Why Breaking Bad is a landmark in television

Television these days is considered the entertainment medium for grown-ups. There have been some really, really good TV shows in the last decade and a half with thematically strong content. They make the best film has to offer look like over-priced eye-candy. HBO should be considered as the frontrunner as their ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ completely changed the television landscape in the early 2000s and paved the way for future. Then came ABC’s Lost, AMC’s Mad Men, and others. And, of course, Breaking Bad. On this day, the last episode of this remarkable AMC show was aired four years ago. Let’s have a look at why the crime drama revolving around just one character turned out to be a masterpiece.

Breaking Bad is mainly an examination of one single character who ‘breaks bad’. The show follows a man called Walter White as he goes to the dark side, if you excuse my Star Wars reference. A meek chemistry teacher, a diagnosis reveals he has terminal lung cancer. Teaming up with Jesse Pinkman, a former student, he starts a tentative ‘cooking’ business and that is the moment when he crosses the Rubicon. Jesse Pinkman may have been a meth addict, but Walter White was the real junkie.

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At the beginning, you sympathise with him. He is, after all, a man trying to make sure his family’s future is secure. But then he does certain things that make the worst villains in the series look misunderstood. Bryan Cranston, in an absolutely outstanding performance, encapsulates the character of Walter White so perfectly that it is hard to imagine he was the same person who played Dad in Malcolm in the Middle. During the course of the show, his persona alters. And Cranston manages to nail them all. He is believable as a picked-on chemistry teacher, he is believable as a caring family man, he is also believable as the ruthless Heisenberg.

The cinematographers do a marvellous job in bringing out the lines on his face in clear contrast. Which reminds me of the visual element of the show. Breaking Bad has solid writing and acting, but visuals are a strong part of it. Best visual touches are those that you don’t notice. They seamlessly blend into the narrative. The clothes Walter White wears get darker as he turns evil. Sometimes the camera stays on one scene for a painfully long time, and recurring motifs (like the ominous one-eyed teddy bear) contain the theme of a particular episode or things to come.

You cannot truly appreciate Breaking Bad until you have finished it completely. In the end, Walter White himself admits what the discerning viewers have suspected for some time – that he did everything for himself. There are a lot many themes the show explores, but one supersedes them all: you reap what you sow. Actions have consequences, in other words. Walter White gets away for a long time but ultimately what he has done catches up to him. But for all the evil he did, he remains human right till the end. So believable in spite of the things he did.

The term gets thrown around a lot, but Breaking Bad really is a masterpiece.

(This article was first published here at indianexpress.com)

 

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The Dark Tower

A very happy birthday to Stephen King! Dude, your stories and your monsters have frightened generations of readers and Pennywise made at least a week of my sleep fitful, but I love you anyway. 

Ah! The Dark Tower. The magnum opus of one of the most prolific writers of our time: Stephen King. The title still elicits goosebumps. I have read a lot of fantasy and I have read a lot of Stephen King, but somehow The Dark Tower did not appeal me all that much…  until I read it, that was. Perhaps it was the Western feel to the story – I’m not too keen on the genre and frankly, do not see the appeal. Instead, I read other, less popular fantasy series like Malazan Book of the Fallen and The First Law and was enthralled. And all the while I also kept reading other Stephen King works and was scared shitless – It, The Shining, Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, Skeleton Crew and so on.

Even then I knew that many of King’s works tied in with the story of Roland and his ka-tet. But I resisted the temptation. I even tried reading the first few pages of The Gunslinger and was not much impressed. The prose was denser than most of his books and it seemed rambling. Then one day I just bought the book for my Kindle and began to read and promised myself I would not stop until I’d finished it. It did, and it was a crushing disappointment. All that mindless chasing… and no resolution. No explosive ending. What exactly happened?

Then I started the second book and it was then I knew I would read on until I’d read the last sentence of the last book – which was, incidentally, the same as the first sentence of the first book. The legendary, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Boy, I remember thinking as I finished it, what a story!

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The primary plotline of The Dark Tower follows the last of the gunslingers (gunslingers in The Dark Tower are basically Arthurian knights with guns instead of swords) called Roland Deschain, his companions, and their quest to get to the Dark Tower – an imposing edifice that lies at the centre of all creation and reality. It is the literally the centre of the universe. The story sometimes branches into smaller threads but throughout the series the quest to reach the Dark Tower always dominates the narrative. The story is a blend of Western, fantasy, and horror. There are also many heartbreaks in this journey, and the ending is not what you’d call a happily ever after sort, but is more on the bittersweet side. There is also a surprise at the end, but I don’t think you need to know that.

“I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I aim with my eye.

I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I shoot with my mind.

I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father.
I kill with my heart.”

If somebody were to ask what is the central theme of the series, I would say it is sacrifice. Roland is a tragic figure. He is singleminded in his quest and he believes what he will do once he reaches the tower will right every wrong he’s done during the journey. Every sacrifice will be worth it once the enemy is defeated.

What about the enemy? In the first novel itself, we are introduced to the Man in Black who Roland chases across the length and breadth of a desert. He is a mysterious figure who Roland believes can provide him with answers about the Dark Tower and who Roland also has cause to hate. There is also the Red King who the Man in Black serves, but he does not appear until the very end. Other servants of the Red King include the vampires (yes, the one in Salem’s Lot), and other unearthly beings who look like men but are something else beneath.

I loved The Dark Tower. And I’m glad I overcame my misgivings. As Roland might have said, I did not forget the face of my father.

 

The Man in the High Castle

I find alternate history fascinating. Wondering about that elusive what if. Imagining hypothetical situations is, in fact, one of my favourite pastimes. What would have happened if the Syrian father of Steve Jobs had not immigrated to the United States? What would have happened if Mahatma Gandhi had stayed in South Africa? What would have happened if the British had not come to India?

Contemplating such situations is tempting to me, but sadly I don’t have the means to experience the life in those parallel worlds that must surely be lurking just beyond my perception. Also, while these situations are important they are but insignificant what ifs as compared to what is called the hypothetical Axis victory in World War II.

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Times Square under Nazis

Those who have read enough of what occurred in World War II know how close Germany and Japan came to subjugate Eurasia. So many things could have gone catastrophically wrong. The United States might not have intervened. Colonial soldiers enlisted in the British Army might have refused to fight. And so on. So how the world might have looked like had the Axis powers won? Enters The Man in the High Castle.

Based (loosely, Wikipedia says) on Philip M. Dick’s 1962 novel, this Amazon Original series explores probably the most important what if one can imagine. I am sure we all are sick of American hawkish foreign policy and imperialistic tendencies, not to mention its Big Brotherly deep state. But we should still be grateful that it was Uncle Sam and its allies who won the war. The current reality is far lesser of the two evils.

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American Reich flag.

In The Man in the High Castle, the Axis powers won the World War II. The United States was divided between the Nazis and Imperial Japanese into two parts that are called Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States respectively. There is a thin strip between the two regions that is lawless and called the Neutral Zone. The year is 1962. Although Japan and German were allies in the war, there is a tension between the two, not too different from the Cold War tensions that dominated the political landscape of much of the latter half of last century. To end the war, German had decimated the American capital Washington DC including Pentagon.

Even though it is alternate history, The Man in the High Castle is not escapist in the sense that the world is so well-realised that it is perturbing. Nothing seems fantastical, all thanks to top-notch world building and production values. And also the fact breathing down your neck that what we are witnessing almost happened.

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Juliana Crain

Both the Nazis and the Japanese are not surprisingly totalitarian regimes and unflinching in their cruelty. Small acts of resistance prompt utter destruction of not only the perpetrators but also their families and even friends. Both the regimes are looking for a mysterious man who few have seen. He calls himself The Man in the High Castle. This man might hold the thread to the last of the resistance in America.

More mysterious than the man himself, however, are the films he either propagates or collects or maybe both. Those films show different realities. The what ifs I was talking about. The Führer himself is interested in these films. One of those show Allied powers winning the war and the United States dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Funny, huh?

Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) is a woman who has made peace with the life under Japanese occupied San Francisco. She gets entangled with the resistance and the films thanks to her sister and becomes wanted by the Imperial authorities. Her boyfriend does not want anything to do with the resistance and tries to discourage her, but gets involved himself anyway when he becomes the topmost target of Kempeitai – the Imperial Japanese police.

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Nobusuke Tagomi

Then there is Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. He is one of the few morally upright men in Japanese high command. “Perhaps too good for this world,” as his assistant tells him. He wants to live in a better world and is unusually kind to those beneath him. He concocts a conspiracy with the help of a Nazi official having a similar line of thinking to stop the hostilities between Japan and German using the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The performance by the venerable Tagawa is brilliant – measured, thoughtful, and wise.

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Obergruppenführer John Smith

British actor Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer (try saying that thrice continuously) John Smith who is a loyal Nazi – the highest ranking German official in America. He is utterly ruthless, not only towards subversive elements but also to his political opponents. But he is also fiercely dedicated to his family, a loving husband and father – the quality that humanises him. As far as villains go, John Smith is pretty compelling and I found myself rooting for him at times even though he is a Nazi through and through.

If you were wondering whether to subscribe to Amazon Prime Video, The Man in the High Castle is a very valid reason to make the jump. I’m not underrating other Amazon Originals (like my personal favourite American Gods), but this show is unlike anything you have seen and really very necessary in this era of militant nationalism and burgeoning authoritarianism. Of course, there are many good alternate history television shows and movies, but none as relevant as The Man in the High Castle. It is not only high quality television but also a timely reminder of how the world would look like if we let fascism win.

Game of Thrones Season 7 review: More gorgeous than ever, but scant logic plays spoilsport

In terms of spectacle and drama, every season of HBO’s epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones has outdone the one that came before, and season 7 was no exception. We finally saw convergence of major players in the finale giving a sense of “it’s all going to come together now”. The Wall is down and the dead are in the realm of the living. There were also some really satisfying payoffs like Starks dispensing retribution to their foes. The last is something viewers had been waiting since Ned Stark was deprived of his head.

But somewhere along the line, the show has stopped being what really made it so compelling. To be honest, most of it has stopped making sense. Make no mistake, it is still one of the most gorgeous looking things on television and this season even more so. The captivating battle between dragons and the White Walkers in Beyond the Wall would have given Peter Jackson a run for his money. When it comes to production values, the show has no rival. But Game of Thrones was not about style, it was always about substance. What made it fantasy for the mature and different from, say, Harry Potter was the political intrigue, machinations and well-rounded characters, not dragons and White Walkers. The fantasy elements were a small part of the story. People like Tyrion, Varys and Littlefinger used to matter before. Now Littlefinger is dead and Varys and Tyrion have been rendered more or less irrelevant.

And then there are numerous plot holes and inconsistencies, which is all the more dismaying as this used to be a tautly written and paced show. Writing in a word has been terrible. That’s clearly because Game of Thrones no longer follows the source material that spawned it. The showrunners were apprised of the broader plot of the entire story by George RR Martin (the scribe of the book series) but not the fine points. Since they are free to paint the relatively minor details themselves, they are mucking it up royally. They are actually listening to fans instead of subverting their expectations. Jon and Dany in a relationship? You got it! Avengers-style Westeros ensemble? There it is! Night King vs dragons? Stay tuned!

Consider this. Jon agrees to go Beyond the Wall to bring a wight and showcase it in front of Cersei Lannister who is a woman he may have seen once and has every reason to hate her for what she did to his family. Tyrion knew that his sister could have just ignored the evidence. She could have ordered everybody murdered instead. Or promise them help and later backtrack as she did. Jon, Davos and Gendry meet Tormund and Brotherhood Without Banners. Jon takes a look at them and decides to trust them instantly? In an almost suicidal mission where his choice of companions may make the difference between life and death? “We’re all on the same side. We’re all breathing.” Is that really enough?got

Now, of conveniently flexible distances. Jon leaves Winterfell for Dragonstone… and he is there. He leaves for Eastwatch and… he suddenly turns up. Compare this to Robert Baratheon and his retinue’s journey from Winterfell to King’s Landing. Or even Catelyn’s journey to Vale. They were rich with details which made the world of Game of Thrones believable. We do not know if Jon’s ship faced high tides or storms or was ever in danger of being capsized on its way to Eastwatch. There are no specific details. No gristle or bone anymore, just the meat. It is like reading an abridged children’s book. The raven that was sent from Eastwatch-by-the-Sea by Davos to Daenerys has to be the fastest bird that ever lived in Westeros or the real world. Daenerys arrived exactly when Jon’s band were going to be overwhelmed by wights. The Night King chose Viserion to kill, not the much bigger target that was Drogon right in front of him. Or Jon. Or just about any human being.

It is not a co-incidence that the show’s decline from a complex, nuanced and detailed saga with a sprawling cast of compelling characters towards just about any swords and sorcery fantasy story began since the show got ahead of the books. Call me a pedant but A Song of Ice and Fire series of books are the lore and although the last two books may be called a little tedious but they nevertheless are set in a painstakingly detailed world and Martin does not pander to his readers, and still manages to subvert expectations.

That’s not to say it was all bad. Season 7 had a lot of cathartic moments as mentioned already and before experiencing them I did not think events unfolding in a fictional production could affect my own emotions to such an extent. Arya decimating the Freys was an amazing scene. The battle in Beyond the Wall was visually perfect. Dragons are more detailed than ever and the whole sequence was masterfully shot. Wall coming down was suitably devastating as such a huge event is meant to be. Game of Thrones has blurred the lines between television and film production. There were some very good editing too this season – the downright disgusting Sam and poop scene in the premiere episode comes to mind.

But to match up to the standards set by itself, Game of Thrones has to do a lot. It has been going downhill from season 6 in terms of writing and logic. But one can hope in the final season the writers actually spend time embellishing the story and characters and stop rushing it to conclusion. Nobody likes tediously paced television but an epic drama like Game of Thrones that made fantasy palatable to grownups with its dizzying scale and intelligent storytelling deserves a great send-off.

(This article was first published here at indianexpress.com)

Gandhians with Guns?

When the peasants of Naxalbari lifted crude weapons to wage war against the Indian state in 1960s’ West Bengal, they could be sympathised with. Their violence, if not condonable, was understandable. It was clearly borne out of desperation against the exploitation by their landlords. They had been left with no choice. Their grievances had gone unheard, and they were utterly voiceless, faceless, leaderless. When leftist revolutionaries like Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal gave them a direction, they saw hope. It was an alternative to the daily toils for bread. They jumped in. Thus began the infamous Naxalite or Maoist insurgency.people_s_liberation_guerrilla_army__naxals__flag_by_santiagosoto-d8t7wuz-800x445

The peasants’ struggle which began about half a century ago was not for a Communist utopia – only the uppermost echelons of the leadership were anxious about that. The peasants were fighting for their right to land, against the unmitigated suffering inflicted upon them by an uncaring nation and people – their own. Their violence, while still absolutely condemnable, could not reasonably be termed as ‘terrorism’.

Now? Now, nobody knows what the Maoists fight for – not even I suspect them. They have no perceptible direction despite there supposedly existing ‘urban Naxals’, the left-leaning intellectuals from premier educational institutions, who guide them and endorse their ’cause’, whatever it is.

All the sympathy Maoist guerrillas had has now evaporated into thin air with the 2010 Dantewada attack and now the Sukma incident. Their wanton cruelty shames the Jihadis of ISIS and al-Qaeda. They are the topmost threat to the country’s national security. Rest, like Islamic and Hindutva terrorists, do not come close.

Gandhians with guns? Not so much.

 

 

Believer

I recently watched the first episode of new CNN series ‘Believer’, hosted by religious scholar Reza Aslan. If you’re not particularly active on Facebook and Twitter, you might be unaware of the intense controversy that has engulfed ‘Believer’ even before it was released. The outrage culture that prevails on social media, especially Twitter, ensured that for many merely the fact that Reza Aslan, an alleged ‘Hinduphobe’, is the narrator has been enough to brand the show as anti-Hindu.

I would go on to hazard that at least some of those whose ‘sensitivities’ have been hurt by the show have not really watched it. The reason I can say that pretty confidently is because their views on the show mostly revolve around the promo clips that were tweeted out by CNN and Aslan. If they had actually seen the episode, I think many of them would be less sure of Believer’s anti-Hinduness.

It’s not that I am guilt-free of doing this TV version of judging a book from its cover. I gormlessly retweeted the dozens of tweet threads that sprang up after the show was announced along with short promotional clips. The promotional clips are supposed to scandalise and shock you to arouse the viewer’s curiosity – that’s their very purpose. You just have to take a cursory look at movie trailers to comprehend what I’m talking about.reza-aslan-press

That being said, what about genuine grievances coming from those who have seen it? I totally understand that. There are plenty of reasons why a practicing Hindu might be put off by the show as I will enumerate later. While my knowledge or indeed intellect is not wide enough to encompass the wider implications the show may have on American Hindus in Donald Trump-led America as Tulsi Gabbard, an American Hindu politician, has pointed out in a series of tweets, I can and I will judge the show purely on its merit.

So here are some of my thoughts:

First, there is nothing anti-Hindu about ‘Believer’. Yes, Reza Aslan doesn’t have even a basic understanding of not just Hinduism but also about Varanasi, and he betrays his ignorance several times during the course of the episode. Zero marks for homework. Second, Azlan sees Hinduism through an Abrahamic point of view, and that’s understandable because Reza is an expert on Abrahamic faiths. But what he doesn’t realise is that Hinduism and indeed other Dharmic religions like Sikhism and Jainism as faith and a set of beliefs are entirely different from what he’s used to. I would think any self-professed scholar of religions would know that.

