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


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.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Satanic Verses

Book: The Satanic Verses
Author: Sir Salman Rushdie
First Published: 1988 by Viking Press
No.of Pages: 561
Genres: Magical Realism, Fiction
Literary Awards: Booker Prize Nominee (1988), Whitbread Award Winner (1988)

 It was 14th February, 1989 when the Tehran Radio blasted:

"The author of the 'Satanic Verses' book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content are sentenced to death," said Ayatollah Khomeini, whose word was considered as law by those millions of Shiite Muslims. "If someone knows them but is unable to kill them, he should hand them over to the people for punishment." 

Salman Rushdie with the novel The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie holding a copy of The Satanic Verses

It was the whole "Rushdie Fatwa Affair" which triggered my curiosity to read this novel which contrary to what you might expect (considering the ban, bombings, and the death threats) was the proud recipient of the 1988 Whitbread Award and the finalist for the Booker of the very same year. The Fatwa was issued on February 14, 1989 by the Grand Ayatollah 'Ruhollah Khomeini' (the supreme religious and political leader of Iran during that time) because of the publication of this book which contained certain derogatory and sacrilegious passages about the life of Prophet Muhammad. The book was classified as a blasphemy to Islam and Khomeini issued the fatwa declaring that it was the "moral duty of every God fearing and self-respecting Muslim to kill Rushdie."

'The Satanic Verses' is not just a novel about two men and their transmogrification into the very fantastic and classical versions of the Angel and the Devil; this book interspersed with the magical realism that the master craftsman is so fond of, is both a vehement cry of the migrants against the discrimination and the helpless sense of belonging to a nowhere land (as migrants feel the stark differences between their and the English culture), and an appeal to the thinking mind of the common man to break the age old chains that religion binds one with and realize that nothing and nobody is above reproach and everything can be questioned.

The story basically deals with two Indian Muslims, a superstar Gibreel Farishta, and a voice-over expatriate artist Saladin Chamcha (Spoono) who has a deep love for the English and all things anglicized. The novel begins with the miraculous fall of the two from a hijacked plane, and it is while they are experiencing the law of gravity that they both undergo a kind of mutation. While Saladin Chamcha literally becomes a "Devil" with horns, Gibreel Farishta becomes an "Angel". Anglophile Spoono with a big burly body and tail undergoes humiliation at the hands of the British police and the people from his own community. This degradation reaches its peak when his English wife Pamela (thinking Saladin to be dead in the airplane bomb-blast) fucks his friend Jumpy Joshi. This episode acts as the precursor of their eventual divorce. Gibreel who has come to this foreign land to meet his beloved Alleluia Cone (the "Everest" or "Ice queen" as she has been called in the novel) like his namesake mutates into a haloed angel. He develops some sort of schizophrenia. In the highly disturbed dream sequences which ensue, Gibreel starts thinking of himself as the Archangel Gabriel who revealed to Prophet Muhammad (called as Mahound in the book) the Qur'an.

Besides the stories of these two protagonists, the fabric of the tale is composed of several parallel short-stories narrating the lives of people at the Shandaar Cafe (who support and keep Saladin during his transmutation into the Devil and back to human), and Ayeesha - the woman who commands the people of Titlipur to gather en masse so as to make their pilgrimage to Mecca. Ayeesha (named after the Prophet's beloved wife) leads the people of Titlipur to their eventual demise (because the waters of the Arabian Sea do not part as had been promised by the angel Gibreel).

The Satanic Verses are not fictional lines or ideas propounded by Salman Rushdie but refer to these specific verses in Surah an-Najm (Star) 53:19-22:

"Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzzá
and Manāt, the third, the other?
These are the exalted gharāniq, whose intercession is hoped for."

There was a time when Muhammad and his followers went through a rough phase in their lives. They were thoroughly shunned and persecuted by the pagan Meccans. It is suspected that Muhammad succumbed to their pressure during this time and declared the above revelation from angel Gibreel. According to this revelation Muhammad acknowledged the existence of the three Goddesses (Al Lat, Al Uzza, and Manat) along with Allah, and diverted from his monotheistic worship of the Allah. Hearing Muhammad's acknowledgement of their deities, the pagans immediately accepted Muhammad and his followers into their fold.

However, Muhammad realized his folly and reverted to his sole worship of Allah. The so called "Satanic verses" were later removed from the Qur'an and replaced with the following:

Surat an-Najm (Star) 53:19-22 in Qur'an:
"Now tell me about Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat,
The third one, another goddess.
What! For you the males and for him the females!
That indeed is an unfair division."

It is said that Angel Gibreel came to the Prophet that evening and told him:

Hajj (Pilgrimage) 22:52-53 in Qur'an:

"Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire: but Allah will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in, and Allah will confirm (and establish) His Signs: for Allah is full of Knowledge and Wisdom:

That He may make the suggestions thrown in by Satan, but a trial for those in whose hearts is a disease and who are hardened of heart: verily the wrong-doers are in a schism far (from the Truth)."

The controversy about 'The Satanic Verses' issue is this:
If Prophet Muhammad himself was unable to distinguish Satan's voice from God's voice, then could there be more verses in the Qur'an which Muhammad assumed were of "divine "origin but in reality were demonic inspirations or figments of his own imagination.

The book definitely is controversial because it speaks boldly what one might only conjecture but never speak aloud. The Satanic Verses is a tale that charts with brutal honesty the character development of its two protagonists. From the moment they fall from the hijacked aircraft, Rushdie paints in detail the transition of their mind, body, and spirit, highlights their fears and insecurities, and shows how both the characters handle their new lives and situations all the while trying to seek love and acceptance.

