Category Archives: Indian/Asian Literature

Literature set in Asia/by authors of Asian origin

Let’s Talk About Love, by Ajay Ramanathan

Today’s blog post is on the poetry collection Let’s Talk About Love, by Ajay Ramanathan.

I received a Review Copy of this book from the author in exchange for a written review. All opinions expressed are my own.

synopsis

Never has something captured our imagination more than the four-letter word- ‘LOVE’. While the idea of love has been portrayed in pop culture throughout the years, it has also been a source of confusion, disappointment, depravity and even violence.

Via prose, this book attempts to examine the concept of love and the various ways in which it is manifested in our daily life.

my review

The poetry book I ended up reading in between the transition from January to February was this one. And I have a few conflicting thoughts on this.

Let's Talk About Love, by Ajay Ramanathan
Let’s Talk About Love, by Ajay Ramanathan

The overarching theme was of love in its various degrees and shades – the poet wrote of platonic love of romantic love, of darker versions of obsessive and controlling love, fidelity or the lack thereof, death of friendships, and so on. However, while I did try to keep an open mind, some of the poems just came off as sexist and misogynistic and almost bordering on abuse. I was unsure if the poet believed it to be so or simply tried to portray what he imagined to be the manner of thinking of some people in the world. In this matter, I tried to give the poet the benefit of the doubt. Some of these poems really made me uncomfortable. Nevertheless, they then evolved to the love a mother has for her children, and the love a people have for their mother nation.

On the Writing in Let’s Talk About Love

Coming to the writing, I think it could have gone through another round of editing. I found the language used to be abrupt and lacking in sync. There was a lack of cohesion that could have been looked into. Overall, I am not sure if I would recommend this to anyone without further revisions.

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Anamika: A Tale of Desire in a Time of War

Today I am talking about one of the most interesting books I have read this year! Anamika, by Meghnad Desai, was a fantastic story set in the days after Aurangzeb’s fall.

Anamika, by Meghnad Desai
Anamika, by Meghnad Desai

(This blog post may contain affiliate links. That means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links. It does NOT COST you EXTRA)

(This blog post also contains a review copthat was sent to me by the publisher. However, all opinions expressed are my own and in no way influenced by external parties)

synopsis

He was a powerful man, as she could see from his hands and his stature. And again, those penetrating eyes. Something had happened in Anamika’s dull daily life. What did it portend?

It is the eighteenth century. Emperor Aurangzeb has fallen, the Mughal Empire is a shadow of its former self, and India is rife with civil war. In these times of gardi, you’d have to be a lion to win power, and a wolf to keep it. When the beautiful Savitri, the only daughter of the Chief Minister of Purana Zilla, marries into a rich merchant household in Ranipur, she becomes Anamika. Her future seems assured—she is to bear her loving husband Abhi many children, eventually becoming the lady of the house and perpetuating the family’s fortunes.

But a tragic accident on their wedding day renders Abhi paraplegic, seemingly dooming their perfect future. Anamika still finds bliss in her love for her husband, but her in-laws’ unfulfilled dreams of progeny threaten to consume and destroy her.

The intrigue that appears

But into her life enters Abdul—the illegitimate son of Shah Ahmad Khan, locked in a deadly war with his brother Hassan for the throne. This powerful, magnetic stranger upsets the balance of her everyday life, thrusting both Anamika and Abhi into a newfound world of intoxicating freedom, conflicting desires, and deadly deceit. Crossing paths with the enigmatic courtesan-turned-bodyguard Nadya, the motherly Niloufer, the spirited young warrior princess Sonal, and a wide and motley cast of soldiers, assassins, courtesans, eunuchs, princes, and queens, Anamika must make bold choices and adopt many names for the sake of both desire and survival.

my review

Anamika: A Tale of Desire in a Time of War a simply a stunning read – full of sensuality intertwined with the duty of necessity. It was especially stunning for its vivid portrayal of women as nuanced and real figures rather than the usual tropes of ‘angel of the house’ or the ‘madwoman in the attic’ that are often used in both English and Indian English literature set in those times.

