Monday, June 26, 2017

Under The Jaguar Sun

Book: Under the Jaguar Sun (Sotto il sole giaguaro)
Author: Italo Calvino
Translated by: William Weaver
First Published: 1986 by Garzanti Editore, English translation copyright in 1988 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
No. of Pages: 86
Genre: Speculative fiction, fiction

Under the Jaguar Sun is a collection of three short stories: Under the Jaguar Sun, A King Listens, and The Name, The Nose by the Italian author and journalist Italo Calvino. An exploration of the senses, the tales delve into a world of flavors, sounds, and fragrances. Each story is an exquisite journey, thoughtfully crafted with a powerful language so engrossing that the moment you start reading it, you are caught up in a web of vivid imagery.

It was in 1972 that Calvino began working on a book about the five senses. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1985. By that time, he could complete only three stories. As a note at the end of the book, Calvino’s wife Esther tells us that had Calvino lived, the book would have transformed into something different, and he would have provided a frame and structure to the stories, and added the “missing senses”. She tells us that before he succumbed to his illness, Calvino was thinking about the importance of the frame and wrote:

“Both in art and in literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. It is the frame that marks the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist, isolating it from the rest; but at the same time, it recalls-and somehow stands for-everything that remains out of the picture.”

Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino, Translated by William Weaver

The titular story “Under the Jaguar Sun was first published as “The Jaguar Sun” in the New Yorker (English translation copyright 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc). On the surface, it is a story of a couple vacationing in Mexico. On a deeper level, it is a rich gustatory exploration that reconnects a husband and wife going through a relationship that seems to have lost all flavor, all taste. There are three areas of the couple’s trip that the writer has woven brilliantly into this tale: experiencing the bold and exotic Mexican cuisine, exploring the ancient temples and excavations at Monte Alban where they learn about human sacrifices and cannibalistic elements in the Aztec and Olmec culture, and last but not the least how the narrator and his wife Olivia’s experiences on the outside impact the dynamics of their strained monotonous relationship.

For both the characters, the trip has significant value. This vacation acts as a bridge that brings them together. Unlike her husband who at first seems apathetic, and the kind of fellow who goes along with the flow, Olivia, is interested in observing the history manifested in the art and architecture of the country. For her the trip is much about reveling in the profusion of taste, and being in complete communion with the extremely hot Mexican food, new to her palate. This is perhaps her way of communicating with her husband and trying to involve him in how she feels. Olivia is not at all shy when it comes to vocalizing her wants. There is a point in the story where she complains,

“You’re always sunk into yourself, unable to participate in what’s going on around you, unable to put yourself out for another, never a flash of enthusiasm on your own, always ready to cast a pall on anybody else’s, depressing, indifferent—Insipid”

To this the husband replies, “I may seem insipid to you, but there are ranges of flavor more discreet and restrained than that of red peppers. There are subtle tastes that one must know how to perceive.”

This conversation clearly shows the presence of a void, a missing element at this stage in their marriage. They are both unsatisfied and are looking for something to satiate their hunger. As we progress, we find a note of self-awareness and sexual tension that is very well interspersed with the savoring of the gustatory sensations. As the couple try the traditional delicacies like tamal de elote, chiles en nogada, ''wrinkled little peppers, swimming in a walnut sauce whose harshness and bitter aftertaste were drowned in a creamy, sweetish surrender,'' guajolote con mole poblano “turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce”, the narrator realizes that his wife wants his complicity in shared emotions, showing he was indeed indispensable to her. It heartens him to know that by the very act of eating, she is sharing all of her with him, and he starts noticing her more and more. He reflects,

''I realized my gaze was resting not on her eyes but on her teeth . . . which I happened to be seeing for the first time not as the radiant glow of a smile but as the instruments most suited to their purpose: to be dug into flesh, to sever it, tear it.''

