The Taj conspiracy
Book Review, Historical, Thriller

The Taj conspiracy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

The taj conspiracy The Taj conspiracy is a thriller from a genre in Indian writing that is just waking up to its potential – crime fiction. Also the fact that this is based on one of the perennial controversy surrounding the Taj Mahal – of its very authenticity, makes it a compelling pick

So far so good. The positioning is brilliant. The question then is – is the story and the writing to the mark? Read on…

As you start reading this, you get a sense of deja-vu. Which is confirmed as the first chapter goes by you and realize that "The Taj Conspiracy" is heavily inspired by "Da Vinci Code". The strong woman with a powerful sense of history, a murder victim who leaves clues with his own blood, a elderly intellectual who is steeped in the history of Taj Mahal, an investigator who starts believing as the story moves on…

The good thing about the inspiration is that it does not stretch too far. You see the obvious similarities but it is never a pale imitation. Instead the Indian context is brought out well. And after a few chapters, you forget about Da Vinci code and begin enjoying the book in its own right

And its time that we get a doughty and attractive women sleuth of our own!! Mehrunnisa Khosa, she of the exotic name and the exotic origin fits the bill.

The book opens with a murder right inside the Taj and unravels with a plot to destroy the Taj Mahal itself. And it only gets more exciting. Bringing in politicians and fringe fanatic groups, the story never loses steam through to its ending. There can be no joy in telling a story in a review, especially one like this. It just has to be picked up to be read!!

What the "Taj Conspiracy" does well is bringing to life the controversies surrounding Taj Mahal. And brings to life, how the conspiracies resonate to this day bringing in politicians and media and fringe groups of all hues. Its refreshing to see an Indian mystery/thriller based on historical intrigues. India's history is laden with riches just waiting to be mined by storytellers. Its a wonder why it has not happened on a large scale till now

This is where Manreet Sodhi Someshwar does well. The research is upto the mark and contributes a great deal to the readability. And Manreet succeeds where many authors falter – meshing the research with the storyline. Amidst all the running and shooting and killings and revelations, the wonder of the mystery is never far off.

In fact, this book will open up the Taj Mahal for the readers once again. I know that the next time I go there, I would beManreet sodhi seeing it with new eyes and not what the guide or the guide book tells me. And if a book can open up something new in something that seemed so familiar, I daresay that its worth reading…

I have a small gripe though. The character development could have been improved a little more. Manreet creates fascinating characters that could have been fleshed out a bit more. At the end of the book, the characters remained slightly one-dimensional.

But then, Manreet has planned a whole trilogy with Mehrunnisa Khosa. So lots of space to iron out the chinks…
Overall, a book worth picking up. And in the fledgling genre of Indian mystery, this quality book is a great step forward. Looking forward to see which mystery Manreet throws at us next…

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Gladiators Arthur Koestler
Book Review, Historical, Recently Posted

Gladiators written by Arthur Koestler

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‘It is written: the wind comes and the wind goes, and does not leave a trace. Man comes, and man is gone, and knows nothing of the fate of his fathers and has no knowledge of the future of his seed. The rain falls into the river, and the river drowns in the sea, but the sea becomes no greater. All is vanity.’

 

Gladiators by Arthur Koestler is a retelling of the Spartacus story that will leave cringing those who lapped up Kirk Douglas in the role of the slave revolutionary and those who have read Howard Fast's "Spartacus".

This is a story not particularly of Spartacus as it is about his revolution. And the fate of any revolution as envisioned by Arthur Koestler

Spartacus is a completely historical figure who is shrouded in a mythical aura.

One of the most well known rebel in history, the word Spartacus has come to define defiance in the face of oppression and freedom in the face of tyranny. Little is known about him factually since his history was written by the ones who vanquished him, the Roman republic.

The legend of Spartacus has lived down to the present day and has continued to inspire revolutionaries. Any slave rebellion, before slavery went out of fashion, was compared to the Spartacus revolution. Toussaint L Overture, who found a slave republic in Haiti, was known as the "Black Spartacus". The long shadow of the insurrection by the gladiators 2000 years ago…

It is easy to romanticize Spartacus and the slave rebellion. It has all the ingredients of a modern day Hollywood hit – complete with a square jawed hero standing upto the might of the Roman empire. A slave, a gladiator, a trained killer who kills for the crowds pleasure turning on his master and attempts to change the course of history single-handedly.

