Thursday, May 29, 2014


Title: The Treasure of Kafur
Author: Aroon Raman
Publisher: Pan Macmillan India
Pages: 400

It was Rudyard Kipling who said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” After reading The Treasure of Kafur by Aroon Raman, you will find yourself nodding vigorously.

The premise of the book, however, is far from historical. Raman has taken a single character from the hoary pages of history, the merest slice of our illustrious past, and peopled that colourful world and time using the strength of his own intelligence and imagination.

In this strange, anthropormorphic world, there are people who are capable of understanding and interpreting the language of animals and birds. The creatures themselves speak lucidly and coherently, and are capable of strategising and detailed planning.

It is a little disconcerting initially, this talking by animals in what seems to be historical fiction, not fantasy, but after a while, one gives in to it and begins to find the whole premise very believable. Such is the force of Raman’s writing.

The story begins in the early 14th century, when a warrior named Kafur is hiding an enormous treasure. The exercise of hiding that treasure is conducted in the dead of the night, and all those who are involved in putting the treasure away willingly put themselves to death in order to maintain secrecy. And yet, more than 270 years later, the knowledge of the existence of that treasure becomes the reason for spilling blood and unleashing carnage across the length and breadth of Hindustan.

At the height of Akbar’s reign, there are still those that are not under his sway. The fiercest of Akbar’s foes is Asaf Baig, the despotic ruler of Khandesh, who fills his treasure even as people die of hunger. Adept at reading minds, he comes to know that an old woman named Ambu knows where Kafur’s treasure lies hidden. That treasure which could finance the biggest and longest running war against Akbar.

When Asaf abducts Ambu, in an attempt to wrest the knowledge from her, Dattatreya, her 20-year-old grandson, tries to get Akbar to help him find his grandmother and save himself.

What follows are a series of adventures, spread across the nation, as Datta and his friends, Aditi, the cow, Manas, the tortoise, Kanka and Shukra, the ravens, and their flock of birds, and Sheherezad, the coloured parrot, set out to foil Asaf Baig’s attempts and rescue Ambu. On the way, they meet Raja Man Singh, who takes them under his wing. To add to the difficulty of their journey, it becomes known that Datta’s life faces threat at the hands of an ancient race of cannibalistic and bloodthirsty tantriks.

Another good feature of this book is that the minor characters are as well developed as the lead ones. Raman has invested almost as much energy in building up the characters of Dilawer, Inayat Khan, Rahmatullah Khan, the Aulia etc, not to forget Datta's non-human friends. Read the book to find out more about all these interesting characters.

As the female lead, Ahilya, the daughter of Raja Man Singh, is a delight. Her skills in archery are crucial to the story and helpful to rescue the hero.

I particularly liked the many friendships in this story, between Datta and the animals, Datta and Dilawar, the understanding between Datta and Akbar, and the fledgling friendship between Datta and Ahilya.

Building on many of the legends associated with Emperor Akbar, Raman builds the Mughal leader into a man of almost mythical attributes. His bravery in battle, his habit of moving about his kingdom incognito, in order to better understand the pulse of the common people, and the respect and honour he accords to Rana Pratap, a brave son of India, helps his stature in the eyes of the reader.

The plot is tightly constructed, and the writing sweeps you along into the mood of the story into another time, a few centuries ago when India was not a nation but a loose collection of principalities and kingdoms. Before you know it, you are as much a part of Datta’s band as his non-human friends are. 

The mock battle scene where Datta’s prowess at directing animals and birds is witnessed by Man Singh serves to show off the famed Mughal penchant for stratagem. Raman also does a great job of recreating the war room hustle inside the Mughal camp. I also liked the encounter that a disguised Akbar has with Rana Pratap. It shows the greatness of both the rivals.

The author has also taken great pains and conducted a lot of research to recreate the life and times of 16th century India.

Nothing puts me off as much as Indian words set in italics. And Raman melds Indian words here into the drama, inviting readers to decipher their meanings as they go along.

In this curious and strange time, the enemy is everywhere, in rival principalities and superstition-led tantriks alike. Raman manages to recreate the sense of discomfort and the perils of following the scent of an adventure in these difficult times.

The only negative elements in this story are the many grammatical errors that dot several pages. The chronological narrative also takes a slight beating when Shukra lands with a message at Ahilya’s quarters first, and later, we hear of Akbar telling Datta to send that same message. I really wish these errors had been taken care of by the publishers. They tend to draw away from the quality of a good book.

The story ends at the cusp of a fresh new adventure, with Raja Man Singh forcing his daughter to undertake a marriage alliance that her heart opposes, one that Datta must rescue her from.

Hopefully Raman will oblige.

(I received a copy of this book from the author, in exchange for a fair review.)

Monday, May 26, 2014


Title: Ajaya: Roll of the Dice (Epic of the Kaurava Clan - Book I)
Author: Anand Neelakantan
Publisher: Platinum Press
Pages: 456

I have never read the original Mahabharat. My only acquaintance with the epic has been through the occasional viewing of a few episodes of BR Chopra’s great television series that brought life to a grinding halt at 9 am on Sunday mornings in the eighties. Parts of the great epic were also brought to me through the medium of our desi comic, Amar Chitra Katha.