Needless to say that it has been written brilliantly, the dialogues and language so par excellence that you feel you're watching a motion picture replete with grand images of the ordinary and the extraordinary. 
The book begins at a good pace, slows down in the middle, but picks up speed and moves fast towards the end. Yes, it might hurt one's sensibilities at times because of the unexpected attack of a person who calls a spade a spade. If you decide to give this book a read, be patient with it. 

Despite the intertwined stories, it must be said that Rushdie tied every loose end with finesse. Savour the stories for they have been written with a realistic approach and show the human fears and frailties, hidden and underhanded motives, the petty jealousies, selfishness, infidelity, discrimination, rebellion, rejection, and the need to seek acceptance, approval, love, and forgiveness with a crystal clarity. 

Do not rush with this novel and to be frank you can't (There are a quarter million words here!). This novel does make for a tedious reading at times, but all in all the book will give you so much to think about. It's a great book but only for the liberal of mind.
The book is not for those who do not think, do not question, and keep themselves much too attached to orthodox religious and communal roots which then sow discord and dissension.

Remember it is "The Satanic Verses" and not "Satanic Verses."

This book is a brilliant piece of literature. 

I give it 9/10

Friday, April 1, 2016

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Book: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Author: Anthony Bourdain
First Published: 2000 by Bloomsbury Publishing
No. of Pages: 312
Genres: Memoir, Autobiography, Non-Fiction

“Food had power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight and impress. It had the power to please me . . .”
                   - Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

A veritable chronicle of his professional life, Kitchen Confidential reveals the dark side of the culinary world with much chutzpah. The book is a fast paced ride filled with some funny and some not so funny episodes. There are parts that might be just a bit shocking to your sensibilities, parts that are simply extraordinary, parts that will tickle your taste receptors, and parts that might (in all honesty) fill you with disgust. However, beneath all these parts lurks an honest soul, and Kitchen Confidential is Tony’s memoir of both tremendous failures and successes in the cut throat culinary underbelly. It wouldn't be wrong if I said that this rambunctious exposé is a must read for all those who possess and profess passion for cooking. 

Review of Kitchen Confidential Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

There are many things I liked about KC. And, I definitely liked the fact that Bourdain has been as critical of himself (perhaps harder) as he has been of the other characters. This says a lot about the kind of person he is. At first, he comes across as this badass swashbuckling dopey CIA graduate with a litany of failed restaurants forming the bulk of his resume, but then he grows and transforms, and when he does that, when he soaks in that learning from each failed attempt at the grandiose (all the while smoking pot), it is a treat to watch! And this my dear reader is what makes Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly a genuine and delightful affair.

It could have easily gone the other way, but thankfully it didn't and Bourdain’s “kitchenese” coupled with his brusque New York attitude are quite endearing actually.


Because that’s his domain and he loves it, lives it, and thrives on it!

I loved everything about the book, especially the unexpected way Bourdain began the journey of his gastronomic adventure, coincidentally traipsing around what better place but France! It was the way he wrote about his first encounter with food as something to think about and savor rather than a substance one (to put it in his words), “stuffed in one’s face when hungry” on that transatlantic voyage to his ancestral homeland that got me hooked. 

He writes, “This was something of a discovery for a curious fourth-grader whose entire experience of soup to this point had consisted of Campbell's cream of tomato and chicken noodle. I'd eaten in restaurants before, sure, but this was the first food I really noticed. It was the first food I enjoyed and, more important, remembered enjoying. I asked our patient British waiter what this delightfully cool, tasty liquid was.

'Vichyssoise,' came the reply.”

Another important moment in the life of the nine-year old came when he tasted his first oyster which he refers as "this glistening, vaguely sexual-looking object, still dripping and nearly alive." 

Interspersed with story of his life, Bourdain munificently doles out very helpful suggestions and tips on how one can garnish food in the haute-cuisine way, what kind of food to order on what days in a restaurant, and also the essential quality items along with the best brands (He gives you the brand names too!) one must have in a kitchen that will always give your food an edge over the others. These I personally found to be very average. But then, this could also be because we watch too many cooking shows and are quite exposed to the tricks of gourmet food plating and presentation.

Some of the quotes I quite liked were:

  • “My love for chaos, conspiracy and the dark side of human nature colors the behavior of my charges, most of whom are already living near the fringes of acceptable conduct.”
  • “No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American.”
  • “Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't have.”
  • "So you want to be a chef? You really, really, really want to be a chef? If you've been working in another line of business, have been accustomed to working eight-to-nine-hour days, weekends and evenings off, holidays with the family, regular sex with your significant other; if you are used to being treated with some modicum of dignity, spoken to and interacted with as a human being, seen as an equal — a sensitive, multidimensional entity with hopes, dreams, aspirations and opinions, the sort of qualities you'd expect of most working persons — then maybe you should reconsider what you'll be facing when you graduate from whatever six-month course put this nonsense in your head to start with.”
  • “Assume the worst. About everybody. But don't let this poisoned outlook affect your job performance. Let it all roll off your back. Ignore it. Be amused by what you see and suspect. Just because someone you work with is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious and corrupt asshole shouldn't prevent you from enjoying their company, working with them or finding them entertaining.

Kitchen Confidential is a well written tale of the chef’s life; it will show you the world of cooking like you had never imagined. And most importantly, it will instill in you a new respect and admiration for these people who work all day, on all days, and very especially on holidays to tantalize your taste buds.
Felicitating the bonhomie of all epicureans, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly packs a powerful punch!

I give it 7/10.