Later, as they explore the Monte Alban, the site of the ruins of ancient Olmec, Zapotec, and the Mixtec civilizations, the guide informs them that these temples and ancient ruins were once the sacred platforms where human sacrifice rituals were practiced. The sacrificial meat would then be offered to the gods. But it is obvious that the food would not be consumed by the stone statues, and was left for the vultures to devour. This arouses Olivia’s interest and she questions the guide about the fate of the leftover meal, that surely not all the meat would be consumed by the scavengers alone. She wonders how the high priests would consume the “ritual meal” of the willing human sacrifices. She asks another guide back at their hotel, if the priests used any special seasoning to mask or perhaps enhance the flavor of the human meat. The guide defers the question saying that the lives of the priests was shrouded in mystery and they left no instructions for the sacred cuisine.

The narrator (later as they eat) makes a note:

''I could feel her tongue lift me against the roof of her mouth, enfold me in saliva, then thrust me under the tips of the canines… The situation was not entirely passive, since while I was being chewed by her I felt also that I was acting on her, transmitting sensations that spread from the taste buds through her whole body.''

The next day, they leave Oaxaca, and see a stone statue that catches their attention: A little chacmool (half reclining human figure) with a tray on his belly. This statue with the tray represents the utter reciprocity of a victim willing to sacrifice himself to the gods, offering them his heart. Basically, you eat and you are eaten. We are all part of this universal cannibalism.

This makes the husband discern something important:

“Meanwhile I understood: my mistake with Olivia was to consider myself eaten by her, whereas I should be myself (I always had been) the one who ate her. The most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh. It was only by feeding ravenously on Olivia that I would cease being tasteless to her palate.”

As the narrator becomes more mindful of his wife, and opens himself to the experience of the food, the spell of monotony is broken. He realises that only by completely surrendering himself could he gain her whole self. So, when they taste the gorditas pellizcadas con manteca, ''plump girls pinched with butter'', they go back to their hotel room and for the first time during their trip satisfy their sexual appetite.

The story concludes with some food for thought when the narrator feeling completely as ease under the Mexican sun and in tune with newly kindled palate, observes:

“…our teeth began to move slowly, with equal rhythm, and our eyes stared into each other’s with the intensity of serpents’- serpents concentrated in the ecstasy of swallowing each other in turn, as we were aware, in our turn, of being swallowed by the serpent that digests us all, assimilated  ceaselessly in the process of ingestion and digestion, in the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship and erases the lines between our bodies and sopa de frijoles, huachinango a la vera cruzana, and enchiladas.”

A King Listens

As far as literary masterpieces go, this short story takes its place rightfully among the best. My favorite of the three, A King Listens is an intense ride into the mind of a tyrant who now that he is king is besieged by fears and paranoia of retaining his usurped powers. From the very first line we get the picture of a king troubled about his scepter, worried about the position of his forearm on the chair, and petrified of holding his head in any but an immobile way so that the gold filigree and diamond studded crown doesn’t fall off his head in case he happens to doze off or let his chin sink. Even though everything is under his control, he is plagued by anxieties.

“If you rise, if you take even a few steps, if you lose sight of the throne for an instant, who can guarantee that when you return you will not find someone else sitting on it? Perhaps someone who resembles you, identical to you. Go ahead then and try to prove you are the king, not he! A king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing the crown, holding the scepter. Now that these attributes are yours, you had better not be separated from them even for a moment.”

The captor becomes the prisoner, and soon feels caged in the palace of his dreams. It is difficult to pass time in a place where everything moves like clockwork in a preordained manner established by you. Sitting on the throne, his sense of hearing becomes acute. He listens to the sounds and the silences, the slamming of a door, a stifled cry, he listens to the spies posted by him behind every curtain, and frets about secret whispers and conspiracies being hatched to dethrone him while he empties his treasury paying that very staff.

Brilliantly written, it reveals the insecurities of a ruler. The palace becomes a symbol of his body sending him signals and messages which he receives with fear and apprehension. He believes there is always danger lurking in some part even when everything moves as it is should. Every now and then, he hears a sound— the sound of somebody knocking at a door perhaps. 

He wonders if it is a prisoner trying to establish a dialogue with him. He knocks on the wall and hears a sound in response. Terrors gnaws at him, and the “formless reverberations” turn his imagination into a living nightmare. Paranoid, he tries to ascribe every rap or knock with some meaning.

