Sunday, January 31, 2016

Alison Weir - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

+Amazon India
+Kindle Store
@Grove Press

Henry VIII ruled England from 1509 to 1547.  He was the second son of Henry VII and became the heir to the throne after the death of his older brother Arthur.  He also inherited his brother's wife, Katherine of Aragorn. His quest for a line up of male heirs for his kingdom led him to run through six wives.

Those were bloody times and the will of a king was powerful.  Courtiers scurried to fulfil the wishes of the King or lose their heads.  They were quick to sense where their Master was inclined and followed.

In those times, Pope was deemed a higher authority than the King.  He could not dare to go against the Church.  In such times, Henry VIII defied the Church and broke with it to deal with his marriages as he wished.  He even took over monasteries and abbeys, enriching himself in the process.

The book, however, chronicles the lives of his wives, starting with Katherine of Aragorn and ending with the death of Ann of Cleves.  Ann was the third wife of Henry VIII and the most sagacious of the lot.  She quickly assented to an annulment of  marriage and kept out of Court politics to enjoy a prosperous and quiet life.

Katherine was ostracised and kept in terrible condition for most of her life.  She was punished severely for not bending to Henry's will.  Anne Boleyn was partly a victim of court intrigue and partly a victim of her own impatience and arrogance. Jane Seymour died in childbirth. She did produce a male heir, so it is hard to surmise whether the count of the King's wives would have stopped at three had she lived.

Ann of Cleves jumped at the chance of an easy exit, which she perhaps also got she was the sister of an influential ruler.  Poor Katherine Howard was too young and naive to save herself and was beheaded.  Catherine Parr came at the fag end of Henry's career and was sensible enough to combat the court politics level-headedly.

The book is a biography of the wives of Henry VIII.  We learn in detail about the background of the queens and the events that led to their becoming the queens, also how they died or were done away with.  We get a detailed picture of the times, what they wore, what they did.  All of the information relayed to us is verified.  For instance, if is widely surmised that the children of Mary Boleyn, the King's mistress were his bastards.  But as it is not verified, we are not led down that path.

On the flip side, as the narrative depends on letters written by the King, Queens and courtiers, we get taken in by the lies they may have uttered.

Whatever the consequences, Alison Weir refuses to judge anyone in the book, choosing to merely relate the events.  The only time she passes a judgement is when she talks about how a 17-year-old Katherine Howard was first paraded before the king and after she became a queen, mercilessly done away with by the rival factions of the King's Court.

The book provides ample material to study the times of Henry VIII, how people perceived women, marriages, children and property.

The subject of the book is not a happy one, as we know the end the poor women come to eventually. In fact, it can be quite a depressing read.  The language is functional and not very elegant.  The book is meticulously researched and well laid out, for students of that particular phase in England's history.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Alex Rutherford - The Serpent's tooth

+Amazon India
@headline publishing
+Hachette India

At long last, after a hard struggle, Shah Jahan had the throne of Hindustan.  He had to kill all his half brothers to reach this stage. He was happy with his beloved wife Arjamand Banu Begam and his children Jahan Ara, Dara Shukoh, Shah Shuja, Roshan Ara, Murad and Aurangzeb..

He had to spend a long time quelling rebellion in Hyderabad.  As usual, his wife accompanied him, despite being pregnant.  There he had to see his beloved wife dying while giving birth to a daughter, later named Gauhar Ara.  For a very long time he was saddened by this. All his energy was spent on building a fabulous white monument for her.

Watching his sons growing up, Shah Jahan felt that the succession after him will not be as bloody as the previous ones were.  His children were not half siblings like most Moghul Princes were.  They were born of the same mother.  He meant to announced Dara Shukoh as his heir.  He had bestowed important Governerships on his sons.  He expected his reign to be peaceful and succession to be undisputed as well.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is 
To have a thankless child!
Shah Jahan did not reckon with ambition which could override filial affection. Shah Jahan's third son, Aurangzeb, was a complex man.  He was an extremely conservative Muslim unlike his oldest brother, Dara Shukoh.  He was a devout Muslim and ruthlessly ambitious.  His ambition wrecked havoc with Shah Jahan's family.  He had to see all his sons die due to the machinations of Aurangzeb.  He was imprisoned in his old age and died with only Jahan Ara to attend to him.  He was denied even a state funeral.

In this fifth book by Alex Rutherford we are introduced to the reign of Shah Jahan.  There are some beautifully described battle scenes.  At the outset there is a guerrilla type fighting going on with the Deccan rebels.  Towards the end, there is a beautifully described battle that happened between Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb.  It gives us a good idea about warfare in Moghul times.

As usual, there is a list of characters and events that were invented by the authors.  Any change in the sequence of events is also listed.  This helps the reader to sift fact from fiction.  

Initially the authors had planned only three books in this series.  But later they went on to write three more to cover the reign of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb as well.  After this the Moghul empire fast lost ground due to kings who could not match the charisma and ability of their predecessors.

Reading the books of Alex Rutherford is a very entertaining and informative way of acquainting ourselves of this very colorful period in the history of India.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sydney Taylor - All-of-a-kind family

+Amazon India
@yearling Publications

"That slowpoke Sarah!" Henny cried. "She is making us late."

These opening lines are not as famous as:

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents."

