Book Review — The Sacred Sword by Hindol Sengupta

Thank you Penguin Random House India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

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Summary – The Sacred Sword chronicles the rise of Guru Gobind Singh, a Sikh warrior to be reckoned with. At the prime age of 9 years, Gobind Rai’s childhood came crashing down when his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was assassinated by the Mughals. In order to restore the Sikh faith in the minds of thousands of people, Gobind assumes the position of guru and begins to train villagers. He builds the Khalsa, a group of extraordinary warriors who mirror the values of Sikhism and fight to defend its honor. Despite all of his successes, the northern kings underestimate his power, plotting with Emperor Aurangzeb to defeat the guru. But they too learn by experience, what it is to cross Guru Gobind Singh. Hindol Sengupta’s novel merges history and fiction to create an empowering tale.

Review – Historical fiction is one of my all time favourite genres. I have never read anything by Hindol Sengupta, so this one was a pleasant surprise. Even though the author forewarns us that there’s a good mixture of fiction in the novel, I found myself rooted to the spot with all of the events I was learning about. I have never been exposed to stories about the Sikh community. And I felt like this book was great in conveying their values, mannerisms and other sensibilities. The fact that their sayings or proverbial phrases were even translated in English was a wonderful addition. You get to understand their religious texts and their perspective about God. Naturally, religion is a major theme in this novel. It poses quite a few questions about the clashing of two religions. In light of their outlook, you find yourself evaluating certain perspectives of yours. Further, the novel also explores elements like war, blind faith etc.

The writing style is refreshing and vivid. For a majority of the novel, I was so inspired by the portrayal of Guru Gobind Singh that I could almost imagine myself as a character in the story. Aurangzeb’s depiction did him no good. I wanted to punch him every time his narcissistic persona made an appearance. The battle scenarios were invigorating to say the least. All those who aren’t familiar with Hindi or Punjabi terms, fear not; there’s a sizable glossary at the end. While the story reflects Guru Gobind Singh’s expertise, we are not made privy to how he became so well versed. I would have liked to know about his upbringing and training. That would have made the story more realistic. Some of the poetry included is truly splendid. I really enjoyed reading The Sacred Sword because it was a worthy history lesson devoid of the monotony of textbooks. It is told from the point of view of Gobind and that makes it more special. If you enjoy historical fictions, PICK UP this novel.

What do you get out of it? Invaluable lessons about loyalty, bravery, the Sikh faith and the tyranny of the Mughals. Overall, a good update on Indian history.

Ratings – 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review — Encounters Of A Fat Bride by Samah Visaria

Thank you Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

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Encounters of a Fat Bride unveils the humiliation and harsh circumstances that an overweight woman has to undergo in order to find a groom in India. Madhurima Pandey has learnt to set aside her complex about feeling like the quintessential DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend). While all her friends find fairytale-esque romances, Madhu has devoted her time to work and study, so as to steer clear of the reality that no man in his right mind would ever choose her. But as per societal norms, marriage is the most essential rite of initiation into adulthood. And soon, her middle class family begins to invite a bevy of eligible men in the hopes that one of them would accept Madhu into their household. Samah Visaria’s novel aptly reflects the age-old customs of dowry and arranged marriage, complete with nosy neighbors and body-shaming parents of potential grooms.

It should be noted that some people may view this novel as being offensive, but I assure you that it is not. The author, in no way, propagates discriminating against “fat” brides. She is merely trying to convey to the audience that women should be confident regardless of their physical appearances.

As lighthearted as this book is, it also approaches some very serious issues like that of fat-shaming, mental health disorder, the dowry system (wherein the family of the bride compensates the groom’s family in cash or kind for going ahead with the marriage) and gender bias. While a lot of these issues are dealt with rationally, I wasn’t comfortable with the way mental health disorders were handled. You begin to think that Madhu is a very mature and educated woman, but then her sidelining of mental instability as “retarded” or “losing it” is totally not acceptable. On the other hand, through Madhu’s strength of character, we see how other negative elements are treated strictly. Her acceptance of her body image and understanding that all genders ought to be equal attempts to remove society’s misconceptions.