“Your Majesty…we… your loyal subjects…will foil all plots…long life”
“Bastard dog usurper…vengeance…you will be overthrown…”
“The coffin… your coffin... I will emerge from this coffin…and you will enter it…buried alive…”

He tries not to get tormented by these interpretations, and thinks of the city stretched out in the night, rumbling at the bottom of his ear. He rationalizes,

“It is within you that the ghosts acquire voices.”

And then he hears a love song carried by the breeze through some open window. He becomes drawn to the woman’s unique and inimitable voice, and deliberates if he would want to summon her to his court to hear the throbbing of her throat. His imagination runs rampant to no end. Trapped in the palatial maze of sounds, drawing one conjecture after another, we see the metamorphosis of the captor into a fugitive, and his descendance into a captive. By the end, the identities blur, and it is a treat to read Weaver’s translation of how the monarch fails to reckon if he is a king or a prisoner.

 “The night is all breathing. A low wind has risen as if from the grass. The crickets never stop, on all sides. If you isolate one sound from another, it seems to burst forth suddenly, very distinct; but it was also there before, hidden among the other sounds.

You also were there, before. And now? You could not answer. You do not know which of these breaths is yours. You no longer know how to listen. There is no longer anyone listening to anyone else. Only the night listens to itself.”

The Name, The Nose

The Name, The Nose (Il Nome, Il Naso) was first published in Antaeus (English Translation copyright 1976 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc). Shortest of the three tales, it focuses on the olfactory sense.

“When the olfactory alphabet, which made them so many words in a precious lexicon, is forgotten, perfumes will be left speechless, inarticulate, illegible.”

This story has three characters: a French man named Monsieur de Saint Caliste, a prehistoric man, and a musician. Written in three parallel narratives, the characters chase the scent of a female that’s completely taken hold of their senses. In their quest to find the one captivating scent, all three find that the odor they had been searching for was in fact Death itself.

“I go from one skin to another, hunting for that lost skin that isn’t like any other skin.”

Though at par with the other two in terms of its linguistic flair, it definitely lacks the kaleidoscopic insight into the king’s psyche in A King Listens, and the raw flavor of Under the Jaguar Sun.

I give it 7/10.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Prophet

Book: The Prophet 
Author: Kahlil Gibran
First Published: 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf
No. of Pages: 107
Genre: Prose Poetry

I believe that the greatest gift a man can give to his fellow beings is the unadulterated joy that his work is. 11 years it took the Lebanese American Gibran to craft 'The Prophet': A perennial classic, with millions of copies sold worldwide. It has never been out of print since the first time it got published in 1923To string together such beautiful pearls out of the sea of our consciousness requires a conscientious spirit working in God's realm. This book is a teacher who guides one to the threshold of his/her own mind. It does not tell you the destination, but shows you the way. It teaches you to discover and find meaning in the very ordinary and mundane.
Here’s what I think:

"Though words are needed to communicate, they can never perhaps give expression to the delights of a liberated soul.
For a spirit that knows how to soar, needs not the crutches words are.
For words render feelings bound, contained and defined;
Yet my heart feels a gladness that his very words gave wings to my own thoughts, which rose in humility to acknowledge the elegant design, simple truth and beauty of life."


My copy of the Prophet

The Prophet, masterfully fashioned in Gibran’s prose-poetry style, comprises twenty-eight chapters. A rich poetic concoction of allegory and metaphors, this wholesome soup for the soul conveys his musings through a prophet named Almustafa. The protagonist of the story, Almustafa has spent 12 years in the city called Orphalese. As he prepares to embark on the voyage back home to the city of his birth, he is met by people at the city gates. The people of Orphalese leave their work in the vineyards and gather around Almustafa to ask him what lies between birth and death. Almustafa’s answers to the common men and women of Orphalese have been transcribed in 26 of these chapters. These ruminations are a journey in themselves because they cover so many aspects of life such as love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death. From my personal experience, every time I read it, I understand it a bit more. Suffice it to say that it is a book for all ages.

Here are some of my favourite verses from The Prophet:

On Marriage 

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of Love. Let it be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow."

On Children


Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, 
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

On Giving

You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

On Joy & Sorrow
·         Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
·         The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

·         Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. 