So while I do wish he’d done his research before the production, Aslan, to his credit, does try to be as fair as possible and for the most part succeeds. Both good and bad (read caste-system) aspects of Hinduism are highlighted and despite his superficial understanding, Reza Aslan comes across as a largely sympathetic, if not terribly sophisticated, ‘spiritual adventurer’.

Sorry, conspiracy theorists. Your concerns appear entirely without credit.

 

Of Martyrs and Patriots

When Delhi University student Gurmeher Kaur’s April 2016 campaign advocating peace between India and Pakistan was noticed by the Twitterati after she posted a photo with her holding a placard denouncing ABVP’s violence, it kind of turned the “pro-soldier right and anti-soldier left” debate on its head. The debate, in which apparently the Left has no argument patriotic enough for the Right, has for some gobsmacking reason continued to dominate Twitter for as long as I’ve been active on the site, or at least my own timeline. And like most arguments on Twitter, it barely makes sense.

The right-wingers, lovingly (just kidding!) called Bhakts, cry hoarse all the time about how you should not curse your life as whatever you’re going through, “the soldiers are dying at the border”. This expression, used in different phraseologies, is used to stifle even minor dissent against the government, government actions, politicians and ‘patriots’.

The expression gained traction after demonetisation was announced. The long queues and daily torments suffered by common people was coolly justified by saying “soldiers die for our country, can’t you even stand in queues for our country for a few hours/days/months?’ No matter how ridiculous it sounded, everybody, from fake (and I supposed paid) trolls to well-known government-friendly news anchors, all used the same argument, if it can be said that, and with a seemingly straight face.

When 20-year old Gurmeher’s last year’s campaign video became known a couple of days ago, the text on the placards she was holding was quoted, selectively quoted, misquoted, interpreted, and misinterpreted by sundry people like it always happens on Twitter. ‘Patriots’ had readied their keyboards to attack Gurmeher after her anti-ABVP stand, only to stop and think again, for she had turned out to be a martyr’s daughter. Damn it.

When the Leftists realised that the martyr thing could work in their favour, they began to play up the fact that she was the daughter of a solider who had died in action and was also supporting them against ABVP goons. That is after they had all along ridiculed the Bhakts ‘liberally’ for playing the soldier card all the time. The Right-wingers on the other hand, still anxious to retain their patriotic and pro-army credentials, were for a while at a loss as to what to do. But when they saw the last year’s video, all hell broke loose.

Bhakts were particularly bothered by one placard among several Gurmeher had been showing the camera one after another. It read, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war killed him.” Completely missing the context and not fathoming that she was making a larger point about war and violence, the message escaped their thick heads, and they went utterly berserk. There were some glorious responses which sum up not just Twitter but also current political discourse. “Your [Gurmeher’s] father would have shot you in the head”, “fucking commie”, “Bitch!”, “Randi” to mention a glittering  few. Trolling and flinging obscenities at a martyr’s daughter became the new definition of patriotism.

At the time of writing this, that definition is the current one.

The Art of Disagreement

I’m trying to be more active on Twitter these days as, first, the place is just so entertaining, and second, it is helpful with my profession. Although I’ve had an account for years, I got around to use it seriously only since last February, when JNU fracas bubbled up and spilled over primetime news. It was in those days I joined the almost daily ‘debates’ and saw for myself how intense and contentious Twitter could be. Before joining, I had loved to call  Twitter’Facebook for those who cannot write more than 140 characters’. In a way, I loved and hated Twitter in equal measure for what it was.

While it is often fun to interact with people on Twitter, especially those with more intellect and experience than me, there is barely any constructive discussion, and as often as not the people who are engaged in a conversation come with their own pre-concieved notions which they are reluctant to compromise with. Even worse, they think disagreeing with somebody is a bad thing, something which has no place in the society.

I am not committed to any ideology. I do not think any ideology is perfect or anywhere near it for that matter. I neither support the Left nor the Right. Political Centre does not suit me either. The only time I have participated in that mainstay of democracy, elections, I gave my vote to NOTA, for the simple reason that I did not find a suitable choice in the motley list of candidates. But that does not mean I despise politics. On the contrary, I take a lot of interest in it, and that’s one of the prime reason I use Twitter even after so hateful and rancorous it has become.

What I notice on Twitter is there is almost no appreciation of dissent. Here, I don’t mean just dissent against the state. I mean dissent in its literal form. It’s considered a big thing if people disagree. The argument between two dissenters usually ends in abuse and insult. Even the best of us are susceptible to this degeneration. Hardly anybody understands the art of disagreement. Everybody peddles their own narrative, other’s opinion be damned.

What we (and that includes me) need to understand is that disagreement is okay. It’s not an issue. If your worldview doesn’t match your adversary’s, you don’t have to go to great lengths in convincing them how you’re on the right side. You do not have to fling cusswords at them –  it won’t bolster your argument. They may be right in their place, you may be right in yours. Present your arguments with facts in a calm manner, let them present theirs. If they don’t, ask them so that they can support their argument. But if you don’t reach at an agreement, let it go.  As they say, let’s agree to disagree.

In this manner, I think we can make Twitter a much better place to have conversation than the cesspit it currently is.

‘Watership Down’

Stories involving talking animals are considered juvenile by many, but I love reading them. That’s probably because I love animals and I find them absolutely adorable to read about. I grew up on Champak and Panchtantra and Narnia, among others. Though I never really lost interest in those stories, I began to read other stuff later, primarily to widen by range.

Then arrived Watership Down. This charming little book came highly recommovie_poster_watership_downmended by George RR Martin, that undisputed king of fantasy. I’ve never been disappointed with his recommendations that are available on his site and blog, so I almost immediately started reading.

Watership Down is a tale of a bunch of rabbits who search for a new place to live after a clairvoyant (!) rabbit warns of a disaster about to strike their warren. The novel has a lot of action, but it must be kept in mind that ‘action’ is normalcy in the lives of wild
rabbits. They face dangers everyday in the form of foxes, dogs, and, of course, humans, and . Dangerous is synonymous to routine for them.

The book is not only well-written, the characters are drawn up so beautifully that at times you forget you’re reading about beings who can’t speak. There are some adorable ‘rabbitspeak’ words that just warm the heart. A small rabbit is called Hlao-roo by fellow rabbits where ‘Roo’ means small and ‘Hlao’ is his name in rabbitspeak. Similarly ‘hrair’ means a lot, or more than three as rabbits cannot count beyond three.

Without spoiling the story, Watership Down has heroes and villains, but it is thankfully not as straightforward black and white as Narnia. It revolves around themes like friendship, sacrifice, and kindness, and is engaging almost throughout. A fine read.

The Case Against Democracy

(Headline ripped off from the New York Times)

Democracy is absolutely great. Who would’t like the idea of people governing themselves, or at least having their chosen representatives in the government? Democracy is fair, and more compatible with concepts prevalent today like free-thinking, freedom of expression, and so on.

Democracy, at least an ideal one, does not discriminate between people on the basis of gender, religion, enthnicity, and other factors. It gives power to media and judiciary, the institutions that help check the government if it veers off in authoritarian direction.
But is democracy perfect? No, far from it. My biggest grouse with democracy is that it allows demagoguery to flourish. The head of the state, and other leaders might be representatives chosen by the majority of the people, but that does not make them the perfect choice. That just means that they ran an amazing (and expensive) political campaign and are good at oratory, and have a commanding personality.

The rise of right-wing populism in the form of world leaders like Modi, Putin, Erdogan, and most recently Trump is a testament of the weakness of democracy. Charm of personal strength, manliness, calllousness against minorities and intense scorn towards their politican opponents are some of the few qualities that these leaders share. But none of that stopped them from being elected. One reason was the weakness or bad track record of their opponents, the other that people bought their narrative. It is the second reason that should worry proponents of democracy.

That being said, there is no credible alternative for democracy as yet. People should still be trusted to make their own choices unless somebody is feeling adventurous and wants to throw the world into anarchy. Perhaps a few modifications are required to iron out the chinks and democracy might turn out to be fine. The press and judiciary should be empowered, people should get better education, children should be instilled with leadership qualities from the beginning so that they take interest in politics and become educated, informed politicians in future. Media should return to objectivity (no matter how boring it may sound) and get their stories across to the people in remote areas so that people actually know who they are voting for.

Recent TV

I’ve been immersed in television of late. Actually, I’m watching TV shows all the time, so make that “I’m immersed in television even more deeply than I usually am.” As I’ve mentioned earlier in a blog post, television’s episodic and serial format really does seem like the best medium to tell a good story and tell a story well. It shows.

There’s some fine television out there. The industry has been on a roll for a decade and half. HBO’ Westworld is earning a lot of praise, and I’d say deservedly so. It is just what I love – a complex story, good characters, ambiguity, suspense, and philosophical conundrums to indulge in. It is not much better than it was slated to be, but then the hype was too much to overcome. The latest episode (seventh) had a big reveal. While it was not a shocking, the way it was written and acted was absolutely classic, and this shows the calibre of the actors who grace its cast. Another HBO winner.

I finished The Walking Dead’s fourth episode of its seventh season and I know it is back for me. I had lost interest somewhere along fourth or fifth season when I realised that it was really going nowhere, and there was no clear resolution in sight. Zombies would always be there, and so would be the living and breathing baddies. But sixth an seventh seasons have once again struck a chord with me. Of course, this might be because of a few important character’s deaths, but it is more, I think. The characters are once again interesting enough for you to care about them, and as “Jesus” said, “your world is going to get a whole lot bigger.” The tried and tested formula still works. Bring ’em zombies, AMC!

I have jumped on to the Bates Motel pretty late, but I’m happy. The premise of If You Want To Know What Made A Psycho, Well, Psycho was already interesting, and as a prequel to the horror classic, it really does justice. Performances are superb, and I love how the uneasy chemistry Norman and Norma, the son and mother duo, is drawn. Good stuff. I’ve finished the first season, and will start the second one one of these days…

The Tortured Legacy of Pt. Nehru

Happy birthday, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru.

Today, even a simple thing like wishing the first prime minster of India on his birthday is enough to invite scorn and abuse on social media as I discovered today. Well, that’s the way social media works. People hide behind anonymity and abuse away with impunity.

But with Nehru, it is quite different. The amount of hate he inspires, at least among the netizens of the country, is enormous even by the madcap standards of the internet. As I noted in a piece I wrote back in May this year, Sangh Parivaar is the biggest culprit in this revilement of a remarkable figure. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and later its political offspring BJP have had a special place for Nehru in their “People Who Could Replace The Devil When They Go To Hell” list.

The reason is simple. The ideals and beliefs Nehru subscribed to were utterly discordant to Sangh and its ilk. Their minds worked (and continue to work) along the lines of European dictators like Mussolini and Hitler. Of course, they have chosen new heroes now, even appropriating Ambedkar, who would have loathed them from the depth of his soul.

Now with BJP at the centre, and Sangh’s insidious propaganda machinery rapidly eliminating voices of reason and actual scholarship, the narrative that Nehru is the source of all of India’s problems has entrenched itself firmly into the minds of general public. I find myself at loss when faced with accusations like, “why would you support a firangi traitor like him?”

Thankfully, I’ve read a lot. I’ve read Nehru and about Nehru. My opinion of him is of a great, but flawed man. He made some spectacular blunders for which he should be rightly criticised. But at the same time he was a true statesmen, a man who refused to compromise with the ideals that he held dear. His “scientific temper” gave us several premier educational institutions, as did his advocacy of children and youth education. He led a huge, extremely divided and even more populous country during its most turbulent years.

When one allows personal judgement to interfere in their view of a historical figure, and begins to treat it in an extreme manner – either reviling or deifying it – problems arise. It is important to evaluate historical figures and living and breathing people with the same yardstick. Only then it can be studied objectively. But the objective treatment in India is left to selected scholars, everybody else leans one side or the other side.

Nehru has a tortured legacy. That does not diminish the man himself but it does shed a poor light on the modern political discourse. No matter what anybody may say or believe, or is forced or taught to believe, Nehru remains a great figure to me. That he committed mistakes only reassure me that he was a human and not the devil Sangh deems him to be and the larger-than-life figure Congress has turned him into.

I salute the Jawahar of India.

Boy’s Life

I’ve discovered a great new writer these last few weeks: Robert McCammon. After sailing through a book of short stories (some of them really good), I quickly hopped on to one of his best reviewed novels: Boy’s Life. I wasn’t disappointed.

Boy’s Life is a beautiful book. Thinking it to be a horror novel, I was slightly little disappointed at first. But I soon got over that, and began to savour the finely drawn characters, a well-realised small-town world filled with magic, fantasy, and legend, sharp prose.

A very personal story of a 12 year old named Cory Mackenson, probably modeled on the author himself who grew up in the same state (Alabama), Boy’s Life stuns you with its fine details. It is almost like vicariously experiencing Cory Mackenson’s life day by day.

A lesser author would have bored one with death with verbosity. But MacCammon takes great care to make the world as believable as possible with few words, and at times I forgot I was reading a novel and not actually stalking a 60’s kid.

And it is no ordinary kid’s tale. Cory lives in Zephyr, a town where things happen. Where monsters-deities inhabit the murky waters and legendary creatures can be seen frolicking in forests. Fantasy coexists with the hard reality in Zephyr. Where people are friendly and nice and no crimes more serious than theft happen.

Until Cory and his milkman father witness a car with a dead man tied to steering wheel disappears inside a river. But not before Cory’s father has had a good look of the man’s face. He is horrified at the brutality inflicted to a fellow human being, and in good little Zephyr of all places.

The collective illusion shatters. People are stunned. It becomes the talk of the town. Who killed that man? Nobody knows. The sheriff can’t figure out anything either and has no stomach to actually delve beneath several hundred feet of murky water to find out. This incident changes something inside Cory too. And he becomes particularly involved after picking up a potential clue.

It is hard to categorise Boy’s Life in a genre. It has ghosts, but the tone is lighter than a typical horror novel. It has magic, but it is scarce and of an elusive sort. It has legendary creatures, but they might not be real. It begins with a brutal murder, but that murder takes a backseat for most of the novel.

The only category I see Boy’s Life comfortably settling in, at least for me, is “Must Read Books.”

 

Oh My Ghosh

Pardon the crappy pun! All right. I finally finished my first Amitav Ghosh book. And unsurprisingly, it was a non-fiction. I’ve been subconsciously avoiding fiction of late, and a month or so ago I read a piece on the book by Raghu Karnad in thewire.in arguing how he would love if Amitav Ghosh wrote non-fiction more, even if he likes his novels too. So when I decided to jump on the Amitav Ghosh wagon, I figured it would surely be non-fiction.

I admit upfront this book wasn’t easy to read. At the start at least. I didn’t find a single word in the book that I had to look up in the dictionary, but the sentence structure and choice of phrases were complex. That’s not to say it was a plod. It was actually a very interesting read, not least because of its subject: the oblivion regarding climate change among novelists. Although I’ve read a lot on climate change – novella-length articles, editorials, and so on, I haven’t read such a nuanced piece of writing such as this book.

Amitav Ghosh rebukes authors and literary journals on keeping huge geological events like earthquake to the outside the realm of the, as he puts it, hallowed manor of literary fiction. Instead climatic happenings have been relegated to science fiction and fantasy – genres that are considered plebeian.

The writing is absolutely beautiful. I’m beginning to appreciate so called “poetic” writing as my reading skills develop. The text, which seemed ornamental and pretentious to me at the beginning, flowed smoothly like a river later.

 

Television & Film

I’ve been a dedicated follower of both sorts of ‘screen’ entertainment we have – television and film – for a few years now. I’ve consumed far more TV as compared to films, and I mean the format not just the medium. I believe the kind of most recent (that is, in the last decade) commercial cinema is – it doesn’t even begin to compare with the quality that can be seen in television. I suppose most of you will agree with me here. Hereon, by “cinema” and “films”, I mean commercial cinema and films.

Previously, the best talent could be found only in the film industry for the most part. Now this is no longer the case. That the TV actors are starting to get more spotlight and social media attention than their cinema counterparts is well-known. Now a Kit Harrington is as recognisable as a Christian Bale, as almost as drooled on by the fairer sex. The gargantuan commercial successes enjoyed by TV series produced by HBO and AMC, particularly with flagship shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, has only improved things for television.

I find this change refreshing, being an avid television viewer myself. And I can venture a guess as to why all this might be happening. I feel the reason is simple enough. People are beginning to realise that the television format, with episodes broadcast in a series, is a better medium to tell a story. A Song of Ice and Fire series, on which Game of Thrones is based, would never have been possible as a series of film. The costs, it being a large screen adaptation, of special and visual effects would have exceeded beyond the wildest imaginations, and dividends would have likely been minimal. Films need immediate success. Television is a little like books. It may rely upon word of mouth publicity. It does not depend necessarily depend upon the numbers of viewers during its first broadcast.

But when I say better, I don’t just mean that television is easier to adapt from a series of books. After all, most TV series are based on original stories. The second, and clincher for me, advantage of television is that it also allows comfortable, relaxed storytelling which filmmakers have no choice but to shun owing to timing constraints. Most modern films clock under two hours, while television series go on and on.

Of course you might eventually lose interest, but then there are so many options to choose from. The episodic format allows TV shows to develop plot and characters more believably and also to build up slowly to the exciting climax (or season finale or series finale). This makes for more enjoyable (at least for me) and immersive experience. Films, on the other hand, have to be exciting and action packed and dramatic almost every fifteen minutes. This is why I’ve always wanted the films I like to go on endlessly. They don’t, and it is sad, but here is where television comes into the picture.

Westworld

It is difficult to believe that there’s been only two episodes of Westworld released so far, considering the amount of time I’ve spent on reading its reviews and fan theories. I wrote a preview of Westworld for Indian Express wherein I had expressed high hopes for the drama. Have they been fulfilled? Yes, and more.

