Thursday, August 30, 2012

Daughter of the Soul Goes Home

The results are out. Rashmita and Susanta Mallick are the parents of Baby Atmaja.

After a drama that panned out for four-and-a-half months, the High Court of Orissa has finally revealed that Rashmita and Susanta are not the biological parents of the boy, based on the DNA report submitted by genetic scientists at the Hyderabad-based Central Forensic Science Laboratory. The report, resorting to typical legalese, stated that Rashmita Mallick could not be excluded as the biological mother of the girl child, while she could be definitely excluded as the biological mother of the other male child.

For those who came in late, Baby Atmaja had been lying unclaimed at the SCB Medical College and Hospital in Orissa where her mother gave birth to her on March 30, 2012. Her parents had refused to accept her, alleging that the hospital had goofed up and swapped their baby with another couple who had the same surname. They added that another baby, a boy, born around the same time, was in fact theirs. (You can read more about that episode in my post HERE.)

The court’s verdict was accepted amid resounding cheers by the hospital. It had cleared them of the accusations that Susanta and Rashmita Mallick had hurled at them. But the joy was overpowered by sadness at the thought of parting. For more than four months, they had looked after the baby girl and they had learned to love her with a love that only those who have been slaves to a baby will know.

Scouring the Internet for some news of Atmaja, I caught a few stray sites that had reported the news of the resolution of the case. I also caught these videos from Orissa TV. The details were lost on me as I don’t understand Oriya. But the moving images helped. Then a friend of a close friend very kindly obliged with a translation and helped me fill the blanks in my understanding. If you understand Oriya (and even if you don’t), you must view the videos, HERE and HERE.

The hospital authorities had completed all the formalities for handing over the baby. But the task of bidding goodbye to the little one proved to be much too big to handle.

I was touched by the sight of the nurses, the doctors and even the ayahs of the Neonatalogy and Obstetrics and Gynaecology department at the hospital, as they all sought one last chance to hug and kiss the child that they had so unconditionally made their own for the last four-and-a-half months. Despite knowing that this moment would come, despite being prepared for it, most of the nurses, doctors and ayahs were in tears.

Apparently all the 20 nurses in the department, along with the students and doctors, including those whose who weren’t on duty then, had been present since the morning so as not to miss the chance to say goodbye to Atmaja. They even made it a point to pack and send with her the dresses, toys and other items that they had bought out of their own salaries for her.

The child had thrived well under the love and care that they had lavished upon her. The high court had directed them to look after the child, pending a resolution of the case. But most of them went beyond the call of duty, laughing with her, feeding and cleaning her and buying her toys. They came to work a few minutes before their shifts began so they could spend time with her. They even went to the extent of naming the child, Atmaja, and observed the proper rituals 21 days after her birth. In turn, little Atmaja responded to their affection, as only a child can. She rewarded their attempts to do the right thing with coos and gurgles. She smiled and laughed and blossomed in their care. She became their world.

And then the results of the DNA test arrived, bearing tidings that they had been both longing for and fearing. Baby Atmaja was handed over to the mother who had rejected her at birth. The father was still in Dubai where he worked.

And so it was that Baby Atmaja received her first kiss from her mother a full 134 days after she was born. Rashmita, the mother, hugged the child close to her chest as though she would rather die than be parted from her child. She said, “I am now sure that this baby is mine and I am extremely happy accepting her.” She also expressed her gratitude towards those who took care of her baby. In response to a reporter’s question, she added, “My husband has spoken to me after the High Court verdict came and he has also expressed his willingness to accept the baby.”

Call me biased, but I was unmoved by their noble and generous willingness to accept the baby after the High Court left them no other option. For the sake of the baby, I hope that the choked voice in which the mother spoke to the reporters, the look of anguish that she bore about her and the tight stranglehold of a clutch in which she held the child are not elements of an elaborate act put up for the benefit of the Court authorities, the hospital staff, the dignitaries present and the media representatives.

The reporter accompanied Atmaja home, and gave us a glimpse of the welcome that was accorded to her. A pooja were organized, along with the rituals that are conducted to welcome a newborn home. The child's forehead was adorned with the traditional teeka to ward off the evil eye. She was also renamed Jyoti.

That saddened me. Was this an attempt to erase the memory of the last 4½ months? Were they right in hiding the truth from her? How will she feel when she grows up and finds out?

One sour note was sounded by Rashmita’s mother-in-law Lata, who, unconvinced by the indecisive nature of the DNA report, likened the experience of accepting Atmaja into the family to adoption. Earlier she had claimed that she had seen Rashmita give birth to a baby boy in the labour room.

