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Abhaya by Sai Swaroopa Iyer : A book review

     Abhaya is a fantasy novel set in ancient India, in the era of Mahabharatha. While retaining a minimal number of characters from the epic, it introduces the reader to a whole new set of (fictional) people. The story traces the events in the life of Abhaya, a young princess of the fictional city of Anagha, located in the borders of the larger, more powerful kingdom of Avanti, towards the western frontiers of ancient India.The initial chapters dwell on the growing animosity between the two kingdoms and Abhaya’s role in the same. However,towards the middle of the novel, we see a shift in the plot, where Abhaya finds herself in the midst of a far greater crisis – one that questions the very essence of all that she and her beloved Aryan civilization has stood for thus far. Abhaya, along with Krishna Vaasudeva and her brother Vikram strive to fight for what is right and protect their Faith from disintegration.

          One of the biggest strengths of the novel is the simple, but engaging narrative, with powerful dialogues making up a major part of the book. It is almost completely devoid of descriptive passages and heavy metaphors, which tend to be rather distracting to the reader. The novel also introduces us to a good number of interesting characters – all strong-willed women (with the exception of Krishna Vaasudeva), who leave an indelible mark on the reader’s mind. These women are unique in their own ways – there is Kadambari, who leaves her abusive husband, in search of a better life, Shyeni, a young woman who decides to leave her motherland to be with her lover, Mrinalini, a wise old maid in a royal household and my personal favorite – Atulyaprabha, who takes it upon herself to personally clean the ghats of the river Ganga! There is also Datri, a woman who is wronged by her kinsmen, and is thus easily convinced by the antagonist, Bhauma, to embrace the Shaktha religion. She is shown to dedicate her efforts towards what she believes would lead to the improvement of the condition of the Aryan women, while constantly undergoing an internal struggle fueled by doubts about the lies she is fed by Bhauma. Krishna’s sister and Arjuna’s wife Subhadra has also been portrayed as independent and self-driven – unlike in many other derivatives of the epic.

     The protagonist, Abhaya is shown to be a free spirited princess, with a natural flair for strategy and diplomacy – in short, she has all the makings of a capable ruler. She grows up to be a fearless young woman with ideas far ahead of her time. She also has the deepest faith in the innate goodness of her civilization, for the protection of which, she is prepared to do anything. Her intelligence, reasoning capabilities and the sense of duty she feels towards her cannot fail to impress.


     Krishna Vaasudeva has been portrayed in a beautiful manner. The author has painted him more as a human being than as a God – he comes across as a charismatic ruler, with designs for the welfare of the land and its people. However, there are certain miraculous incidences within the story – which leave the reader wondering, whether there is more to him, than what meets the eye! The author has done a brilliant job – in endearing him to the reader, while still maintaining the mystery about his true identity.

     The novel offers much more than the story alone. There are some lovely thoughts expressed, especially in the conversations between Abhaya and Krishna. Many of these and the truth in them are relevant to this day. They show us how blind adherence to traditions and rigidity in our ways, while losing track of the actual aims can be dangerous – and how the frustration it creates in the hearts of the people can be easily exploited and thus could cost a civilization, in which religion plays a major role, dearly. And also, how a religion as ancient and diverse as Sanathana Dharma, that has multiple facets to it, cannot be branded as uncouth or uncivilized due to the questionable activities of a few fringe elements alone. It is a dharma, a way of life, that encourages us to constantly question and evolve, in our relentless quest for our ultimate aim – that of attaining oneness with the supreme being.

     I would like to quote here, part of some of my favorite dialogues from the book.

“The constraints of tradition cannot limit those taking up the cause that seeks the welfare of the universe.” – Abhaya.

“The purpose of our life often beckons to us in the guise of a challenge or a hopeless situation.” – Atulyaprabha.

“It is easy to rebel and call for a revolution. What is difficult is to inspire evolution. That happens with transforming thought, not condemning people. That happens with challenging their thought and not by provoking their egos” – Krishna Vaasudeva.

“Are’nt you painting a conveniently homogenous picture of a civilization that has a hundred sides and flavors to it?” – Abhaya.

     The battles that Abhaya fights, in spite of being able and talented, resonate with those fought by women in the country to this day, against the unfair ways of what has predominantly been a patriarchal society. She has to face ridicule and strive double as hard, in order to be taken seriously, in her own kingdom, by her own people. Despite being a princess, she has to fight hard, to prevent herself from being coerced into a marriage that she has no interest in. Some events portrayed in the book – honor killing, forced conversions or the slow brainwashing of people to adopt a new faith, unfortunately continue to haunt our nation to this day.

