It was a dark and stormy night in the midst of ferocious monsoons. The setting was just right. It seemed to be an apt occasion to read “Frankenstein” to my 10-year old who yearned for fantasy fiction from the times of my childhood. So, I turned to Mary Shelley’s great work of fiction to enthrall my son. I remembered being awe-struck as a child when I first read Frankenstein. When I re-read it with my son in tow, I realized that the novel continues to entice and interest even now. It is in effect a part of what I call timeless literature.
We live in different times than the one Mary Shelley lived in and the world she had imagined. But oddly, Frankenstein seems so plausible even today. Don’t people still struggle with the dilemma of how much is too much when it comes to defying the laws of nature? The sad distance between the creator and the creation- born out of bafflement and misunderstanding is also true of our world today. “The Creature” in Frankenstein, who is unloved for no fault of his own and turns therefore to destruction, echoes the sentiments of millions of people who suffer abandonment thanks to the actions of somebody else- somebody powerful, somebody in control. It is no wonder then, that the appeal of Frankenstein continues even 200 years after it was first published.
My thoughts turn to another beloved writer who marked her 200th death anniversary last year- Jane Austen. In an age where marriage and relationships have changed drastically, her hero, Mr. Darcy, from Pride and Prejudice, remains every woman’s dream man. Elizabeth Bennet continues to be the quintessential ‘ideal’ woman. We still identify with the emotional nuances of her characters across all her stories, no matter how rooted they are to the times she wrote in. Even 200 years on, Austen’s stories seem relevant to our times. They touch a chord somewhere in our hearts and we can identify with the rich inner life of the characters.
Coming to darker works, anyone who has read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens would testify that it reflects the inequalities of the current times. The prison scenes described in the book could well describe a modern prison that inflicts psychological damage. Oliver Twist may evoke horror at the way children are treated and the plights of the poor. Is it different today when child labour is still so rampant? The 1837 novel may well reflect realities of 2018. Scrooge from The Christmas Carol also echoes the apathy of the common man today.
I have been interested in the story of Italian Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1592-1653). She survived the unimaginable- rape, social ostracism and scandal. In a world where women were not known for ‘work skills’ she emerged as a gifted artist. Her story has been fictionalized in a few books. But, I find a striking resemblance with the current state of women in many parts of the world. The struggles she faced as a woman- being sexually abused, having to prove her talent in a male-dominated world and so on are shockingly true even today!
I recently met my school teacher, Rati Wadia, who is an authority on Shakespeare. She spoke about the timeless appeal of the bard’s themes and his characters. The themes of revenge and hatred are well showed in The Merchant of Venice. Racial discrimination and inter-racial hatred also form a crux of the play. Does it sound familiar to the situation today? Or perhaps the story of absolute power and how it corrupts in Julius Caesar? These themes transcend the individual and reflect society. However, the more personal themes which apply to the individual are also equally relevant. He talks about love in most of his works, jealousy (in Othello), greed and guilt in Macbeth and so on. This insight transcends time- yes, even 400 years after his death!
When I look at all these instances together, I feel that the role of literature in our society and our day to day life, is probably not given the importance it should be given. Literature mirrors what humankind is and what it can be. It is indeed a reflection pointing to the past and the future. It reflects what we were and what we can be. It describes….and it warns. Why do we not have systems then to take timeless literature more seriously as a tool for change? Perhaps these revelations of timelessness indicate that maybe, after all, some things can never change!
K. M. Munshi’s fiction continues to run to reprints and translations even years after publication. The Patan Trilogy is one of his best known works. It comprises of three acclaimed novels in the realm of historical fiction. The first, The Glory of Patan, introduces the significant characters to the reader. Munjal Mehta, the shrewd but patriotic politician, Minaldevi, the Queen of Patan, her son Jaysinh and a host of other characters. The second book in the series, The Lord and Master of Gujarat, continues the historical saga. The third book, which is yet to be translated into English, is called Rajadhiraj, or The King of Kings.
The events of this story occur four years after the events of The Glory of Patan. The kingdom of Patan is under attack from the army of Avanti. Refugees flank the city. Amidst this arrives a brave warrior -Kaak. A series of events unfold…and they will change Gujarat forever!
A novel that has politics at its heart always scores very high. Politics intrigues the common man. The famed protagonist of this trilogy, Munjal Mehta, a politician from Gujarat is renowned for his able administration and long vision. His ideological honesty and integrity is deep founded. In a sense, he is the politician people would love to have!
Munshi’s deep involvement in politics gives his political fiction an authentic spin. After all, he occupied several prestigious positions in the administration and he was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and also a member of the Indian National Congress.