Westworld does not only look great. It is as much substance as it is style. Like the intertwining storylines that run beneath the surface in the ‘amusement’ park, there are some philosophical and moral enigmas that actually make it engaging. HBO is known for profound television, and Westworld truly would have looked weird on any other network. I would say more, but then I’d be giving it away. And it is impossible to explain in words anyway. Watch it to know it.

A little early to say, but Westworld is destined to be the next HBO flagship once Game of Thrones goes off the air.

Democrats and Dissenters

Having finished Ramachandra Guha’s latest book ‘Democrats and Dissenters’, I wanted to pen down a few thoughts. Unlike the other Guha book that I’ve read – the magnificently detailed and painstakingly researched ‘India After Gandhi’ – this one was a little vague. It is basically a bunch of seemingly unrelated essays cobbled together and divided in two categories: Politics and Society and Ideologies and Intellectuals. But essays even within a category often do not have a clear link, so I decided to read it not as a book but a collection of essays – which is not really a bad thing since the essays themselves are very readable.

As I read, I could discern a faint connection. Each essay in the book had something to do with difficulties, concepts, ideologies and individuals that have contributed to India’s ‘tryst’ with democracy. That was expected. While Guha is a true polymath, what he really excels is in the history of Indian democracy, in terms of its politics, sociology and economics.

The second part (Ideologies and Intellectuals) of the book is more focused, and except the very last essay, the entire part involves primarily little known (at least for me) but fantastic individuals who have shaped Guha’s thinking over the years and his understanding of modern India. Since I owe a lot of what I know about Indian democracy to Guha, it was interesting to read about the people he himself has been inspired from, and who have had a role to play in his outlook towards the world.

The book is informative and insightful, and Guha’s skillful writing ensures everything is simple enough for a layman like me. For those who are into Guha’s writing, and are interested in reading about India’s fraught and uneasy relationship with democracy, get rid of those second thoughts and get this book.

Misogyny and Blame

It is worrying that even powerful, accomplished women like Mayawati are so often at the receiving end of sexist abuse and offensive remarks. The misogyny in the Indian society is almost casual, from anti-women jokes forwarded on instant messaging apps to pretty much everyday crude barbs directed at women in public places.

Hardly anyone, including women, objects to them. In fact, I’ve seen women sharing jokes that demean themselves to each other. They don’t see anything wrong in them. Sexist jokes have become as much as part of the life as eating or sleeping. Nothing quite represents this indifference like the way people who are punished or prosecuted for misogyny or harassment get horrified to observe that they are being targeted for such ‘trifles.’

Of course, in most cases the malefactors stay out of the reach of justice (for all that guff about the hands of ‘kanoon’ being uncommonly long), particularly when the woman is poor and/or is of low caste.

The most common justification of those men is that they were”joking” and that their “remarks were not supposed to be taken seriously” and so forth. They almost never realise that they actually did something wrong.

It is because they were never taught that it is not acceptable to make such remarks. It is the whole system that is rotten. It is not just the rapists who rape women, it is the collective responsibility of the entire society, that creates such men. The blame lies with all of us.

 

 

Penny Dreadful Review

Penny Dreadful’s season 3 finale, which turned out to be the series finale, disappointed many, as did the announcement of it being the final episode of the series. It is incredible (and almost unprecedented) to end a TV show at such high ratings and universal acclaim. Usually, creators like to milk successful film and TV franchises or characters to make money, and I’m not sure if we might not see a Penny Dreadful spinoff yet – based on potential adventures of the remaining charaters. What I am sure is that the story of Vanessa Ives, the “spine of the show”, is over for good. Sadly.

Showtime’s Penny Dreadful fascinated me from the beginning. I generally read up a lot before choosing to invest time on a TV series, and I liked most of what I read about Penny Dreadful. Victorian-era London, some of the best characters in classic fiction cobbled together, and some familiar actors (Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton and Harry Treadaway).

Penny Dreadful has a varied ensemble cast but it is mostly centred around a haunted (literally and metaphorically) woman called Vanessa Ives – played to perfection by Eva Green. It is clear why the creator John Logan called Vanessa the “spine” of Penny Dreadful. She is the soul of the show, and the story is basically made up of her struggles against the forces of the dark. Everybody else just assists her in her quest.Penny Dreadful

Over the course of the show, Vanessa Ives fights two of the most popular villains in horror: Lucifer and Dracula. I’ve always imagined how these two powerful ‘Dark Lords’ would fit in a single story. And who would be more powerful? Surely Dracula as the Alpha Vampire is a match for the Fallen Angel? Penny Dreadful provides interesting answers. Turns out, God cast out not just Lucifer as per the Bible, but his brother too: Dracula. Lucifer and Dracula are two equal and opposite entities who have the same goal: to make Vanessa their bride.

In the first season, Vanessa seeks for her friend that she wronged and also fights against possession by Lucifer. Eva Green is absolutely sublime and driven in portraying the anguish of a vulnerable woman clinging desperately to her God to save herself from the Devil.

Vanessa’s is the main plotline, but there are other minor threads which while together do not form a totally coherent whole, but the resulting mixture is not at all chaotic, and is enjoyable throughout. There is Brona, a bitter prostitute tired of men using her body, who almost lost her faith in men and love and humanity before she found a man she could love, and who loved her back. But sadly, their relationship was not to last. There is the familiar hedonist Dorian Gray, doomed to immortality, who does not feel any emotion – every person according to him, including himself, is to be used to gratify the senses.

Then there is Dr. Frankenstein, a man bent on giving life to dead people as a passion, who does not realise what monstrosities he is giving birth to. His past ‘creation’ comes back to haunt his life, and kills the only good thing Dr. Frankenstein ever created. The viewer is shattered, but one also can’t help but sympathise with the ‘Creature’, a man who does not remember his past but knows that his terrible appearance is because his torn body was put together again crudely as a mere experiment by Dr. Frankenstein – the man who he reasonably loathes.1003223_3_0_prm-pennykeyart_1024x640

That is the thing with Penny Dreadful. The characters and their actions are influenced by their dark pasts. Vanessa Ives decides to take on the Devil because of the terrible things she did to her friend. Her most trusted companion Sir Malcolm likewise wallows in guilt for being neither a good father nor a good husband. The American gunslinger hired by Vanessa and Sir Malcolm, Ethan Chandler, has his own demons that he keeps to himself. His ‘demon’, only one of many, is the big reveal of the finale of the first season. There is also a mysterious African Sembene – a solid and silent presence.

When direct possession does not work, Lucifer turns to his witches to try to force Vanessa. There is a great contrast here. Vanessa may be weak physically, and she might require the firepower and muscular strength of the men around her, but it is her will of steel and incredible equanimity in adverse situations that really count when facing Lucifer. Although Penny Dreadful is brilliant almost throughout, it is the second season which really made me a lifelong Penny Dreadful fan. It was more focused, engrossing and darker than the other two.

The Dracula arrives in the third season. While Lucifer was all spirit – trying to get hold of Vanessa’s soul, Dracula wants the body, as he himself is a material entity. There is an interesting premise in the third season. Everyone associated with Vanessa has left – Malcolm out to bury his old friend Sembene, Ethan finally fed up of his other self surrenders before the police officer who’s been following his bloody trail and leaves with him for his homeland: the Wild West. Stripped of her companions and protectors, Vanessa seeks new friends. She finds one, but it is not probably not the one she would have preferred ideally.

The third season adds a few more supporting characters. There are two worth mentioning: a Native American called Kaetenay, who knows more about Ethan and his ‘demon’ than Ethan himself, and Catriona Hartdegen, a badass who is not only skilled with sword, but is also aware of the forces of the dark. They both are welcome additions. Alas, the same thing cannot be said about  Dr. Henry Jekyll, introduced as a old college friend of Dr. Frankestein. The character is not really utilised, and we never really see him turning into Edwar Hyde. One can’t help but wonder: what was the point?penny-dreadful1

Not just Dr. Henry, a lot of things in the third season feel underutilised. The last few episodes feel like the directors were in a real hurry to wrap up the season (and the show, as it turned out). In comparison, the second season is far more satisfying and its finale grander and more explosive. Vanessa destroying the Devil by sheer force of her will, even as Ethan rips apart her other enemies is delightful to watch. I’m by no means saying that Penny Dreadful’s third season was bad, but it certainly could have been much better.

In my impressions of the first season, I remarked that Penny Dreadful was a visual delight. I’m pleased to report that it stays that way throughout. Even when there is nothing else going right in the show, the incredible visual touches stay. The theme of light vs dark is subtly evinced. In third season, bright red lamps contrast against the foggy, gloomy landscpae. The deep blacks and greys of Victorian London are juxtaposed against the vibrant oranges and whites of America. Somehow even gory and bloody scenes look pleasing to the eye, thanks to some fantastic camerawork and art design.

That’s it. I’m sad to see it go, even sadder that it had to fizzle out in this fashion towards the end, but I find comfort in the fact that Penny Dreadful did not go down the way many other TV shows have gone. You could hate John Logan for giving an unsatisfactory finale, but at least he is respectful of what he created and did not try to milk it to earn some more dough.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

The City Troublesome

Chandigarh, affectionately called ‘The City Beautiful’, is supposed to be pretty navigable, what with it being neatly divided into similar-sized, inter-connected ‘sectors’ which are simply where people live: urban zones. But me? I struggle in finding ways to places where I commute to daily. Yes, daily.

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A typical Chandigarh Street

The problem in Chandigarh: every intersection, every avenue, every market looks almost exactly the same. Same kind of trees, same sort of footpaths, and identical slip roads. There is hardly any variation. Even commercial buildings look similar. Yes, there are signs that helpfully point you out the direction or sector where you want to go, but they are fairly infrequent (mostly on large intersections) and they even led me astray a couple of times.

It was in Chandigarh that I had to rely on something I scarcely used before: Google Maps. Perhaps my troubles with reaching places in the ‘City Beautiful’ have more to do with my own inability to remember paths that I haven’t crossed at least thousand times than any imperfection on city’s part. Nonetheless, finding your way around in Chandigarh can be a pain in the you-know-where.

The Last Kingdom

I get into a tizzy whenever I see an adaptation of the books I’ve read being released. I dither. I find myself unable to decide whether it would be worth it, or whether it would kill the books for me the way so many adaptations (almost all Harry Potter movies, for instance) have done. Invariably, though, I cannot resist the temptation of seeing the written words coming alive on the screen. There is also a desire to liken my imagination to what the creators of the adaptation would portray. I love to compare how the characters and places looked and felt in my mind whilst reading with how they do with the adaptation, how different the depiction of the events are from how I imagined them, how similar is the setting, and so forth.

More often than not, the adaptation falls way short of the source material. Even if it doesn’t, it rarely  manages to gratify the purist in me. It was because of these reasons I had a kind of emotional conflict in my mind when I heard about the new BBC America TV series: The Last Kingdom. I felt something akin to anticipation mixed with a little apprehension.

The adaptation I’m talking about here, The Last Kingdom, is a historical drama based on Bernard Cornwell’s superb (albeit protracted) series of historical fiction books called Saxon Tales which fictionalises the Danish invasion of the island made up of assorted kingdoms later to be united under a single polity called England. I briefly described the book series in an essay on Bernard Cornwell and his book, Sharpe’s Tiger, that I wrote late last year. As I noted there, the fiction in Bernard Cornwell’s novels conforms pretty amazingly to the historical context and background of the setting, and is fleshed out with characters, depth, and emotions to the point that you do really want Cornwell’s version of the events to be true, even if the author explicitly states otherwise. My only wish from the TV series was that it should be faithful enough with the books and should have decent production values – the rest would be taken care of. Does it manage to stay true to its roots? Or veers away in the direction where so many adaptations have inevitably ended up?

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Uthred (younger)

For the uninitiated, the “Last Kingdom” in the title of the show is an allusion to the southwestern kingdom of Wessex that was literally the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom that held out after every other had yielded against the might and ferocity of the Danish Viking hordes. The armies of Wessex overcame the astonished Danes repeatedly and the credit for those remarkable victories is usually given to the strategic brilliance of Alfred the Great: the then king of Wessex. But in Bernard Cornwell’s world, Alfred shares the credit of Wessex’s deliverance with a man called Uthred of Bebbanburg, a fictional character, and it is he who leads the Wessex forces against the Vikings for him.

Uthred is easily one of my favourite protagonists in literature. It is not just his clearly Viking-ish character traits (although they alone make him compelling enough), but it is because of his allegiances and actions that are often in utter contradiction with his wishes and ambitions that make him so unique, and yet so believable. Born a Saxon in a northern kingdom to the lord of Bebbanburg – a sturdy, almost impenetrable citadel situated on the northwestern coast of England – Uthred was brought up in a Danish household after his namesake father was killed in the Battle for Eoferwich (York) while fighting the Danes. Having no particular love for his stern, forbidding father or the encumbered Christian way of life he had been brought up in, he came to enjoy the company of the Danes – their drinking, their humour, their fighting, and their boisterous feasts.

Uthred does not care that the man who nurtured him, the Danish lord Ragnar the Fearless (not to be confused with Ragnar Lothbrok  of Vikings), had actually been the one who fatally stabbed his father in the neck. For the orphaned boy found the affection and warmth in his foster father that he never felt in his biological father, also called Uthred  – played by Matthew Macfadyen – who had been utterly dismissive of him and acknowledged his very existence only after his elder son was killed.

Uthred grows up a Dane through and through, but he also yearns for his ancestral castle, his birthright: the castle of Bebbanburg. Now held by his treacherous uncle, Ælfric, who would not stop until he has removed the final threat to his claim – Uthed – Bebbanburg stays in Uthred’s mind when his adopted family is murdered and he is forced to flee to Wessex for the fear of reprisals by Danes thinking him to be the murderer. He joins the service of Alfred, then the king of Wessex’s younger brother, and soon to become king. He is helped by his childhood teacher and priest, Father Beocca, who now serves Alfred, and agrees to fight the Danes on Alfred’s assurance that he would help him in reclaiming Bebbanburg. It is that assurance that binds him to the Saxons and forces him to take up arms against the very people he had grown up in.

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Alfred the Great

The glory of Uthred’s character is his dilemma. A Dane by soul, a Saxon by birth, he is perpetually torn between the two disparate cultures and peoples having their own customs, gods, laws and culture. He likes Danes for their happy-go-lucky lives. Among them, he observes, everyone is free to do anything without the fear of being branded a sinner. They love fighting, women, noise, and plunder, but most of all, they love life and embrace it. But among the Saxons, one has to follow the strict, oppressive Christian ways. You go against the grain, you are branded a sinner, the punishments of which range from public humiliations to death. Thus, Uthred comes to detest the Saxons, but he develops a bond with some of their kind too, which confounds his situation all the more. Adding to the quandary, he has no choice but to eschew the Danes and live among the infuriatingly pious Saxons he finds himself in if he wants to give himself even a remote chance to reclaim his ancestral fortress.

Coming back to the show, I was totally sold on the opening title sequence. The metaphorical fires of Danes enveloping England and halting just before Wessex on a CGI map is an impressive touch, and so is the wailing voice in the background which always somehow sounds absurdly pleasing to my ears. Uthred is the narrator in The Last Kingdom, except for the first episode.

The show is refreshingly faithful with the books, not only plot-wise but also in terms of tone, with only a few minor plot and technical adjustments here and there probably owing to budget constraints. There is the same dark, irreverent humour, ridicule of deities, Christian and pagan alike, and a frivolous tone throughout. The battles are downgraded, with only a handful of rows of warriors on either side and it is there the limited money is especially noticeable. But thankfully none of it kills the overall experience as the show gets the basics right: direction and acting.

Of the things I didn’t like, the most prominent was the pacing. I wish the episodes were more comfortably paced, giving more time to exposition and world-building. To give you an idea, the first episode itself covers more than half of the first book, and the book is not at all short at 400 pages. Editing is good too for the most part, but there are some minor problems especially when a shot is cut a bit too abruptly – it gives a sort of visual jolt which is all the more noticeable in a show that is otherwise pretty slick.

Alexander Dreymon, who I last saw in a tiny role in the third season of American Horror Story, turned out to be a much better Uthred than I had expected from promos and trailers. He demonstrates the qualities and vices of Uthred skillfully, and his body language is almost eerily similar to that of Uthred as I had pictured in my mind whilst reading the books. He is equal mixture chocolate and grit, and he delineate the glorious dilemma I mentioned earlier very nicely. He is not the best actor, mind you, but he does the job well.

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Uthred (elder)

Side-actors are as important as the major ones in a TV show, and that is where The Last Kingdom truly shines. Imagine having an actor of the calibre of Matthew Macfadyen for a role with less than ten minutes of screen-time. Ian Hart (who has grown quite a bit from his days of Quirinus Quirrell in the first Harry Potter film) does a sound job as a caring, father-figure Father Beocca to Uthred, although he is absolutely nothing like the bumbling and doddering old man in the books. Instead, he is a clear-eyed, alert man who, in spite of being a hopeless Christian fanatic, is not cold towards pagans, especially Uthred who he had baptised in his childhood and who he still believes can “mend his ways.” I didn’t mind this change one bit. It was really heart-warming to see him always looking after Uthred, even when Uthred keeps disdaining him and his beliefs. He always stands steadfast beside Uthred and is one of the few Saxons Uthred trusts.

