Saturday, 7 January 2017

Book conversation: The Ivory Throne

The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore
Manu S. Pillai
Harper Collins India, 2015

We have all been intrigued by the news of the treasures underneath the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.  This was the carrot on the stick for me, for taking on the onerous task of perusing this nearly 600 page epic.  It took some doing, but I was not disappointed.  In the process, I was enlightened on the life of one of the most underrated and unrecognised royal figures of India: Queen Regent Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.

Manu S. Pillai takes on the gargantuan task of retelling the story of the Travancore Royal House and comes up trumps.  Even though this is said to be his debut release, his proficiency in digging up voluminous historical records, chasing up those who know about the said history, and coming up with an engaging account of the royal family is not entirely surprising considering he has worked with the likes of Shashi Tharoor, who we know is an adept in this very field.

Throughout, Pillai's fondness towards Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi is evident, as he goes about highlighting the goodness of her character, and her farsighted public works as the Queen Regent - something, he points out, even Gandhiji was in awe of.  This is in contrast to the character of the Junior Maharani and her family, who come across as petty and scheming.

Palace intrigue, black magic, petty royal disputes, underhand political moves, colonial mores, and alleged profligacy - they are all there in ample measure, as the narrative makes an epic sweep of the history of late 19th and early 20th Century South Kerala region.  

While nobody wanted a princely dominion to remain outside the nascent republic of India just after independence, it is nevertheless sad to note the gradual isolation and obviation of the Maharani.  (Apparently her elder daughter first moved to Malleswaram in Bengaluru from Kerala - I would love to know where exactly, as I happen to live there.)

In addition to learning about the Queen, there are three less known pieces of information that stand out for me from the book: 
  1. the early history of Kerala, when Vasco da Gama and his Portuguese sailors resorted to piracy in the Arabian sea before they could gain access to the markets of Kochi
  2. the unfortunate decline of the matrilineal system of family leadership after the British occupied India and forcibly applied their puritanical rules on the society 
  3. Raja Ravi Varma's role in the royal life (he was the grandfather of the Maharani), and the fact that he was not a 'raja' at all!
A little bit more information about the Ivory Throne itself would have been helpful.  And Pillai talks about the ongoing temple treasure strife only towards the end, and points out that the matter is pending decision by the Supreme Court.  It would be interesting to know what the verdict would be, especially since the current royal family that is involved in the legal imbroglio happens to be from the Junior Rani's side of the family. 

Overall, a highly revealing and engaging scholarly work that is worth your time.

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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

New year, what new year?

Apparently, the year has changed.  2016 has sadly passed away, and 2017 has just taken birth.

Revellers heralded the 'new year' by crying themselves hoarse shouting 'happy new year!!!', drank gazillions of intoxicants, harassed hapless lasses who made the mistake of being in their midst during their raucousness, and inflicted their 'precious' pictures of celebration on social media addicts.  

Not to mention, as 12 O'Clock swept across the world from east to west, every country tried to outdo its neighbour by lighting up billions of bulbs and blowing up tons of fireworks to welcome the 'new year'.  

(Yet, curiously it is only the Diwali fireworks that contribute to pollution every year).

So to summarise, the 'new year' party is done and dusted, and we are officially in the 'new year'.

Really?  Sorry to burst the party bubble, but I don't feel anything different about the 'new year'.  

Why, you ask?  Here's why...

Because the whole concept of 'new year' is flawed, that's why.  

Because we are blindly towing the West's line, and following the legacy of our land-occupiers, the British.

Because we are following somebody's idea of the 'year of the Lord', when we have lords of our own, and calendars of our own.

Because there are, at the last Wikipedia count, close to eighty different calendars across the world, each laying claim to its own 'near year day'.

Because as per the Gregorian calendar, the 'new year' starts seven days after the birthday of the founder of Christianity, which has no relevance to us. 

Because the date of Christmas itself is a hotly contested and contentious issue across the world, with different cultures observing Christmas on different days of the year.  

Because the date, 25th December was arrived at by the scholars of the past after much deliberation.

Because the earth's revolution cannot be exactly divided into units of time to accurately measure the onset of the 'new year'.

Because the world continues to be beset with problems as before, and we are no better or worse than we were last year, or for that matter five decades ago...

Therefore, I stopped making a fool out of myself 'at the stroke of the midnight hour', several years ago.  

So let me repeat that.  New year, what new year?  Get on with your lives now...

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Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Book conversation: How to be a Literary Sensation

How to be a Literary Sensation
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli
Harper Collins India 2015

Krishna Shastri Devulapalli does to writing what Rishi Piparaiya does to flying, with an equally unpronounceable surname!

And the humour in this one is as good.  

But I guess the joke's on me.  Because - yes, I admit it - I took the title on its face value.  Literally literally, if you like.  And came a cropper.

The crossed out 'financial' replaced with 'artistic' should have given the clue.  But I did not take it.

The book has nothing to do with how to be a good writer.

The first half is about Devulapalli's encounters with colourful characters from his life.

And the second half takes a dig on just about all aspects of a writerly life - including the 'gas generated at lit fests', and his pet peeve: books on the theme of 'loss and redemption'.  

There are several laugh-out-loud (LOL, silly!) moments.

I definitely won't be a 'literary sensation', but at least I had a good laugh.  

So go for it if you have had enough of loss and redemption.  (Whatever the hell that is, by the way...I mean BTW).

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