And because it is the female sex that so thoroughly engrossed me, let me talk about it first!

Womanhood and its various layers

In Anamika, we have the eponymous Anamika who is a mature and independent woman (well, as independent as a married woman in those times can possibly be). She is a loving wife and the way she navigates her life in her married home, around her mother-in-law and a particularly lusty father-in-law was quite well written. Her resolution and will power especially after the accident that rendered her husband a paraplegic.

But then, with the arrival of Abdul, there is a sexual awakening in her. Her very first view of Abdul brings up thoughts in her mind regarding his “penetrating” gaze and the way his hands and stature denoted power. I thought this particular aspect of Anamika’s growth was also empowering in the fact that she is personally growing and looking after herself, after the time she has spent looking after others around her.

Show of strength

Then comes Nadya, who was a courtesan but is now Hassan’s bodyguard. The very fact that she masquerades as Nadeer and stays by his side to protect him, again brings to mind another nature of a woman – that of the more physicality of her strength. I loved the portrayal of Nadya although she wasn’t an absolute favourite all the time. Despite that, I do admire her resolution and strength.

Lastly, a few lines about two other female characters in the book. Hassan’s mother was a truly formidable (and a bit scary) woman who rules the zenana. Princess Sonal is another wonderful woman who does not let anything stop her from learning what she wishes – strategy and warfare, and that too from a French general!

Political intrigue, wars and royalty

Because of what I could infer from the synopsis, it was pretty clear that there would be some interesting political intrigue, seeing as to how it was set in the days after Aurangzeb’s downfall. And surely, a great tussle was at the center of it all. Hassan is the legitimate son of the king, while Abdul is the illegitimate son of Shah Ahmad Khan. And thy are each other’s greatest adversaries striving to bring the other down o their way to claim the throne.

My final thoughts

I thought that Anamika was a really very interesting story and I was hooked from the very beginning! I rate it 4.5/5 stars! Do pick it up!

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Undertow by Jahnavi Barua: My thoughts

Today I am sharing my thoughts on UNDERTOW, by Jahnavi Barua, a new and stunning story of family, love and Assam.

Undertow, by Jahnavi Barua
Undertow, by Jahnavi Barua

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synopsis

Loya is twenty-five: solitary, sincere, with restless stirrings in her heart. In an uncharacteristic move, she sets off on an unexpected journey, away from her mother, Rukmini, and her home in Bengaluru, to distant, misty Assam. She comes looking for her beloved Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, but also seeks someone else-her grandfather, Torun Ram Goswami, someone she has never met before.

She arrives at the Yellow House on the banks of the Brahmaputra, where Torun lives, not knowing that her life is about to change. Twenty-five years ago, Rukmini had been cast out of the family home by her mother, the formidable and charismatic Usha, while Torun watched silently. Loya now seeks answers, both from him and from the place that her mother once called home. In her quest, she finds an understanding not only of herself and her life but also of the precarious bonds that tie people together.

A delicate, poignant portrait of family and all that it contains, Undertow becomes, in the hands of this gifted writer, an exploration of much more: home and the outside world, the insider and the outsider, and the ever-evolving nature of love itself. 

Check out the reading vlog I made for this amazing book!

my review

Set in Guwahati, Undertow has been a gem of a book and I was in love from the very first page. It was our first ever Book Of The Month for our very new venture – Assam Book Club.

Reading this book during this time in history (as I am self-isolating during the Covid crisis) is probably the reason why this book hit me as it did. I saw my beautiful state, or rather, my beautiful city from the eyes of Loya, who is visiting here for the first time. I was travel-sick in a way and at the same time, home-sick, and I wanted to roam about the city as I did once upon a time.