A Spartacus that gives stirring speech – of the equality of man and right to freedom and then inspires his fellow slaves to start a rebellion that shook the Roman Empire to its core. The tragic end, the underdog going down fighting, crushed by treachery and bad luck but preserving his honour till the end.

The "I am Spartacus" at the end of the Kirk Douglas movie was stirring but probably untrue.

Almost seems formulaic and scripted.

Except that it really happened…

Not the melodrama.

But the rebellion was a unique aberration in the long history of empire building of the Romans. It did shake the empire and Spartacus did inspire awe and fear among his enemies. Hannibal and Spartacus were the favourite bogeymen of Roman mothers – Hannibal a decorated enemy prince and Spartacus a mere arena gladiator.

The memory of Spartacus in Roman society, completely dependent on submissive slave force, was immense and deep…

Although what he spoke and thought or even what he looked like has not been recorded. If he ever wrote a memoir, it has been lost to posterity. So Spartacus is an open field for interpretation. And since everyone likes a dashing hero, people have forged him in their own imagination

Gladiators Arthur Koestler Where Koestler's book "Gladiators" differs from tellings is that it looks at the Spartacus revolution as a whole and does not dwell on the man himself. Koestler's Spartacus is not a superman but an extraordinary man thrust into greatness in an environment not of his choosing. Koestler's Spartacus is not a man who has a great vision of history or of his rebellion but is willing to learn along the way. He is an able leader, a brilliant tactician and a man who is willing to lead his people. He is not without his doubts but is willing to find answers and experiment

"Gladiators" is more about is the rebellion itself with Spartacus just a character. Koestler's telling of the story is about how the rebellion, and by extension all the rebellions before and after, exists outside of the characters.

Spartacus is not above the rebellion. In fact it is the rebellion which controls him. Inexorably, history pulls Spartacus and Crixus and the other slaves into an iconic rebellion they themselves had not planned. It does not start with any stirring speech but with an act of defiance.

The nature of man takes care of the next part and history at its time completes the story. The yearning for freedom is the most innate feeling of man. Spartacus just follows it and then acts according to what is thrown at him.

“Gladiators” is about the inevitable failure of a mass revolutionary movement that is based on ideals alone. The utopia that exists in the dreams of man is doomed to failure, 2000 years ago or a century ago. One man’s search for utopia is different from other’s search for utopia. Inevitably, good actions for the greater good ends up doing the same damage that the revolution originally intended to abolish. Spartacus had to crucify his own men to uphold his dream, the same way that the Cheka (the early secret police of the Soviets) imprisoned their own people to uphold the common man’s utopia.

"Gladiators" is also about two men of the revolution – Spartacus and Crixus, two faces of the same rebellion. Spartacus is the idealized hero, looking to find cosmic answers to his endeavors. Crixus only knows one dictum – "Eat or be eaten". Spartacus realizes the truth of Crixus at the end and Crixus,in the end appreciates what Spartacus represented about the revolution.

Koestler throws open the question to the reader – who was the real hero? Spartacus who toiled for the ideal "Sun State" only to demolish it himself or dour faced Crixus, who knew that nothing is worth the effort and one should just live for themselves.

And that is the real thrust of the book – Can a revolution actually succeed without compromising on its lofty ideals? Can a revolution against oppression survive without oppressing its own children? Can a revolution exist outside of human nature? Can valour and sacrifice justify the dictum of – for the greater good? Can a revolution succeed when promising a paradise tomorrow and giving hell today?

This being the first of Koestler's trilogy, next being "Darkness at Noon" and ………, you can see Koestler developing hisArthur koestler- theory of revolutions which he sharpens with his "Darkness at Noon", the most famous of his work. But even if "Darkness at Noon" was about the Russian Revolution and "Gladiators" is set in ancient Rome, the same theme recurs.

Koestler is saying that nothing changes, even after 2000 years.

It is not a book that would be easily recommended to someone who is about to start Koestler, but I would suggest reading this before reading his other work. Not only can you see the progression of Koestler's ideas but Gladiators is a brilliant book in its own right.