    On Reason and Passion:
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

On Pain:  
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun,
So must you know pain.
Every word was a joy and every sentence a knowledge that was always there. The Prophet is a work of pure love, is a way of life, and teaches one many things, the most important of all:

On Religion:  

"Your daily Life is your Temple and your Religion.
When you enter into it, take with you your all."

Last Chapter:
"And what is word knowledge but a shadow of wordless knowledge?
Your thoughts and my words are waves from a sealed memory that keeps records of our yesterdays,
And of the ancient days when the Earth knew not us nor herself,
And of nights when Earth was upwrought with confusion."

A Weary Wanderer Seeking Rest,
A hungry Spirit Finding Food,
A Treat for the Eyes,
A Feast for the Soul...
T
his book is a celebration of so much and more. 

I give it 9.5/10
And, I am closing this review with my thoughts about the creator of this literary masterpiece.

To Kahlil, With Love…

Courtesy: Simon Howden  


If I could meet you,
I’d stand before you and say nothing.
Words won’t do a thing.
But if I remembered in future having loved you in the past,
I’d stand in future,
Someday, I’d stand naked in front of you to say nothing,
Hoping you’d know what I wish to convey,
Because we've been fashioned from the same clay of the one you like to call ‘Unseen’.
When that blessed silence would enclose us,
Your heart would resonate with mine,
And you’d know that I love you…
That I have always loved you, ever since I saw your picture in your work.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Life in France


Book: My Life in France 
Author: Julia Child, Alex Prud'Homme
First Published: 2006 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
No. of Pages: 317
Genre: Autobiography (Hardcover Edition), Non Fiction, Memoir, Biography

There comes a moment in everyone’s life, that defining magical moment when you realize who you were always meant to be. Such a moment is very precious and must be carefully held, never to let go; and Julia Child never did let go, not for a moment, from the time she docked at Le Havre, France on a Wednesday morning, on November 3, 1948 till she passed away in 2004. And so, "My Life in France", is just that: An enchanting memoir of that magical moment and her subsequent years in France where she became besotted with French food and found her “true purpose and vocation” in life.

My life in France takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey of a 6'2" thirty six year old loud and unserious Californian." As we read, we see an American woman trying to carve a place for herself in the beautiful Parisian landscape all the while learning, blossoming, and transforming from a secretary to a happy housewife whose sole aim in life becomes to cook well and to write a cookbook. 


My Life in France by Julia Child, Alex Prud'homme


The book is essentially divided into two parts containing four and five segments respectively. The first part gives us a vivid picture of Julias’s life in La Belle France (which is also the name of the first chapter). The other three chapters include Le Cordon Bleu, Three Hearty Eaters, and Bouillabaisse a´ la Marseillaise.

While introducing the book she says, “I was lucky to marry Paul. He was a great inspiration, his enthusiasm about wine and food helped to shape my tastes, and his encouragement saw me through discouraging moments. I would never have had my career without Paul Child.” This speaks volumes about the love, warmth, and affection that Julia and Paul’s marriage had. This little note of acknowledgement shows how a supportive partner can really bring out the best in you. For Julia, it was her husband who brought her to France (Paul Child worked for the US Information Service in the visual presentation department and spent over 5 years in France,) encouraged her to follow her newfound passion for cooking, and take it to the next level.

Reaching France, Paul and Julia first looked for a place to eat. With a Guide Michelin they were directed to an establishment called Restaurant La Couronne (“The Crown”), built in 1345 in a medieval quarter-timbered house. Julia recalls that Paul strode ahead full of anticipation, but she hung back, concerned “I didn’t look chic enough, that I wouldn’t be able to communicate, and that the waiters would look down their long Gallic noses at us Yankee tourists.”

Julia’s first experience of Sole Meuniere at La Couronne which she describes as a “morsel of perfection” was actually “the moment” that defined her course of life as a celebrity chef and writer.

Julia says,

“In Paris in the 1950s, I had the supreme good fortune to study with a remarkably able group of chefs. From them I learned why good French good is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn't use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushes through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture--a gummy beef Wellington, say. But a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience.

Such was the case with the sole meunière I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.”

