, but his love interest from the way of fatal harm.

Honestly, the reader will be quite clear after reading the first fifty pages what the eventual outcome of Ritwik's adventures in Al Qaeda-land will be, but the journey is truly worthwile. Vinod Joseph's novel is a treat for readers who like to get into the author's mind and attempt to stay a pace ahead of his narrative. A wee bit unfortunate is the fact that as a reader, I did win this race against the author many a times, but there were moments of unexpected revelations, which kept me on the edge and even made me shiver for a nanosecond perhaps. The glimpse that one gets into the world of diplomacy, intelligence-sharing, terrorists and fanatics in this book is quiet valuable. What is excellent is also the fact that the sub-plot of a love story is cleverly woven into the larger script, and not once does it overpower the actual genre-allegiance  of this book - When The Snow Melts remains an interesting spy thriller, giving you something to chew on till the last page. Easy and intelligent use of language make the reading experience better.

I did wonder, at the end, what relevance did the title have to the story line, except for that there was a lot of snow was present everywhere in the description. A title always gives the promise of meaning, and if, in that case, melting of snow is similar to clearing of mist, then, well, okay. There were a few breathtaking turns at the end in the story, but I would maintain, the larger picture was devoid of any mist. On that note, I would conclude this review, by awarding it 3 on 5 stars. Good read, and strongly recommended to everyone who likes this genre

Book title - When The Snow Melts
Author - Vinod Joseph
Source - Review copy provided by the author
Publisher - Amaryllis
Genre - Thriller/Spy Fictionn
Price - Rs. 195
Pages - 202

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Portrait Of His Love

And my fists tighten.
And his grip strengthens.
My moans to his ears.
His love with my fears.
He withdraws and I crave.
To his love, an eager slave.
His breath, his sly grin.
His skin on my skin.
His burning gaze.
Tender body, vulnerable face.
In passion we fall.
Two bodies, one soul.

Afremov, on my blog after long.
His colors lend the best effect to my words, I feel.
Note - This poem has earlier been published in The Viewspaper, as an entry to Ode to Keats campaign.