It is surprising that it is not more widely known. Maybe"Darkness at Noon" overshadows this or probably people are happy with the fairy tale telling of the other Spartacus…

End point – this thin book will probably change more than a few beliefs – about history, about idealism, about myths and about rebellions….A must have…

 

Some quotes Gladiators by Arthur Koestler –

 

‘Anyone can live—but dying is an art and takes some learning,’ he kept on admonishing his gladiators

 

‘Truly,’ he said to the slaves, ‘your chains must be dear to your hearts and of great bliss to your bodies. I for one cannot see anything else on this estate that you can call your own and could wish to defend with your lives. Or did they tell me lies, or do those fowls lay eggs for your breakfast, do those cows yearn for the bull to increase your herds,

 

the relatives of Death, such as Honour, Shame and Duty, exist for him only who has no ken of reality. For reality, mucous, unspeakably delicate, with its mesh of thin veins, is not made to be torn to bits by some pointed object. And now Praetor Clodius Glaber knows that dying is unutterably stupid—more stupid still than life itself

 

So there it was again, the Sign on which the gladiator’s fate depended. There was no escape from it. Jewelled, loosely wrinkled, that thumb pointed down, dishonoured life and degraded death to a spectacle, pierced even one’s dreams.

 

It is the same with prophecies as with clothes. There they hang in the tailor’s shop, many men pass them, many a man they would fit. One comes and takes the robe. And so it is made for him—for he has taken it unto him…. What really matters is, that it suits fashion and period. It must fit in with the taste of the time—the wishes of many—the need and longing desire of many…

 

He who aims to plant a garden must start out by weeding

 

He himself had once seen better days: and despite his earnest endeavours to do so he had never been able to imagine the mental make-up of a man who had never seen better days

 

Many a man has strutted the road of tyranny, at the outset solely with the purpose of serving his lofty ideals, and in the end the road alone made him carry on

 

It is the same as with war: everybody discusses it, some are for it, some against, but no one honestly believes that it will eventually materialise; and when it is really upon them, they are astounded that they were right. There is no surprise greater than that of the prophet whose prophecies come true. For there is a great laziness of habit in the thoughts of man, and a smiling voice deeply buried inside him, which whispers that Tomorrow will be just like Today and Yesterday. And, against his better judgment, he believes it. And that is really a mercy, for otherwise he could not live with the knowledge of his certain death

 

and also crosses grew in a corner by the North Gate, on which died those whose lives were forfeited in the interests of common welfare, those who had not been able to submit to the stern laws of freedom

 

In the evenings people told each other stories about the wicked time of slavery, it lay far behind them, and now only half of it was true

 

He means well, you say? Of course he means well, that’s the worst of it

 

For the damage done by the congenitally wicked tyrant is confined to the field of his personal interests and his personal cruelty; but the well-meaning tyrant who has a lofty reason for everything, can do unlimited damage

 

And I tell you, it is dangerous to combine so much power in the fist, and so many lofty reasons in the head, of one single person. In the beginning the head will always order the fist to strike from lofty reasons; later on the fist strikes of its own accord and the head supplies the lofty reasons afterwards

 

But past experience evaporates quickly from the memory of man, and the more tormenting the experience, the quicker it devours every trace of itself

 

But man is not allowed to shape his existence independently of the system, conditions and laws of his time

 

Who cast the die, decided a man’s life before he was born? He gave noses unto all of them, stuck eyeballs into them, guts and sex, without much difference. But he set them apart in their mothers’ wombs already, some were never to smile, nor be smiled at, the others were dragged into the light of day, and for them shone the sun

 

‘Can you hear them, brethren, do you hear them?’ shrieked Zozimos and waved his sleeves like banners. ‘Do you hang well, brethren? Does freedom cut nicely into your limbs? Do its splinters tear your flesh? It’s the Sun State, that stuff which flows red from your mouths. They’ve skewered you like worms, so that every one may see the time of Justice and Goodwill is come

 

As for your returning, I can see quite well why you did it,’ said Hegio. ‘I too have within me those two opposed energies: the desire to depart and the desire to remain. You might also call them the desire to destroy and the desire to preserve. There are only those two whether you search without or within you; and their strife is eternal. For each victory gained by one over the other is but a sham-conquest which cannot last; just as the change from life into death has its vicious circle and is only seemingly final. He who departs remains chained to his memories, and he who stays abandons himself to painful longings. And throughout the ages men and women have crouched on ruins, lamenting they said: the time is not ripe, it is either too young or too old

 

THIS IS THE LAST RESTING PLACE OF HERMIOS, A LUCANIAN SHEPHERD; HE LONGED TO EAT FIELDFARE WITH BACON JUST ONCE BUT WAS PREVENTED. YOU WHO PASS HERE, REMEMBER THAT NO ONE SHOULD EAT FIELDFARE WITH BACON AS LONG AS ONE MAN LIVES ON THIS EARTH WHO MAY NOT TASTE OF THEM

 

‘It is written: the wind comes and the wind goes, and does not leave a trace. Man comes, and man is gone, and knows nothing of the fate of his fathers and has no knowledge of the future of his seed. The rain falls into the river, and the river drowns in the sea, but the sea becomes no greater. All is vanity.’