     On the flip side, I would have liked more attention to detail in the case of some sequences. For eg., there is the case in which Vikram, Abhaya’s brother goes in search of his mother, to a place that is entirely new to him. However, we are not taken through all his struggles in this almost impossible task – it seemed to me that he finds her rather too easily. Also, there are the battle scenes – which could have been dealt with in more detail – taking into account the brave front put up by the protagonists. Also, there are somethings which are left unexplained. For eg., there is the case where Abhaya decides to go after Bhauma’s men, who she suspects are responsible for the disappearances of many young girls. Given that she has been shown to be well trained in combat, it is rather surprising that she embarks on what she knows to be a dangerous journey with just a small blade for a weapon.

          Also, while the dialogues give us a deep insight into the minds of the characters involved, we are told little about their physical appearances, the garments they wore, the kind of houses or palaces they stayed in or even their day to day activities. While these may not contribute much to the storyline as such, as a reader I would have liked a small introduction to the world these interesting characters inhabited. Also, I would have liked a tiny insight into some mannerisms characteristic of the important characters, espescialy Krishna – the only ones we are exposed to are about his “lips curving into a smile” or about him “raising his hands” (which, by the way, are oft repeated, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers tire of it!). I would have liked him to perhaps smooth the feather on his head gear! Also, I would have liked Abhaya or Subhadra to twirl their hair with their fingers or maybe even chew their finger nails, giving them that human touch, which would further endear them to the reader!

          Such minor glitches aside, it is a beautifully crafted novel – the reading of which has been a pleasurable experience. It is a novel, which I believe should be read by every self-respecting Indian – it would definitely help reinstate the pride we ought to feel towards our rich and diverse heritage.

Abhaya is available on the Kindle store and can be purchased here


Arranged Marriage By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – My Thoughts

Okay, let me be honest here – I first heard of this book, when I saw it in my Good Reads suggestions. I marked it as “Want to Read” and forgot about it, until I came across it in the local library and decided to borrow it. I had assumed that it was a full length novel and was surprised to find that it was a collection of (not so) short stories.

I don’t know if the title “Arranged Marriage” does justice to the stories contained within; for they deal with not only arranged marriage, but issues in an Indian or even a half Indian marriage. There are a wide range of issues addressed here – from more serious ones – like female feticide and domestic violence to subtler ones like the lack of breathing space for the bride in an in-laws dominated household or the pain of having to curb many aspects of her true self and putting on a show for the benefit of her husband’s extended family. Some of them also highlight the huge cultural gap between Indians and the west and the identity crisis faced by Indians who move to the US, post marriage.


I particularly liked a story titled “Doors” which showcases how a marriage could work well enough, if it’s left to the husband and wife alone, even if they hail from culturally different backgrounds. But then things start to go awry, when a character from one of their past lives comes to live with them and everything starts falling apart! Some other stories I enjoyed reading were – “Affair” – which deals with the traumatic experience of a wife who suspects her husband’s fidelity and “Meeting Mrinal” – which compares and contrasts the lives of two close friends who have chosen to lead very different lives.

All the stories are set in the 1990s and deal with the lives of young Bengali women, who leave home to join their husbands, who live abroad. However, the issues highlighted by them are sure to strike a chord with each and everyone of us, at some level or the other.

The narrative is beautiful and almost poetic, and the book would definitely qualify as one of the best Indian literary works. This is a must read in my opinion – however, do not read it for the story alone, read it for the experience and you are sure to be taken into every character’s world!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – My thoughts

I’d been wanting to read this book for a long time, but I’d kept putting off the decision to buy it.  As luck would have it, I chanced upon it in the local library and decided at once to borrow it. The title of the book was familiar to me, because I had read some amazing reviews and also because I happened to remember that it was the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize Award.

The book is set in 19th Century New Zealand, amidst the West Cost gold rush. The plot revolves around the incidents taking place late one evening in the Hokitika area and the various events leading upto it. It begins with a meeting of 12 men – each of whom has a role to play in these events. The incidents in question, comprise of 2 principle occurences – one concerning the death of a ‘hermit’ Crosbie Wells, who is found dead in his cottage by a politician travelling to the area and the second, concerning the alleged suicide attempt by Anna Wetherell, the most famous ‘whore’ in the area. Also, a bundle of gold, which is unaccounted for and worth a substantial amount of money is found in the hermit’s cottage later on.