Munshi gets into the head of the shrewdest statesman- Munjal Mehta, whose sole aim is the consolidation of Gujarat under Siddhraj Jaysinh. The characterisation of Munjal is probably the best. If there is a thing as an ideal politician – Munjal is the one! In an earlier interview to this portal, the translators Ritu and Abhijit Kothari said about Munjal, “He combines in his statecraft methods of the mind and the battle; adapting and changing policies as he sees fit, and leaves his enemies surprised each time,”. No wonder, the character of Munjal remains relevant even today.
Most of the events that Munshi writes about are documented historical facts. However, he does take creative liberties with the same. Hence, one could say that he has weaved in a beautifully imagined story against an authentic historical background.
The romance between Kaak and Manjari is an integral part of this book. Readers of The Glory of Patan, the first book of the trilogy already know about the unfulfilled love between Munjal and Queen Minaldevi. Their mutual respect, deep bond and affection continues with greater force in this novel, and one cannot but be awed by their unique relationship.
Politics and romance at the core of the themes. However, many other themes get intertwined in this story and they remain pertinent to today’s times. “The debates on nation and religion; insider and outsider continue to be relevant today, more so in fact. The role of Jainism in matters of statecraft in Gujarat, the desire to forge a Hindu nation; the beckoning of Aryavrat – all these themes strike a chord,” explain the translators, as they discuss Munshi, the writer in the context of modern times. The Lord and Master of Gujarat also touches upon these themes.
One of the most endearing things about Munshi’s style of writing is that it is very simple. He does not get into long and detailed descriptions. Though this book spans 485 pages, never does the reader feel that it is stretched. He uses dialogue quite effectively to get the story moving. At any moment in the narrative the reader would be moving fast with the story.
I personally enjoyed the philosophical bits woven into the narrative. Either through the voice of the narrator or through dialogues, Munshi also talks about his views on power, politics and love. For example, the following lines talk about Munjal’s ultimate loneliness…
Great men who chart their own paths become inhabitants of lonely places, distanced from those around them. It is true that they reach great heights, but this height becomes their prison.
Munjal’s and Minaldevi’s conversations with Siddhraj Jaysinh, the king of Patan, are also quite illuminating as they guide the young king towards his rise.
Regional literature has much to offer. Great works of fiction form an integral part of our cultural heritage. We live in times where many of these nuanced stories are getting lost. By taking on the task of translating The Patan Trilogy into English, Ritu Kothari and Abhijit Kothari have enabled an English reading audience to get access to a veritable literary gem from Gujarat!
Even as readers relish The Lord and Master of Gujarat, the second book in the Patan Trilogy, we wait for the third and final book which completes a small part of the greater aim of the discovery of rich Gujarati literature that remains relevant for a modern audience!
Author: K. M. Munshi, Translated by Ritu Kothari and Abhijit Kothari.
Genre: Historical fiction
You cannot have all the answers by Deepa Agarwal is a collection of fifteen short stories that attempt to answer questions or rather, question established answers about some conflicting situations.
The stories in the book are very layered. There are undertones that simmer beneath. It takes sensitivity on the part of the reader to understand and appreciate these nuances. The first story, ‘Cradle Song’, is about a family of seven sisters and a one brother who crossed the border during partition and fled to Bombay to rebuild their lives. Two sisters go back to revisit their childhood home and are faced with an old cradle that holds memories. Behind this apparently nostalgic account is a smoldering tale of deprivation and of a feeling of neglect in childhood.
In this collection the author has experimented with modes of storytelling as well. The story ‘You cannot have all the answers’ from which the book takes its name contains a kind of magical realism. In ‘Closure’, it’s really tough not to admire the protagonist, Amma, and her fiery bravado. However, what’s more interesting is that the story conveys a poignant message even without reaching a conclusion. ‘The Path’ takes on the futility of war and its impact on common people just by describing a journey taken by a runaway soldier.
The story titled Karma was very touching, illuminating the inner life and mental state of a young girl married to her brother in law to take care of her ailing sister.
There is definitely a philosophical angle to the tales. Some of the themes they address are sexuality, youth, war, old age, obsessions and so on. The protagonists of the short stories are mostly women. Their tales carry their unique point of view, and their struggles.
The stories also illuminate a deep understanding of human psychology- without being judgmental. Why do people behave the way they do? What are the underlying thoughts and motivations that propel people to act in certain ways? What makes things different for women in the context of the society they are in? How does society cripple us? These are some of the questions that the stories indirectly seek to explore.
It is said that in life the journey is important and not the destination. In a sense, these stories chronicle fragments of such journeys. Each story does not necessarily have a conclusion or climax. Each event is not neatly tied up. Rather, the stories throw questions. Questions, which will make the reader think and ponder. Questions which may not really have answers, but still need to be deliberated upon. Because, in life, ultimately, You cannot have all the answers!