What’s unique is that the chapter titles feature a countdown; so you are made aware of the ending but you don’t know how that transpires. See, there’s some mystery in there too. The author’s writing style is colloquial, humorous and incorporates few Hindi terms. There are a couple of cliches, but nothing major. She makes several references to the movie industry, juxtaposing Madhu’s behavior and feelings which made light of the situation at hand. The narration is so convincing that I’d feel just as infuriated at society as Madhu does. I mean, it is appalling that people expect you to be a certain way and if you aren’t, they rain down the most horrible comments on you. I really liked the plot because it is still so relevant. Some aspects of the story were a little over the top, but you can’t expect anything less from a dramatic character like Madhu. Her character arc sees quite a change throughout the novel. Initially, she is against the idea of arrange marriage, then tired of being lonely, she begins to crave it. Even her outlook undergoes certain essential changes. Without a doubt, Madhu’s funny quips renders the entire novel so enjoyable that I finished it in one sitting. I liked the book and I look forward to anything else the author may write in the future. You should check it out!

Ratings – 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review — A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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In this Little Black Classics volume, Penguin has put together a bunch of short stories written by Jonathan Swift, whom we know for his popular work Gulliver’s Travels. While a majority of the pieces in this book is satiric in nature, I would like to draw your due attention towards the first piece  titled A Meditation upon a Broomstick. Herein, he places surprising emphasis on the life of a Broomstick, comparing its features to that of humans. His rumination of how a broomstick lives out its usefulness, much like human beings is startling, albeit true. Other texts like A Modest Proposal, An Examination of Certain Abuses, Corruption and Enormities in the City of Dublin, A Short View of the State of Ireland follow the standards of life in Ireland. His indignation at the poor state of affairs in Ireland, because of lack of policing and enforcement of laws, meddlesome countries and even the corruption within Ireland are reflected in the sarcastic tone of narration.

I rather enjoyed reading this collection of stories. While there were tons of cultural innuendos that I simply couldn’t grasp, I was definitely able to understand what was being spoken of. My two favourite pieces from this book are A Meditation upon a Broomstick and A Modest Proposal. Some may find the content of A Modest Proposal extremely horrifying as he suggests eating children to solve the problems of poverty, famine etc. But it must be understood that it is a satiric piece, and Swift is not actually suggesting that people sell/eat their children. His writing style is interesting, complete with the capitalization of letters that one wouldn’t normally use nowadays. While written as humor, some of the sections are thought provoking. And I appreciated that about his writing. I’m looking forward to reading more Irish texts. I liked this collection of stories a lot better than some others that Penguin has to offer. Although I wouldn’t recommend it as light reading. If you’re interested in Irish Literature or satire, you should give this one a try.

Ratings – 3 stars on 5

Meera

Book Review — Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov

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Gooseberries is a collection of three short stories written by Anton Chekhov. The Kiss features a troop of soldiers who are invited to dine with a certain General Rabbeck and follows their celebratory night at the General’s abode. In the tale The Two Volodyas, Sophia Lvovna’s dilemma, concerning life and the two Volodyas, are explored. Lastly, a story recounted by Ivan Ivanych is the focus of the tale Gooseberries.

All in all, I found this bunch of stories to be lacklustre. It was not gripping in the least bit. With every story, I kept telling myself that the next one was bound to be better. But at the end, it turned out to be not. In fact out of the three, The Two Volodyas was the decent one. I didn’t much understand Ryabovich’s musings in The Kiss. And most of what happened in the Gooseberries flew over my head. That was the extent of how disinteresting the book was. But since The Two Volodyas was bearable and the writing wasn’t bad, I did not give it a zero star rating. I’ve heard that Chekhov’s works are masterpieces and so I hope that whatever I read next will be a lot better than this.