There is a Nigerian Igbo proverb, "Ora na azu nwa," which translates into “It takes a village to raise a child.” In Atmaja’s case, it was the nurses, doctors and ayahs who gave her the nurturing that her parents refused at a critical period in her life.

If Rashmita Mallick is indeed grateful to the staff at the hospital, she must show her gratitude by sharing that story with her daughter.

Monday, August 27, 2012


Title: Anna Boleyn and the King's Great Secret
Author: Julia LA Kelly
Publisher: Dorrance Pub Co, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8059-7497-3
Length: 134 pages

Anna Boleyn and the King’s Great Secret by Julia LA Kelly seeks to infuse a ‘what if’ into recorded history. What if Anne Boleyn was not put to death as history claims? The hint of mystery piqued my interest.

The story is basically about Anne’s life, starting from her birth to her life at the French Court. The bulk of it is taken up by her great romance with King Henry VIII and their life together. Told in the first person from Anne’s perspective, the story completely turns on its head every story you’ve ever heard about the high-handedness of Henry VIII, the ruthlessness with which he treated his wives and his desperation for a son.

The second wife of King Henry VIII of England, Anne occupies a powerful place in world history, as it was on her account that Henry sought an annulment from his first wife. The refusal of that annulment led Henry to break away from the Church of Rome and declare England’s allegiance to the Church of England. Later, when Anne too was unable to bear a son, Henry had her executed and took a third wife. Later on, death, divorce and execution yielded him his fourth, fifth and sixth wives.

In this book, Anne puts forward a contrary story, one that was carefully hidden from public knowledge. She says that in 1535, when she became pregnant again, she was moved to the countryside, ostensibly to escape the plague that was rife at the time. Here there is a notable change from history as we have been taught it. We are told that Anne’s trusted attendant is executed in her place while she is exiled to the countryside where she is forced to live an isolated life, far away from the court and all but her closest friends. This development has been brought about in order to appease a number of the courtiers who, for various reasons, do not like Anne and resent her influence with the King.

Anne suggests that it was the excesses of the Church at that time that led to the split from it and not the desire of the King to marry again, as history books have led us to believe. She also explains away the rest of the King’s marriages as having been undertaken under the pressure of the courtiers.

Kelly’s Anne is, by her own admission, feisty and outspoken, a woman born centuries before her time. I would more readily have believed her claim if at least parts of the memoir had been written in direct speech. Surely there could have been some real-time instances of the spiritedness that she insisted was her true nature.

The book had the potential to be far more explosive than it is. Unfortunately, Kelly explains away all the intrigue that must have been an inescapable part of court life. If you want to get an insight into court life, then this is not the book for you.

There are some things that it is difficult to give credence to. For instance, Anne claims that she invented the divide by and equal to signs. History awards the honour of inventing the equal to sign to Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde. Here, Anne claims that it was she who shared the meaning of these signs with Recorde, generously allowing him to publish them as his own. However, she is not so patronising towards Nostradamus, who she claims stole some of the predictions made by her and published them in his own book.

Anne also claims to have known Leonardo da Vinci, Nostradamus, Recorde and a certain writer named William Shakespeare. While this is amusing at first, the excessive name dropping begins to pall on you after a while. Kelly makes good use of all the controversies surrounding the famous people that lived in that time and makes up some others.

There are other things that seem difficult to believe. In one place, Anne said that she passed her time in writing verses, “which was a very slow process with a quill.” It made me wonder whether she was still reminiscing in her own time or whether she had travelled to ours to let us know how difficult it is to write with a quill as compared to writing with a pen or typing on a keyboard.

Still there are some interesting touches. Anne styles herself as having been greatly interested in religious reform. She makes a mention of the translation of the Bible into French, considered blasphemous and unlawful at the time. She also describes the experience of her ‘monthly dread’ while travelling aboard a ship and about dealing with the makeshift arrangements, ‘a bucket covered by curtains at the other end of the ship,’ available to deal with it.

To her credit, Kelly has managed to reproduce well the stilted mouthful that was the King’s language in those days, in the correspondence between some of the characters, fortunately resorting to modern English for the major part of the memoir.

I was also impressed with the honesty with which Kelly has tried to tell her story, without upsetting the larger context of history in which the great love of Anne and the King unfolded. That effort alone makes this one worth reading.

I received a complimentary copy of Anna Boleyn and the King's Great Secret as a member of the Dorrance Publishing Book Review Team. Visit to learn how you can become a member of the Book Review Team.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book Review: FEARLESS

If you’re on the wrong road, God allows U-turns – that is the lesson that the life of Adam Brown, as expressed in Fearless by Eric Blehm, brought home to me.

