Monday, June 25, 2012

The Taj Conspiracy by Manreet S. Someshwar - A Review

The genius in the under privileged world does not innovate; he transgresses.

I am a huge fan of Dan Brown and his ability to weave a credible conspiracy out of what we know as established facts and conventions.

I am an ardent Robert Ludlum follower, and am particularly fascinated by his skill at creating parallel tracks which converge in an unanticipated manner, their length often spanning more than just a single book.

And now, I have not only become a fan, but am positively smitten with the author of The Taj Conspiracy - Manreet Sodhi Someshwar - who has churned out an unbelievable piece of work, which combines the above two styles with finesse, yet lending this book a distinct identity of its own.

The Taj Conspiracy - It is an imposing, expectation-rich and speculation-rich title for a book. Undoubtedly, the idea of the narrative, as would have been conceived in the mind of the author was ambitious, to say the least. The plot, understood simply by the title, builds upon a conspiracy which is being planned around the most iconic of Indian monuments- The Taj Mahal. 

There are legends and myths and secrets associated with any and every piece of art which has a haloed reputation akin to that of the Taj Mahal. However, the stories and facts around this great offering of love made by Shah Jahaan to the world had so many unknown aspects to it, so profound in magnitude that they engender disbelief at the first reading, was something I honestly did not, ever, expect. The Taj Conspiracy, as a complete literary piece, investigates those lesser known facets of the Taj, weaving them into a rich crime fiction, which lends you thrill with each page you turn.

The protagonist of the book is Mehrunisa Khosa, a renaissance art expert, who is herself is a hybrid of Persian and Punjabi heritage (on her mother and father's side respectively). She is keenly interested in the history and exploration of the Taj, a passion which was lent to her by her Godfather - Professor Kaul - who himself is a historian considered to be the final authority on the Taj and facts related to it. The conspiracy around the Taj enters into motion when Mehrunisa discovers the corpse of the Taj supervisor inside its inner chamber and along with some changes in the Quranic calligraphy on Queen Mumtaz's tomb. While she smells trouble, SSP Raghav from the Agra Police and R. P. Singh from the CBI enter the picture to unravel the mystery surrounding the Taj and the potential threats to it from disturbance seeking, fundamentalist elements. A faceless mercenary, on a mission to give shape to this conspiracy, who navigates ahead in his plans with a brute zeal, keeps adding profound changes and chilling episodes to the storyline. He is the single character, perhaps, who will keep you on the edge and haunt you in  your dreams if you've read this book just before retiring to bed.

The Taj Conspiracy is a creative exercise on the part of the author, one that has been built upon a body of extensive research which Manreet must have undertaken to come out with such convincing and precise description of the Taj. Anyone familiar with the name of Professor P. N. Oak, famous for trying to rewrite history from the Hinducentric perspective, would be aware of the modern legends around the Taj, those which claim with conviction that Taj was originally a Shiva Temple (and so was, they claim, the Kaaba). It is one of these modern legends that this book is based upon. I can guarantee, that if you are a reader who has even the minimum interest in Indian history, this book will be a treat for you. The language of the book is both, instructive at places, and casual and colloquial at others. Manreet has a style of writing which will make you admire her - I do! In this book, she has constructed her character, her sub plots and parallel narratives with perfection.

The book moves ahead at a brisk pace, and is a definite page turner. The guesswork can continue, but you will mostly find yourself appalled at what you discover after hopping from one chapter to the next. Displaying crude and refined sensibilities both, halfway through the book you will realize why the living legend, Khushwant Singh himself has hailed Manreet as an author of tremendous promise. I am already looking forward to more books by her, especially the ones which come out as a part of the trilogy beginning with The Taj Conspiracy. It is, undoubtedly, the best crime fiction I have read by an Indian author and by a lady author too. My verdict - 4 stars on 5, and lots of admiration for the package deal this book has turned out to be.