Author: Deepa Agarwal
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Genre: Short Stories/ Fiction
“As I heard my name being called on stage again for the Lifetime Achievement Award, my mind returned to the present and I slowly climbed the steps leading up to the stage. Each step was a reminder of the journey that has lasted over forty years. It was a journey filled with rejections, negative comments and disapprovals, along with appreciation, a lot of love and affection. I hope that I have somehow been the voice for people who remain shy, hidden and unknown and yearn for an outlet of expression,” writes Sudha Murty, in her latest book, Here, There and Everywhere. This also happens to be her 200th title. Murty has authored a plethora of books- fiction and non-fiction, for adults and children, as well as travelogues and technical books.
Here, There and Everywhere contains Murty’s experiences that have been published earlier on and handpicked for this edition. It also contains two new stories that illuminate two different areas that have been an interesting part of her life: her literary journey and her views on philanthropic activities.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on her literary journey, and the role played by her mother in encouraging these literary pursuits. Having studied in Kannada and only written in that language to becoming one of the popular authors in the country today, has been a long and eventful journey. From her early days of struggle to purchase books due to lack of money, to her gradual success as a writer, this chapter covers it all with candid humour. What remains poignant in the story is the fact that Murty realised early on that her writings touched people and made a difference to their lives. Armed with this knowledge she has used her tool- that of the pen, to continue making a difference to people’s lives.
The works of Sudha Murty have a very inspirational quality about them. In addition, the sheer simplicity of language and ideas make it accessible to all readers. She writes about this book: “I wanted to keep my style distinctive and portray it exactly the way I am,” Hence, the book is devoid of any flowery or ‘elitist’ language. It is more of a conversation that Murty wants to have with her readers.
Each short story in this book is actually a real life experience that Sudha Murty has woven into the narrative. Each instance is heartwarming and exemplifies how people can touch each other’s lives in a deep and meaningful manner.
The story, “May you be the mother of a hundred children” describes a sweet and subtle twist to this old blessing! “How to beat the boys” chronicles her experience of being the only girl along with 149 boys in an engineering college. She handled the ragging with gusto, facing mental trauma in a sense, but never gave up her academic goals. Inconveniences like absence of toilets for girls led her to later take up the task of construction of toilets for women. She broke gender barriers by always topping the classes and passing with flying colours. This story is inspirational for all and just shows what grit and determination can do. Her account of her work with devadasis is also heart wrenching! “The meaning of philanthropy” contains her views on philanthropy. One associates the name of Sudha Murty with some of the best philanthropic activities in the country.
Despite all the wealth and high social status that Sudha Murty is associated with, this is a book that shows how one person can change many lives. The stories show the true meaning of philanthropy, and an example of a life well lived.
Not all stories in this book are about her philanthropic activities. In her numerous travels she has encountered interesting personalities and somewhere or the other all these find a way into the stories.
Perhaps the best summary of the book is outlined in Murty’s own words, “this book contains some of my most cherished experiences that are like beautiful flowers to me and have been put together here as if to complete a garland.” Here, There and Everywhere by Sudha Murty is a timeless book that infuses the reader with a spirit of warmth and humanity!
OTHER BOOKS BY SUDHA MURTY
Author: Sudha Murty
The Kama Sutra is an ancient collection of erotic texts by Vatsyayana, a sage from the third century who compiled one of the best known texts on sexuality. Today, various scholars have interpreted the Kama Sutra and it makes a mark on the rich heritage of ancient texts of India.
However, while the Kama Sutra itself has elicited great interest worldwide, how many people have ever wondered about Vatsyayana himself? Who was he? What compelled him to write this treatise?
Jaya Misra, Writer, Director and Producer, takes us into the life and times of Vatsyayana, in her debut novel Kama. This is a fictionalized account of the tale of Vatsyayana.
It is the year 273 AD. There is trouble and unrest as the grip of the ancient Vedic texts loosens. An uncontrolled sense of freedom has led to chaos in a society that seems to be spiralling to moral destruction. It is against this backdrop, that the writer imagines Vatsyayana writing the great treatise.
Kama explores the motivation behind Vatsyayana’s task of compiling the Kama Sutra. Not much is known about this scholar which makes it possible to imagine the trajectory of his life. This is exactly what Misra does, building a background to the story behind the Kama Sutra. As she wittingly puts it, “like everything in our lives, this story too could be a version of the truth’
Bookedforlife chats with the author to unveil the story behind the Kama Sutra.
At first, it was curiosity, about the mind that wrote this book. When I first read the English translation, I was stunned to find out that Vatsyayana had compiled seven erotic books into one! Being a fiction writer, I began to wonder what his life must have been like. I was sure he was no celibate. For even though Kama Sutra is written rather pedantically, there is underlying wit, there is a deep insight. So, a picture of this intriguing deep philosophical sexy man began to form. I was sure from the moment I wrote the first word, that underneath the 2000-year-old Kamasutra, was the real story of the writer, that we will never know! That thought consumed me and I decided to write my version of what his life could have been like!