From here on Julia shows single minded focus on learning how to cook well. After settling at 81 Ru de l’Universite, she enrolls in a professional restaurateur’s course under Chef Max Bugnard. Her struggles become very real as she competes with her fellow course-mates and tries one recipe after another at home. The book is dotted with some lovely reminiscences where she introspects and makes observations about herself. There is a particularly lovely paragraph where she comments about her own self:  

“Upon reflection, I decided I had three main weaknesses: I was confused (evidenced by a lack of facts, an inability to coordinate my thoughts, and an inability to verbalize my ideas); I had a lack of confidence, which cause me to back down from forcefully stated positions; and I was overly emotional at the expense of careful, 'scientific' though. I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.”

The second segment of the memoir focuses on Julia’s life years at her new home at 3 Steubenring, Plittersdorf, Germany and subsequently in the United States. The chapters are titled French Recipes for American Cooks, Mastering the Art, Son of Mastering, The French Chef in France, and From Child’s Kitchen.

The book in itself is very well composed indeed. I do not believe there is any aspect of Julia’s life that has been left untouched. Though spanning a mere 317 pages (which also include beautiful black and whites captured by Paul) it is a testament to a woman who worked hard enthusiastically perfecting recipes and writing them down for all. This book also gives us a picture of the wonderful friendship she shared with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle with whom she co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Some of the best lines from My Life in France:

  • “You never forget a beautiful thing that you have made,' Chef Bugnard said, 'Even after you eat it, it stays with you - always.”
  • “I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook...," or "Poor little me...," or "This may taste awful...," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed -- eh bien, tant pis! Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile -- and learn from her mistakes.”
  • “The German birds didn't taste as good as their French cousins, nor did the frozen Dutch chickens we bought in the local supermarkets. The American poultry industry had made it possible to grow a fine-looking fryer in record time and sell it at a reasonable price, but no one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside of a teddy bear.”
  • “I discovered that when one follows the artist's eye one sees unexpected treasures in so many seemingly ordinary scenes.”

One thing that this book will definitely give you is the sense and feel of a different kind of time, when life in general just moved slowly and people spent quality time balancing both professional and personal life. This makes me realize something simple: We go through life never realizing that we are the ones who give meaning and pace to time.

I believe that you don’t go through life, you take it along with you. And looking at Julia’s life you can see how she veered hers into a tour de force of celebration. As I think about the book and think about Julia, I cannot help but feel immense happiness in having found an ordinary yet extraordinary person who made sure she spent every day doing something she loved to do. Such a simple thing really, yet a feat truly remarkable!

I give this book 8/10

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Butterfly’s Dream and Other Chinese Tales

Book: A Butterfly’s Dream and Other Chinese Tales
Author: Cheou Kang Sie
First Published: 1970 by Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.
No. of Pages: 91
Genre: Folklore

A Butterfly’s Dream and Other Chinese Tales is a folklore anthology compiled and retold by Cheou-Kang Sie (former ambassador to the Holy See). The book is essentially a collection of 12 tales which draw their inspiration from the ancient Chinese philosophical writings. All of the stories have been carefully selected, and each one in some way or the other conveys human desires, emotions (both petty and sublime), nature, and ambition. So, it would not be wrong to say that they are quite universal in their appeal. Reading this book, it is inevitable that you will find the Taoist, Confucian, the urban as well as the peasant come to life.

It was the cover page that caught my eye while I was perusing through the aisles of the Santa Barbara Public Library. Kept on a separate stand, it did kind of lure me in. Painted by the master “Chi Kang” himself, considered as one of the greatest classical artists of Cathay, the jacket cover bears the illustration of the great Taoist master Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly; this is also the first story in the anthology, and the title of the book.


Here's a breakdown of the 12 stories.

These four tales come from the philosophical writings of Twang Tze and Lie-Tze (400 B.C.)
  • A Butterfly’s Dream
  • Old Man Stupidity
  • The Return
  • Spring Water

The themes for the Bridge of Magpies, Fetal Education, and Gratitude were derived from popular legends of Chinese folklore. The stories The Clay Statues, and Vinegar draw from some celebrated memoirs of the 17th century.

