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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.

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     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

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In Conversation with Saiswaroopa Iyer, Author of Abhaya.

An IITian and a former analyst with a Venture Capital firm, Saiswaroopa Iyer’s interests include Startups, Economics, Carnatic Music, Philosophy, Politics, History and Literature of India. Trained in Carnatic classical music, she won a state level gold medal from TTD in rendering Annamacharya Kritis. She currently lives in London.

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In this post, I am proud to present a brief interview with the debutante author.


1. Your debut novel Abhaya was released on 24th November. Do tell us how you feel about it!

It feels great. In fact it still has to sink in! Reviews have started to flow and initial readers are really supportive.


2. Do share some insights about your writing journey – I’ve heard it’s been quite an awesome ride!

Abhaya you see on the Kindle store is the result of five years of work! The experience has taught me a lot. From writing on a whim or a surge of inspiration to writing as a discipline, the novel has taken me a long distance. I think I have finally learnt to fight the writer’s block (touch wood!) I have discarded around 3 full drafts and many more part drafts and each draft brought a lot of learning in terms of structuring and characterization. The whole journey also helped me balance my own thought process. Guess I can go on and on. All the reviews and warm praises apart, the process of writing, discarding, rewriting and editing itself has been immensely fulfilling.


3.The book’s title and front cover seem to tell a story of their own! Would you like to tell us more about them?

The cover was designed by Anoop Ravindran, an entrepreneur cum artist and a great friend. He chose to believe in my manuscript even before I had a single word out on my final draft. Conceptualizing the cover was a bit of a challenge. But Anoop managed to get the artist’s picture of the protagonist Abhaya with the temple of Kamarupa in the background. The peacock feather embellishing the title was his master touch! Needless to say it was liked by many.


4. The characterization of Abhaya seems very interesting! Was she inspired by any of the goddesses or princesses in Hindu mythology?

The characterization was one of my most interesting experiences. Initially, the thought of a female warrior enthused me a lot. But with each development in the plot, she showed a new shade. One of my mentors, in the early phases advised me to conceive a rebellious character. I instantly rebelled at the very thought! I realized later that a rebellious character is often unidimensional and to conceive a befitting partner to Krishna, one needs a multi-dimensional character.

It made me delve into the three fold path of Karma, Bhakti and Jnana. To confess, I was a diehard fan of Jnana, neutral about Karma and not at all an admirer of Bhakti to begin with. But the whole process of Abhaya’s characterization made me realize that each of the three is needed as the time and situation demand and they are not mutually exclusive. Abhaya is curious, courageous and a quick decision maker. She is an idealist but then ponders over every belief, doing a thorough analysis of her own. In short, I wanted all those characteristics in her which are normally not there in a knee jerk rebel. Her warrior side is just one of the many qualities she possesses. The hard work seems to have paid off as one of the readers called Abhaya, a people’s princess. I was just overjoyed hearing that.

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5. How did you go about researching for this book? Are there any particular books or magazines you would like to mention?

Root epics Mahabharata, Vishnu Purana and Bhagavatam mention this episode of Narakasura vadha. But the inspiration of a human Krishna was largely drawn from Krishnavatara by KM Munshi. I borrowed some concepts from Munshiji. A friend also suggested me to read Krishna Charitra by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and it gave me insights into the peace loving side of Krishna. I should also mention “Krishna. A study into theory of Avatars” where the writer Bhagvan Das dwelt on the human side of the Avatar. As I mentioned in the note, neither of these writers deny the divinity of Krishna, but have visualized the divinity within human dimensions. I’ve followed their lead in Abhaya.

There were also books on the Shakti worship and about the legends of Assam where I discovered that Bhauma, another major character in the book is a Shakti worshipper.


6. The book seems to be set in the Mahabharath era. How challenging was it to recreate scenes from such a time period?

Don’t mean to brag, but this was the easiest part. Partly, I think it is because of my obsessive love for this time period. My association with Mahabharata began with stories told by my grandparents and parents to Amar Chitra Katha and Rajaji’s version and gradually towards the unabridged critical edition.

But my prime focus was on characters. They create the effect. Be it 2000 BCE or 2000 CE, India is characterized by a large variety of thoughts, beliefs and philosophies. Many writers try and simplify the narrative by casting the country and populace into two sides of a conflict. But the truth is much more intricate and differences are far more tapered and porous than we generally think they were. I have attempted to present this plurality of thought with some success (hopefully!)