There is not much known about Vatsyayana historically, except that he wrote this book and at one point lived in Varanasi. He pays no homage to any King, therefore it’s even more difficult to pin him down. He reveals nothing of himself in the Kama Sutra. His date of birth is also under a 300-year discrepancy! To create a believable story, I decided to place him in an era that is hardly written about by historians, between the Mauryas and the Guptas. So, my book is entirely fiction. Each character, event and journey is fictional. The date is fictitious, as are his life and times. Only Kamasutra or any reference to it is real.
I read a lot about the Guptas and I took a lot of inspiration from Kalidasa’s plays, I travelled to ancient heritage sights, temples, spoke to a lot of professors of ancient history, to imagine a background. But then once I began to write all research sort of melted into one pot and a story rolled out! Professor Agarwal’s The Unknown Kama Sutra and A.N.D Haksar’s Kama Sutra were my favourite go-to research books. Haksar has possibly written the finest translation of the Kama Sutra. The Unknown Kama Sutra by Professor Agarwal is an undiscovered GEM! It is an anthology of ancient love aphorisms.
In my preface, I have stated that this was a time where learned men refused to believe that women could even orgasm. What could not be ejaculated did not exist. Therefore, in those days, women were not even allowed to study scriptures. Vatsyayana, in his initial chapters of the Kama Sutra, has very politically correctly and diplomatically, dealt with this, stating that women too are affected by Kama. Its only when they get to study it, they can learn how to practice it. Then, he goes ahead to write an entire book for men, about how to pleasure women! For me this was a bold stand taken by a man 2000 years ago for women to have equal rights in pleasure! Book 7 in Kamasutra is entirely about the rights of courtesans!
I am overwhelmed with the feedback flowing in from the readers. I feared that the erotica would be labelled porn. But most readers, old women, young men, middle aged readers, have written back that the sexual descriptions are very natural and sensual. I wrote this book with all my heart and soul! I’m just happy it has made an impact and people have related to the characters. All readers are hankering for a sequel. That’s a good sign, I suppose!
Honestly, being a screenwriter, I see things very visually in my head. Television writing has taught me the science of keeping the viewer gripped. The narrative was not something I had decided on, it just flowed out as I wrote the story. It was very natural for me to play with the past and present up to a point and then jump into the future. I think engaging tales come from the universe, with their own energy, to the story teller.
Author: Jaya Misra
Publisher: Om Books International
On 1 January 1818, Frankenstein, a novel that gained phenomenal success was published. The thrilling page turner was written by Mary Shelley. The book caught on immediately. It was so successful that people thought a man had written it…outrageous as this may sound right now! The appeal of Frankenstein still continues 200 years after its publication. Why is that so?
Let’s rewind back into the year 1816, the year when this classic was first conceptualized. It was on a night in 1816 that a group of young Romantic poets gathered together and read ghost stories. One can well imagine the scenario that took place by the shores of Lake Geneva on this dark stormy night. The setting was the salon of Lord Byron. Lord Byron, the famed poet, Byron’s doctor John William Polidori, poet Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley sat talking about philosophy and life. Byron suggested that each of them write a ghost story. The rest, as they say is history.
The story is about Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who is determined to defy nature. He takes the process of creation into his own hands and creates a living being from dead tissue. This nameless being is called ‘The Creature’ in the novel. What ensues is a saga that is as relevant to humanity today as it was 200 years back. What happens to the creature? What is his relationship with his creator? Does this feat turn into a great scientific contribution or does it spiral into something else? The exciting storyline keeps the reader enthralled till the very end.
Even 200 years after the book was published, readers are enthralled by this novel. What is the reason for this timeless appeal of Frankenstein? I believe that humans are constantly at odds with nature. As science seeks to unravel the mysteries of nature and take things in its own hands, nature springs new surprises. We human beings have always used science as a tool to further our progress. We use science to understand natural phenomenon and to control things that were originally beyond our control. Though the world has seen much scientific progress, and though we have spiraled to great heights in terms of scientific advancement, we have still not been able to master death. This conflict of control between science and nature- the control that we seek over nature, will always remain. Till then, any body of work that addresses this conflict will never lose its charm!
Mary Shelley: How Frankenstein is linked to her life
It is very tempting to seek parallels between the life of an author and her work. More often than not, one does find that there are some surprising similarities. Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, a writer and feminist in her own right, died giving birth to her. The separation of the creator and the created echoes in the book as well. Victor Frankenstein’s mother also dies early. Moreover, after giving life to “the creature” Frankenstein is repulsed by it- maybe echoing the feelings that Mary Shelley’s father had when he lost his wife and was left to care for little Mary. The feelings of anger and loss so prevalent in her tumultuous life also find expression in Frankenstein.