 

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Book Review, Classics, Non-Fiction

Age of Reason – Thomas Paine

 
 
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Just finished reading Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason"

 
What can I say?
 
That a book written more than 200 years ago could find so much resonance today is something that is needs to be read to be believed
 
Thomas Paine was a man who was so far ahead of his time that he would be called far ahead of his time today!!
 
Thomas_Paine_(cropped) (1) The moral courage and the personal integrity that exemplified his entire life marks his written work. Age of Reason was a book that caused such an explosion in its time that it did two things – immortalized him for posterity and condemned him during his lifetime.
 
Yet at the end of his life, when he was dying a painful death, deserted by friends and shunned by people who had hailed him a hero once, he stuck to what he had believed in and displayed the same sense of sarcastic humour that he showed in his work. A life lived as written
 
Age of Reason is an all out attack on the system of organized religion – more specifically Christianity, this being the religion that Paine encountered in England, France and America, the places where he lived and fought all his life. Paine was a brilliant pamphleteer and so was used to laying out his ideas concisely and clearly without using any dense logic or arguments. He uses the same technique in his writings.
 
Reading this, even 200 years later, feels like a stirring call to arms. And the fact that a large part of this book was written and completed at a time when Thomas Paine was under the belief that he could be executed anytime makes you appreciate the book more…
 
There are two important aspects of the book that stands out – the material of the book and the way it is written
 
The material of the book is based on a simple premise – Organized religion is a sham at best and dangerous at worst. This is because the purpose of organized religion is to make us act contrary to our innermost feelings, filling our head with impossible and fantastic things that has no basis in reality. The only true religion is that of Deism and the true bible is Nature.
 
Because, as Paine explains so beautifully, God has anyway given us an abundance of miracles in everything around us, in existence itself. Why do we need foolish miracles or religion? This was the first time that material like this was published in a direct and plainly written attack, even though the thoughts on which Paine based his work had been around for some time – in the work of David Hume and Spinoza for example.
 
The book is divided into two parts – the first is a general discussion on religion and on Paine's personal beliefs. This is where he puts forward his most compelling and beautiful arguments for the religion of the mind and the heart. He explains what he feels and why he feels so. The second part deals directly with Christianity. Deals is a wrong word actually. Rips apart is perhaps more appropriate. Paine takes some of the implied and maybe even cherished beliefs of Christians and literally rips them to shred…
 
Which brings me to the fascinating way the book is written. He is attacking organized religion in open field, which at that time was immensely powerful and controlled almost every aspect of life. Yet, he never uses any circular arguments, does not hide behind any one else and or any other theory. His attacks are straight to the point and argued so logically and beautifully that the modern reader will still find the reasoning fascinating, no matter how many Richard Dawkins he may have read.
 
When he is attacking Christianity, he maintains his good quality acerbic humour to mock the beliefs and at the same time gives irrefutable proof of why he considers the beliefs to be wrong. He picks up different aspects of Christianity – the bible and its different books, the299283333_7316acf53f characters of Moses, Joshua, Jesus and the significant events on which Christianity is based – most importantly the resurrection of Jesus. This was written to make perfect sense to a complete layman on the street. And this it does brilliantly!!!
 
The style has a wonderful sense of a person who is simply trying to wake up the reader to things which seem painfully apparent once explained…
 
This is a book that I hope I will be revisiting many a times. The book that has inspired people from Mark Twain to Christopher Hitchens is not something that can be digested in one reading…
 
This a book that cannot be reviewed enough, Instead I will leave the reader of this post with some of the sentences in the book that are so powerful and beautiful that they need to be read again and again…
 
Quotes from “Age of Reason”…Read below…
 
 

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“You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

 

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy”

 

“My own mind is my own church.”

 

“But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself”

 

“Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

 

“It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication—after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him”

 

“The more unnatural anything is, the more it is capable of becoming the object of dismal admiration.”