The antagonists are many in The Last Kingdom – it is the Middle-Ages after all – both among the Danes and the Saxons. Some want to kill Uthred, some just want him banished, particularly some of the Saxons who just can’t bear a pagan among them. There is a border-line Joffrey too in the show and Ubba makes for a perfectly fine Ramsay Bolton, though with a much better sense of humour. Come to think of it, almost every Viking warrior must have had a Ramsay Bolton inside him. The performances are great all-around, and the show maintains the contemporary television trend of grey characters with uncertain motivations and unpredictable actions. No character is all good or all bad in The Last Kingdom, though some are what might be termed as psycho.

David Dawson as Alfred the Great deserves special mention. Alfred is probably the second most important character in the story, and I’m glad they chose just the perfect person to portray it. David is Alfred. He reenacts the mannerisms, cleverness, fanaticism, charisma, disease-addled disposition beautifully, and, most importantly, the nerves of steel Alfred must have had to take on the ferocious Viking hordes all alone. The scenes with him had me wanting never to take my eyes off the screen. He dominates every scene, no matter whether he is the one speaking or not. While reading the books, I used to wonder how a sickly, physically weak king like Alfred could inspire such reverence among his followers as Bernard Cornwell insisted. Now I know how, all thanks to Dawson’s superlative performance.

Alfred’s brother dies, and he becomes king. Uthred, thinking Alfred to be a potential asset in his quest of reclaiming Bebbanburg, follows him and even fights Danes for him, much to the chagrin of Brida, his Christian-detesting lover who had grown up with him in Ragnar’s household. But instead, Alfred turns Uthred into his asset, in his war against the Danes to save the titular last kingdom. Alfred might not be a great warrior or battle commander, but he is a master strategist. Brida, not surprisingly, is not pleased.

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Brida

I could go on, but I will end up spoiling the entire show for you, and I’ve already written as many words as a typical short story, so I’ll sign off here. The Last Kingdom is an excellent adaptaion of one of my favourite series of books. It is by no means perfect, or even anywhere near it, but it is quite loyal to the source material and even when it swerves away, it does great justice to the essence of the story (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Production values are also decent, and the direction pretty excellent, but it is the cast that makes it special. The acting is what in the end counts in a piece of fiction, and The Last Kingdom excels at it. I got it from Nick Murphy, the director of first two episodes, on Twitter that the second season is currently in production, and I for one can’t wait.

Note: For the sake of convenience, in this essay I have referred to that 9th century conglomerate of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by its current name: England. It was not called England back then. It came much later.

A Right-Wing Horror Story

He heard footsteps, yawned, and reluctantly got up. He had been having a beautiful dream. In his dream, Narendra Modi acknowledged him personally and even called him his “favourite acolyte.” What could be more beautiful than that? He was angry. He did not like waking up from beautiful dreams. He opened the door with a sharp yank… and stopped.

“Who are you?” he hesitatingly asked the abominable stranger standing on the door, and chided himself for asking it, dreading the answer. The man, if you could call him one, was a total mess, with unrecognisable features. His head was more skull than flesh. His eyes was dark holes, and the rest of him had only a thin layer of flesh. Only one thing stood out clearly: a desiccated, grey rose pinned to his chest.

“I was called Jawahar Lal Nehru once, I believe, though these days hardly anyone refers to me by name. They call me womaniser, playboy sickular, HIV positive, and all sorts of nasty things,” the stranger said. His voice sounded as though two stones were being rubbed together.

He stared. The stranger smiled, showing rotten teeth of motley colours.

“Oh yes. I have come again.”

He collapsed, the expression on his face suggesting he had seen the devil. He had. In his dying moments, he heard another pair of footsteps, and saw with bleary eyes Ramachandra Guha manifesting himself from behind the stranger.

“Poor sod,” he muttered looking down at him. Then to the creature: “Come, master. We have many targets to bump off. The list is long.”

 

He Who Must Not Be Named

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, continues to inspire revulsion in Hindu right-wingers even after more than half a century of his death. He’s been blamed him for almost everything bad India is going through today – terrorism, poverty, corruption, sluggish economy, and so on. So it hardly comes as a surprise when they insist that Nehru should not have been the first prime minister of India, and that Sardar Vallabhai Patel deserved the post more. India, they argue, would have been better off, politically and economically, under Patel’s leadership.

This narrative has always been there – it was there even during Nehru’s tenure, but it gained prominence only after Narendra Modi, who would go on to become India’s prime minister, endorsed it in his 2014 election campaign. And why not? After all, Modi had been an RSS man through and through right from his adolescence. And the name of Patel seemed to win him votes. The tide of public opinion had overwhelmingly turned in Patel’s favour. The first Union Budget of the Modi government announced allocation of money to an edifice they had promised in the manifesto: the construction of “Statue of Unity,” said to be the tallest statue in the world when completed, dedicated to the memory of Sardar Patel. The word ‘unity’ in the name of the structure is a reference to Patel’s contribution in ‘unifying’ India by convincing, through force or otherwise, about 500 princely states to join the Indian Union.

The constant rhetoric spewed over Sardar Patel’s role in ‘unification of India’ by Hindu right is another veiled attack on Nehru. Comparing the role of Nehru and Patel in the integration of India, Nehru’s perceived failure is repeatedly pointed out in securing Kashmir – apparently the one task that he had had. It is anybody’s guess if Sardar Patel would have been the better prime-minister, or if he would have handled the Kashmir issue better. He was, no doubt, a capable diplomat but according to most analysts Nehru was the better choice as PM as he was more sophisticated and worldly. One is free to agree or disagree. But for the Hindu right, Nehru was the Devil who escaped hell.

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Recently, this pathological hatred of Nehru has been taken to another level. The Hindu fundamentalists these days are not satisfied with just obscuring Nehru’s achievements and making him look as evil as possible, now they want to simply erase Nehru from Indian history altogether. The new Social Science textbook for class VIII in Rajasthan state board does not have a single reference to the first prime minister of India. Yes, you read that right. Nehru is not directly mentioned. Not even once. This is really strange, and one can’t help but wonder how students are supposed to study modern history of India without learning about the existence of the man who first graced its highest office, and who led it for more than a decade. The government probably believes that removing Nehru from textbooks would make future generations forget that a man called Jawahar Lal Nehru was ever born. It is the most repugnant form of brainwashing. It is like Nehru was a gaffe that India had made and wiping off his name would save India from past embarrassment.

Granted, Congress is not entirely blameless. Every government – Congress, BJP or otherwise – has tried to teach students its own version of history. And one must also keep in mind – no version of history is ‘true’, really. Napoleon Bonaparte was right when he rhetorically asked the world, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” The NCERT History and Social Science textbooks written in Congress rule have traditionally deified Nehru and undermined the role of other freedom fighters and leaders, especially those who were not associated with Congress, and that is what partly prompted the Sangh Parivar to undermine Nehru in the first place, (one of the other reasons being Nehruvian secularism was anathema to their Hindutva – the dream of a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu Nation). But denying the very existence of arguably one of the biggest figures of 20th century is something only the most twisted and bigoted minds could manage.

The present government would do well to keep in mind that refusing to acknowledge historical figures or events does not actually alter history. If it did, European countries would have eliminated Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini from their history long ago.

Spotlight

Spotlight is the large-screen adaptation of the real-life events regarding the titular, four-member investigative journalist unit at The Boston Globe newspaper. Or to be more precise, it is the story of the one specific case of Spotlight in early 2000s which led to the uncovering of the child sex-abuse scandal by Catholic priests and its cover-up by the Church that shook the world. This ground-breaking investigation eventually won Spotlight team a Pulitzer for journalism.

The film starts as the The Boston Globe hires a new editor, a Jew called Marty Baron, an earnest man who soon upon joining requests the Spotlight to investigate the case of priest John Geoghan after reading about him in a column in the Globe. According to the column, the child-related sex crimes committed by John Geoghan were not only known to the Cardinal (archbishop of Boston) but he did absolutely nothing to stop them, let alone punishing him. Baron is baffled as to why was so grave a matter not pursued further.spotlight-poster

As the Spotlight team, made up of an editor and three reporters, begins the investigation, everybody is horrified to find out that Geoghan’s case was not a one-off, and they begin to see a pattern. A priest is accused of molesting and raping children, and is then shifted by the Church to some other parish in order to protect him from legal punishment or wrath of child’s parents. The pattern is prevalent throughout the entire archdiocese of Boston. The Spotlight team finds itself amidst a legal and ideological battle between the Globe and the Church which presents its own dilemmas.spotlight

In an era when journalists are reviled as “news-traders” (to thunderous applauses) and “presstitues” by politicians and common people alike, Spotlight is an eloquent reminder of what journalism can do and why good journalism is still the greatest weapon the people possess against the evils present in the system.

Especially in India, where the word “media” is associated with everything that is wrong with the country, this film should come as an eye-opener to people who paint every journalist with the same brush. If one journalist is found to be corrupt, everybody else is automatically assumed to be made of the same stuff, unless their ideological affiliation matches yours – in which case, voila, they are honesty personified! While not quite up to the level of Spotlight, one can find several fantastic investigative stories carried by journalists right here in India.

Coming back to the film, the sequences inside The Boston Globe’s office in Spotlight, with shots of newsrooms, editorial board meetings, and actual investigations are supremely well-done. The film demystifies a lot of what happens inside a newspaper office succinctly and what journalists, especially those who take on something as mighty as the Catholic Church, have to go through to bring out stories that an average reader may not even read.

Overall, Spotlight is simply superb. It manages to be engrossing without trying to be overly thrilling. There are no explicit scenes, no passionate monologues, no vituperations (it is pretty fair as regards the Church, and that explains why the Pope wasn’t much offended) and storytelling is subtly brilliant – similar to some of the good European films one might have seen. Even the piano-dominated background score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings composer) is pleasingly subdued and perfectly blends with dialogue. Acting is largely excellent, with Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo being the star performers as the big three of Spotlight.spotlight-xlarge

One minor issue with the film might be the sluggish pacing, but subsequent viewings tend to allay it, and soon it does not seem sluggish at all – more like comfortably paced. Like the first two seasons of AMC’s splendid TV drama Breaking Bad, this sort of pacing appears deliberate, for emphasis perhaps. But even taking it in account, a typical viewer probably won’t absorb it properly at the first go. And the movie deserves repeated viewings regardless. It is that good. A stunning insight into not just the cruddy world of sex-starved child-preying clergymen and the immense power of the Church which shields them, but also into the strength of journalism and investigative journalism in particular, the excitement, the risks, and the occupational hazards that come bundled.

Half a War (Review)

Joe Abercrombie is not a literary elitist’s delight. That’s not just because he writes in a genre long been scorned as juvenile rubbish called fantasy, though that is certainly one of the prime reasons, but it has more to do with his clear style of prose free of any rhetorical devices. His writing is simple, to the point, and without any flourishes. That’s why the lovers of so-called “literary fiction” despise his work and that is why I’ve adored every book of his so far. I pick up his books every time I’m in a need of a light, quick, and enjoyable read and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Not to say I do not like the classics and literary novels – I surely do – but often, when I’ve mentally exhausted myself with some ‘heavy’ reading, I turn to fantasy and (ever since the GRR Martin well dried up) to Joe Abercrombie.

Half a War is the third and final novel in Shattered Sea trilogy. Without giving much of the plot away, I’d just say that it is like every other concluding Abercrombie novel you have read. That is, it half-a-war-us-hbincludes lots of dry humour, some really clever shocks, and nothing really quite happens the way you’d have expected. Abercrombie’s tendency to surprise the hell out of readers hasn’t really worn off. The only difference you would find in Half the War from its prequels is that it includes a lot more characters. Adding to the two point-of-view characters from Half the World, Thorn and Brand, there are three more point-of-view characters in Half the War, along with several other characters.

Characters are as usual well-rounded and almost everybody seem to have a sarcastic side to them. And to shock his readers, he doesn’t always resort to eliminating his characters like GRRM either, he can do it even when there isn’t any violence involved. The book is a really quick read, and I was able to finish it in two short sittings. An average reader should be able to enjoy it over an unplanned weekend.

Half a War is another glittering addition to the excellent Joe Abercrombie bibliography. It is neither the best nor the worst book in the trilogy, but if forced, I would put it below the first book, Half a King, and above the second book, Half the World. But it is a quicker read than either of them.

Freedom in Exile

Around 1950, when India had just started the process of building up after getting free from the throes of foreign occupation, a remote Himalayan country up north, Tibet, that had enjoyed freedom for almost all its history owing to it being ensconced high in the upper Himalayas, was just starting the long and painful journey of colonisation (and later exile) by the hands of the new Communist power in the Chinese disguised as “liberation” of the country from the “imperialists.”

Freedom in Exile is the story of the Dalai Lama as told by himself (like any other autobiography professes to), but the life-story of the leader of a nation inevitably, at least partly, ends up being the story of an entire people. And that’s what Freedom in Exile really is – an account of the tribulations inflicted on the Tibetans and their pursuit for survival in an unfamiliar, adopted country. Except for the first few pages, where Dalai Lama touches upon his childhood briefly, everything else in the book concerns the fate of his country and countrymen.MPAZZIL

Dalai Lama kicks off the narrative by telling the readers that the days when he was a child and newly declared 14th Dalai Lama were his happiest. The pomp, the ceremony and the opulence that comes with being a Dalai Lama were irresistible for a wide-eyed kid who had grown up in an impoverished village and had never seen a city like Lhasa. He then switches back to his early childhood, describing his days in a remote village in the northeastern province of Amdo. The picture of Tibet that Dalai Lama paints is of an idyllic country with relaxed lifestyle almost totally untouched by modern technology and science. If you think that is such a bad thing, this book might force you to rethink. There were no doctors, only physicians trained in traditional medicine. The people, who had been quite warlike before Buddhism penetrated their beliefs, were deeply religious and peaceful.

That was before Mao Zedong, though. When the Communist leader’s soldiers invaded Tibet, ostensibly to liberate the people, Tibet had no standing army to speak of and whatever fighters who could be mobilised in an emergency were ill-equipped and had little to no training. The powerful Chinese army made quick work of any resistance it came across and Dalai Lama had to flee.

The most remarkable thing about Dalai Lama that emerges from this book is his utter lack of ill-will towards the Chinese in spite of what they did to him and his people. Sometimes, there are hints of bitterness, if you are careful enough to read between the lines, but Dalai Lama still seems like a resurrected Buddha if he is honest about even half of what he has written. Similarly, surprising is his lack of any resentment towards Nehru and other Indian leaders and diplomats who had been indecisive when confronted with the Tibet problem. On one hand, they had poor and hungry Tibetan refugees and their determined young leader and on the other, millions of their own impoverished and homeless countrymen. Adding to the problem were the Chinese who would certainly take offence if Indians so much as appeared to help the Tibetans. As it turned out, this was one of the prime factors because of which China invaded India in late 1962.Volunteer in Tibet

Descriptions are clear and vivid throughout and the writing is simple and crisp. Sentence structure is not complex, which I’ve come to associate solely with autobiographies lately. That probably has to do with limited English capabilities of His Holiness, and the book is an incredibly quick read. Don’t mistake me – Dalai Lama is no Chetan Bhagat. The writing is actually good and even quite evocatively beautiful at times. There are detailed passages which describe eloquently the pain and suffering borne by Tibetans and their longing for their homeland. That is when the Dalai Lama can’t resist blaming the Chinese for his people’s travails and you realise that he is a mortal like us. An enlightened mortal, but a mortal nonetheless. He is also brutally honest about his country’s failings. He frankly admits that Tibet was far from perfect before the Chinese crossed into its borders. There were corruption and deadly power-struggles in the government, people were poor and unaware of the outside world. Tibetans, he says, paid the price of being oblivious of, and unaffected by, the outside world.

The best part of the book for me came when Dalai Lama describes the culture and art forms of Tibet. It is hard to miss the genuine excitement and pride in his narrative when he explains the rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and art of his country. There is a sort of childlike humour here and you can picture a jaded old man looking wistfully outside the window of his room, his gaze locked at the snow-capped mountains of Dharamshala, teary-eyed, yet smiling at the slightly faded memories of a lost homeland.

 

Jaipur Litfest Diaries

This year’s JLF (Jaipur Literature Festival) was the first time when I was in attendance on all the five days. Safe to say this JLF, my third time, was the most crowded ever. The event does attract an insane amount of humanity – some, if not most, there “just for fun” as they admit themselves. I think one of the reasons that it appears the entire world comes at Diggi Palace for JLF is that winters in Jaipur are always sort of mild and pleasant, and it was warmer than the last time when overcast skies – which made the historian Tom Holland compare the winter of Jaipur to the British summer – greeted the eager faces of the attendees. Nobody would turn up if the Jaipur Litfest was in, say, June or July, I assure you. The locals themselves wouldn’t.

One of the other reasons that, if seen from a thousand feet above, JLF would seem like an open wound crawling with maggots, is that it is free – the fact which is capitalised by the said “just for fun” crowd. They are the people who take numerous selfies with the invited speakers they have never heard of – pretending to be “big fans” – and which they would forget as soon as the selfies are uploaded on Facebook and Instagram.

These gripes aside, these five days were simply incredible for me. As I lie in my bed, scribbling down my thoughts, I think of the third JLF as an exhausting but elating experience. It was kick-started by a fellow-Doonite Ruskin Bond discussing his life as a budding writer with the audience. I managed to hurl a question at him as to what he thought of the so-called “development” of the Doon Valley over the years which came at an irreversible cost: the loss of its old-world charm and a lot of its green cover. His reply was simple and bitter: that it was inevitable. Environmental exploitation is usually a consequence of “development.” But environmental factors can be considered along with development and both do not have to be mutually exclusive.