Have you read Frankenstein?
Coming back to the novel in question, we can safely say that Frankenstein remains a timeless work. It is so popular and has pervaded our collective consciousness so much, that the dictionary actually has a meaning for the word “Frankenstein”! It means (and you guessed right) a thing that destroys its creator.
The Frankenstein magic continues 200 years on. This is probably a great time to read or reread the classic. The appeal of Frankenstein will not diminish!
V. Raghunathan’s first novel, Return to Jammu, is the story of Balan- the son of a junior army officer. In a friendly conversational tone, the author takes us through Balan’s life, weaving in a nostalgic story of love and loss.
Return to Jammu starts off, almost chronologically, with Balan’s background and childhood days. As one reads through the minutiae one gets a glimpse of the India of the 1950s. The plot is not entirely evident in the first few chapters. But, before the reader dismisses this building up as trivial, he or she is completely taken in by V. Raghunathan’s great sense of humour. The author’s trademark sarcasm laces the entire story. Each page brings a smile to the face…or a hearty chuckle!
Consider the following lines where he talks about birthday celebrations:
Besides, not having celebrated Urmila’s first birthday with any fanfare, my mother was loathe to make any song and dance about my first birthday just because I was an only boy. She had, after all, made no song and dance for Urmila, the only girl. But try telling that to good Punjabis; they may make the warmest of friends and neighbours but do not easily take no for an answer, especially in matters of sons and feasts.
Off to Jammu…
Balan arrives at Pathankot, and the family travels to Jammu where his father is to be based. The ensuing descriptions of seven years in the area throw up many interesting themes. One gets an idea of the landscape of Jammu in the 1950s-the brown canals with iced water, the local flora and fauna that were an integral part of the childhood described by the author.
The author’s descriptions also evoke the feel of an era past, where people lived so differently. For instance, simple things like the use of aluminum casted heating coil to heat bathing water in a tub, and how sub canals doubled up as refrigerators is quite far from the scenario today. The simple childhood he evokes, the schooling of those years, unrestricted time with siblings and the close knit neighborhood will surely take the reader down the memory lane.
Interspersed with the relatively isolated life in Jammu, he talks about world events that also occurred during that time, such as the launch of Sputnik by Russia and so on. Indian political events such as the leadership of Nehru and wars with China and Pakistan form a part of the narrative. But, these major events do not change life drastically for the young Balan.
In a sense it paints a vivid picture of India of that time through the eyes of a child- the humdrum of daily life, a father who’d rather avoid the responsibility of a good husband and dad, growing up with two sisters in an India vastly different from today, a mother who managed the house with strain and dedication…..these are all elements that form the early part of the narration.
However, as Balan grows he turns out to be dedicated, hardworking and confident. Life takes him to the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad. He meets a girl named Jasmine who he recounts as a childhood friend, Jeevan Asha. They had spent many memorable years in Jammu. However, she does not acknowledge this. This is when the reader’s curiosity peaks.
The book then moves fast, amidst this heightened ‘suspense’. Balan makes a trip to Jammu to find out the truth about Jeevan Asha. Will the journey reveal if the girl he has met is indeed his childhood friend? Will the visit reveal a changed city torn from the idyllic Jammu of his past?
Jammu has changed indeed. When Balan returns he sees a different land from the one he grew up in. This comes across poignantly in the descriptions of the canals of his childhood:
If my first sight of the same canal has astonished me in 1959 for the beautiful view it held, now, in 1983, it’s condition shocked me. What had been a beautiful, flowing and clean canal was now a shallow slush, full of garbage, with an abundance of polythene bags, a couple of street curs and a few crows, one of them even pecking at a dead frog.
The end is touching and equally poignant. It may describe an event in the life of one individual, but the reader will see that human emotions and situations are common across all. In that sense, love and loss, and how we deal with them, will always remain common concerns.
V. Raghunathan is an academic and has written vastly in the nonfiction genre. This is his first fiction book. The instances in the novel and probably bits of the character of Balan himself seem to be inspired by his own life.
Filled with nostalgia this is also a story about growing up, leaving the innocence of childhood and dealing with pain and loss as one navigates through life. A great sense of humour pervades Return to Jammu, which makes it a heady mix of humour fueled nostalgia!
Title: Return to Jammu
Author: V. Raghunathan
OTHER BOOKS BY V. RAGHUNATHAN
The Legend of Virinara by Usha Alexander seems to be a parable of modern times in its concerns and themes though it is set in an ancient world where the monarch, Raja Vijay rules the mighty state Virinara. The powerful king expands his kingdom, eating into the surrounding forests. However, the forest dwellers are not ones to be subdued. They respond with an act of terror. The kingdom, that has been peaceful so far, is shaken.