While I had found this experience of the Mahabharat interesting, I read it as just another story, rife with intrigue and scandal and drama and heightened emotions. I could not understand why it had to be singled out as India’s greatest epic. That situation changed when I read Ajaya, a retelling of the popular tale through the eyes of the oldest Kaurava prince, Duryodhana.

Exposed only to the popular version of the epic, I found myself quickly warming to this tale. I felt that it summarily answered a lot of the questions that the more popular version had raised in me. Why would parents give their own children names, prefixed by the derogatory, Du (or bad), as opposed to the auspicious Su (or good)?

Incidentally, the eldest Kaurava prince was named Suyodhana by his parents, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. It was the Pandavas who corrupted his name to Duryodhana. Neelakantan attempts to establish that Suyodhan was a just man who fought for the underdog. It was history that vilified him because he stood up against the Pandavas.

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to turn it on its head.

The Pandavas are not the heroes here, in a refreshing change from the Mahabharat. Nor are the Kauravas, for that matter. Suyodhana is the one that carries this re-telling on his shoulders.

Understanding the story from the perspective of Suyodhana helped me to see the Mahabharat as a story of a malignant foreigner with a treacherous insider to aid him.

Seeing the Mahabharat shorn of divinity helped me to see the India it hid within itself.

The world of Neelakantan’s Hastinapura is stripped of gods and claims of divinity. The Pandavas are born of Kunti’s alliances with various people, all very human, a practice that had social sanction for the purpose of ensuring an heir, particularly when the husband was impotent.

History is, after all, a point of view, with no allowances for neutrality. And so, in this re-telling, Bhima is a lout who derives pleasure from hurting those weaker than him. Kunti and Yudhisthira are selfish egoists, whose concept of dharma and right action is centred on their own interests and what is good for them. While Drona is a guru whose pettiness gets the better of him.

What was seen as the skill of the greatest archer, Arjuna, becomes here the cruelty of a mean man who cares little for the life of the bird, and later a dog, that he shoots to display his prowess at archery.

Krishna’s extreme aversion to the commingling of the castes is also brought to the fore here. As is his willingness to resort to manipulation to maintain the status quo.

The majestic sweep of the Mahabharat is laid out on display, with events beginning with Suyodhana as a 10-year-old boy cowering with fear at the bullying he often faces at the hands of his younger but stronger cousin, Bhima.

The viewpoint is mostly third-person omniscient, told from the perspective of Suyodhana, and occasionally from those of Karna and Ekalavya. Here stories of Ekalavya and the rebel Nagas are intertwined with the main story of the Hastinapur cousins, whose intense rivalry is the mainstay of the Mahabharat.

The machinations of Shakuni, Gandhari’s brother, the manipulations of Bhargava Parashuraman, who aims to bring about a theocracy of priests and the cunningness of Kunti and her coterie of priests all add to the intrigue. Defying their vision is Kripa, whose broadminded interpretation of religion and maverick nature is set against his love for liquor and desire for money.

The struggles of Karna, Ekalavya and the mythologically unknown Jara, who hails from the lowest of the low castes, become symbolic of the oppression that India’s low castes suffered for centuries and the vain attempts they have made to improve their lot.

Amid these characters, all too flawed, Suyodhana stands out for his nobility of character, his generous heart and his acceptance of his own mistakes.

I admire Neelakantan’s skill in re-telling an epic in a contrary voice, the voice of one who has always been seen as one of the two arch villains of Indian mythology.

Neelakantan’s sarcasm, particularly when he talks about the poor and their situation, is remarkable. At one time, Shakuni, pleased with the success of his efforts to destroy India, says, “How long could India resist her enemies, with such a heartless caste system, useless rituals, corrupt rulers, irresponsible citizens and a religion that denied the real world for the sake of imaginary happiness?” The thoughts are as real today as they were back then.

The author’s sense of irony paints the story in a contemporary light. Here he shows us that even slums can boast of ancient history and lineage. The great Indian attitude of taking pride in our culture, even as we flaunt an abysmal lack of civic sense or ethical governance, is also on display here.

There are some things that remain unchanged to this day and Neelakantan’s descriptions of them makes you stop short. The hunger where a boy will pounce upon a mango pit that has been sucked dry.

Hastinapura becomes a microcosm for our nation, and our penchant for gloating over our heritage, oblivious to the fact that in some places we have caused its sheen to be eroded. Reading Ajaya helped me realise that it is not for nothing that they call the Mahabharat the greatest Indian epic.

My attitude towards the characters that people the great epic changed, as I understood the flaws within each one of them.

I felt sorry for Bhishma, forced to take a vow of celibacy to satisfy his father’s lust, unwittingly unleashing the Mahabharata by his chivalric unwillingness to put a little boy, Shakuni, to death.

I could understand Shakuni’s hatred of the land that had belittled his own on the battlefront.

I could also understand the insecurities of Gandhari as she becomes a war-bride to a sightless man, and her reasons for using the blindfold to close herself to her new reality.

Neelakantan’s skillful prose brings the Mahabharat to life. His descriptions of Ekalavya’s single minded determination to become a great archer, the intrigues at court, the machinations of Shakuni, among other events, are vivid and help you to wipe out the imagery of that other more popular Mahabharat from your mind.

If, like Gandhari, you can close your eyes to the many punctuation and spelling errors that dot several pages of this novel, you will be rewarded with a book that is certainly worth reading.

I can’t wait for the second part of the series.

(I received a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways.)


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