Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: QUEEN OF ICE

Title: Queen of Ice
Author: Devika Rangachari
Publisher: Duckbill Books
Pages: 184

The cover illustration by Tejashree Ingawle is the first thing that catches your eye. The sinuously poised plait of hair adorned with flowers resting on the red-robed person of Didda, set against the silver-blue backdrop of Kashmir’s snowy winter. The final image that reels you in is that of the faceless Didda, seemingly emotionless in her hunger to rule.

Didda is the princess of Lohara, beautiful, intelligent and lame. Allowed to live because an astrologer predicted that she was destined for greatness, the prediction does nothing to endear her to her father who despises her, and fuels her desire to prove herself. Her childhood is bleak indeed, and Valga, a girl she hires to carry her around when she is too tired to walk, and Naravahana, a boy of her own age hired to be a stable hand, are the only friends she has.

When DIdda is married off at age 16 to Kshemagupta, the once-married dissolute ruler of Kashmir, she becomes aware of the factions and seething ambitions that riddle the court. She must hold her own against these, if she is to survive. Yet Didda wants to do more than survive. In her heart, she longs to play a more vibrant role in the history and destiny of her new home.

When her husband dies of a mysterious disease, Didda, as the mother of child-king Abhimanyu, becomes regent, a position she holds through the deaths of her son, and her three grandsons, until she appropriates the title of king for herself.

Set in 10th century Kashmir, each chapter of this story contains the alternating first person point-of-view accounts of Didda and Valga, each account taking the story inexorably forward, rather than merely examining the same event through different perspectives. 

Didda’s attitude is undoubtedly regal, believing she is beholden to no one and conscious of fierce ambition and an unquenchable desire to achieve something bigger than the feeble role that fate and the rigid traditions of the time seek to bind her in. Valga’s account is that of the outsider, a friend of the queen, and yet one who is aware of her lowly station in life, a mere porter-woman hired to carry the queen wherever she wishes to go.

This physical proximity enables Valga to see Didda from up close, to be a witness to her every mood. I found myself warming to Valga’s telling more, looking at the external viewpoint as more authentic and truthful than Didda’s own telling. There is more show, less tell in Valga’s account than in Didda’s.

Devika Rangachari has done a great service to Indian literature and history by bringing a character like Didda to the limelight. A character that has not received her due from historians.

As a character, Didda is not without her flaws. Her ego is too strong, and the gifts she bestows upon her friends are not so much expressions of friendship as charitable doles to the less fortunate. But the loyalties are there, even if they are not always apparent, even if they are second to her own sense of self. 

Above all, Didda rises out from the tale on account of her hunger to rule, a hunger for which she is willing to stoop to commit acts which she never admits to, but which Valga hints at. And yet, in that place and time, who is to say that she was wrong to commit acts that a man might have got away with impunity?

Because the writing is in first person, Devika’s own voice does not show through. She refrains from passing judgement on Didda, leaving us to decide for ourselves whether we want to see her as a heroine or as a flawed, egoistic person.

Devika also deserves to be commended for bringing history alive in such a vibrant manner. Relying upon the body of research that she has built up for her PhD, this young author has used the few facts she had and weaved in them fantastic elements of fiction to re-create a time at a turbulent period in history, when boundaries between kingdoms were as strong as those enforcing them, and peace was fraught with tension.
In such a time, we come to know of Didda who gives to her people the gift of good governance and progress, and the knowledge that, in her, they have a friend who cares.

The writing is mostly in the present tense, except in one instance in the first few pages when past tense seems to have sneaked past the vigilant eyes of the editors. The use of the present tense helps to make us a part of the telling of the tale, as if we were the confidantes of both these strong woman.

If there is anything that I must find fault with, it is that the story moves on too fast. There is so much of detail that would have helped the story further. Didda’s conflicts with her cousin, after she becomes queen; the protest on the part of the Brahmins outside the kingdom (they are all bought off); the intrigues at court; the slow deaths of those that stand in her way, all these could have benefited from greater fleshing out. Also, more direct speech and witnessing events in real time could have helped us, as readers, to get more involved. But these are minor issues.

Don't let them stop you from reading this book to see a slice of history come alive.

I received a copy of Queen of Ice for this review.

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