A Long Post Script
I cannot help but make a mention of my rendezvous with Manreet, which took place a few weeks back in Punjab Grill, Select City Walk, Saket. Seated in the plush ambiance of the restaurant, with a very friendly and prim staff doling out insanely delicious delicacies to us, a few bloggers from Delhi were given the opportunity to interact with Manreet personally and get to know her and the book better. I cannot put into words the kind of impact Manreet left on me, a young blogger aspiring to make it rich in the writing world someday. Hearing from her anecdotes about Gulzaar Saab, Khushwant Singh and her book was a more than fantastic experience.
I would not miss an opportunity to thank Shalini, Nirvana and Mansi for considering me worthy enough for being invited to a gathering comprising of some very august names. That author's meet is not a day I would forget. The Taj Conspiracy is not a book I will not recommend to anyone who comes to me for a good-book advice.
At Punjab Grill. From left- Myself, Maryann, Shalini and Manreet. (Photo credits - Arcopol Chaudhury)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Mystery Too Unmysterious

A Mysterious Death At Sainik Farms
by Rukmani Anandani
A Review

The season of mysteries and crime fiction has had an extended presence for me.The last, the current and the next book I will review, all belong to this genre. The specialty of this category of books is their inherent quality of lending some adequate doses of thrill to a person's otherwise mundane life. The danger of this genre is that the thrill if not appropriately developed, can fall flat on its face and annoy a reader. With the book which I am reviewing at present,my experience tilted towards the latter extreme.

A Mysterious Death At Sainik Farm is a murder mystery penned by the multifaceted Rukmani Anandani. The title is as lucid as it gets. In fact, it is a single phrase which gives you the plot of the book. This book is about the investigation of the murder of Ugrasen Arora, a wealthy businessman based in the posh Sainik Farms area of Delhi. The murder is brought to the notice of a private investigator, Ganapati Iyer, by Ugrasen Arora's beloved niece, Anjali, whose curious mind and affection towards Ugrasen turn her into a quasi-detective, aiding Ganapati in little but crucial ways. Ganapati is also aided in his investigations by his North Indian namesake and friend- Vinayak and the local Assistant Commissioner of Police, Bijon Dasgupta. Apart from these, a bevy of characters, all the murder victim's family members, are introduced in quick succession in the plot, and are, obviously, scrutinized as the prime suspect for Ugrasen's mysterious killing. A missing bag of rubies, an open safe, a missing will and the presence of an outsider - Jasleen - in the book, all contribute towards making the storyline more saucy.

However, without masking my disappointment, the first thing I would like to assert about this book is that it does not manage to let the mystery simmer adequately. Before the dish is cooked, an aroma of what lies beneath the lid manages to hit the reader's nose, all too easily. It happened with me. If you have even a minimal exposure to crime fiction novels, and a curious head which attempts to solve a murder mystery by its own, you will be able to figure out the killer much before the phrase 'plot thickens' could be applied to the narrative. And that is where this book looses out majorly.

The characters have been scripted nicely, so a thumbs up to the author for that. You will find a lot of medical jargon in this book, which will make the tale sound, both, intriguing and authentic. Many quote's from Thiruvalluvar's Kural find entry into the script, lending an otherwise dreary mystery an pinch of philosophy.

I would not call this book a page turner. This book will not leave you sleepless or steal your calm till you find out who the killer is. Ganapati, the lead investigator, is whom I understand to be the protagonist of the novel, and his character has been fashioned impeccably. However, a totally unnecessary love angle (supposedly) is weakly built around him, which serves no purpose in the narrative, not even that of a distraction. I could not place it anywhere, except for a useless attempt at adding some masala. I would have given it fewer, but for two things, I would rate this book with 2 stars on 5. These two things are- a good insight provided into medical details of the murder which reflect rich knowledge or research on the part of the author and for the locational setting of the book (South Delhi) which brought to my mind vivid pictures of my time spent in that area. All in all, it is perhaps only an average book - one that you might want to skip.

(Reviewed on request from Rupa Publications)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Murder In Amaravati by Sharath Komarraju - A Review

This is turning out to be a season of murder mysteries for me. The ball was set rolling by a chance glimpse of The Mentalist, where the 'cute blonde'- Patrick Jane- caught more than just my eyes. He kept me glued to the screen with his offbeat techniques of solving murder cases, done with a touch of elegance. A not-so-pleasant flipside of being addicted to the same has been this incurable urge of identifying the killer/main culprit in the first ten minutes of the show, and spending rest of the time in assessing the motives. This urge had gotten so firmly entrenched in me, that I subconsciously carried it over to Murder In Amaravati- a book penned by Sharath Komarraju- which also happens to be the first book of this genre I have picked up in a long long time.