 

“THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man”

 

“and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God, is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done by retiring ourselves from the society of the world and spending a recluse life in selfish devotion.”

 

“As mystery answered all general purposes, miracle followed as an occasional auxiliary. The former served to bewilder the mind, the latter to puzzle the senses. The one was the lingo, the other the legerdemain. And, in the second place, it is degrading the Almighty into the character of a showman, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder.”

 

“Upon the whole, mystery, miracle, and prophecy are appendages that belong to fabulous and not to true religion. They are the means by which so many Lo, heres! and Lo, theres! have been spread about the world, and religion been made into a trade”

 

“It is certain that, in one point, all the nations of the earth and all religions agree—all believe in a God; the things in which they disagree, are the redundancies annexed to that belief; and, therefore, if ever a universal religion should prevail, it will not be by believing anything new, but in getting rid of redundancies”

 

“Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice”

 

“Divided love is never happy.for it is impossible to derive happiness from the company of those whom we deprive of happiness.”

 

“To be happy in old age, it is necessary that we accustom ourselves to objects that can accompany the mind all the way through life, and that we take the rest as good in their day. The mere man of pleasure is miserable in old age, and the mere drudge in business is but little better; whereas, natural philosophy, mathematical and mechanical science, are a continual source of tranquil pleasure, and in spite of the gloomy dogmas of priests and of superstition, the study of these things is the true theology; it teaches man to know and to admire the Creator, for the principles of science are in the creation, and are unchangeable and of divine origin”

 

“for when we cease to have an object, we become like an invalid in a hospital waiting for death”

“Can we suppose it is consistent with the wisdom of the Almighty, to commit himself and his will to man upon such precarious means as these, or that it is consistent we should pin our faith upon such uncertainties? We cannot make, nor alter, nor even imitate so much as one blade of grass that he has made, and yet we can make or alter words of God as easily as words of man

 

“But all other arguments apart, the consciousness of existence is the only conceivable idea we can have of another life, and the continuance of that consciousness is immortality. The consciousness of existence, or the knowing that we exist, is not necessarily confined to the same form, nor to the same matter, even in this life”

 

“credulity, however, is not a crime, but it becomes criminal by resisting conviction.”

 

“but when it is said, as in the Testament, “If a man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;” it is assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a spaniel.Those who preach this doctrine of loving their enemies are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing”

“And is not the evidence that this creation holds out to our senses infinitely stronger than anything we can read in a book that any impostor might make and call the word of God? As for morality, the knowledge of it exists in every man’s conscience”

 

“Religion, by such means, becomes a thing of form, instead of fact—of notion, instead of principles; morality is banished to make room for an imaginary thing called faith”

 

“certain as I am, that when opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail.”

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Book Review, Science fiction, Thriller

Timeline by Michael Crichton

2 This was a book recommended to me by Wikipedia when I was reading up on string theory which naturally referred itself to parallel universes and hence to time travel. This and ‘Man in high castle’ by Philip K Dick, both of which I immediately lapped up on my Infibeam Pi.
 
This is a typical  Crichton novel – an interesting scientific possibility with a decent amount of research, a band of adventurers, an evil but high-tech corporation and a great story which as always is a page turner.
And most importantly, for me – a science fiction and history buff, a story that combines both. And like every story that combines them, this story too packs quite a punch.
 
So just immerse yourself into a world where it has become possible to travel into the past, which as Crichton reminds us, is not too much into the remote future anyway. A team of archaeologists in modern France excavating a site which saw action during the Hundred Years war (between France and England in the 14th century) are drawn into a1 larger game plan of the company sponsoring their study, when they find their professor’s glasses and a note spelling ‘Help’ while excavating a site that had not seen light in the last 600 years.
 

So begins an adventure that sees the group tumbling into 14th century France, into a world which all their scholarship could not prepared them for. And the period is one of the most volatile times in the region’s history – an invasion is taking place and with medieval casual brutality around every corner, the story soon takes a scorching pace. And then comes a very unexpected twist – they may not be the only 20th century people out there!!!
 
A great read for a rainy day when you want to be entertained and thrilled. Don't expect too much depth or great characterization, that's not what the book is for. The book is for entertainment, pure and simple, with a very interesting plot.
 