The highlight of the event for me came when I met Stephen Fry on the second day after his session called “Selfie” (selfie being a metaphor for memoir, Fry is strictly anti-selfie these days) was over. I was in a long queue of people waiting with their books to get them signed by Fry and after standing for almost half an hour, my turn came. God, he was right in front of me. I was too excited to say anything and blurted out a question that I had failed to ask during the session: “Which fictional character would you like to play?” His answer was immediate: Beowulf.

I attended a number of sessions this time around. In the previous editions, I had wandered aimlessly for most of the time, sometimes following authors in the hope of cornering them for a tête-à-tête. Not surprisingly, both my favourite sessions in Jaipur Literature Festival 2016 included the brilliant Congress MP Shashi Tharoor as one of the participants. One was “The Need to Listen” which took place on the third day of the event and the second was “On Empire” on the final day when Swapan Dasgupta and Shashi Tharoor, old college-mates, indulged in give-and-take to the delight and amusement of the audience. One other notable session was “This Unquiet Land” with Barkha Dutt as the guest and Shobha De as the host. The topic of discussion was Barkha’s new book that goes by the same name as the session and the event was peppered with barbs directed towards Barkha by the host and the audience alike which were deflected by Barkha with casual ease. You can watch these, along with all the other sessions, on YouTube where they should be available by now.

God, but I miss Jaipur Litfest already.

 

Diminished Wanderlust

I’m sick of travelling. Seriously. I never thought it could happen, but it has. There was a time when I would dream of roaming around the world with the person I love with not a trace of worry and care in my mind about life and career and job and all that useless stuff and unlimited money in my wallet. Turns out, too much travelling can be as boring, annoying and – not to mention – tiring as staying at a single place for days.

The Gujarat trip was easily the most hectic one I’ve ever had, thanks to tight, pre-planned schedules and mum’s shocked reprimands that I described in this blog post. I also discovered that I am sort of allergic to air-conditioning and closed spaces or places where there is little or no fresh air. Awesome. A new allergy (or whatever it is) was exactly what I needed right now. I’ve begun to feel suffocated in flights and air-conditioned cars, buses and trains. Perhaps I’m going through the initial stages of claustrophobia – I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it.

As though the torture in Gujarat wasn’t enough, I was unceremoniously hauled to Shimla to welcome the arrival of 2016 yesterday. A few old friends (old neighbours, really) had come over. They wanted to see snow in Shimla. I told them there wasn’t any. They insisted there was, and that they had information from some well-placed sources. I finally agreed, making no effort to hide my unwillingness. We called a taxi and the new phase of my winter vacation torments started.

Owing to Shimla being a hot tourist destination, and it being the holidays, there was insanely heavy traffic along the roads that lead towards the town. During the winter break, denizens of every big city in north India descend on hill-towns like Mussoorie and Shimla like zombies in a horde, hoping to catch a glimpse of the freshly fallen snow or, even better, experience a snowfall. There are also high-profile parties around this time, celebrating Christmas and arrival of the new year. These little towns which possess little space for expansion get populated to double and even triple their capacity reportedly. So, a journey that was supposed to take three and a half hours, took six. I struggled to breathe properly the entire way. We reached Shimla in temperatures approaching sub-zero at around 7 pm.

We stayed for a day in a pre-booked guesthouse and due to the aforementioned rush in the town we could only amble aimlessly around the Ridge and the Mall Road last night and today morning. The Mall Road is nothing but a cluster of quaint British-era buildings, expensive shops, even more expensive restaurants and a lonely, isolated church in a place called the Ridge. A pretty good place to spend time, except my co-travellers wanted snow and instead of snow there was a blindingly bright Sun mockingly grinning down at them. I was too miserable and cold to flash a triumphant grin. At night the temperature (according to Google’s Android app) dropped to -3 degrees, and still there was no sign of snow, just an icy, biting wind reminding me why life in the hills is so tough.

The return journey today was even worse. We couldn’t get a cab and had to manage with a Himachal Pradesh Roadways bus. The whole time it felt as if I’d vomit the contents of my stomach (I’d eaten a lot of junk, admittedly – Lays, ice-cream, home-made kachoris, parathas, etc washed down with Coke) on my lap. The bus wound along curvy roads like a serpent slithering its way through an undergrowth – far too fast for such a big vehicle and on such perilous roads.

The journey, which was nothing more than pure, endless agony for me and doubtless for my esteemed companions, lasted for seven hours when we finally reached my home. I breathed a sigh of relief and really took my first unlaboured breath since getting into the bus. The ‘friends’ wanted to stay for the night. I was too flustered to be tactful. I said “no.”

Turbulent Vacation

We have finally returned to Chandigarh from a week-long tour to Saurashtra Peninsula of Gujarat and I’m sort of relieved (I hope to write a travelogue soon). While I enjoyed these few days, I think that’s enough amusement to last a year or so. Never have I been as exhausted as I am now – both mentally and physically – not even during the sojourns to Manali and Darjeeling in school.

First, heat in Gujarat, particularly near the coast, was simply enervating. Which came as a surprise to my body that is accustomed to Jaipur winters (and previously Dehradun and Mussoorie). I’d known that it would be warm there owing to close proximity to the sea, but certainly not THAT warm. We packed warm clothes unnecessarily, it seemed, but they did come handy in Delhi which was one of our transition points and in early morning in Chandigarh at the end of our journey.

Second, my energetic mum sniffs disdainfully at any hint of weariness you dare to reveal in front of her. She was shocked that we were not taking full advantage of the vacation! For her, not checking out every shop in that fabled market or spending a sizeable amount of time enjoying the view of the shimmering waters of the Arabian Sea from that famous beach is inconceivable, if you get my point. She likes to make the most of everything – vacations especially so. Even when she’s trudging along on an injured leg, she can be an inexorable force of nature.

Well, we indulge her. She is far too adorable.

Why God and Religion Can’t be Blamed (or Praised) for Activities, Good or Bad, Carried out in His Name

Disclaimer: Let me declare that I’m not an Islamic apologist. I’m a Hindu and a fairly proud one – despite the frequent shenanigans of the Hindutva fanatics. Also, I wholly agree that the gun-toting men who have taken the lives of so many innocents in countless appalling incidents of terrorism like the aircraft bombardments on the Twin Towers of World Trade Centre in New York, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Mumbai attacks in 2007 and now the Paris attacks… they all were Muslims, no matter what their co-religionists say.

I hope now I can freely express my thoughts on terrorism, God, religion, people and their relation without the fear of being branded an apologist. Maybe I’m still not safe from those appellations, but come to think of it, I do not care. Anyhow, the purpose I decided to write this post is not only to explain that associating the wicked acts of the followers of a particular religion with the doctrine of their religion and gods is plain wrong, but also why the inclination of the people to deny that the fundamentalists and literalists of their religion do not really belong to their religion is equally fallacious.

You know, most people do not understand what religion and God stand for. They presume that the people who commit horrific acts whilst extolling their God are inspired by the doctrine and teachings of their religion and that their God is making them do those things. This is a misconception that the sections of their holy book promote violence and destruction and inspire the followers to kill people of other faiths. As a result, all of those people who follow that religion should be condemned or imprisoned for their beliefs.

The thing is, bad people commit bad things because they are bad people, not because they are followers of a particular religion. As simple as that. Religion doesn’t have anything to do with them, and what they do are purely individualistic acts. Every religion and its teachings, even those of Buddhism and Jainism – widely considered to be the most non-violent and ‘friendly’ faiths in the world – can be twisted to endorse violence and misogyny. Everything depends on the practitioner, the individual, and how they interpret religion. An innocuous verse in a religious scripture lauding the virtues of “equality” of humanity can be construed to mean mass-murder by a hateful bigot. Each and every religion is susceptible to such interpretations. If you find that hard to believe, read up on the persecution of Rohingya Muslims by Burmese Buddhists.

It’s not just religion, any kind of ideology can be warped for one’s own preference and ambitions. Even Atheism, long glorified as a solution to religious hatred and violence, has been used to persecute and mass-murder people not very long ago. Those who think that the belief in God and religion begets ignorance, hatred and intolerance should be surprised to know that not believing in God can be equally bad. Just take a look at what Mao and Stalin did – both firm atheists. Belief in a supernatural entity or the lack of it does not make a person good or evil – their own goodness (or lack of it) does.

That said, another thing that I find almost equally erroneous is the regular disowning of the fundamentalists by the clerics and spiritual leaders of that religion. Though, I can totally understand this tendency of distancing yourself away from the people of your faith who besmirch its name, it is a wrong thing to do all the same. The point is, if you call yourself a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, or a Hindu, you are those things. It doesn’t matter how fervently your co-religionists claim that you are “not one of us.” Whether they like it or not, you, a zealot and an utter embarrassment to them, do share their faith. At the same time, every follower of a faith should not be blamed for things their co-religionists do. It’s not only an injustice, it is also counter-productive. It actually engenders more fundamentalism, rather than the other way around, as the people who are wrongfully blamed become, not surprisingly, insecure and hostile in the face of unfair accusations – something, I think, that is happening a lot with Islam and Muslims these days.

It is only the time-honoured philosophies of love, tolerance and respect through which we can make this world a better place to live – devoid of hostility, bigotry and violence.

Kristallnacht and The Birth of Israel (Documentary) Review

Kristallnacht and Birth of Israel is a documentary in the BBC’s television series ‘The Days That Shook The World.’ It aims to dramatise two interrelated events: Kristallnacht and the birth of Israel as an independent state. Kristallnacht led to the Holocaust and that in turn led to the creation of the State of Israel – the so-called Promised Land – that ended the 2000-year long exile for the Jews. The narrative recounts the trials and tribulations faced by the Hebrews under the Nazi regime that persist even after it is decimated as Jews wander around in the search for their homeland.

Kristallnacht was a carefully organised persecution campaign directed against Jews in Nazi Germany that began in 1938. It was the first of the events that eventually led to the Holocaust and the mass murder of the Jews. The Storm Troops and the non-Jewish civilians were given a free-hand to destroy Jewish property and terrorise Jewish civilians by Hitler’s minister of propaganda: Paul Joseph Goebbels. Kristallnaht later came to be known as ‘the night of the broken glass’ because of the shattered glass that was strewn on the streets outside shops and homes. Many Jews were killed, their homes were looted, synagogues were destroyed as the law-enforcement forces watched impassively. Some Jews were even sent to concentration camps from which few returned.

BBC’s portrayal of Kristallnacht is incredibly vivid and poignant. It also successfully delineates the devastating effect to which the tool of propaganda can be used. Initially, to the world, the night of Kristallnacht (for it really did happen in one night) seemed like a usual riot in an unstable country, where a particular section of people targets another section. It was only later, long after the war had been underway, one came to know of the evil genius of Goebbels, of his inflammatory, anti-Semitic speech in Munich which successfully made one stray murder of a German by a young Jew look like a well-orchestrated conspiracy against the Germans by all the Jews. That speech incited government agents and even common Germans into attacking and oppressing Jews. The ensuing chaos is beautifully and intimately depicted in the film, with an extra focus on some significant contemporary Jews who were hurdles in the way of Nazi juggernaut. The narration of Storm Troops’ intrusion of the homes of common Jews is done through the perspective of the targeted people which makes the representation of Kristallnacht all the more terrifying and realistic.

The later half of the documentary represents the events leading up and during the creation of Israel – the political tussle between Israeli diplomats, and the world over, the threat of the well-armed Arabs massing on the Palestinian border and the dithering of the United States. The documentary smartly lets you know in a stealthy way the emergence of the United States as the most powerful country in the world after the World War II – as the viewer sees the importance of US govt’s backing of the infant state without which there is little hope for survival.

When compared, the later part of the documentary, which should have been more interesting owing to the events it depicts, seems tame. It is not that there is anything wrong in the presentation, for it is as perfect as ever – trademark BBC. It is once again the pace that creates problems. A good fifteen minutes are wasted in making the viewers follow the needlessly inserted narrative of two Palestinian boys who hide in Jaffa and contemplate on whether to stay or run and join King Abdullah’s army. The narrator then goes on to say something like “many Palestinian fighters then left Israel to return with the Arab army,” as if the viewer somehow missed the point. Also, BBC must have a penchant with phrases like “the drama that changed the world” and “what happened after that would alter the course” as though it weren’t a documentary but a Buzzfeed listicle. Speaking of narration, this time it is hard to find faults with it. It is even enough to seem grim for the documentary does portray some unpleasant events, but not too even so as to sound monotonous.

Overall, as the documentary and the dramatisation has a pretty high accuracy and a good level of insight. There is hardly anything revealing about the documentary, but a nice piecing together of two very important world events that could not have occurred without each other. Although some aspects of the documentary may put you off, but for most of its length it fulfills rather than dampens your expectations.

Rating: 4/5

And the mountains er… hills, echoed

I hope Khaled Hussaini would forgive me for pilfering the title of this post shamelessly from his amazing, amazing book but in my defence, I could not, no matter how hard I looked, find any alternative which epitomised my journey to this isolated little hill town called Kasauli – a humble, unassuming place nestled amid green, gently rolling Himalayan foothills. So unassuming, in fact, that I think the only thing Kasauli is notable for in popular imagination is the fact that it happens to be the birthplace of  the Anglo-Indian writer Ruskin Bond. And even he did not stay for too long in the place. I imagine he preferred the much more noisy places like Shimla and now Mussoorie. Perhaps he felt alone in the vast green emptiness of Kasauli. But if I were given a choice, I would love to stay in Kasauli. Forever.

I have spent a lot of my life in Uttarakhand’s much more popular Mussoorie, called ‘queen of the hills.” I was told that I should expect Kasauli as a “mini-Mussoorie.” Turns out, the “mini-Mussoorie” moniker is true in more ways than one. The most striking thing I noticed as we entered Kasauli was the absolute sereneness and a refreshing lack of people. Now, I do not hate people, in general, but too many of those people have infested previously actually good places like Mussoorie and Dehradun and rendered them irrevocably crowded and cacophonic. Since these places happen to be really close to my heart, one can’t help but nurse a certain amount of scorn for people. Especially a large amount of them. So for that reason, Kasauli came as a wonderful surprise – I remember thinking that instead of any big city with all the facilities and amenities at my disposal, I would love to settle in Kasauli, the destituteness of this charming hill town notwithstanding.

So as I was saying, Kasauli lacks people. That’s why the quiet you observe here is so unrealistically awesome that it is only experienced to be believed. I could not describe in words without doing it injustice. Even the handful of people who do live here are unaccountably taciturn, almost gloomy, as though the peace was a sacred thing in Kasauli and the noise could inspire the wrath of some local god. Whatever the reason, Kasauli is still untouched by the ill-effects of large amounts of humanity.

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Another striking thing about Kasauli is its roads. They are very narrow, so narrow that they seem almost one-way. Whenever two vehicles, which are coming from opposite sides, have to pass each other, it takes quite a bit of time to get it done. But in spite of this, there is hardly any traffic problem in Kasauli because of the very few number of vehicles. Which is again related to fewer people who live here.

The highest point in Kasauli, and its really only “tourist place”, is a Hanuman temple. From there you can observe all of Kasauli and then some. The scenery is fantastic – everything painted by a vivid shade of green, wooded landscapes, cottages and small houses studding the round hills, like twinkling stars spread across a clear night sky. It actually is very pretty. I was simply transfixed by the view and kept gazing at it for better part of the hour before being jolted out of the reverie by my sister.

So that’s it. Kasauli is a beautiful and pacific little hill town. A perfect place to spend your weekend, and in my very personal opinion, a lovely place to live. My fantasy is possessing a library in my own personal cottage and having nothing to do whole day except reading on the porch with frequent peeks at the tiny, verdant valleys of Kasauli and beyond.

Thoughts on Penny Dreadful Season 1: More Unsettling Than Dreadful


Note: This piece is more an analysis than a review, so it might have a few spoilers…

Penny Dreadful is a gorgeous new horror drama from Showtime that is set in the late 19th century London. I say gorgeous, because in spite of some really frightening, unnerving and gruesome scenes, it somehow manages to look utterly beautiful. It is not so much as an authentic rendering of Victorian London – or the costumes – as it is the art direction that is absolutely breathtaking, but more on that later.

I began watching Penny Dreadful a week ago and the first few minutes of the pilot episode were enough to get me hooked. And you know what? It only gets better from there. I finished the first season (eight episodes) in a single day and had to watch it again for the sake of this review. It was almost as profoundly thrilling and unsettling as it had been on the first go.

There are a great many TV shows being broadcast these days that fall under the ‘horror’ genre, but only a precious few can even come close to the tension, atmosphere and visuals of Penny Dreadful. It derives its name from penny dreadfuls – a kind of serial supernatural literature that used to be published in Victorian England, with each edition costing one penny (thus the name).

The series brings together many well-known Victorian-era literary characters, including Mina Harker (Jonathan Harker’s wife in Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula), Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein and his monster and Dorian Gray. This does not turn out to be the hotchpotch you would expect, but actually a delectably entertaining supernatural blend. Only Dorian Gray, I thought, had no business here, and had a feeling of being added to the mix as an afterthought. His plotline was seemingly pointless, serving no purpose other than captivating or screwing – or both – almost everybody he met throughout the season. Perhaps he will be more relevant in the second season?

The central plotline of Penny Dreadful revolves around the duo of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) slinking through the dark London alleys to save someone close to both of them – who is later revealed to be Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter and Vanessa’s childhood friend, Mina Harker – from the clutches of someone she calls “master”. Mina was apparently wronged by both Sir Malcolm and Vanessa, and it is that guilt that arises from those wrongs that motivates them to rescue her. I’m still in the dark as to who the “master” is – Satan or Dracula or something else altogether? To aid in their quest, Vanessa and Sir Malcolm enlist the help of Ethan Chandler, an American showman and gunslinger, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (you do know him, don’t you?)