Peace and compromise is the only way out. Raja Vijay’s beloved sister Shanti ventures deep into the forest alone to seek a solution. But stories of power and politics are never so simple. She falls in love with the forest warrior Narun. A peacemaker between the two rivals, she seeks a nonviolent path to resolving the conflict. Does she succeed in establishing peace or are humans ever destined for war and the havoc that ensues?
The story is narrated by Shanti, in a flashback. Her half sibling who has renounced worldly life to become a monk writes the story as she narrates it. The narrative moves back and forth from the present to past thus adding interesting layers to the tale.
The fast paced story moves towards its conclusion with twists and turns that keep the reader anticipating what the next turn of events would be. The politics of the royalty, the basic difference between the lives of the modern settled folk and the nomads, the hierarchical nature of society, the corrupting nature of power, putting individual animosities above common good- all these are the factors that come in the way of ‘diplomatic conversations’ and peaceful solutions to the problem.
We are in a world filled with conflicts of all kinds. There is an internal conflict between who we wish to be and who we believe we have to become for the sake of duty. The characters undergo these complex internal conflicts. And then, there is an external conflict that we are all familiar with. The conflict between the forest dwellers and the town dwellers who seek to expand into the forest forms an important theme as well. The conflicting interests between groups, the role of diplomacy, tact and violence in this saga makes it a story that is so relevant to our times despite being set in the past.
The Legend of Virinara is set in times when the role and status of women was relegated to childbearing and running the household. Against this background, the women of the Royal household who are integral to the story are strong and they try and rise above the ‘status’ accorded to them by society. Eelar-amma, the kings step mother, is a wise and just woman who uses her influence for the good of all. The protagonist Shanti, is a brave woman who steers the course of her own life despite trying factors around her.
The Legend of Virinara clearly has a deep philosophical message about life and the times we live in. It also shows the importance of forming your own philosophies rather than being brainwashed by prevailing thoughts. As Shanti says in the book of her knowledge and growth, “I sampled them all: Mahavira, Carvaka, other teachers from distant lands- even obscure cults and unsung teachers, whose names have long since dropped from our discourses. I devoted myself finally to none of them. I found each of them incomplete. I walk my own way. And that’s what I encourage in the youths who come to learn from me,”
In that sense the book portrays that “There are different ways of understanding and knowing and not every story is true in the same way,”
It also illuminates how individual equations interfere with larger scheme of things. As Shanti encapsulates her life in words, her discussions with the monk reveal deep philosophies that seek to find a solution to the problems that mankind has always faced- problems of conflict and violence.
Perhaps the best way to describe The Legend of Virinara is in these words- “It’s your story and it is our story. A true story of our world. Perhaps someone will find a reflection of themselves and their times in your words,”.
Title: The Legend of Virinara
Author: Usha Alexander
Publisher: Penguin Books
Sonia Shah’s book, The Fever, an account of the journey of one of the most pervasive and deadliest diseases on earth- Malaria, could not have been better timed. Even as the book seeks to uncover the mystery of malaria, there are movements world over to grapple with this disease. As the recently held Malaria Summit London 2018 showed, we have reached a stage where global political will has to be directed towards the eradication of this disease that has plagued mankind for years, and continues to do so. The summit provided backing to this cause and called upon the Commonwealth nations to show bold political action against what is clearly the world’s deadliest disease.
Man and mosquito…the relationship spans centuries. Investigative journalist Sonia Shah looks into the complex struggle of mankind to eradicate and overpower the dreadful disease malaria.
“Humans have suffered the disease for more than 500,000 years. And not only does it still plague us, but it has also become even more lethal. That’s quite a feat for a disease that we’ve known to prevent and cure for more than a hundred years”, writes Shah, thereby setting the context for the book.
Why does malaria tax us so?
Despite knowing how to avoid it, and what causes it, we’ve still not managed to overpower malaria. Why?
The Fever discusses various reasons as to why malaria continues to be a ferocious and pervasive killer. Based on research and interactions with experts Shah outlines several factors that lead to this scenario. The intrinsic parasitical nature of the pathogen, conquests and colonization that exposed those who had no inherent immunity to the germ and many other factors have contributed to this.
Human factors also augment the problem. Rapid Construction and urbanisation, stagnant water, changes in local ecology, building dams and digging trenches for wars are only some of these reasons. In fact, the book even describes how malaria is one of the problems associated with climate change.
Right from the early ages when tribes hacked forests to grow plants thus unknowingly creating great conditions for mosquitoes to breed and thrive in, to modern unbridled urbanization which again gives creates favourable environs, the human-mosquito connections have been going on for years.
As Shah puts it, “Our mining, logging and farming projects continue to disrupt environmental conditions in ways that create and spread malaria to this day,”.
