Book Review: The Painted Towns of Shekhawati

I am usually inspired to read about a place after a visit there; I have also been known to pick up something to read once I have decided to visit a place. As for packing my bags and heading to a destination after reading about it? Never, though I have added a destination to a mental list of places to visit.

Did I just say never? Actually, that has now changed to ‘just once’ when I visited the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan after reading a book about its painted havelis or mansions in January this year. The Painted Towns of Shekhawati by Ilay Cooper was a serendipitous find, and I want to first share how I found the book with you before telling you what the book is all about.

The Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Book Art Book, Ilay CooperIt was a rainy August day in 2014 and I was feeling quite sorry for myself at that time. All my travel plans were falling through for some reason or the other, which meant that I hadn’t travelled anywhere that year.

A casual twitter conversation with a friend on the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) got me thinking about attending the festival in 2015 and maybe combining it with some travel to places around Jaipur.

A simple Google search threw up Shekhawati as a possible place to visit. A little deeper search and book on The Painted Towns of Shekhawati popped up. Though I was aware of the painted havelis in Shekhawati, I was more than a little sketchy on the details. The book intrigued me enough to place an order and the book was in my hands a few days later.

The first thing I did after reading the book was to apply for leave at work, write out a tentative itinerary, and book the hotel and flight tickets (not necessarily in this order). Yes, I had decided to go to Shekhawati after reading the book.

So what was in the book that got me all set to travel to Shekhawati?

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An afternoon, graphic novels and Goodreads

It’s a quiet afternoon at home on one of the days of the long Dussera weekend we’ve just had. I am sorting through and rearranging my bookshelves in an attempt to make space for my ever-growing number of books. The first thing I do is to remove all the books from their shelves and separate them genre-wise. Soon, there are piles of books grouped all over the room.

It is a beautiful sight. :-)

Now comes the difficult part. I need to identify books that I can bear to part with and give away to libraries or to people who want them. Progress is slow, as I get distracted by some of my favourite books among them, often opening them to read passages and lines. It’s like meeting old friends, you know.

The afternoon passes by pleasurably as I move from book pile to book pile, genre to genre. The last pile of books are all Graphic Novels of varying sizes. As I sort and stack them by size and series, I am amazed at just how many of them there are.

“How did it get to be so much? When did it even start?” I ask myself as I stare at the now sorted books in this genre.

Graphic novels, Book collection

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Book Review: The Museum of Literary Souls

The Museum of Literary Souls, John Connolly, ebookHave you ever noticed that extraordinary things only seem to happen to ordinary people?

In real life. In films. In books. Especially in books.

Take for example, Mr. Berger of “The Museum of Literary Souls” by John Connolly (ebook, StoryFront, 2013). Mr. Berger, the protagonist of this story leads a rather dull existence of unvarying routine.

He is single, never been married, and lives alone in London. He works for the housing department of a rather minor council as an Assistant Registrar.

His position as registrar paid neither badly nor particularly well but was enough to keep him clothed and fed, and maintain a roof above his head. Most of the remainder went on books. Mr. Berger led a life of imagination, fed by stories. His flat was lined with shelves, and those shelves were filled with books that he loved…

Mr Berger might sometimes have been a little lonely, but he was never bored and never unhappy, and he counted his days by the books he read.

In all probability, Mr. Berger might have continued living his life in a similar manner for the rest of his life, if not for his mother’s death. Her bequest, though not a great fortune by any standards, was enough for him to resign from his job, move into his mother’s house in the countryside, and attempt to live out his dream of becoming a writer. A new routine developed, another unvarying one that included reading, writing, walks in the countryside and an occasional visit to the local pub.

One evening something happened. Something that shifted the equilibrium in his carefully ordered life.

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Book Review: Silent Cinema in India

Watson Hotel, Historic Hotel, Mumbai

Watson’s Hotel / Esplanade Mansion

In the busy Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai is a run down, decrepit building called Esplanade Mansion. Once upon a time, it was known as Watson’s Hotel and is India’s oldest surviving cast-iron building today. Fabricated in England and assembled on site between 1867–1869, Watson’s has quite a bit of a history attached to it.

There are many stories about Watson’s, but the one I’m going to share here is in the context of the book being reviewed here — Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey (Harper Collins, 2012, Price: Rs.4,999/-) by B.D. Garga. It was at Watson’s Hotel that the Lumeire Brothers’ Cinematographie was screened on July 7, 1896, to an all-white audience for an admission fee of one rupee.

“Cinema arrived in India like an itinerant traveller, unannounced” (pg.15).

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Govinda: Book 1 of The Aryavarta Chronicles

A couple of pages into the “Author’s Note” in Book 1 of the The Aryavarta Chronicles: Govinda (2012, Hachette India) by Krishna Udayasankar, I came across these lines:

We are the stories we tell. The Aryavarta Chronicles are neither reinterpretation nor retelling. These stories are a construction of reality based on a completely different set of assumptions… I am simply one of those innumerable bards who passes the story on, contexualized and rationalized but not lacking in sincerity or integrity. It is you, the reader, who shall infuse it with meaning and bring it to life as you will. (pg. vii)

Govinda, Aryavarta Chronicles, HachetteHa ! That’s what nearly every author of mythological fiction claims, I grumbled to myself as I settled down to read Govinda.

458 pages later, when I closed the book shut, I was no longer grumbling. Instead, I was keenly aware that I had just finished reading a book that had turned out exactly as Udayasankar claimed, particularly the last sentence.

Govinda was no “old wine in new bottle”, as I had initially feared, but a completely fresh perspective on the most timeless of all epics — the Mahabharata. It was a perspective that delighted me, challenged me and, more importantly, made me think.

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The House of Fear by Ibn-e-Safi

The place: Allahabad. The year: 1948. Twenty-year old Abrar Narvi was a fairly well-known Urdu poet, a sometimes writer of short stories and satires, and with a wish to write in other genres as well. One day, someone told him that Urdu novels “would not sell without an element of sex in them”. When Narvi said that no one had ever tried, the same someone retorted that until this was tried no one would know, would they?

Narvi took this remark very seriously, changing the course of his life and that of a whole legion of his readers. In 1952, under the pseudonym of Ibn-e-Safi, he produced his first novel in Urdu without an element of sex and with an emphasis on originality and newness. This novel, in the crime fiction genre, was the first of a series that came to be known as “Jasoosi Duniya”. And in 1953, when Narvi migrated to Karachi in Pakistan, another series was created in the same genre that came to be known as the Imran Series.

Ibn-e-Safi was a prolific writer and wrote 3–4 novels a month at the peak of his productive period. When he passed away in 1980, he had written about 245 novels across both the series. Published simultaneously in India and Pakistan, his novels were hugely popular as they were the type that everyone in a family could read. In fact, Ibn-e-Safi’s publishers (on both sides of the border) claim that no writer of Urdu crime fiction has broken his sales record till date!

It is this popularity which prompted an attempt at translating Ibn-e-Safi’s novels into English to enable a larger number of readers to become acquainted with his works.

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