Apart from the main plotline, every main character has a well-developed subplot which helps give more depth to them. For instance, Ethan has his own inner-demons which he desperately tries to bury and a secret that isn’t revealed until the finale; Dr. Frankenstein, you would probably know, is more than the simple anatomist he would like everyone to believe. And Sir Malcolm and Vanessa, as stated earlier, have something to be guilty which propels their mission. That something is revealed in an out-and-out cracker of an episode mid season – Closer than Sisters – which reveals the backstory of Sir Malcolm and Vanessa and is an absolute hypnotic watch throughout.

The performances are consistently fantastic by the whole cast, but nobody holds a candle to the work done by Eva Green in the show. Her acting is so good that I found really hard to avert my attention from the show whenever she was on the screen.  Timothy Dalton comes a close second and I particularly liked the way he minces his words (literally) whilst speaking about something of importance, a bit like Kulbhushan Kharbanda. As for Josh Hartnett (Ethan Chandler), here I saw him for the second time after 30 Days of Night and it appears that vampires can’t get enough of him. Or he can’t get enough of vampires. His character is the weakest of the main cast, but gets a real boost-up in the last scene of the finale. I won’t spoil it to you, as it is well worth the build-up of suspense because there are clues strewn in earlier episodes that hint you about what Ethan will turn out to be…

Now, a few words on Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). Treadaway has done some stellar work in portraying the character on-screen, though I did not expect the character to be so young. I haven’t read the original novel, or any spin-offs, so I don’t know how old the original character was, but I envisioned him as a gray haired old-man, tired and jaded of his life, wanting to have some fun by trying to animate corpses. Harry Treadaway’s Dr. Frankenstein, though, is young and full of enthusiasm, and his character is pretty richly fleshed out. His past that he thought safely laid to rest comes back to bite him in the most heartbreaking scenes in the show so far. His new creation, a sweet and innocent chap who names himself Proteus whilst reading Shakespeare with Dr. Victor and who actually becomes friends with his creator is viciously torn apart by Victor’s earlier and more imperfect creation, Caliban, by shoving a bare hand into Proteus’s torso. The scene is so shocking in its abruptness and brutality that I kept staring at my laptop display for a minute to fully digest what had just happened.

Apart from characterisation, another area where Penny Dreadful scores top points is the art direction. It is one of the most beautifully shot TV shows around currently, though I may be a little biased in its favour without intending to, as I’ve always loved novels, movies and TV shows set in the Victorian England. But no matter what is your opinion on the quaint setting, you are going to love Penny Dreadful’s visual style.

The soundtrack is very good. This is my first experience with any music written by polish composer Abel Korzeniowski and I look forward to more of his work. Perhaps that’s to do with the similar setting, but I found Penny Dreadful’s background score a bit similar to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Dark, atmospheric tunes help a lot in reproducing the stunning Gothic setting and there are some really nice character specific pieces that convey the beauty (or the lack of it in Caliban’s case) of every character very effectively.

That’s it. Penny Dreadful is absolutely superb. Its reliance on a character driven story and carefully doled out scares and shocks work in its favour, as do its beautiful art-design and music.  Pretty much a must watch for any Gothic/Horror fan…

Rating: 4.5/5

Thoughts on ‘The Walking Dead’: Hope is a Trap

I first bumped into zombies about a decade ago with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days LaterI was little back then, scarcely able to fathom what was happening. But even then I had a thing about gore. And 28 Days Later had lots and lots of it, and thirteen years after its release, it is still considered one of the most sanguineous zombie films ever made. That is saying something, you know, as zombie films have been about how much gore you can display, as a rule.

(L-R) Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies); Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs); Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus); Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride); T-Dog (Robert 'IronE' Singleton); Beth Greene (Emily Kinney); Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson); Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln); Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan); Glenn (Steven Yeun); The Governor (David Morrissey); Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Andrea (Laurie Holden) - The Walking Dead - Season 3 - Full cast photo - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

I could understand only two things when I watched 28 Days Later: #1 That there were a kind of people who ate other people (I believed in their existence back then… even hoped, if I remember correctly; used to imagine my face-offs with them with melee weapons). #2 That you could become one of those people who ate others if one of that kind bit you. The subtler themes were beyond my immature mind. Since then, I’ve seen dozens of zombie films, played countless zombie games, but only two other things ever came close to the experience I’d had with 28 Days Later: Valve’s Left 4 Dead video-game series and AMC’s The Walking Dead TV show. I’ve already insinuated my immense affection for Left 4 Dead, and in this wish-list, and I’m going to relate my sentiments regarding The Walking Dead – the TV show I recently watched and currently in love with.

The Walking Dead is set in Georgia – its capital Atlanta and the surrounding countryside. The plot, initially at least, gave me 28 Days Later vibes. Sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes, the primary protagonist, wakes up from a prolonged coma, half-conscious, in a hospital to a world infested by zombies, called “walkers” in the show.

And there, the 28 Days Later vibes vanished. Bumbling out of the hospital, Rick reaches his house to find his wife and son missing. In fact, the whole town is deserted. After much aimless wandering, he eventually meets two survivors – the distrustful father and son duo of Morgan and Duane Jones, who formulate to Rick what really has happened. After arming himself, a recuperated Rick bids adieu to them and leaves for Atlanta in the hopes of finding his family. He is told that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have set up a Safe Zone in the city, a center for refugees. Instead, Rick discovers that Atlanta is overrun with walkers and is surrounded by a horde before being narrowly saved by a group of survivors who were looking for supplies in the city. These survivors have a camp near the city and it is there Rick gets reunited with his wife and son.

Walkers - The Walking Dead _ Season 5, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Having an assertive disposition, Rick soon becomes the leader of the group, and most of the plot revolves around these struggles faced by Rick and company: the constant danger of the walkers, altercations with other groups of survivors – who are more often than not pretty hostile and at times turn out to be a lot more dangerous than walkers themselves – and finally, the struggles to fulfil the basic human needs (food, water and shelter).

If The Walking Dead were centred primarily on “walkers”, it would have been no better than those derelict post-apocalyptic zombie stories. The reason for that is when it comes to zombies themselves, The Walking Dead has nothing particularly new to offer. The walkers behave just like any zombies you may have seen in other TV shows, movies and games. They are attracted to sounds, and die only when their brain is destroyed. And so on. Nothing too groundbreaking. Walkers are reduced to a plot device here. This might sound like a downer, but actually it isn’t.

What distinguishes The Walking Dead with most of the other zombie-based entertainment is its downright humanism and realness. You will experience first-hand the trials of some extremely well-developed characters in a world that is falling apart even as they struggle to survive. The hero won’t be going with guns blazing to a walker herd here; he will hide in a barn with the rest of the group and let the walker herd pass.

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The best thing about The Walking Dead is the simple fact that it is a TV show. This gives it ample time for detailed exploration of complex themes like humanism, sanity, hopelessness, betrayal, regret, religion and so on. The most dominant of all the themes is hopelessness. The show is peppered by bouts of despair engulfing the members of the group. Often, the characters would cling on to a tenuous thread of hope, only to get more disappointed more than ever before. The show emphatically asserts that hope is a trap – something I agree with.

Characters are brilliantly drawn in The Walking Dead, and these will keep your interest up even if the plot slackens. Andrew Lincoln leads the cast as Rick Grimes, and he makes for a pretty fantastic protagonist. A decent and likeable man, Rick finds himself with the responsibility of keeping safe an entire group including women and children, and not just his wife and son. With the infestation of the walkers, he tempers himself to confront the harsh world he wakes up to. Not having to fire a pistol before, he now does not balk at killing real, breathing people – if it means that a member of his group would get to live another day. His transformation is subtly done and is slightly similar to Walter White’s transformation in The Breaking Bad. But unlike Walter White, Rick Grimes has my complete sympathy. You can’t afford to stay a good-intentioned guy in the world of The Walking Dead. Intentions do not matter any more, only actions and consequences. This is a world where the dead who can walk are the least of the threats.

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The only flaws – which I hasten to add are relatively minor – in this amazing show I can think of are some slight pacing issues and overarching gloominess. But these aside, The Walking Dead is simply superb. It has quickly ensconced itself in my ‘Top Five TV Shows’ list. The biggest achievement of the show is that “walkers” wandering in Georgia, who eat people alive, might have the moral high ground in comparison with some of the survivors.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: ‘No god but God’ by Reza Aslan

Islam is something that has held my attention since these last few years. It has been an interesting, sometimes scary, but mostly, an obscure thing for me. That’s primarily because I’ve never had any clear opinion on what kind of religion Islam really is. Is it peaceful? Violent? Neither? Both? The clamour of Islamophobics and Islamic extremists seemed equally loud, and it was impossible to discern any rational voice amidst the pandemonium. It did not help that the only Muslim friend I had was not a practicing one and did not take Islam (or anything else, for that matter) seriously.

Sometimes, I’ve found myself defending Islam from Hindutva fanatics (usually by pointing out controversially misogynistic Manusmriti verses) on Facebook and Twitter; and other times, ridiculing it before Muslim extremists (by recalling the parts of the Quran that at least seem to promote violence). But I could not really claim any authority on Islam, uninformed as I was. That changed after I read No god but God by Reza Aslan.

I got acquainted with Reza Aslan at a session in 2014 iteration of the annual Jaipur Literary Festival. Not long after, he became one of my favourite speakers on religion. Initially, I did not care overmuch about the facts, I just enjoyed watching Aslan breezily destroying the arguments of his discombobulated adversaries. He never hesitated, never faltered and spoke in a soft, leisurely and relaxed tone. And later, when I came to know that he had also written a few books on religion, I wasted no time to pick up one. nogod

No god but God is, as the title suggests, a book on Islam (‘No god but God or Allah’ is one of the central tenets of Islam). It tells the story of Islam right from pre-Islamic Arabia until Muhammad’s death and goes on to describe how modern Islam came into existence – what were the transformations and reforms it went through over the course of the history, how it influenced the world history and how it developed into the complex faith as we know it.

Aslan’s writing and narration are as fun and gripping as his debates. In the book, he argues for a more broad-minded interpretation of the Quran and Muhammad. At times, this book does seem a little too defensive and Aslan’s justification, “There is no higher calling than to defend one’s faith” isn’t convincing either, especially for a seemingly dispassionate scholar. Also, I did not like some of the arguments put forward by Aslan in this book, but these are minor quirks in an otherwise incredibly informative and enjoyable book, and for the most part, this book makes sense. I liked the central argument, according to which the global Islamic conflict we are witnessing today is not a clash between civilisations, as most people see it, but they are simply ramifications of struggles within Islam – between its branches and sects and people and schools of thought.

I highly recommend this book to those who think they are not much informed about one of the most influential religions in the history of mankind. As they say, love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it. Even you do consider yourself a connoisseur, your beliefs and understanding of Islam might undergo some radical changes by the time you are done with it.

Rating: 4/5

Bernard Cornwell and ‘Sharpe’s Tiger’

I owe most of my knowledge of Britain’s history to British historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell. My Cornwell adventures began with The Winter King late last year, the first book in Warlord Chronicles. It’s a brilliant retelling of King Arthur’s tales (notwithstanding the fact that the author insists that Arthur might not have been a king). That was when I was utterly clueless about British history, except at times when it coincided with Indian subcontinent’s and history of the Vikings.

It can be argued that Arthur might never have existed, that there is no substantial proof of his existence, so it’s hardly history, and more like a legend. But you do come to know about the invasion of Britain by the Saxons and the legacy of the Romans after the disintegration of the Roman Empire and its subsequent retreat from Britain. Not to mention a lot more other history stuff. The charm of Cornwell’s books is that both history and fiction are woven seamlessly in the prose, and you really do want to believe the Cornwell’s version of history, since it’s so bloody damn good.

Less than a month ago, I began reading the ongoing Saxon Tales series based on the Viking invasion of Britain and this time the Saxons were at the receiving end. Kingdoms fell like sand castles against the Viking onslaught, and it was only Alfred the Great of Wessex, the man who first conceived the idea of ‘England’ as a country instead of sundry provinces put together (at least according to the author, and I have little reason to doubt him), who stood tall before the fearsome Northerners and defeated them again and again with the assistance of his warlord, Uthred – who happens to be the main character and narrator of the series, and who is completely fictional. It was even better than Warlord Chronicles, I thought, if just a little repetitive – the same thing happens over and over again. The Vikings invade, Alfred calls Uthred for help, who sulks, and destroys the invaders all the same. But the narration and characterisation will keep you engrossed. And just like Warlord Chronicles, the history fits quite wonderfully with fiction, and vice-versa.

That was about my relation to Britain’s fascinating past and the bridge between us that is Bernard Cornwell. But this particular Englishman has been enlightening to me not only regarding British history, but with a bit of Indian history too. Sharpe’s Tiger, the book I’m about to review here, is set at the turn of the 19th century, the time when the East India Company was still consolidating its rule and was insidiously acquiring the hitherto independent states to gain control of all the trades and territory. Their juggernaut is checked by Tipu Sultan (called the Tippo Sultan by Cornwell), the ruler of Mysore. I was not much familiar with everything that happened between the decline of the Mughals and the Great Mutiny of 1857, so I began as quite an ignorant reader. But that hardly matters with Cornwell – he does a stellar job in introducing his readers to basic premise and facts. That was how historical fiction was meant to be written. Turns out, the British had faced a battle before against Tipu, and were humiliated by Tipu’s elite infantry. This time, though, they are prepared and don’t want to leave any stone unturned, so to speak.

Our hero, and the hero of the whole series, Sharpe, is a lowly private (the lowest rank of a soldier) and that is good, since I enjoy the stories told from the viewpoints of actual soldiers. Not officers, not commanders, simply ordinary soldiers. That’s one of the reasons Malazan Book of the Fallen ranks so high on my Favourite Fantasy Series list. Most battle descriptions, whether they are fictional or non-fictional, are written by chroniclers accompanying top army officers or other narrators. Thus we tend to miss the real action.Sharpes_Tiger_HB

Sharpe is a simple, straightforward soldier and brilliant at his profession, with his considerable height and brawn. But that does not mean he loves soldiering. He doesn’t. He would rather desert the army with the woman he loves – the widow of a deceased officer. Although the lady doesn’t have a lack of courtiers, she would prefer the honest and no-bullshit man that is Sharpe.

A story needs a good villain almost as much as it needs a hero. And in Sharpe’s Tiger, Tipu is not a villain. On the contrary, he is more like a hero, a good, brave military ruler – if a little whimsical – who is driven reluctantly to war by constant refusals toward his overtures of peace by the British. The void is snugly filled by a sadistic and cruel sergeant in the army of the East India Company called Obadiah Hakeswill. Now, this guy really is evil. First of all, he is a bully. He treats those under his command with utter contempt, and even with his bosses, he does not make too many efforts to hide his rancour. Secondly, he is constantly plotting for the downfall of his enemies, and that means pretty much everyone who does not lick his boots. Thirdly, and finally, he has a really annoying line ready whenever he is required to justify his actions: “It says so in the scriptures.” A person would cross every limit if they think that they are justified by an omnipotent and omniscient being.

The primary battle is the Seige of Seringapatam, and battle descriptions are so immersive that you begin to doubt whether the author wasn’t actually present at the site of battle. The action is as intense as the Warlord Chronicles and Saxon Tales, only the weaponry has changed – from swords and shields to blunderbusses and bayonets.

The book is brilliantly written, is paced nicely and has a satisfying denouement. I was impressed with the nuanced characterisation of Tipu’s character, though that’s nothing unusual with Cornwell’s novels. He always takes care not to show his antagonists as cold-blooded monsters, and at the same time he makes sure that the characterisation is consistent with the historical accounts, wherever possible.

This is a great book, and a good way to begin reading Bernard Cornwell, I think. The style is simple (trademark Cornwell) and it might be one of the very few readable historical fiction books based in British India. The next two books in the series continue the adventures of Sharpe in India and I genuinely believe I’m in for a treat.

Supernatural

Once in a while, I find myself liking things I ideally would abhor. Warner Brothers’ Supernatural is the most recent of them. Ghost-hunting is a motif which has been used in several novels, TV shows and movies so frequently that saying it is a cliche is an understatement. But cliches work too. And they certainly work here. I’d heard before downloading it that first few seasons (or at least the early episodes) of Supernatural are incredibly weak, and it gets better with time. But I still like it so far. It is not exactly thought-provoking and the plot is not complex like in the shows I generally like, but what the hell, it’s jolly good fun. Of course, at times you are forced to suspend reason and logic, but as a Bollywood movie fan, I’m quite accustomed to that. At least there’s a lot of variety. I just love the show for the pure entertainment and nice scares it provides.

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Supernatural follows Winchester brothers in their quest of finding their father and hunt down any supernatural being they encounter in the process. The chemistry between the duo is superb, which kind of acts like a saving grace for bad acting every now and then. It’s one thing that has really impressed me. The theatrical skills fluctuate between two extremes, with the younger brother largely being more consistent. Supernatural heavily borrows from folklore of different cultures to present you new ghosts, ghouls, monsters, and the like in every episode. The brothers somehow get entangled in the case each time, usually on an insistence from a friend (while we are repeatedly told they don’t have many friends, what with a job like that!), or like in early episodes, by following their father’s trail, and ultimately end up solving the case by exorcising the spirit, monster or whatever it is. It is a bit funny how they don’t really concoct a plan and just go for the kill, sometimes not even knowing who or what they are going to face.

If you are looking for a harmless creepy fun from a TV series, and don’t want to overtax your mind, Supernatural is just the thing for you. At 198 episodes (yet) over ten seasons, there is a lot of stuff to be watched and enjoyed…

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: “Doctor Sleep”

“The world was the Overlook Hotel, where the party never ended. Where the dead were alive forever.”