She also quotes many examples of how seemingly progressive developmental measures set off a fertile ground for mosquitoes to attack once more. For example, the agricultural and mineral extraction projects of the Brazilian government disrupted the Amazon jungle environment. The resultant case load of malaria infected patients is anyone’s guess. Closer home, the building boom in Mumbai has been linked to a sharp rise in cases of malaria as well.
Unsurprisingly, she says, “Part of the problem is that some of the most desirable natural resources rest under prime malaria stomping grounds,”.
An expert opinion
It takes but a glance at the bibliography behind the book to gauge the exhaustive referencing done for the purpose of this book.
Well, it’s not all bookish stuff though! The references in the book notwithstanding, Shah has travelled across the world to meet experts in the realm in a host of places including South America, Africa and India to unravel this mystery of malaria. Her acute and sharp observations coupled with inputs from experts also makes up a good portion of the book.
What I found particularly interesting is the history of development of the mosquito as a parasite- how the germ developed into a parasite as a part of its evolution. There is also a detailed explanation of how exactly the malarial parasite works- a kind of look into its operations if you please!
Talking of evolution, there are many interesting descriptions in the book that bring out how three different evolutions have resulted in the situation we find ourselves in today: first, the evolution of mosquitoes. Second, the evolution of the plasmodium that the mosquito carries. Lastly, the evolution of human response to this.
Shah neatly ties together these three aspects.
In between the more scientific explanations of the spread of malaria, there are some interesting historical nuggets that the reader will enjoy. What role did malaria play in the loss of independence of Scotland? How did it intensify racial bias against Africans, due to different immune responses? Did the Roman penchant for fountains lead to a relatively quicker spread? These are truly the stories that make the book interesting.
Human beings have always been armed with drugs that counter the disease. The earliest known cure from plant extracts such as quinine from the cinchona tree has an interesting history behind it, which is outlined in detail in the book. Who knew that the world wars would lead to the loss of this divine remedy when Japan seized control of the production? However, this led to the development of other drugs in medical labs.
The book traces the development of medical interventions for malaria, in the West as well as the East. For example, artemisinin from China was extracted by referring to ancient Chinese methods. The book chronicles the struggle for the ‘right’ drug at accessible prices against the backdrop of power struggles and unregulated production of drugs, sometimes unfortified with another combination drug (like in case of artemisinin) that caused the parasite to develop resistance against the medicine. Fake drugs and drug monopoly are also issues that plague the efforts of malaria eradication, and she discusses these as well. It is fascinating to read how malaria has defanged drugs designed to obliterate it.
While the book outlines the dismal health care facilities in countries like Africa, the pathetic conditions that force people to rely on traditional cures rather than modern medicines, it is chronicles the beauty of the relentless work that health experts world over are doing to eradicate this disease.
Shah establishes that since malaria is altered by local conditions, a one size fits all approach can’t be used here.
She takes a critical look at different aspects of malaria treatment research such as vaccine research, role of DDT, the neglect of developed nations in making an effort to eradicate malaria, treated nets and so on.
The reader may just also catch hints of irony and sarcasm as she mentions the gap between the highly funded NGOs that take on the disease eradication efforts and the ground realities- showing that sadly, things are more complex than what they seem.
The light touches of humour that mark the book make it quite accessible to non-experts as well. Shah mentions in the book, “It is as if scientists had to come up with a whole new language to talk about Malaria,”. Thankfully however, her own language is quite simple, readable and laced with humour.
But, there are some poignant and sad moments as well. Researchers may talk about malaria and related deaths in a purely scientific way. However, Shah gently brings in the human aspect when she discusses case studies of how the deadly parasite has been fatal for many. In touching descriptions, the text reveals how sometimes despite all the efforts to fight the parasite, a sense of hopelessness sometimes reigns.
The book will be of interest to practitioners involved in malaria treatments, students, those who have keen interest in studying the development and treatment of diseases, people from the pharmaceutical industry as well as those who seek to enhance their knowledge on this topic that has great implications for human health. It also holds important lessons for those involved in policy making and health care.
The Fever by Sonia Shah is a well-researched and robust attempt to solve the mystery of malaria.
Author: Sonia Shah
Publisher: Penguin Books
OTHER BOOKS BY SONIA SHAH
Art is a beautiful way to express one’s ideas and feelings. Many people shy away from it as they get lost in its complexity and abstraction. Art Apart is a young company aiming to create art related products which will engage the viewers in more active way. One of the product lines, visual story books, enables everyone to make their own interpretation of the ‘story’ through their own experiences and tastes.
The books created by Art Apart have almost no text, but only images. They are open to interpretation in carried ways. This makes reading the same book a very different experience for different readers. In a sense, using the term ‘books’ to describe their ‘books’ seems odd as well…. their ‘books’ are shaped like accordions, cards, fold-outs and what not.
All the books created by Art Apart try and make a point. What kind of experience do you want to provide to your reader?