7. Do tell us about your other writerly activities! Do you write for magazines and journals?

I do write occasionally.Swarajya Magazine and Myindmakers come to my mind. There are a number of independent blogs focusing on Indian history, Indian literature and Telugu literature which were the launching platform for my public writing. My short writing is often on a trigger or on a whim. I am trying to make it a more disciplined activity.


8. Heard you’re a singer too, among other things! How does it feel to don so many hats?

That is flattering indeed! It was my mother Usha Krishna Swamy’s dream to see me accomplish great heights in Carnatic music. There were times when the situations were hostile and yet she believed in the potential of my voice and fought along. At the same time, she had me rooted into the philosophy of devotional music as opposed to pursuing a career in commercial music. Till today she is happier to see me sing in a temple than in a studio!

The best part of Indian classical music is the exposure we get into devotional and philosophical compositions by different saints from different parts of this country and from different periods of time. In a way, the compositions of Annamacharya influenced my thought about the divine Krishna a lot. Singing them along while delving into the intended meaning helped my writing too.


9. Do share some of your learning experiences – they are sure to come in handy for many aspiring writers!

Reading is a prerequisite. Thankfully my mother managed to inculcate this habit in me despite all my resistance in my tender years! Fortunately, the beginning was with Telugu poems from Bhagavatam which she and my father made a habit to recite regularly. She introduced me to English literature later in my upper primary school days. It is necessary to read a variety of literature. That helps avoid biases and encourages independent opinion. In my experience, I have observed that going low on reading affected my writing as well. The tricky part is to not get influenced by other writer’s style.

My fantasies developed around my reading and I was attracted to strong and self-driven characters. It is my firm belief that once a character is planted in a writer’s mind, the story would flow on its own.

Secondly, we need to be patient and not get tired of discarding drafts of our writing. To me, each draft proved to be a building block. One needs to balance feedback with self-conviction and take a bold decision at each phase.

Finally, don’t give up. Perseverance is the least we all owe to our characters. Believe in them and they will never fail to be by your side,especially in times of dire need!


10. Abhaya is a self-published novel. What, in your opinion are some of the best advantages of self-publishing?

I have comes across many published authors who complain about the publishing houses insisting on changes to their manuscripts. Newer authors have very less bargaining power there. The commercial aspects too are not very encouraging. I was also told that traditional publishing houses over invest their marketing efforts onto their star-authors and that leaves very less attention on the newbies. Personally, I was put off with the impersonal touch in the couple of rejection letters I received in the initial phases.

Self-publishing thrusts a lot of responsibility on the author and one needs to be ready for that. My entrepreneurial enthusiasm goaded me on this path. We have the freedom to decide what is published. We have the freedom to take a step back and re think our plan of action. Technology has provided interesting breakthroughs in this direction. The proportional returns are more encouraging in self-publishing.

Those who want to self-publish need to realize that marketing is totally in their hands. And networking helps there. It is advisable that aspiring authors start networking and participate in an ecosystem of their choice with all sincerity. This becomes their biggest marketing force during the grand phase.


11. Do tell us about your future projects – do you have some others in pipeline?

I am looking at the early to medieval historical India now. It will be too early to say, but I am considering the south Indian empires that preceded Vijaya Nagara Empire. Thanks to the limited history curriculum in our schools, we missed out reading about so many characters that would have inspired us. These are the rulers who invested in building breath taking temples, long lasting irrigation projects and patronized immortal literature instead of lavishing state wealth on their personal palaces. I am looking at few such not so well known Kings and their stories to write about. Hope Goddess Saraswati blesses me in the endeavour.


Abhaya is available on the Kindle store and can be purchased here. Hope you enjoy reading the book!

E-books vs paper books

I may come off as a hypocrite writing this; for, I own two of the best known electronic reading devices of the day. However, my association with the printed word is quite old and happens to date back to a time when computers were rare and smart phones – virtually unheard of. This should explain, in most part, my preference for the good old actual ‘books’ to their electronic counterparts. However there are other reasons for this partiality.

                             First and foremost, there is the unbeatable experience of visiting a physical bookstore (or a library for that matter) and spending hours together, just picking up books, reading their synopses or a snippet about their authors or even just feeling their cover. The thrill of coming across an unusual book and deciding to buy it on a whim is simply unbeatable! There have also been times, when I have finished half a book, sitting in the bookstore, before making the decision to buy it!

                           I now move onto the part of actually holding the book, opening it and reading its content. I agree that the e-book devices offer many advantages in this area, the first being their portability and lightness. But, this is outweighed by a significant point – the heaviness of a book, gives me a rough estimate of the hard work put in by the author. This gives me a strong motivation to continue reading the book and attempt finishing it – no matter the quality of the content! Also, I feel free of the obnoxious need to carry the book around and read it in every place possible, thus inconveniencing many a fellow passenger, especially while commuting in a jam packed train or bus.