Twenty pages into Murder At Amaravati, and the mini detective in my head had already started hopping from character to character in a bid to beating the author and guessing both, the killer and the motive, and then suitably criticizing the book for its inability to surprise me. I should have though better of Sharath, who has proved to be, in this book at least, an author who knows his writing well, this genre well, and has the capacity of staying at least three steps ahead of the reader when it comes to the unfolding of the plot. The last is, in my view, absolutely mandatory for writers of thrillers and mysteries.

This is one book I would like to call and idyllic, laid-back murder mystery. The reason for that is perhaps its setting. The book begins with a murder, that of a hostess, Padmavati, based in Amaravati. Amaravati is a lazy, cozy village, with streaks of historical relevance, situated on the banks of the river Krishna. This village comes with a warning- "Nothing stays hidden in Amaravati"- which is much the case with most Indian villages and their common culture. However, as the plot unfolds, we realize, that this village is such where each person has a secret, each more forbidden than the other. A police constable, Venkat Reddy, takes it upon himself to bring Padmavati to justice, which is no mean task since most of the typically orthodox villagers, who made no secret of reviling Padmavati for her choice of profession, are relieved she has made her exit from their environment. "Good riddance" is what they tag her murder as. The most vehement among the ones who scorned at her was the village priest- Krishna Shastri- who also plays the second fiddle (Or so we suppose) to Venkat Reddy in solving the mystery behind Padmavati's killer.

As I said, it is a lazy mystery- not the kinds which would keep you on the edge. You would turn pages of this book in calm curiosity, not in eagerness or excitement. If like me, you are playing the guessing game all along, trust me, unless you belong to a creed of extraordinarily perceptive, intelligent and also imaginative men, you will not be able to beat Sharath's storyline. The author, one I have come to admire for his simplicity, has done a good job of making Murder At Amaravati an easy, quick and light read. The wordplay is modest, but the language is elegant. The narrative flows along at a comfortable pace with no points of discontinuity. From an earlier short fiction of Sharath's which I have read (and liked too!), I am guessing this is one author who likes to layer his stories; and as simple a tale as Murder At Amaravati appears to be in the beginning, you will soon discover the layers in the story which have been creatively and convincingly linked to the main, deceased character, of the book.

Each character in the book- and there are about eight to ten- has been painted with finesse. The peculiarities and stories behind each are skillfully told, and characters easily become a part of your mind. The case with mysteries is, that objects also come to acquire place of importance in the storyline - they have cameos to play which aid the development of the plot. Even that aspect has been taken care of well by Sharath.

All in all, a story well told. For those fond of mysteries and a dearth of time to cater to this fondness, this book may prove to be a thoroughly satisfying read. 3 stars on 5 is what my assessment of the book yields. I, personally, am looking forward to reading more books from this author of immense promise.

(Reviewed on request by the author) 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Asura by Anand Neelkantan - A Review

"...Soon, the civilization that we reclaimed, the ideals of equality for all men, the beautiful cities and palaces, the majestic temples and royal highways, the ports where merchant ships waited for finest spices and cloths, the art and theater, will all be crushed under the feet of a Deva tyrant.You are lucky. You won't be there when the great Asura dream vanishes without a trace. You will not be there when the Brahmins will be the brain; Deva warrior the limbs; and crooked men like Kubera, the torso of our grand society. A society our little brother wishes to build on our corpses. Brother, you have gone beyond the misfortune of mere mortals and dark deeds of blue-skinned gods and their monkey men. I  might soon follow you. My only fear is, when I meet you again, will I be able to look you in the eye?"
(Lamentations of a broken elder brother, Ravana, upon seeing the corpse of his younger brother, Kumbhakarana; from Asura by Anand Neelkantan)

I had written long back, in this space itself, as to why I felt a little queasy with the diabolical picture of Ravana as is painted on the nascent canvass of our minds since early childhood. The demonic character of Ravana is not an image with which only the Hindu brethren of our nation associate; it has also become a representative proverb for sinister traits used amply by anyone who has come in touch with the great Hindu epic- Ramayana. If we read Ramayana as a mere piece of literature, we will understand the dexterity of the quill of Valmiki, who used very basic literary tool- that of creating a universally condemnable negative character in the form of Ravana, so that Rama becomes an even more glorious and ideal (maryadapurushottam) hero-warrior-king. How many of us, I ask again, had been taught of the immensely erudite aspect of Dashanana's character? Did we know that Ravana was a devout believer, an artist par excellence, and an accomplished pandit at many sciences?