The Reward, and Illusion draw their inspiration from the 17th century work Extraordinary Stories by Liau Tsai.

Last but not the least, Tso Ying Tie is a love drama that finds its mention in the public records of the Whai Kwei Kee District in Chekiang Province. 

The stories are pretty interesting and most have a moral to impart. I quite liked the story “the return” which is a moving tale of an exiled man who imagines how overcome with emotions he would be on his final return home, but surprisingly doesn’t feel anything when he does go back to his country. In an elegant way the author tells us how we must not expect too much and wait to feel something which we can enjoy at the present. Another story “Vinegar” shows how vinegar has come to stand synonymous with jealousy. “Old man stupidity” depicts how the universe also helps you achieve your goals when you are completely focused and do your best to persevere against all odds. Another enchanting story is the “Bridge of magpies”, a lovely romantic tale of the celestials teaching us how excessive indulgence hampers your duty which should before love.

A light read, something you can go through as you sip a cup of your evening tea.

I give it 6/10. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ramayana: The Game of Life - Shattered Dreams


Book: Ramayana: The Game of Life - Shattered Dreams 
Author: Shubha Vilas
First Published: 2015 by Jaico Books
No. of Pages: 387
Genre: Mythology

Hmmm…

Usually when I write a book review, I always have a notion in my head that acts as a guiding light or a strong motivating factor that helps me paint the review canvas. It could be a thought from the author that really made an impression on me, or my personal feelings as I traversed the course of the story. However, this book has left me with a vague sense of irritation that perhaps something’s missing…

The copy of Ramayana: The Game of Life - Shattered Dreams given to me by Blogadda
I received Ramayana: The Game of Life – Shattered Dreams as a freebie to review. Needless to say, I was ecstatic and wondered what a great addition it would make to my book shelf. I opened the package and took my first good look at the cover. 

The first thing that jumped out at me were the words "Game of Life" instantly reminding me of the font of Game of Thrones. (Now, I am not saying Martin holds monopoly over the usage of this font. This is just my personal observation.) 

The second thing I noticed was the lovely body of a sleeping Rama. Rama on the cover page manages to look both agitated (symbolic of what is to come) and beautiful at the same time. I loved the use of bold background colours which add to the godliness of the sleeping divine basking in golden glow. 

Then my eyes fell on what appeared to be a badly photoshopped example of a chariot run by horses (though they look more like donkeys to me). Riding this chariot is a demoness (actually, she is Keikeyi, the woman and co-wife who saved her husband Dasratha from the demon Sambarasura) along with a man wearing a black kurta, jewels, scared expressions, and a garland fashioned from marigolds. This is Dasratha I suppose, the mighty king who fails to look like a king.

Then I opened the book with many expectations. I read the acknowledgement followed by the author’s note which exuded calmness. Though I was slightly miffed by the conjoined words, I let it slide thinking, “Printing errors such as these happen maybe, and it’s just one time.” From his writing style I could make out that this person would be someone who speaks after careful consideration and is well-articulated. I turned to the last page and felt instantly validated to know that the author is a motivational speaker.

Then I finally began to read the book. The story begins with Dasratha (the man whose chariot could move in ten directions!) having nightmares of an impending doom. He wakes up and takes the decision of crowning his eldest son Rama as the new King of Ayodhya. And so begins the saga we all know and have practically grown up listening to.

So what was new about this book, and why should anyone read it?

I would say the answer lies in the concept of the book. I like how the author has made use of a genius work such as Valmiki muni’s Ramayana and told the people that it does have real world applications, and the philosophy, actions, decisions, and mantras of those years can be applied today, especially in a world like ours!

What I liked about the book?

·        To me, the footnotes and pearls of wisdom dropped here and there in the pages were the essence, and made Ramayana: The Game of Life - Shattered Dreams (sequel to Ramayana: The Game of Life – Rise of the Sun Prince) a worthwhile read. The footnotes served to explain Sanskrit terminology and further elucidate concepts. These I found to be very nice and helpful.

·        I loved the Trijata story where Rama tests Trijata muni before giving him so much property. It shows that things when achieved through hard work feel rightfully earned. By this charitable action Rama was able to give without making another feel obliged. And that in my opinion is a splendid deed. 