The narrative then recounts the experiences of each and every single person present in the meeting room, thus revealing their part in the happenings. Their story, as told to one, Walter Moody, who happens to arrive at the room by chance, explains part of the mystery. The missing pieces are then slowly brought together, as the story proceeds and we come to terms with a sinister plot of lies, deceit and adultery…

Overall, this is a beautifully crafted novel and one of the best works I have read in recent times. Though the pace of the narrative is quite slow, its old world charm and eloquence makes it worth the read. One other thing I admired was the author’s attention to detail – the reason behind every critical action is explained away, leaving little room for doubt or speculation in the reader’s mind.

In conclusion, this is a must read for people with a love for works on the ‘Victorian’ era, historical fiction or even those who would enjoy a nice, slow mystery story. I should slip in a warning here though – the book is less about the mystery itself and more about the events and characters connected with it..

The Long Dark Tea – Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams – My thoughts

This book, is in keeping with the author’s penchant for comedy – interspersed works on, if not paranormal, then not – so normal phenomena. Like the more famous The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the author offers some fantastic and hilarious explainations for some equally fantastic happenings.
The book starts of with an explosion of one of the departure teminals of the Heathrow airport – with no rational cause being found for it (though a number of organizations rush foward to take resposibility). One of the novel’s main protagnists is an American woman, Kate who happens to be in the vicinity, when the afore mentioned events occur.  She decides to investigate some matters on her own, and finds herself in the midst of her wildest adventure ever.
There is also Dirk Gently, the other protaganist, a private detective, who finds himself drawn into the same adventure, through another series of bizzare phenomena. His sole client at the moment,  who claims to be in danger owing to a “Green eyed monster” bearing a scythe, is found murdered in his home, in a gruesome (yet funny, mind you) way. Dirk then finds himself being drawn into the investigation of the circumstances surounding his client’s death..
The adventures of the two protaganists is narrated in a brilliant and an almost “Wodehousian style”, to quote Stephen Fry. The circumstances under which the two meet – is so imaginative and downright funny – it must be read to be experienced. There is also a comic song, by a famous band , repeated often in the book – which I just could not help quoting. It goes like this –
“Hot Potato,

Don’t pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.

Quick, pass it on, pass it on, pass it on…”
In short this is a must read for those who loved the “Hitchhiker..” series and even, in my opinion for PGW fans.

The Muder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie – My Thoughts

“Nothing is ever what it seems but everything is exactly what it is.” – B. Banzai.

This quote, in my opinion, about sums up some of the best works of Agatha Christie. The murder mysteries penned by this author never fail to enthral me and always leave me pining for more. Her plots have a reputation for ingenuity – what seems to be an impossible murder at first is unravelled and explained quite simply by the principal “detective(s)” at the end.

The Murder At the Vicarage is the first book to feature Miss Marple, the elderly spinster with a “flair for justice” (as per Mr. Rafiel’s letter in the Nemesis). As in other works, she is portayed as a shrewd old lady with a keen sense of observation and the rather trying habit of drawing parallels for every other occurence, from her past experiences. Labelled an “old pussy” (thanks to her keen interest in the lives of people around her) by the inhabitants of her resident village, St. Mary Mead, she is shown to be an excellent judge of human character and thus, a master crime solver. This book is set in the English village of St. Mary Mead and is narrated by the village’s Vicar. It tells the story of the murder of one, Colonel Protheroe and the subsequent investigation of the crime. The colonel is found shot dead in the Vicar’s study. Thus, the inhabitants of the normally sedentary village, suddenly find themselves in the midst of a sensational crime. As usual, there is more than one person with a motive for murder. To add to the confusion of the police, more than one person confesses to the crime. Miss Marple becomes an important witness, with her house being next door and thus takes a natural interest in the affair.

As is usual with all Agatha Christie books, there are a set of interesting characters, who go about acting sufficiently suspiscious – there is the “vague” Lettice Protheroe, the strange and ill curate, Mr. Hawes and the even more mysterious Mrs. Lestrange (mysterious due to her background – which no one seems to know about). Thus, there are sufficient “goings on” and incidents to keep the reader hooked. However, as is typical with Agatha Christie books, most of the “detecting” is done by means of conversation and the use of “little gray cells”  as Hercule Poirot would say. So, it may not appeal to those looking for fast paced, action packed thrillers.

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