Title: Doctor Sleep
Series: The Shining (Book 2)
Author: Stephen King
No. of Pages: 531
Genre: Horror

Blurb: On highways across America, a tribe of people called the True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless—mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and spunky twelve-year-old Abra Stone learns, the True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the steam that children with the shining produce when they are slowly tortured to death.

Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel, where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant shining power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.”

Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival. This is an epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of devoted readers of The Shining and satisfy anyone new to this icon in the King canon.

The Shining was, and still is, my favourite Stephen King book. It gave a totally new twist to those cheap haunted house paperbacks I used to read as a teenager, which claimed to be based on true incidents. Stephen King made no such claim in The Shining that I know of, and yet managed to scare the living daylights out of me. That was when I hadn’t even heard about Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation. I watched it only about two years ago, and when I did, I did nonchalantly, with little interest. It had its moments, I admit, but for me, it doesn’t come anywhere close to the novel. I do not blame Kubrick. Really, I believe no movie can do proper justice to a full-fledged psychological horror novel like The Shining. You can only cram up so much stuff in two odd hours’ screentime. The filmmaker can’t help but miss out on most of the good bits and thus fall flat before the immense popularity and brilliance of the source material.

Sequels to good, popular novels too carry about the same complication. They rarely, if ever, manage to justify their existence. I picked up Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, with a similar lack of enthusiasm that I had watched The Shining movie. Little did I know that I would end up adoring the book almost as much as its predecessor.

Dan Torrance, the kid Danny with psychic abilities in The Shining is a grown-up now. He has come to be his father’s son in more ways than he would have liked. He doesn’t seem to be able to go easy on his drinking, and tends to lose his temper far too frequently. After finally reaching his lowest point when he is caught stealing his girlfriend’s money by her infant child, he decides to give up drinking and, after wandering across the country, settles into a small town called Frazier in New Hampshire. He starts working first at a tourist attraction and then at a hospice.

doctor sleep

It’s at the hospice, where Dan finally finds a noble, or really the first practical use of his “Shining” ability which has become subdued now, presumably by his drinking, which he managed to give up slowly with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. He gives the dying patients comfort using his powers, and is helped in the process by a cat that can sense when someone is going to die. It’s because of that, Dan earns the honourary epithet, Doctor Sleep, at the hospice; the “doctor” who helps people “sleep”.

Meanwhile, we meet a teenage girl, Abra, whose shine is so strong that she predicted the 9/11 terror attack in New York City as a bawling infant. And indeed, she kept bawling from the night before the onslaught on the twin towers took place. As Abra grows up, she learns to curb her strange powers so as not to freak her parents out. She had been involuntarily contacting Dan since infancy and now she apprises him of an ancient band of people called “True Knot” who consume “Steam”, as they call the mist like substance that is discharged when a kid with the ability to shine is slowly tortured. The stronger the shine is, the more steam gets released, and the True Knot store the extra steam for later use in metal cans.

Abra comes to know about the True Knot when she witnesses the torture of a boy using her shine. She also has a little mental scuffle with the leader of the True Knot: Rose the Hat, and that scuffle alerts Rose and other members of the True Knot about Abra. Rose realises that they can feed on Abra for a long, long time, without the trouble of finding more unsuspecting shining kids, and that she is also dangerous as her shine is remarkably strong. That initiates the struggle between the True Knot and the team made up of Abra Stone and Dan Torrance.

“He had come to believe that life was a series of ironic ambushes.”

While not as simple as The Shining, this book was an easy and straightforward read. The prose was typical Stephen King, but unlike most of his other books, it was a lot more focused on the primary plot thread throughout the story. I managed to finish it in a single session which is my first for a Stephen King book.

Danny’s character was quite good, and his transition from a grumpy and selfish young sot to a pleasant and helpful middle-aged man was deftly and subtly done and, ultimately, was fairly believable. Not many modern authors could have pulled that off so well like King did. Abra’s character was drawn as a likable young girl if just a bit mature for her age. Her character, understandably, had a lot of pop culture references like her idolising the feisty Daenerys from Game of Thrones. Abra’s disposition toward the main antagonist of the novel – Rose the Hat – changed sporadically from utter hate to abject fear which was quite realistic, I thought.

I loved Doctor Sleep. It wasn’t flawless, and certainly not as satisfying as The Shining, but overall I deemed it to be a nice and entertaining book. My only pet-peeve with it was that it wound up as a bit too forgiving to its protagonists. Other than that, there wasn’t much to complain about. There are some mighty spine-chilling moments in the story that should more than gratify the classic King fanatic in you.

Rating: 4/5

My Response to the Ten Book Challenge

And challenge indeed it was. I have just copy pasted the list from my Facebook timeline–thought it would interest you guys to read it. If you liked it, create your own lists in the comments section, or write a separate blog post. If you can, write in brief the reason why you like the book.

So these are the ten books I have enjoyed the most — I think. I haven’t read any of them for years except The Long Ships, and they give off a musty sort of smell now, lying unused on the shelves. But don’t let that deceive you — I love them still.

There is no particular order, but The Hobbit will always be on the top. .

#1 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: My first ‘proper’ book. An unlikely, four-feet tall hero who has to face a fire-breathing dragon who roasts warriors in their armour and then eats them as a hobby. There is a band of boisterous dwarves and a tall, authoritative wizard too, but they can be ignored.

#2 Something Fresh By P.G. Wodehouse: My first encounter with Wodehouse and I still like it more than any of his books.

#3 Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson: Epic scale and overwhelming pathos. One of the most tragically disturbing books I’ve read, and it’s huge at almost 1200 pages.

#4 India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha: A detailed account of everything important that has happened in India since independence. A little too scholarly in tone, it nevertheless is an absorbing read.

#5 The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson: A Swedish classic. A good-old Viking tale about Red Orm, a rare Norse warrior with a regard for honour, and his crewmates. Originally in Swedish, I read an English translation (obviously). Set in the backdrop of Christianisation of Scandinavia.

#6 Red Country by Joe Abercrombie: Gallows humour meets fantasy which in turn meets western. Marks the return of one of the most-loved characters written by Joe Abercrombie.

#7 The Green Mile by Stephen King: Probably my favourite Stephen King book. A moving story about a black, hulking convict John Coffey who arrives in Cold Mountain penitentiary, being charged with rape of two little girls. Whether he’s guilty or not is another matter, what’s important is the way this book touches on human emotions. It actually made me shed tears, which is truly a remarkable achievement.

#8 The Discovery of India by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru: The fact that Nehru wrote this book in prison speaks volumes about his intellect and knowledge. The prose is elegant and the book makes you fall with India all over again. A true polymath, this Nehru guy.

#9 Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke: Jane Austenesque prose coupled with magic makes for an extraordinary book. But this book is extraordinary in many ways. It gives you a really interesting alternate version of English victory over the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Lengthy, but worth it.

#10 Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay: Set in Tang dynasty’s China, this book has hands down the most beautiful language in the fantasy genre. There is a prevalent poignant tone in the story which I adored.

Thoughts on Vikings Second Season

Vikings, in spite of abundant research, remain largely an enigma. We know how they lived, what they ate, which gods they prayed – thanks to the discovery of Viking-age artifacts and their interaction with the Europeans (especially Saxons) in literature and other written accounts. But we don’t know the answers to the whys of any of these questions, except for some conjectures.

Simply put, Vikings were Scandinavian (Scandinavia constituted what are now known as Norway, Denmark and Sweden) seafearers who raided the coasts of European countries around 7th to 11th centuries. They worshipped the gods belonging to Norse pantheon: Thor, Odin, Freya, and so on. I have been fascinated by Vikings and their gods since I was a kid, and my ears still prick up like a feline whenever I hear the very word. My adventures with Vikings have ranged with Disney’s horned-helmeted noble savages to kind, brave men of How To Train Your Dragon to History Channel’s authentic Vikings.

Vikings TV-series follows Ragnar Lothbrok, a farmer, who dreams of sailing across the Baltic sea to unknown lands which he likes to imagine are rich and prosperous. The local chieftain, Earl Haraldson, tries to curb Ragnar’s ambitions, not wanting him to gain favour among his men, but Ragnar sails all the same. And to his and his hitherto reluctant crewmates’ delightful surprise, the kingdoms of west, beginning with Northumbria, indeed turn out to be quite treasure-laden. They come back with a boatful of treasure and slaves. Earl Haraldson does not share their joy, though, and at the end of the first season, the Earl is killed by Ragnar, and becomes the new Earl. Most of the first season is told from Athelstan’s perspective, who is a Christian monk captured in a raid on Northumbria and kept by Ragnar as a sort of curio, who later becomes his friend, and a Viking.

I loved the first season. The biggest achievement of Vikings is that it has managed to get across some sense of the utterly alien mindset of the Vikings, which none of the films or TV shows based on Vikings could do. It does not hurt that it is visually stunning, and cinematography is absolutely top-notch. It’s not all show, however. There are some really good performances too. Travis Frammel stands out as eternally shifty Ragnar, a farmer, who gains repute by his raids and fighting ability. He is backed in his quest to sail west by his brother (the rock-solid Rollo, played by Clive Standen), and his wife (Shieldmaiden Lagertha, played by Katheryn Winnick). But his staunchest companion turns out to be Floki the Shipright, the guy who really sets all the raiding in motion by building what Vikings prized the most: ships. Compelling character, that guy Floki.

The second season only gets better. The plot gets more complex, there are more intrigues and the cast is bigger and better. And as the following conversation would tell you, it also gives more thought to the juxtaposition of Norse-paganism with Christianity in the Viking-age and gradual Christianiasation of Scandinavia. Which happens to be one of my favourite topics in the Viking-age literature and texts.

Ragnar: “So have you returned to your faith, renounced ours?”

Athelstan: “I wish it was so simple. In the gentle fall of rain from Heaven I hear my God. But in the thunder I still hear Thor. That is my agony.”

Ragnar: “I hope that some day our gods can become friends.”

Watch this. Either buy it, or download it via your favourite BitTorrent client – whatever suits you. Meanwhile, raid on!

Should I Publish My Short Story Here?

Help! I am in a bit of a conundrum. I’ve written a short story and want to know if it’s any good or not. Initially, I wanted to show it to my school English teacher, but the story, especially its end, came out a little too gruesome–I can almost imagine her wrinkling her sharp nose.

So my question is this: Should I post the story here? I’m not afraid about somebody stealing it, because, frankly, I don’t care. I wrote this story just to gauge my own writing skills, and I don’t plan to sell it. Of course I’m not sure if anybody would buy it, really.

At first I thought I could judge my own story, and save the trouble of showing it to my hypersensitive teacher, but I realised that is close to impossible. My opinion about it tends to vary between two extremes. Sometimes I want to erase it to avoid potential embarrassment, and other times I love it so much I end spending my whole day clutching its print-out in my hands and reading it again and again with an absurd degree of pride.

So what do you say? Should I post it here? I will post it only if at least one person agrees to tell me its weaknesses and strengths and possible suggestions for improvement.

Just for the record, it’s a vampire story.

Thanks.

 EDIT: To show your interest, please leave a comment. 

Book Review: “Half a King”

“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”

For a handsome, well-built man, Joe Abercrombie has a bemusing attachment with cripples. After enthralling and horrifying us by the same measure with the crippled soldier-turned-torturer Sand dan Glokta in his debut First Law trilogy, it is Yarvi’s turn this time.

Half a King is a fast-paced vengeance-driven tale like Best Served Cold. Only, much shorter and not as rambling. Yarvi is a one-handed (read crippled) prince who doesn’t want anything to do with the Black Chair (throne of his kingdom). As the fate would have it, the Black Chair is imposed upon him when his father and elder brother are killed, supposedly by an old enemy. He’s put on the throne but then betrayed by his own uncle in his first ever raid into the enemy’s territory. He falls off a cliff into the sea, and is believed to be dead. But he survives and vows to take back the Black Chair and have his revenge on his uncle. After being sold into slavery in a ship, he meets his companions who make up the rest of the primary cast.

My first reaction after opening Half a King was a towering disappointment. The short descriptions and blurbs I’d read of the book had led me to believe that it is set in the First Law universe (Circle of the World; where rest of Abercrombie novels are set). It is not, if you are in the same delusion. Abercrombie has built an entirely new world for his Shattered Sea novels, as the series is called. The disappointment, however, disappeared once I’d begun reading. The book engrosses you from the page one itself and things, important ones, begin to happen right away.

“When you’re in hell, only a devil can point the way out.”

Half a King

As far as the world building goes, the books falls really short. At least initially, the world building is not extensive especially coming from someone who wrote First Law – that can be good or bad depending on individual preference. I was ambivalent to it, as on one hand it allowed me to get involved in the story more quickly, and on the other, it also bogged down the involvement factor. Admittedly, it was a little disillusioning. Fantasy, particularly High Fantasy, relies a good deal on the world building to help you lose and escape into the world. That is why for many, including me, good world-building is quite important. I fervently hope the next book will take care of that.

But these comparatively minor annoyances are rendered nearly ineffective by Abercrombie’s splendid story-telling and deft characterisation. Especially later on, when you really get the hang of the world and setting, you begin to start feeling a lot more comfortable with the book. There are Viking undertones to the story. And like any good Viking tale, you will be spending plenty of time at the sea. Half a King is a fairly snappy read and, yes, much shorter than previous Abercrombie books at just 352 pages in paperback format. In terms of content, though, this book is certainly not wanting. And watch out for the huge surprise at the end.

All in all, this is another addition to Joe Abercrombie’s glorious bibliography. And to my Fantasy shelf. I say Fantasy but there are hardly any fantasy elements in the novel, except for some minor hints. Half a King does come with its share of irritants, but if you are an Abercrombie fan, you will not want to miss this. And if you aren’t, well, you will be once you are done with it.

“The fool strikes. The wise man smiles, and watches, and learns. Then strikes.”

 

Rating: 4/5

 

 

Book Review: “Magic Marks the Spot”

I read this fantastic little book a long while ago, but got around to review it only now due to my increasingly frenzied schedule. I had to review it, as I’d loved it so much that I wanted to push it to as many people as I can.

The moment I came across this book in Goodreads, I wanted nothing more than to read it in one go. I find little girls who defy social convention and lady-like standards quite fascinating. And this book has a girl protagonist who wants to be a pirate!

Although, it is primarily children’s literature, it is by no means limited to that niche. The prose is uncomplicated but beautiful. And it has enough humour to tickle anyone.

Our heroine is Hilary Westfield. She’s a little daughter of a noble in a fictional land who dreams of becoming a pirate. Irony is that her father is admiral of the Royal Navy and detests pirates. Since, Magic Marks The Spot is juvenile fiction, “pirate” here means noble savages who love to go on adventures and explore unknown lands.MagicMarksSpot_hc_c

Hilary’s High Society parents are, understandably, horrified by Hilary’s decision. They in turn horrify Hilary by sending her to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies.

Hilary, however, does not want to be a delicate lady. She aspires to be a pirate, after all. And pirates ain’t delicate, mind ye. So she plans an escape from the school with the help of her new friend, Claire.

She comes across a “freelance” pirate and leaves for her first voyage. Not only she has to go all piratical on the ship, she’s also given the responsibility of deciphering a map which apparently leads to the largest treasure in the world. Will she be up to it?

This is quite a light-hearted book. So whilst there are many battles and scuffles in the novel, there is scarcely any violence. And every fight ends without any bloody injury, or indeed, any particular injury, to anyone.

Hilary might be the heroine of the story, but for me, the real star is her pet gargoyle. Not only the gargoyle can talk, he also has a sense of humour. And he also shares Hilary’s enthusiasm for ships, voyages and piracy. Initially installed in her room above the door, Hilary takes him with her to the Finishing School for his company.

The best thing I liked about the book was its incessantly frivolous tone. Even when the gargoyle isn’t in the picture, the book rarely, if ever, gets serious. The book actually reminded me of Barry Hughart’s brilliant Bridge of Birds – a book similarly flippant but noticeably more adult-oriented. Read it too, if you haven’t already.

All in all, this is must read for pretty much anyone. No matter how young – or old – you are, take my word, you’re going to love this book.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: “Hollow City”

Photos are probably the only reason I still buy real books as opposed to Kindle books. Photos are harder to see in the small Kindle display, which is monochrome anyway. It is perfect for reading, mind you, as I have repeatedly said – the text quality is simply sublime. But if the book you plan to read has a lot of maps, pictures or illustrations, and if they really matter (either to you, or the plot), it’s generally recommended to buy the good-old paper-book.

I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children later last year. I tried its sample on Kindle first, and since I liked it, I decided to buy the hardcover version. It was quite expensive, but worth the price, I thought. It had a lot of high quality vintage pictures which added to the sinister atmosphere created by the first few chapters of the book.

Whilst I liked the book, more or less, I also felt cheated. My experience with the sample had promised a superbly atmospheric and scary story, aided by hauntingly vintage photographs. Granted, the latter was true, the former was something which disappointed me deeply. Atmosphere had nothing to do with the rest of the book, as it turned out to be a fantasy-horror novel involving a bunch of children with magical abilities braving the monsters and miraculously escaping unscathed every time.

As hackneyed as it gets.

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It was, admittedly, a little unfair to the author, as the main reason I was disillusioned with the book was that I had expected something else, altogether. Indeed, I believe I would have enjoyed the book more if not for those sky-high and totally different expectations. As it was, the novel redeemed itself a bit in the last fifty pages or so.