And yes, the movie they made out of this is terrible. Give it a miss, read the book instead…
 

 

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Book Review, Historical

Empire Of The Moghul – Brothers At War written by Alex Rutherford

n331665 This book is the second in the Great Moghul series. The Mughal empire falls into the hand of Humayun after Babur’s untimely death just after he had conquered Hindustan from the Lodhis.

Though a fearless warrior, Humayun is a dreamer of sorts, preferring to watch the stars instead of court activities. He finds himself thrust with a legacy that he feels he needed more time to get adjusted to. Babur’s death had left the fledgling empire vulnerable with enemies closing from all sides. But as the new emperor soon finds out, its the enemy within that is much more lethal.

Babur had left the whole of the new empire in the hands of his eldest and favourite son. This left a lot of hearts broken, but the one who is most affected is Kamran, his half brother who is only a few months younger. Askar and Hindal were to follow Kamran’s lead, though Hindal, the youngest, was always a reluctant conspirator.

So begins this book, which, as is readily apparent, is much well written than its predecessor, Raiders from the North – about Babur. The action is more gripping and seems less like a tract of historical text. The characters have much more flesh. Of course some of the old characters from the previous book make an appearance – especially Khanzada, the pillar for Humayun in the most difficult of times.

And as you progress, you realize that the old cliché – truth is stranger than fiction is well, so true. The story of intrigues, love affairs, battles, betrayals, the incredible turning around of fates and an end that any fiction writer would have been proud to have come up with. The book is so packed with so many twists and turns that you literally have to keep reminding yourself that this is in fact historical fact (of course with liberties taken from a writers point of view).

Humayun’s dreamlike character, his addiction to opium (encouraged14603_Humayun by the scheming mother of Kamran), his haywire schemes of running his court according to the stars, the titanic clashes with Sher Shah Suri, Humayun’s miraculous escapes, his fleeing across half of northern subcontinent seeking refuge (at one time reduced to a handful of men in rags pursued by armies), his reversal of fortune, the constant betrayals by his brothers, the constant battles when one battle has been won, his love of the women in his life – especially Hamida (the mother of Akbar).

All these read almost like a potboiler. I mean, for it being a novel based on history, I found myself on the edge of my seat many times as the book was polished off in a couple of readings.

For me, as with the first book, the appeal is in knowing more about the Mughals in a way that Wikipedia can never teach me – learning while being entertained. It is strange how little we really know of our history. As we witness the early Mughals struggling to reserve a vision that Babur had nurtured, we almost see modern India in the making as one of the greatest empires in modern world begins to take foothold. You get to know more about other characters – like Sher Shah, who are dismissed in a couple of sentences in most school books.

Importantly, it brings into focus a Mughal who is so often overlooked in history with almost everyone else hogging the limelight, even though it was him who actually set a firm foundation in India for the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Mughals. Humayun was emperor in actuality for a very short time and died almost in a bizarre tragedy when he tripped and fell down stairs after he had secured his kingdom after long gruelling years. We see a man who in more peaceful times would have become more of a poet rather than a king. His acts of benevolence especially in forgiving his brothers again and again is a feature that is almost impossible to imagine in his times when kings eliminated rivals at the first chance. Humayun comes as irritable personality  possessing all faults but more than compensating for them with his more generous qualities.

All in all, a gripping and enjoyable read. And hopefully the writing would keep on improving with the next one – on Akbar. Cant wait for that one…

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Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

Bandits written by Eric Hobsbawm

bandits This was a book that i wanted to read for a very long time but this is one book that is not easily available. I finally was able to get hold of a copy from the online site “Friends of Books”.

Hobsbawm literally pioneered the study of bandits as a social phenomenon. Bandits as a popular form of resistance. Bandits was first published in 1969 and the field has expanded greatly since then, with many theories (some complementary and some opposing) coming forth on the subject.

This book, however, remains a seminal one. And for that reason, this book is simply must read for anyone who is interested in this fascinating topic.

The book starts by explaining who and what a social bandit is. The earliest form of banditry is the example of the mythical Robin Hood (who in all probability did not exist as a single individual). The late examples include bandits like Salvatore Giuliano (whom Puzo immortalized in international popular culture in “The Sicialian”) and bandit turned revolutionaries like Pancho Villa.

Hobsbawn prepares the basis of the definition of bandits by describing the political, social and economic reasons for the rise of bandits and37457 why they still exist in some forms even to this day. He goes on to describe some forms of banditry that persisted for a long time in some countries (like Haiduks in the Balkans).