All the books have a definite storyline, but because there is no text in them and the narration is only through illustrations, one is compelled to think of the textual narrative for themselves. To create this narrative, everybody has to understand the story in their own way. Their age, occupation, experiences influence the way they would interpret the story. So in that sense it becomes their own story. This experience of becoming the co-author of the book is what I think is very important and unique.
What age groups are the books for? Are specific books targeted at a particular age group?
Anybody of any age can own these books and make them their story. We have a notion that all illustrated books are for children and not for adults. That’s why most of the books for adults have lots of text and no illustrations. So, I have deliberately reversed this format for my books- There is no text, only visuals. I believe children are very comfortable with illustrations. They immediately start creating their own stories by looking at visuals. It becomes a little difficult for adults to adapt to this format. When they hold this book, they immediately start searching for the pages with text on them. And when they realize that there is none anywhere, they either dismiss it concluding that it is for children or ask the creator why is it the way it is.
You have experimented with the form of the book. What was the thought process?
The thought process behind the books is very simple – if you want to tell a story, tell it straight. Draw simple illustrations. Draw only what is necessary. Draw every step of the narration, and remember, if you understand the story when complete, then everybody will.
The form of the accordion books is not my original idea. It evolved when we were discussing about how differently we can present these sequential stories in the best manner possible. The name accordion book is given because of the way it opens up, bit by bit, like an accordion. The form of these books is very flexible. The viewer can either see one or two panels at a time or the whole story according to their preference. In accordion books, the story unfolds step by step, so there is a sense of surprise and excitement about what could come next. It is a very dynamic form for the creator as well because they have to adapt the story according to the form it is going to be presented in. There is a possibility of continuing the story at the backside as well and maybe connecting it to the front side so that there is a circular narration. For the viewers also it is more of an engaging form than a normal book.
When I want to convey an idea, not necessarily in a linear way, I like the form of separate cards. These cards can be handled freely, as a collection or as individual cards. They can be arranged in any manner the viewer wants, as a single entity or collectively. They can be displayed on a wall or hung by a thread or can be devised as a game.
What is your inspiration?
I am more of a doer than a thinker. When I paint, I don’t usually think about the output beforehand. I start by choosing a piece of paper and a few materials to draw with. Initially I draw whatever comes in my mind at that moment and that line or shape or colour on the paper inspires me to develop the painting further. I follow this process till I think it is enough. I don’t restrict myself with conventional canvas and oil paint combination. I like trying out different materials like stones, charcoal, thread, oil pastels, foil paper, used cardboard boxes, printed paper, etc. that are available around us in different forms. The process of application also changes with materials used. With all these raw materials, one can do lots of different things like cutting, pasting, smudging, mixing, etc. New, exciting materials around me and the different kinds of processes that come with them inspire me to create. I am constantly observing my surroundings and drawing inspiration from various things, not consciously every time. Some experiences get stored in your head and they come out sometime in different ways, through unexpected outcomes.
Can you share some of the feedback for your books?
I was overwhelmed by the ways in which people appreciated and responded to my products. They related their own experiences and interests with stories and created various meanings out of them. People from various disciplines also related with various instances from their work life to interpret the stories and ideas behind our products in their own way.
I met many counsellors and therapists who thought the products were good tools to initiate conversation among a group of people or for behavioural training programs. I interacted with a Ph.D. student who was doing her research on mental illness, and thought that the interactive cards could be useful to have an unusual conversation with her subjects. Many school teachers were interested in the products as means to stimulate abstract thinking and creativity among their students. People from design schools were interested in using these cards for stimulating visual thinking and design thinking. Many social organizations were interested in using them for training programs, team building and capacity building.
It was a great experience to watch people go through the products. There were expressions of utter confusion, joy, surprise, realization on people’s faces which were very satisfactory to watch. Some children started narrating stories as soon as they started scrolling through the book. Some adults took time to get used to the idea of stories without any text in them. Some went through the book from end towards the start, only to realize that there is a certain story there and then started from the beginning again. Some were more interested in the poems at the back of the book while some went back and forth multiple times to connect the visuals. Just watching variety of people interacting with something that I had created was a very fulfilling experience for me.
How do you market the books?
Right now we are planning to sell our products in three ways: Firstly, by registering with art and literature festivals like Kala Ghoda Art Festival to create awareness about our products and to get constructive and application-related feedback from our potential consumers. Secondly we will try to sell our products by specifically targeting institutional buyers such as schools, schools for children with special needs, organizations providing behavioural training, etc. Thirdly, we will try to sell our products through our website –www.artapart.in. We are also planning to make them available for sale through Amazon in the near future.
Art Apart has indeed changed the way we look at books and narration. Here’s looking forward to many more products and books that marry art, book making, storytelling and personal interpretation.