I had expressed a wish then that I wanted to read something which could fit under the title - Ravanayana- a retelling of stories from Ravana's perspective. Asura- Tale of The Vanquished, reached my doorstep as a book desiring to fulfill that very wont of mine. Did it, however, succeed? Hard to say at the outset.

Asura, as is mentioned on the front cover itself, is a tale of Ravana and his people. This legendary 'rakshasa' also had a story behind him- his childhood, his dreams, his mistakes, his love, his failures, his triumphs, his regrets, his affections, his insecurities, and much else. In this ambitious novel, Anand Neelkantan, the author, has tried to humanize the legendary devil, but perhaps, has over done it a little.

Asura begins at the scene of death of Ravana, and then and there, the reader is introduced to the author's unabashed flair at describing gory details of death and destruction, capable of wrecking havoc with the weak hearted. In flashes of a life of glory and regrets, Ravana relives his entire journey, from being a half Asura offspring of a stringent Brahmin, to the King of the mightiest Asura empire on the earth. It is an interesting terrain which Ravana traverses, first to his glory, and then to his demise at the hands of Rama- the anti hero in this case.

A welcome and interesting addition to the narrative was a co-protagonist in the form of Bhadra. Essentially, Asura is an attempt to reflect upon the life of Ravana, as well as his subjects. Bhadra is a deftly created character who represents Ravana's people. He begins by being a loyal supporter in the grand vision of his master's attempt to conquer the world, but ends up disenchanted, disillusioned and on the very fringes of the society.

You will find a lot of riveting twists and turns in the plot which will make you question your traditional knowledge of the epic, and make the story progress ahead with the kind of masala you would associate with family sagas of the 60s and 70s. A particularly interesting fact about this book, its most prominent win factor, is how Anand Neelkantan has absolutely shifted the balance of right and wrong in this book- the kind of notions we grow up with. The proverbial heroes, the Gods have been reduced to the image of tyrants, plunderers, hypocrites and lousy rulers. For the one thing the author definitely deserves a strong pat on the back is how he makes us empathize with Ravana, how he gives us a peak in the fragile human yet virtuous ruler he attempts to become, so much so, that by the end you start feeling that the war between Rama and Ravana was not as easily a contest of good versus bad, or right versus wrong. Good-bad, right- wrong are all subjective concepts, largely asserting themselves based on the prism we choose to look through.

Traditional ideals are so firmly entrenched in our minds, that any attempt to challenge them is considered a sacrilege, a blasphemy. Yet, in this piece of fiction, the author has beautifully captured the other side of the coin, the story which is sacrificed to make another sound moral and justified. At places in the narrative, which alternates between Ravana and Bhadra (I, honestly, enjoyed Bhadra's portions more), you will find discourses whose inferences could be superimposed on modern governance concepts. The language is easy, casual, direct, detailed, and openly violent at places. You will read very little of Ramayana in here, so the storyline continues to intrigue and refuses to let you foray into guesswork.

I only felt the novel was a little too long. It is an ambitious project and hence deserves to occupy those many pages, but somewhere, as a reader, it fails to hold your full attention. I was left with a wish to see Ravana explored from different dimensions also- his artistic or academic side. As mentioned earlier, he is depicted as an insecure and fragile entity, which compromises on the booming Asura personality of his we are used to. Despite having done a good job, the potential of the concept, I believe has not been explored in full. For fans of mythological fiction, this book is a decent read, with its plus as well as its negatives. It is not Ravana, as much as, I believe, Bhadra who will make his home in your mind. Now that might be a good or a bad thing, but my wish to read a book comprehensively detailing the personality of Ravana with due glorification largely remains unfulfilled still.

2 and 1/2 stars on 5 for me.