He describes the environment under which they flourished and gives explanations for the reasons why some bandits are eulogized and become legends, even in their own lifetime and why some other bandits are not (and the latter are not a part of his description of social bandits). He explains why the social bandit enjoyed extensive support in the rural and marginal areas even when they may not have actually lived upto the Robin Hood principle of robbing the rich to give to the poor.

Later he ties up the bandit phenomenon with revolutionary and independence movements in the countries and he explains the various relationships that bandits had with the nationalist movements. He brings in the role of women and their relationship to the bandits.

39-pancho-villa-mustache As I said it is a fascinating topic and it is an interesting book. But I was expecting and hoping for much more. From a purely academic point of view, the book is excellent since it brings forth its theories well. But from a reading point of view, it falls short of expectations.

To be an enjoyable read, you need more description of the bandits. You get the theory but you dont get to know the bandits. You dont quite get the smell of the world that they lived in. You dont get many examples for the different theories that are given to you. You cant quite relate to the bandits and you feel an itching want to do so. The author whets your appetite that much.

Another point is that the book is almost exclusively devoted to European or South American bandits. Eastern ones (from India or China) get only passing reference.

To be fair, the author concedes as such in the introduction. The author explains that he intends to give this book as a primer and the reader must read other books to get more meat.

So, read this book as a window to a world that is not easily accessible. But be ready to trawl the internet to delve deeper.

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shakespeare Bill Bryson
Book Review, Historical, Non-Fiction

Shakespeare written by Bill Bryson

bill_bryson_shakespeare Bill Bryson is the official Mr Know-it-all. And here he comes up with a book on Shakespeare, a man who generates as much controversy about himself as he does praise for his work…

Now, a book that tries to bring the Bard forward as a historical figure would suffer from a serious problem – the book cant be more than a few pages long!!! There is almost no authentic historical records of the man, save for a few fragmentary information – court records and such…

What the book does well is in bringing both humour and historical background to the theme. Bryson has a catchy style of writing and that helps the subject along as there is not much material to put flesh on the characters of the era.

We are introduced to the world that Shakespeare inhabited – a world of growing English imperialism, the golden age of Elizabeth and the golden age of English theatre but a world where life expectancy hovered around the mid-thirties, where plague was the scrouge that was all too common and the world in general was a place where you would sooner die of starvation than of any wars, which were all too frequent as well…

As Bryson notes wryly, the greatest achievement of Shakespeare wasshakespeare91 not that he wrote his plays but that he survived at all!!!

Great men are as much a product of their talents as much as they are of their times, usually even more so…Shakespeare born a hundred years earlier or later would have in all probability died an unknown death – previously due to lack of any avenues to show his talents, later due to the closure of all theatres owing a wave of fundamentalism (Puritanism). Shakespeare was indeed lucky…

In more ways than one, as we see. Many of the works of his contemporaries are now lost, men who were considered at par or greater in talent than Shakespeare in his time. His work was preserved by the diligent efforts of two men to whom history owes profound thanks.

We are taken on a tour of Shakespeares life, from his childhood to adulthood to his death. The problem is that much of its conjecture and not hard facts. Record keeping was a science that developed after the Bard’s days. We dont know how he really looked like (there are conflicting portraits), we dont know how he spent his days, what his likes and dislikes were, whom he really married, what his relationships were, his influence in his works, his views on the things around him – nothing to put a shape to him. We dont really even know in what orders his plays were written!!! We do know however that Shakespeare and his friends were terrific plagiarists!!!

globe With all that handicaps, its a wonder that Bryson is able to hold our attention for so long. Except for a brief part of the book, near the end part where the book drags under the weight of excessive details, the book is interesting. You get a feel of the world that produced the ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Julius Caesar’ and you get an idea what kind of a man Shakespeare might have been…

‘Romeo and Juliet’ was dismissed as too melodramatic in its time by some critics. History is kind to those whose work survive!!! Bryson also devotes time to talk about some of the fanatical researchers, thanks to whom we know what little we know of the Bard.

As for the controversies, Bryson is a believer and hence a defender of the faith. So dont expect an objective argument. That comes at the very end of the book and is not the central theme, so Bryson is obviously confident that the man existed in all his glory.

So, if you are not looking to get the meat of the controversy, and just looking to have a good tale told to you, a tale that reads like a historical mystery, then go for this book.

Its an enjoyable read…Bryson scores again!!!

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