Undertow was also included in the longlist for the JCB Prize in Literature and it felt so good to be represented. In mainstream Indian literature, which is also mostly of Central India, we Northeasterners hardly figure except as token characters. So this was a refreshing and welcome change. I felt represented, my culture and my way of life felt represented. This representation of Assam, taking into consideration the time period it is set in, was actually very apt and I myself could remember various scenarios I faced as I grew up (particularly the political aspects).

Check out my list of THE BOOKS TO READ from North East India!

Check out these pictures where I dressed up as a typical Assamese bride. This was special because my Mom lent me her own bridal clothes for this photoshoot.

I also made a spread for this book where I took for my inspiration the vibrant blue of the cover. And here is when we spend a few moments to admire the symbolic cover (I’m a lit major after all). The girl felt solid and at at the same time, a lone figure amidst the blue swirling around her.

Undertow, by Jahnavi Barua - a Bujo Spread!
Undertow, by Jahnavi Barua – a Bujo Spread!

I also think that just like the beautiful cover, the writing too was full of stunning imagery. And it so was. I felt like I was a tourist here, but then again, the representation of Assamese life is so true and realistic.

The relationships among the people were also well portrayed, including all the various nuances and undertones of emotions. Anger, spite, love, sadness, guilt etc. were all shown via the actions of the characters. I think it was all so beautiful in its wholeness. The author also delves over the lines that can separate families, orthodox ones; over choices in one’s spouse, job etc. It was true in the case of Rukmini (spouse) as well as Loya (job).

Talking about the ending, which has understandably divided the readership into two, I have to admit that I am quite satisfied with it. It felt like the story has in some way come to a full circle. I would like to reiterate that I really do believe that ending was necessary and that it was justified.

Overall, I thought it was a gem of a book and you should definitely pick it up! 5/5 stars!

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BHAIRAVI: The Runaway by Shivani

Today I am sharing my thoughts on BHAIRAVI: THE RUNAWAY, by Shivani urf Gaura Pant, an era-defining Hindi author, whose works are often paralleled to Jane Austen’s.

Bhairavi: The Runaway by Shivani
Bhairavi: The Runaway by Shivani

(This blog post may contain affiliate links. That means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links. It does NOT COST you EXTRA)

(This blog post also contains a review copthat was sent to me by publishers. However, all opinions expressed are my own and in no way influenced by external parties)

synopsis

A still, dense, ancient forest. A dark cave deep within. And in it a woman-child whose beauty can move the most pious to sin. Who is she and why did she jump from a moving train to land in the biggest cremation ground teeming with Aghori Sadhus?

In this story spanning generations and redolent with Gothic imagery, Shivani urf Gaura Pant tells the story of a woman’s life, her moral and mental strength, and her resilience. She also examines the choices women have in her beautiful, descriptive prose. With an erudite foreword by her daughter and scholar, Mrinal Pande, and a preface by the translator, this book is Shivani for the 21st-century reader.

my review

Bhairavi was a stunning book and I loved it in its entirety. Even during the parts where the characters were not particularly likable or the situation they were going through was not entirely conducive, I thought that it was so real and something that could have perhaps happened to someone we know.

Narrative technique in Bhairavi

Talking about the writing style and the language used, I think it was very earthy and very Indian in the sense that even though it was in English, it really had an essence that was essentially that of a particular people and their cultures. It also had a very folktale-ish vibe as if it is an oral story that is being narrated to you. I think this is because of the ways in which the author has incorporated the folktale traditions of India into her writing – for instance, when narrating the anecdotes or talking of the relationships between people and so on.

Mother-daughter dynamic in Bhairavi

Then comes the most compelling and riveting and at the same time, the off-putting relationship of the mother-daughter duo. Chandan is a beautiful girl, an ‘apsara’ and that is the reason and excuse for why her mother binds her in the way she does. Rajeshwari is an over-protective mother and when one learns of her past, it is in a way the reason why she is like that. But then again, having gone through what she had as a young girl, I believe she should have been more understanding of her daughter and her wishes.