·        I absolutely loved the part about ‘True Communication’. It’s the part where Rama puts a garland around Sita’s neck and Sita in return weaves an imaginary garland around Rama’s neck by moving her beautiful eyes. It was incredibly romantic and speaks volumes about the silent communication between a husband and wife.

·        Another noteworthy thing is the character of Bharat which is amazing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he is actually my favourite! What’s not to like? He is an action man. The guy who thinks critically, and this is evident from the way he passes with flying colours all these mission tests to determine his ability and potential as the next best thing in town, i.e. the formidable ruler of Ayodhya in place of Rama.

Here are the tests he is subjected to:

·        The test of 'Confronting Criticism' (by Queen Kaushalya)
·        The test of 'Confronting Subconscious Desires' (by Vasistha, the spiritual guru of the entire Ikshvaku Dynasty.
·        The test of 'Confronting Confusing Choices' (by Vasistha)
·        The test of 'Confronting Blame and Praise' (by Guha, King of the Nishada tribe)
·        The test of 'Confronting Accountability' (by Bharadwaja Muni, the expert seer of past, present, and future) 
·        The test of 'Confronting Irresistible Temptations' (by Bharadwaja Muni)

Here are a few things that bothered me:

·        I didn't get the Bollywood like dialogues. In a book that spans mere 387 pages, you can’t show too much of drama without validating the same with proof. Had I not been aware of the Ramayana story, I’d be like “Why are these Ayodhya people crazy about Rama and Sita? What has this couple done for the people besides looking radiantly divine?"

·        I don’t get the horrible grammar! This is just not acceptable. While the author seems to have had clear thoughts put in sentences that feel weirdly constructed at times, the editing is just plain bad! When I read a book I do not like to see words strung together like Siamese twins. Had there been a couple of errors, I would not have even bothered bringing this up. But trust me, there are just far too many for a book published at this level.

·        Easy to please Shiv and Brahma keep on granting wishes all the time (more to Ravana and his son actually!) and if Ravana didn't have to play any role in this particular part of the story why was he even mentioned. It would have been better to either omit him entirely in this part, or to extend the story of this part to the point where he makes some dramatic entry so that we as readers are filled with anticipation for what’s to come.

·        I didn't particularly like the portrayal of Sita in the second half of the book. The Sita I have in mind, the one who has been etched perhaps in all of our minds is this steadfast, sincere, and regal woman radiating a goddess like aura. That divine lady does not gel with this “I am too happy frolicking in the hills” silly princess. She feels absolutely unreal to me.

·        Lakshman is making Rama and Sita’s bed, he’s preparing their seats (decorating with the seasonal flowers no less!), constructing their house wherever the trio goes, fetching them fruits, he is collecting logs and paraphernalia for conducting prayers, and he is in fact NOT SLEEPING! (Lakshman tells the goddess of sleep Nidradevi to go and give his fair share of sleep to his wife Urmila, just so he could watch over and protect his beloved brother and sister in law while they slept.) And I don’t get this slavish behaviour because all Rama and Sita seem to be doing during this exile time are watching sunrise and sunset, visiting munis, resting under the trees, or laughing at mating geese! (The exile seems more like a picnic here to me.)

Here’s what Kaushalya has to say about Sita, “At least Rama is a rugged warrior and Vishwamitra has trained him well about the vagaries of forest life, but Sita is a delicate flower. She has not experienced hardship. I made sure that She never set foot on hard ground. She always sat on a bed, a soft seat, an ornate swing or my lap…”

·        I don’t understand, (this is perhaps due to my lack of knowledge) if Rama knew about the promise Dasratha had made to Keikeyi’s father about making their yet unborn child the next king of Ayodhya, then why didn't he just give up the throne. Why did he accept Dasratha’s decision and cause all this emotional turmoil for practically everybody in the kingdom? Was this to fulfill a bigger role he was meant for? To be instrumental in doing something that had already been written, and in which he had no say? Also, it shows Dasratha as an oath-breaker, and Keikeyi the warrior woman wrongly accused of being the villainess. 

I give it 4/10.