Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book review: The Mountain of Light

The Mountain of Light

“There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” 
-Bertrand Russel

Few reads just alter the way you look at something. I was driven into silence after I finished my latest read and was deeply engrossed in research. I read mounds of articles on the Punjab empire, it's treasure, it's ancestry - even the servants of Sikh royal ancestry have tales to tell. I am mesmerised now, knowing all too well that India is strewn with endless saga of affluence, influence, power, bloodshed and a talent that the world has never imagined to exist.

I thank Indu Sundaresan for sending me a pre-release copy of this captivating historical fiction. I took to reading this book with a lot of apprehension since I was unsure of whether this book would impress me. Having read Indu's previous triology on Taj story, I certainly thought her latest book wouldn't have anything new to offer me. But I am glad to be disproved this way because her signature style of using an enthralling imagery served it's purpose yet another time. I was transposed into pre-independent Indian times where aristocracy, diplomacy and invasion were at their best. History fed to me in such a delightful way is an always welcomed gesture. I am left with a hunger to know more, to imagine more and to relish more of the centuries old Indian tussle with a foreign power.

The beginning of the story is set against the backdrop of a lush Punjab empire in the western frontier of India. The larger-than-life ruler of Punjab empire, Ranjit Singh is hosting another king in exile- Shah Shuja. This deposed Afghan ruler has been kept under protection (read house arrest) in the beautiful Shalimar Gardens with a promise of all the help to regain his kingdom. But the Punjab's lion only bargain in exchange of his support is to get the possession of Kohinoor diamond from Shah's wife Wafa Begum. What follows in the narration is how the diamond changes hands from Wafa Begum to Ranjit Singh, how East India Company lays a greedy eye on it and eventually how the world's biggest diamond is secreted out of India on a voyage to land in the crown of Queen Victoria of England.

The narration comes through different characters and with an extended timeline shrunken into a mere 300 odd pages. Naturally the reader finds herself relishing in the perspectives of different characters. There is the lordliness of a generous king of a mighty empire, unadulterated admiration of a general towards his master, shrewdness of a woman under veil, amusement of an outsider finding home in a land that couldn't be more foreign to him, the innocence of a little boy who looses his priceless empire and all the power that comes along with it to a foreign hand only to find himself living off the scrap of a salary from the same hand.

Only at the end of the novel did I realise how much I wanted it to end in a different way, how I wanted the young Maharajah to have been a little older to truly understand what was at stake in his life, how I wanted a piece of India to be independent for a little longer than it did in actuality. The last chapter 'Diary of a Maharajah' was heart wrenching for me as I had to read along Dalip Singh's bewilderment in a foreign land. This young prince was uprooted from his homeland and Anglicised in every possible way before being taken to London to be presented in front of the Queen mother. My heart went out to this child who was a puppet king from the age of 5 under British, removed from the care of his mother into an English couple's guardianship, christened even before he was 15 (though he converted back to his birth religion of Sikhism at the latter part of his life) and visited his homeland as a foreigner only twice under the controlled-watchful eyes of Britishers.

The characters take over the show in this novel of Indu's. Although there are quite a lot of main characters in the narration, a reader will be able to associate with them all. There are haughty mighty rulers of lands, demure and enigmatic Indian women of power, unsympathetic East India Company officials while many other Englishmen who blended with the rich fabric of Indian culture and called India their home, English maidens with a longing for love and companionship et al. One character particularly stood out to me which is that of a faithful son of the soil who gave up his life to stop Kohinoor from adorning another lord. This character is greatly inconsequential in comparison to others involved in the mayhem of Kohinoor transport but yet the subtlety with which the author has painted this character makes one's heart melt.

A good read to me is the one that sets me up for many more reads and I dare say I indulged myself in Punjab Empire and a bit of East India Company history. This book revels in the mellowness of Indian culture, diplomacy of a falling kingdom and the ruthlessness of a conqueror. On a parting note I want to uphold one dismal fact of Indian history that it was made mostly by men. I recommend this book to all historical fiction lovers and especially to those who bask in fiction with good imagery.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” 
― William Styron

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Is quality dependent on the price?

It's often a norm in our society to treat any less expensive product to be of low quality, but there is a book publishing brand that just proves it wrong- Pratham Books.

Pratham Books
Pratham Books is a non-profit organization that is striving hard to make India a better reader by publishing richly illustrated excellent content books at throw away prices. I happened to buy it's entire book collection into my classroom only to be humbled myself at the quality of books. I got the same irresistible urge to rip open all the packages that I get on receiving books. I soon employed myself into reading all the 69 books (perks of being a literacy teacher). 

I am a lot wiser after the completion of this reading. Most often than not adults consider they have an upper hand in knowledge in comparison to children. But I cannot stress enough how that illusion is broken every time one reads children literature. Pratham books like 'Sailing Home' and  'A Royal Procession' drill into young minds the nuances of Indian history. Children are lured into learning history through captivating short stories and colourful illustrations. Stories like 'Chuskit goes to school' and 'Cheenu's gift' make children understand social disparities among healthy and disabled, rich and poor by upholding humane qualities. There are many other books which speak of traditional occupations of India and educate children about the rich heritage of India. The set of Pratham Books I bought exposes one to culture of different parts of India, artistic diversity of various locations, moral values for righteous life, money management, various art forms et al. The books are levelled at 4 different reading capabilities of children and available in 11 Indian languages that just opens up opportunities for children from all linguistic and economic backgrounds. 

Kids can learn a humongous amount of vocabulary and ideas through covering these books. The ideas are rendered in such a bright child fashioned manner that it's hard to not absorb the linguistic knowledge. I made up for the loss of reading in my childhood by indulging in Pratham books. I advocate the use of Pratham Books in every household and every classroom. Indian young generation is at a stage where it's getting exposure to English language only through foreign literature. Pratham Books is a ray of hope in educating India in English through Indian context. I recommend these books to all and sundry.

You can also read this review on Pratham Books blog here.