Ratings – 2 stars on 5.

Meera

Book Review — Mrs Rosie and the Priest by Giovanni Boccaccio

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Mrs Rosie and the Priest makes for an interesting accumulation of stories set in Italy. All the 4 tales are unique because they revolve around different themes. While in Andreuccio’s story, we glimpse the treacherous side of society; Patient Griselda depicts the strength and will power of women in those ages. Ricciardo’s misfortune which he brought upon himself is rather funny as is the witty outcome of the Priest’s bet with Rosie. There certainly was a greedy and lusty angle to these stories. Some of which made the comic timing great.

Out of all the Little Black Classics I’ve read, this was one of my favourites. It had good humor, good plots, a great deal of morals. Boccaccio’s stories were great reads but they don’t offer much in terms of cultural insight. Somehow, even the tragedies in his story could be taken lightheartedly. I didn’t have much of a problem with his characterization, except for the fact that I found Griselda to be naive as she repeatedly put her self-worth on the line. It’s commendable that she showed great strength in her demeanor towards the injustice she was facing, but it would have been more realistic had she yelled and cried than dealt with it silently. On the other hand, just when I was starting to feel bad for Andreuccio, he turned out to be a smartass. The book is definitely fun. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and so would recommend it to y’all for quick, humorous reads.

Ratings – 4 stars on 5

Meera

Book Review — How to Use Your Enemies by Baltasar Gracian

How to Use Your Enemies by Baltasar Gracian is a compilation of his blunt suggestions to the reader on how to live life. Gracian goes on to dictate terms of socializing, thinking and thereby presents the reader with the consequence of their changed actions. These opinions, strong as they are in conviction, appear to have arisen from his personal experiences. However, a lot of them are coated with insecurity and point towards the defense mechanism of an individual subdued by the connivery of a progressive world.

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I’ve read quite a few negative reviews about this book. People seemed to be offended by the fact that Gracian is asking them to “Find everyone’s weak spot.” or “Know how to use your friends”. Even though I did not agree with many of his ideas, I was able to laugh it off as being more humorous (in a sarcastic way) than serious. A lot of the advice could possibly sound rude, selfish and insensitive. But literature is subjective. Gracian’s experiences frame his writing and we are no one to judge him the worst for it. Some of his suggestions are very self-serving (like “Chose your friends”, “Be desired”, “Show yourself off”) but intentionally/not we function that way. It’s psychologically understood that people are motivated by drives that grant them some sort of benefit. Our need for security ensures that we trust selectively; our need for love ensures that we feel included and appreciated. His statements are bold and true. I enjoyed reading this book, not only because I was able to detect slight humor but also because of how honest it is. That being said it got a little bleak towards the end. Also, some of his opinions were a tad bit contradictory. Pick it up, if you wish to read something different, something that challenges you to retrospect.

Ratings – 3 stars on 5.

Meera

Book Review — A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees by Yoshida Kenko

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This collection by Yoshida Kenko marvels us from the start. Filled with musings on different topics, most of which have to do with death, nature or mannerisms, Kenko’s writing is imbued with cultural sensibilities. 51 pages long, it is split into paragraph or page long thoughts about people, their habits and the general course of life. It is astounding to notice that a lot of his observations are applicable in today’s world too.

What sold this book to me was the quote printed on the very first page – “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” If that doesn’t hint at the quality of his writing, I don’t know what possibly could. Practically every page had something very valuable to offer. He also recounts certain folk tales from ancient times which were rather enjoyable. As far as Japanese Literature goes, I haven’t read a lot, but this definitely paints a good picture. Certain parts of the book were a little too philosophical but I loved the writing so much that it wasn’t a problem. The cultural symbols in the book were enlightening. I am looking forward to reading his other book called “Essays in Idleness”. I would suggest that you give this book a try, if it sounds interesting at all.

Ratings – 4 stars on 5

Meera