The story was, as I said, interesting. At least, initially. A boy, Jacob, discovers that the stories his grandfather told him about his childhood, which he thought were merely a product of his grandsire’s prolific imagination, might have some truth in them, after all. His grandfather talked of a girl levitating, an invisible boy, a girl who could conjure fire with her bare hands, and so on in the stories. These children, his grandfather claimed, had been his friends.

When Jacob witnesses the death of his grandfather by an indescribably horrific creature, he goes on to find about the truth behind the event and his grandfather’s mysterious childhood. He finds the clues in the old, monochrome photographs his grandfather had gifted him.

He reaches the island where his grandfather had spent his childhood. After much difficulty, he manages to find the so called “school” where his grandfather lived with similarly aged peculiars (as the children with sundry magical powers were called) in his childhood. The house, not unexpectedly, turns out to be a tumbledown ruin.

And it was from there, the horror quotient came crashing down and it became another Harry Potter-esque novel. Jacob meets the peculiar friends of his grandfather. He had, of course, assumed them to be either long-dead and wandering as ghosts or old like his grandfather had been before his death. Turned out, they had stopped aging as kids in a “loop”, where time had stopped for them. I’m sure I’d have liked it more if those children were ghosts.

When I started the second book, I knew exactly what would I get, so I liked it much better than the first one. The writing and pacing is much improved in Hollow City. So is characterisation – no longer the peculiars are so annoying and whiny. They finally resemble real-life people.

In some ways, though, the second book remains as bad as the first one. Ransom Riggs’s attempts at humour are still lame and stilted. Also, his writing has so many clichés that it makes Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time looks like a fresh concept.

But still, it’s a decent, easy read. Pick it up when you’re bored and have nothing better to do. Just don’t assume it’s going to be once in a lifetime experience.

Rating: 3/5

Book Review: “The Long Ships”

Vikings. The term evokes a sense of adventure; a faint odour of salt in the clammy air; a satisfying feel of fine woodwork in a newly-built ship; an indomitable determination to sail, to discover, new lands, peoples, cultures; an intense desire to know what lay beyond.

If the term makes you imagine horned helmets, you need to read more about them. The horned-helmet thing was a Disney cliche, which stuck.

Of course, not everything about the Vikings was idyllic or exciting. For starters, they were unarguably cruel–they killed, raped, pillaged and plundered. They slew and tortured armed and unarmed, men and women, adult and children without a single shred of remorse. Even their faith was pretty ruthless. According to Norse mythology, the Vikings warriors who died in battle would enter Valhalla (literally, Hall of the Slain), where they would help Odin in the battle with Fenrir at Ragnarok. In other words, more fighting. You did not need to have a conscience or a moral code or anything like that – just possessing great martial prowess was enough for Odin to deem you worthy of the Hall of the Slain.

But still, there is a certain charm about these ancient Norse people. The more I read about them, the more I’m impressed by their incredible pragmatism, carefree ways, hardiness and uncomplicated lifestyle. Also, they make for great adventure stories. And that is where The Long Ships comes into the picture. The Long Ships is a Swedish novel written in two installments by Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson. Obviously, I bought an English translation by Michael Meyer. I read somewhere that the original Swedish version had a deliberate archaic writing style for the sake of quaintness. The translation, though, is modern standard English.  The Long Ships tells the story of Red Orm, a Viking warrior, and his life adventures. The story begins with a brief introduction of Orm’s family–his father, brother and mother–and then continues with his abduction by a raiding party led by a chieftain named Krok. After that, Orm and his friends (his abductors, which he later befriended) undergo a lot of adventures in Andulasia, Denmark, and England. He finally returns after being baptised to his home estate in Skania with his new wife and friends. That is where he meets his long-lost brother, Are, now crippled, who prods Orm to go on his final adventure, a quest to reclaim a treasure. As it happens, it is far from Orm’s final adventure.thelongships It is a fun, eventful book. Even though it tells a story about a bunch of marauders, it is also very human in nature. It proves that even Vikings, who were as tough as a people can be, at least superficially, could be utterly vulnerable, deep-down. What I liked most about the book is the narration, which plunged me into the sea of nostalgia. The story is told in the third-person omniscient mode–just like those classic adventure stories you may have read in your childhood. For this reason, there is also little character development, but you will be too busy enjoying the book to notice something as trifling as that. This book also pits the practicalities and freedoms of Norse Paganism against the shackles of organised religions like Islam and Christianity. Even after Orm becomes a Christian, through and through, he still makes a prayer to Thor when he sails. This explains why it took so long to Christianise Scandinavia…

This is the first book I read which was centered on Vikings. Before this, my experience on Viking literature was limited to random short stories set in Scandinavia and a few Norse characters dispersed in different books. So I’m in no position to tell you how it compares to other books which portray these people. But I can guarantee that you will love reading this book, irrespective of your knowledge of Vikings and Norse people. It doesn’t dwell too much on the culture and the ways of the Vikings (thankfully), and focuses mostly on things Vikings did best: fighting and raiding.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Review: “A Strange Kind of Paradise”

“What is India?” A great many people of yore, mostly Europeans, who had only a faint idea about a distant land they thought, for a long time, incorrectly, to be located at the end of the world, must have wondered this. Even Alexander the Great was ignorant–he assumed that after conquering this land beyond the Indus, he would win the whole world. Back then, people didn’t have the comfort of quick modes of transport like aeroplanes and trains. And of course, the maps were incomplete and inaccurate… that is, if there were any. India wasn’t mapped (let alone accurately) until much, much later. If a sailor wanted to sail to the hitherto unknown parts of the world, he had scant chance of success due to poor navigation facilities and difficulties in procuring shipmates because of a general reluctance to visit an alien land.

In those days, India had a reputation of something akin to a fantasy world. Even when it was largely uncharted and unexplored, it impressed itself deeply upon the minds of the foreigners as a land of wonder, of unimaginable wealth (sigh!) magic, snake-charmers, and really strange inhabitants. Most of these impressions, as we know, were hyperbolic hogwash. Although, nothing like the exaggerated impressions regarding ancient and medieval India, which mythified it into a place somewhere in the Middle-earth, even today, the picture most outsiders create of India is pretty ridiculous, ill-informed and coloured by prejudices.

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In his new book, A Strange kind of Paradise, BBC journalist Sam Miller tells us about what outsiders thought of India starting from the antiquity to the present. He demystifies this country for foreigners, debunks their prejudices, and writes a charmingly funny tale about his personal relationship with India. Miller, I came to know, has spent about twenty years in India (Delhi) and even has an Indian wife. Apart from his considerable experience with the Indian people and lifestyle, he is a discerning observer–a nice attribute for a journalist, of course, but it also helps him to have a profound understanding of India. Indeed, I have never encountered any other foreign writer who comprehends the tangled web that is India so well, and without any preconceptions and ready-made opinions. A telling passage:

We all have our patchwork ideas of India, our notions and opinions and prejudices–often fallacious and absurd–of this enormous, disparate country, which, as I take pleasure in reminding newcomers, bigger in population than all but its own continent: Asia. It is a place onto which foreigners have projected their own exotic fantasies and fears, their explanatory and simplifying schemata. And they never seem quite to make up their minds–as they swing from one extreme to the other–whether this country is of great wealth or of appalling poverty, of spiritual renunciation or of unabashed materialism, of fasting or of gluttony, of erotic sophistication or of sexual puritanism, of corruption or of moral superiority. They probably fail to admit that it might be all these things, and even more so, everything in between.

The book is very well-written, well-researched, imbued with a lot of humour and is ultimately very readable due to the simple fact that it is written by somebody who really knows India (to give you an idea, I finished it in a single sitting, and I’m usually a fairly slow reader). As much as a scholar born and brought up in the streets of Delhi or Mumbai. And also, the author has a genuine love for the country he has adopted as his homeland. This is quite clear from this passage:

The enormous scale of India is important. It seems both large enough and varied enough for most things imaginable on this earth to be possible in just one country. Whatever you are searching for: great food, spiritual learning, a good holiday, narcotic experiences, snowy mountains, a job, tropical jungle, love of any kind, or even the happy and not-so-happy poor. And it’s because (almost) everything is possible, that visitors continue to have such idiosyncratic fantasies and opinions and nightmares about India as a country, as if one tiny part stood for the whole. And this notion of scale and variety, turned about, helps me to understand why I love living here so much. For India makes the rest of the world feel small and tame and uniform and peripheral by comparison. India has everything that is old, everything that is modern, and everything in between. It has quite enough to challenge and surprise me intellectually, aesthetically and existentially for so many lifetimes. I have never been bored in India.

But keep in mind, this is not a fairy-tale. Miller, as much as he loves the country, doesn’t skimp over the ugly side of the country. The filth, bigotry, poverty, illiteracy, carelessness, ignorance. But he tells all of that in a passive way. He doesn’t judge. That is when you realise that he is as much an Indian as you are.

A bit of warning: this book has a good deal of sexual and, um, scatological references. So as fun and informative this book is, I certainly do not recommend it for children. And prudes too, please stay away.

 

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: “The Way of Shadows”

The Way of Shadows was advocated to me by a friend when I asked about a fairly short (a trilogy, for instance) but good fantasy series. Since he knew I preferred darker stuff, he recommended me The Night Angel trilogy. And boy, you will be hard-pressed to find a darker fantasy series–that is, judging by the first book. Indeed, I never felt so disturbed, even traumatised, by anything fictional since Red Wedding like that particular incident in the book. And if I remember correctly, no child was sadistically tortured in the Red Wedding…

Of course, it goes without saying that if you are more a traditional Tolkienesque fantasy fan, don’t go anywhere near it. But if you have read and liked the so-called “gritty and realistic” fantasy (George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie and the like), which is more widespread these days, you should get along fine. Though, a few incidents in The Way of Shadows still make you grateful that the book and all the stuff that happens in the story is indeed fictional.

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The premise is simple. The central character, Azoth, is an orphan child who, along with other children of his “guild”, steals money to give it to the Rat, the Guild Fist, or the head of their guild. Azoth’s life is tough–Rat isn’t exactly an ideal boss and beats up any child who fails to bring the daily requisite amount. Also, Azoth has other plans for his future. He hates to live a perpetually fearful life. He hates the way Rat beats and bullies him and his friends. He wants to be a ‘wetboy‘–an equivalent of the Claw assassins–and give Rat the taste of his own medicine. The wetboys are a highly skilled band of killers, who, aside from being adroit with knives, have the Talent–a natural ability to do magic.

To achieve his goal to be a wetboy, Azoth starts to pursue Durzo Blint, who is said to be the best in the business. The matter is made complicated by the fact that Durzo doesn’t accept apprentices. And either Azoth has to give up his dream or he might have to do something vile to impress Durzo. Will he be up to it? I will love it if you find that out for yourself.

The Way of Shadows is without a shadow (pun not intended) of doubt a great buy for everyone who likes aforementioned “gritty and realistic” fantasy genre. It is incredibly dark and ruthless, the characters are multi-dimensional and complex, and humour comes in the darkest of shades.

Rating: 4.5/5

 

Book Review: “The Way of Kings” and “Words of Radiance”

If fantasy writers were vehicles, Brandon Sanderson would have been a steamroller. He writes great stories involving convoluted plots and intricately contrived magic-systemsand he writes unbelievably quickly. Ever since he has started writing, he’s been inexorably churning out book after book like a machine – without compromising on the quality, mind you.

As good a writer Sanderson is, I have a love-hate relationship with his books. I utterly liked how he finished the floundering Wheel of Time series. The magic of Wheel of Time had fizzled out since the first 4-5 books, and the tragic death of Robert Jordan was another big setback. It was Sanderson, who with the help of Jordan’s wife got the series back on track and ended it fairly well.

I also liked Mistborn series. But there was a problem – dialogue in Mistborn felt too artificial. Too stilted. It wasn’t natural, like it should be. Most of the conversations, particularly the friendly ones, in the series were a little jarring and incongruous. They felt out of place. They betrayed the fact that they were contrived. Because of this, I never did feel any involvement or true escapism in the world of Mistborn.

With The Stormlight Archive, though, Brandon Sanderson has ironed out this chink in his otherwise perfect armour. And then some.

Stormlight Archive is definitely going to be huge. To give you an idea: the first book was 1008 pages long, and the second book about 1088 pages long in terms of paperback pages. Through The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson seems to be taking on Steven Eriskon head-on. Whether he manages to match the vertigo-inducing complexity and superb storytelling of Malazan Book of the Fallen is another matter.

The books in The Stormlight Archive are designed prettily with tonnes of beautiful pictures and maps. It would be expensive, but I recommend buying hardcovers of these books. Not only these books are well-written and enjoyable, they will also embellish your bookshelf.

I finished the second book – Words of Radiance – last week and was left craving for the third book. Yes, this series is that good. So far, at least. I will concisely review both of the books for your convenience:

The Way of Kings: When you start to read a 1000-odd page book, it is natural to be a little apprehensive. But with books like The Way of Kings, your misgiving does not last long. This book introduces you to the elaborate world of Roshar, which is sporadically assaulted with powerful magical storms called “Highstorms”. The magic system is complex – not as complex as allomancy in Mistborn – but is nicely and simply (perhaps too simply for my taste) explained. It takes little time to plunge into the world, and the action to start.

The people in Roshar are divided by the colour of their eyes. The people whose eyes are dark (dark brown, black) are considered socially inferior than the people whose eyes are of a lighter colour (blue, hazel). The lighteyes are also the ruling class or, simply, nobility. And darkeyes, the peasantry.

The are many “primary” characters in the book, but the main focus is on Kaladin – a young darkeyes warrior. Kaladin is a resigned man, who carries an intense hatred toward ligheyes, for various reasons. This hatred propels his life; he wants to avenge the death of his younger brother. But after being put into slavery, even that hatred becomes an apathetic indifference.

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It’s only after reaching the Shattered Plains (which is the battlefield of the conflict between humans and a humanoid race called Parshendi) does Kaladin acquire a reason to live. He is put in with the bridgemen–who are considered to be at the lowest tier in the army and whose task is the most arduous and without any sort of reward. Kaladin makes his life goal to protect his fellow bridge men. There are frequent glimpses of Kaladin’s past which make the character well-rounded and fleshed out. Those reminisces also explain Kaladin’s current predicament and the choices he makes through the course of the novel.

The Way of Kings is a long, but fast-paced and action-packed fantasy book. It is highly recommended to every fantasy fan looking for a new fantasy series with a detailed, well-built world.

Rating: 4.5/5

Words of Radiance: In comparison, Words of Radiance reads even faster than The Way of Kings. In this book, all the previous characters in the first book converge on the Shattered Plains, the battlefield of the conflict between the humans and the parshendi. As the first book was centered on Kaladin, the focus now shifts on Shallan. She is the daughter of a deceased minor noble (read lighteyes). Her character comes down as even more complex than Kaladin, in my opinion.

Like the brief glimpses we saw of Kaladin’s yesteryears in the first book, it is now Shallan’s turn. Her childhood had been like hell because of her scurrilous father and tough upbringing. If I tell you anything more, it will spoil your fun. This is a great book, and yes, better than the first one. The pace is faster, plotting is tighter and characterisation is even more improved. 

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As far as the number of words goes, the book is longer than the first one. But it doesn’t feel like so. More focused and eventful storytelling ensures that you won’t ever be bored with the book. Bottomline: if you read and liked the first book, just pick this one up. This book is better in almost every way.

Rating: 5/5

Do not disturb

I’ve been using the internet for about a decade and a half. But until about three years ago, I didn’t know the importance of privacy and why it even existed. Sure, I had my own theories. I naively thought the reason that privacy mattered really was the people’s–quite understandable–disposition of keeping things like relationships, intimate photos/videos hidden from their parents, siblings and/or friends.

Later, I came to know it was more perplexing than that. Evil people roamed around the internet, seeking opportunity to steal and misuse the personal stuff of gullible internet users. And since it was much easier to keep your identity secret online and to escape punishment, acts like data theft were fairly frequent and, indeed, common.

Eventually, I souped up my privacy settings on Facebook. It wasn’t simple. I had made many friends who I knew only from Facebook. And most of them were indispensable–I’d had many meaningful and enjoyable debates/repartees with them over the years on Facebook groups, pages and profiles. I didn’t want to lose them.

And there emerged a dilemma. I wanted to keep my online friends, yet I didn’t want them to see my personal photos and videos. It’s not that I didn’t trust them–most of them were really good people–but I couldn’t take chances; not when my personal data were at stake.

So I made use of the Lists feature on Facebook. I categorised my friends into different Lists like–Friends, Family, Online Friends, Real Friends, and so on.

This new feature made my online life hassle-free… or as close to hassle-free someone’s online life could be. For instance, if I wanted to share a photo of my parents or my sisters or my girlfriend or some relative, I could just share it in the Family list or the Real Friends list. And if there was something I wanted to share that I didn’t want my family members or relatives to see, I could just exclude the Family list by tinkering with my privacy settings.

Are you aware of the risks which arise if you post your private stuff online? If yes, what do you do about that? How do you manage your privacy settings on Facebook?

Kashmir, here I come

Most of you would call me mad for going to Kashmir in winters, but I did not want to miss out on a chance to visit, in the words of poet Firdausi, the heaven on earth. So what if it is going to be bone-chilling cold at this time of the year? I figure the pain is going to be worth it.

Indeed, I would have preferred to go in summers, but you make do with what you get – that’s life. And there aren’t many snowfalls in summers. I always loved myself a good snowfall.

But… but… here I am in Chandigarh, sitting on the sofa, and shivering ever so slightly whilst wearing a shirt and sweatshirt. So what is going to happen in Kashmir with temperatures well below zero? No. Better not think about it.

After all, how many people in India get to enjoy a white Christmas?