In that case, I suppose the saying is right – we grow up to be like our parents. But is that justification enough? Is it even right?
While I believe it is certainly getting better in contemporary times, I cannot deny that there are still some parents who unjustifiably coddle their daughters. Let me rephrase that, they are over-protective and downright oppressive. Wouldn’t that explain why so many of the kids we know nowadays, are good at sneaking and lying? I think a certain bit of leniency is needed so that both the kid and parents learn to trust each other’s decisions and not lie and sneak around.

Human prejudices in Bhairavi

There are also various prejudices that were shown via the thoughts of Rajswari in this book. Westernized people do not get any respect from her; rather, she curses her meat-eating neighbour and then is surprised by the way modern women live. All in all, I do believe it is a good reflection of the times that the book is set in, but I do hope we take a lesson from it. Just because it used to be that way in that past, doesn’t mean we do not change the way it goes.

Bhairavi in the end

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and Chandan’s journey was a long and learning one. Of course when the book ended, she still had a long way to go. However, she finally was in control of her fate and life, as it were. Beautiful writing and real-living characters, with an honest portrayal of the various issues that plagued society then (and in some ways, even now)!

I rate it 4/5 stars!

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AHALYA: A Feminist Retelling

Today I am sharing my thoughts on AHALYA, a feminist retelling of Ahalya, one of the Pancha Kanyas in Indian mythology.

(This blog post may contain affiliate links. That means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links. It does NOT COST you EXTRA)

(This blog posts also contain a review copthat was sent to me by publishers. However, all opinions expressed are my own and in no way influenced by external parties)

Ahalya, by Koral Dasgupta
Ahalya, by Koral Dasgupta
synopsis

It is known that Ahalya was cursed by her husband, Gautam, for indulging in a physical relationship with Indra. But is there another story to Ahalya’s truth? Who was Indra anyway? A king? A lover? A philanderer? The first book of the Sati series, Ahalya hinges on these core questions, narrating the course of her life, from innocence to infidelity.

In the Sati series, Koral Dasgupta explores the lives of the Pancha Kanyas from Indian mythology, all of whom had partners other than their husbands and yet are revered as the most enlightened women, whose purity of mind precedes over the purity of body. The five books of the Sati series reinvent these women and their men, in the modern context with a feminist consciousness.

my review

Ahalya was a fairly new take on a character who has unfortunately not been explored much – and to the extent that, her story is often relegated to the backseat. I admit I myself first was truly intrigued by her when Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni explored her characteristics and actions in THE FOREST OF ENCHANTMENTS, another feminist retelling of the Ramayana, from the female (Sita’s) gaze. Prior to that my knowledge of Ahalya was limited to what I knew of her thanks to all the stories I had listened to, growing up.

Initial thoughts

When I came to know about this book, thanks to PAN MACMILLAN INDIA, I was very excited to read it and delve deeper into her story. Unfortunately, this was an overhyped read, and although I enjoyed it, I am afraid it fell short of what I was expecting. I felt that this book was very philosophical in a way (overtly so) and it was the one thing that I was not extremely fond of.

Redeeming factors

However, I also cannot deny that it is due to this wordplay the author uses, that the utter beauty of the prose was rendered. There is a fantastic intertwining of the philosophies of life along with Ahalya’s own growth. This is the contradiction at the heart of it – while I did not particularly like the philosophizing much, I shudder to think what the narrative would have been like without this lyrical and poetic hand that the author has used.

Realism

The characters have also all been really humanized – no one is really good or bad. They are humans (although admittedly with some godly qualities) like us, and therefore not entirely black or white. There is so much of the gray area in their beings. I felt really touched by the insecurities and fears that hindered them in their pursuit of growth and knowledge. After all, isn’t that what happens with us too?

It is a wonderful undertaking by the author and I look forward to the other works in this series. I rate it 3.5/5 stars.

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