A Chief Special Warfare Operator in Team Six of the Navy SEALS, Adam was killed during deployment to Operation Enduring Freedom in March 2010 in Afghanistan. The book, Fearless, was born out of Adam’s personal desire to share his spiritual testimony with the world. Adam was keen that the testimony cover not only the positive aspects of his life as a devoted son, husband, father, friend and soldier, but also the nightmare of substance abuse and felony that his life had degenerated into before he allowed his faith to guide him on to better things.

Adam had a formidable reputation, one of outstanding courage. To his friends from high school and his SEALS brothers, he remained one who never feared anything. “Adam didn’t come with brakes,” says Blehm. Where other kids who hurt themselves would have cried, little Adam just got up and got on with what needed to be done. His fiercely protective and loyal nature was evident from the beginning. He was the underdog who stood up for others. The one who was always nice to the boy with Down’s Syndrome who was bullied by his classmates, and to the wallflower in ninth grade that no one else would dance with.

From being the most popular kid at school, Adam found himself a Nobody in college. His grades began to slip and he allowed himself to go astray, drinking alcohol and getting addicted to drugs. Getting involved with the wrong kind of girl, he began to smoke marijuana, then crystal meth and crack cocaine. It was the beginning of a long ordeal in which he would lose the trust of those that cared for him. He was on a high-speed train that was headed downhill.

Then began a life of desperation where he slept out in the open. Once a model employee at his dad’s business, his work ethic, and then his attitude began to deteriorate. To support his drug habit, he began to steal, eventually getting arrested for committing 11 felonies and doing time in jail.

It was at the lockdown treatment centre, to which he was forced to go that Adam first got on the road to recovery. But the tough times were not over. Parents Larry and Janice had to accept God’s presence in their lives for a much-needed miracle to take place.

Adam signed up for Teen Challenge, a de-addiction and rehabilitation programme, only to find that de-addiction programmes cannot secure one for life. He went through numerous relapses before signing up for the excruciatingly hard-core SEALS training. Then began an awesome lesson in “I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me,” a faith which gave him the strength to beat the demons that gnawed at him from within.

Blehm’s writing helps us sympathise with Adam through his addiction and rejoice through his triumph as a SEAL of the highest order. The author’s prose dramatises the events beautifully, creating the exact amount of detail needed to enable the reader to live the momentous events of Adam’s life. The style of writing reminded me of Readers’ Digest’s Drama in Real Life. The writing is sufficiently taut and urgent as to make the story more real to the reader.

Very often I found my eyes welling up. Sure, I cry easy. Even so I could not help but be touched by the sentiment and emotion that Blehm has imbued his writing with. Through the course of the book, my reactions changed from shock and disbelief at the destruction that Adam was hurtling towards to eventual hope that he would rise out of the morass that his life had become.

Eventually Adam drove himself to qualify for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as DEVGRU, and was selected as the best of the best. To his credit, he proved his mettle time and time again, often fighting hard long after bruises and wounds would have felled another man.

Through the course of several combat exercises, Blehm takes us through the excruciatingly punishing SEALS training and the nerve wracking exercises that SEALS are routinely put through. He also gives us an understanding of the toughness of character that was Adam’s great strength.

When he lost his fingers in an accident (they had to be subsequently re-attached through surgery), Adam’s biggest concern was not whether he would be able to use a fork or write with a pencil, but whether he would be able to do pull-ups.

At another time, Adam lost his left eye. The eye, in fact, had to be surgically scooped out and replaced with a prosthetic eye. Through these difficulties, he remained committed to SEALS and DEVGRU, learning to shoot and fight with the help of his one good eye and hand, in order to seal his place among the Navy SEALS.

I was impressed with the manner in which Blehm entered the world of the SEALS, learning the intricacies and the hazards of what constitutes their everyday life. His style of writing takes us into the heart of combat activity with SEALS. Patiently sifting through numerous interviews and conversations with a host of people that interacted with Adam all through his life, Blehm has pieced together the life of Adam for the benefit of strangers who never knew this hero when he was alive.

Through it all, Blehm never allows us to lose sight of the fact that Adam was what he was because of his faith. It is a faith which is seen in action not only on battle grounds in treacherous terrain but also in small things. A gentleman with a heart of gold, Adam, Blehm tells us, once bought 500 pairs of socks and shoes, of the right sizes, so that Afghan children could cope with the harsh winter. He handed out meal packets to children and watched while they ate to make sure no adult snatched the food from them.

Blehm paints Adam a hero, one who fights his inner demons, struggles against his weaknesses and overcomes his circumstances. A hero who is not afraid to admit to his dark days and the deadly skeleton in his closet that any other man basking in the approbation of his friends and peers would have been quick to hide.

Truly an inspiring book.