Ebooks vs Paper books

                           While I’m reading a book, I sometimes just spend time admiring the cover photographs, art work or illustration and try relating these to the story at hand. I even flip to the last page or back cover to secretly admire the author’s photograph or get an occasional glimpse of their lives. Also, I tend to associate each book with the print font (which I feel is different for every book) and the feel and smell of each page I read. I feel denied of these simple pleasures while reading the e-book version.

                           Moving on, now, to the other famed advantages of the e-book. If I use a reading device or app, I could get to know the “percentage of completion” of the book. This can hardly compare to having a verifiable proof of the number of pages successfully conquered and the number still remaining, while reading an actual book. The thrill of having to guess at the meanings of difficult words, in terms of their context, thanks to the lethargy of having to look them up in that huge dictionary, more than compensates for the advantage of an in-built thesaurus.

                           I now come to the part of “handling” a book. A particularly good book meant that it would be handled with extra care. It would have a designated ‘reading spot’ and a ‘reading time’ – it would not be read in bed and certainly not while eating. All its pages would be smoothed and ironed out, a proper bookmark would be used and it would be allotted the best of positions in the book-shelf. Needless to say, the e-book does not lend itself to such care and attention.

                           And last, but not the least, there is the pride of owning so many books and a huge bookshelf. The bookshelf itself would be selected with care and the arrangement of books inside it would be an activity requiring lots of time and attention to detail. This is, after all a prized possession – one that would be proudly displayed to friends and relatives alike.

                           This is not to say that I’m going to completely stop reading e-books. Rather, I would try and balance out my time between them and their older and (in many ways) better kinsmen!

Battling Dementors with my very own Patronus

While the Harry Potter series enthralled us all with it’s charm, creativity and spirit of adventure,it also offers many philosophical points to ponder. Indeed, there is a whole book that has been published to this effect! There are also articles published in literary journals on the topic – which present deep analyses on the characters and events appearing in the series.


I recently watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – my personal favorite in the series. Though this was not the first time I was watching it, I was particularly intrigued by the concept of Dementors and the means to fight them – the Patronus charm and began to look at the concept from a different angle.

Dementors are portrayed as dark creatures, which prey on human happiness. To quote J.K. Rowling –
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

Dementors

After thinking over this rather elaborate description, I asked myself whether dementors are merely mythical creatures – a creation of fantasy fiction. The answer was a big NO. I personally encounter dementors quite often – when I’m in the lowest of moods, when something I have eagerly waited for doesn’t happen, when I have little or no hopes left on one of my many “projects” or when I’m wallowing in self pity due to something over which I have little or no control. In all of these situations, everything around me turns dull, gloomy and frosty – irrespective of the actual weather outside. The more I give into these negative thoughts, the more I feel sucked into a bottomless pit of worry and despair. I thus harbor many dementors within myself – they lie dormant and are waiting to be awakened, at the slightest provocation!


Moving onto the charm that defends a witch or a wizard against dementors – The Patronus charm (Expecto Patronum). The charm produces a silvery “Patronus” that is, to quote J.K. Rowling again, “a magical guardian, a projection of all your most positive feelings“. In order to successfully conjure up a patronus, which incidently, takes the shape of a favorite animal, a witch or wizard must think of and focus hard on a particularly happy memory. It has also been reiterated that the charm is exceedingly difficult and that few witches and wizards can produce a full Patronus. Also, in the story of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban“, Harry initially produces a very feeble patronus and is unable to produce a full-blown one until the very end. Indeed, it takes him many practice sessions to even conjure up the feebler ones.

Patronus

Coming to my very own dementors – can I conjure up my own Patronus to fight them? Yes. Taking a cue from the story, I must focus on a particularly happy memory, essentially diverting my mind from all the shroud of negativity,imposed by the beasts. Is this easy to do? Well, obviously not. How many of us are able to stay positive all the time – focusing on all the good things we’ve had and still got? Very few, to the best of my knowledge. Can we get better at it? Yes, of course. It isn’t easy – it requires immense self control, a kind of mastery over our thoughts and lots and lots of practice and patience.


And so, the Dementors and the Patronuses from the series have shown me a way to fight the nets of self-doubt and negativity that I get entrapped in, when in my lowest spirits. And I’ve just started practising the Patronus charm. I sure hope to produce a better Patronus the next time round!

(Images courtesy – Internet)

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.

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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 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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