I ended up saying a prayer for our own soldiers and their families, heroes that we also take for granted.

I received a copy of Fearless for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012


Title: The Taj Conspiracy
Author: Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Publisher: Westland
Length: 402 pages

The Taj Conspiracy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is total value for money. Or maybe I should say, paisa vasool, since this is a ‘desi’ thriller set amid the familiar sights and sounds of this hodgepodge of a nation that only those of us who revel in its madness can really understand. Here characters eat greasy samosas with their fingers (Oprah, dear, if we tried to eat our samosas with cutlery, they might escape our plates and knock people’s eyes out.), travel miles for the perfect mutton kebab and biryani, wear cheap printed kurtas and, when sloshed, sing a Bollywood number loudly and off-key.

It is in this colourful world that we meet the statuesque Mehrunisa Khosa, half-Sikh-half-Persian and a Mughal scholar, who, finding herself embroiled in a murder mystery, discovers that nastier things might come to pass. Her initial impressions lead her to suspect that there may be a conspiracy at work to discredit the identity of the Taj as the mausoleum of Mumtaz, the beloved wife of Shah Jahan, and pass it off as an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva.

Should her suspicions come true, Mehrunisa knows that the fragile fabric of the nation, frayed and torn on numerous occasions, and most recently during the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the horrendous riots that followed in its wake, would be further rent.

She needs to do everything in her power, work with anyone who seems like an ally, in order to discover who is the twisted mind that would come up with a dastardly plan such as this and to save the Taj Mahal, a monument that is so symbolic of India. But the way will not be easy. There are too many people with their own wicked agendas who will not stand opposition, including a right-wing Hindu party, Islamic militants plotting a terror attack on the Taj and a devious behrupiya, a shape-shifter.

Manreet's prose is remarkably evocative. If this book were to be filmed, I would imagine the screenplay writer would have it quite easy. Manreet’s descriptions draw heavily on the senses, conjuring images in the reader's mind.

In one instance, Mehrunisa, called in to the police station for questioning, feels severely disgusted and nauseous by the odours that assail her there. Served omelette and forced to take a bite out of it, she likens the experience to biting into bread extracted from under an armpit. In another instance, she compares a terrorist's eyebrows to scythes.

The best thing about this desi thriller for me was the chance to be able to relate and identify so perfectly with nuances and cultural connotations, to understand without being told. The narrative flows on seamlessly. The descriptions of the Taj, in particular, are ample proof of Mehrunisa’s, and the author’s, fascination with the Taj.

The size of the chapters is a novelty. Most of them take up no more than two pages, and there are two chapters that are a single page each. This enables the author to take you to a scene and let you linger just long enough to watch a character do something that will take the story forward before transporting you to yet another scene where something equally deserving of our attention is afoot. I thought this was a refreshing change from books in which authors find themselves succumbing to the trap of writing long chapters and peopling them with unnecessary detail and information. Here, on the other hand, the detailed evocative descriptions, combined with the brevity of the chapters, give you the feeling of watching a film in your head. The short chapters are camera shots, cut and spliced to give you a racy thriller.

Manreet’s ability to keep readers hanging on to multiple skeins of plots and sub-plots without confusing them is to be commended. Despite having to juggle together so many characters, each one complete with a fascinating back story and sub-plot extravagantly fleshed out to perfection, Manreet manages to make them appear real. The duality of each of the characters where, at some time or the other, it seems as though everyone has something to hide, adds to the complexity.

The stories-within-stories is another device that Manreet has used very skilfully. Old Professor Kaul’s stories come at just the right time, germinating in Mehrunisa’s mind and enabling her to make an accurate deduction.

A monument like the Taj could not have stood tall for centuries had its foundations not been deep and strong. The foundations of Manreet’s The Taj Conspiracy lie in the extremely detailed and exhaustive research, a factor that adds hugely to the appeal of the book. Manreet has managed to source unknown nuggets of information about the architecture and history of the Taj, the geography of Agra, as well as the history of Renaissance art and pass it through the sieve of her own imagination before serving us this delightfully exciting thriller.

Manreet has done well by Mehrunisa, creating a woman character who is strong, yet self-effacing, intelligent and dogged, spirited and feisty.

I am also grateful to Manreet for letting the thriller pan out, undisturbed and undiluted by any romantic inclinations between the lead characters. The love story, the merest whiff of a hint of it, shows up only after all the loose ends have been tied up. As good readers who have had a good vicarious adventure, we can be indulgent and let them go off into the sunset with our blessings. That is, until the second part of Mehrunisa’s trilogy shows up.

I, for one, am eagerly waiting for it.

I received a complimentary copy of The Taj Conspiracy as a member of the Writer's Melon Book Review Team. 


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