But this story of five young Jewish Girls is as engaging as the one written by Louisa May Alcott. Ella is twelve years old, Henny is ten, Sarah is eight, Charlotte is six and Gerta is four.  Their father runs a shop dealing in gathering and selling Junk.  Their mother runs the household with efficiency.

Right at the start of the book, we find the girls in a flurry.  Sarah has lost her library book and is afraid she will never be able to draw another book again.  Their mother asks them to go the library and find out what can be done.  
Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gerta with Miss Allen
The girls traipse into the library and find a new lady at the book counter.  Miss Allen, the new library lady, is charmed by the sight of five girls dressed identically. 'A steps and stairs family' she calls them.  Henny says they are known as "All-of-a-kind family" as they look so similar. Miss Allen hears out Sarah's tale about having lost her library book.  Miss Allen says the book cost a dollar and it has to be paid, but the girls can pay in instalments. The girls promise to pay 5 pennies per week for the book.  

Miss Allen becomes a favorite with the girls.  They tell her about all that is going on in their lives and even take their mother to meet her.

Charlie works for their father from time to time.  He is a young man rumored to be from a wealthy family.  No one knows why he chooses to hang out in this part of New York where poor folk live. The girls love Charlie and he is happy to do things for them.  He brings them gifts and plays with them.

The Girls and Charlie

The book is about some important episodes in the lives of these young girls in the course of a year, 1913-14.  All the Jewish holidays and way of life are described here.  Most of the chapters could work as short stories on their own.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Helen John.

Charlotte and Gerta buy Candy.
I found some similarities between this book and  "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn".  They are both stories about poor families and how they lived in New York at the turn of the 20th Century.  "All-of-a-kind Family" is  more innocent, more of a children's book than the former which is darker and more sorrowful. 

There are some more books written about the same family and I would have liked to read them.  But they are expensive on Indian book sites, which put me off.

Years ago, I made friends with a young Jewish girl who lived in New York.  She sent me several books, this included.  I must have read it hundreds of times.  It was pure nostalgia that made me order the book once again.  I was happy to re-read this book.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Karthika Nair - Until the Lions

+HarperCollins India
+Amazon India

Poets flock to write about kings and warriors, their antics are immortalised in verse and passed down the ages till their word becomes the truth.  Legend overshadows fact.  Much of History is nothing but glorified tales being handed down from the centuries.

It takes a sceptical and an inquiring mind to think about those who were trampled down in the path to glory that the great kings took.

Karthika Nair takes up cudgels on behalf of all the unsung heroines of Mahabharata.

Satyavati: A princess by birth but raised by a poor fisherman, Satyavati uses her unparalleled beauty to rise to the level of a queen.  She finds no solace in her life.  She lives to her vast empire torn apart by a rift between brothers.

Amba/Shikhandi: Kidnapped by Bhishma, Amba is released to return to her paramour.  She is rejected by him on grounds of being 'defiled' by the kidnapping.  She returns to the Kuru Prince but is spurned yet again.  Angrily, she asks Bhishma  to marry her, as it was he who had kidnapped her in the first place.  Bhishma is tied to his promise of celibacy and cannot.  Enraged, Amba swears revenge and is reborn as Shikhandi.  Her mission is to kill Bhishma.

Poorna:  Frightened Ambika, not wishing to lay with Rishi Vyasa, sends her servant Poorna instead. Poorna bears the only healthy son from him, Vidur, renowned for his wisdom.

Sauvali:  Dhritarashtra had a son by a servant, called Yayati. Dhritrastra was keen on having a son before his brother Pandu, hence staking his claim to the Kuru throne over him.

Gandhari:  Gandhari and her lame brother Shakuni were abducted from her father's house. Her family was killed as they did not agree to give their daughter in marriage to a blind prince.  She is forced to get pregnant for the sake of her husband's greed for the throne.

Hidimbi: She married Bhim out of love but had to watch him leave with his brothers.  He thinks of his son Ghatotkach only when the war is on and warriors are needed.

Dusshala: The lone daughter of Dhritrashtra, she is left alive to weep for her 100 brothers.

Ulupi: The Naga princess who wed Arjuna.  As is often the case in the Epic, she is discarded till her son Aravan, is required for the supreme sacrifice.

Mohini:  The avatar of a woman that Krishna dons, to become the wife of the doomed Aravan, required for human sacrifice.

Uttara: Abhimanyu's wife.  She has to see her husband go to certain death as he is the only one who knows how to break the Chakravyuha.

Kunti: The mother of Pandavas.

Vrishali: Karna's wife.

All these women finally get a voice in Karthika Nair's wonderful creation.  We hear them, their grievances, their outrage.  The voices will break your heart.  After reading them, you will question the decisions these power hungry men took, all in the name of Dharma and Justice.

Satyavati's voice lingers the most in the Epic.  She is the one who set the wheels of Mahabharata in motion.  She was denied her destiny by a king who gave birth to her and discarded her.

Mahabharata is focussed on the men, their doings and tales of glory. Until the Lions brings them down a few pegs by talking about the unsavoury things that they did in the name of wresting power.

The novel is in verse.  All the women use a different voice, her verse is different, her words are different.

Dusshala's requiem for her dead brothers was particularly touching.  I have read Mahabharata in some form or the other all through my life. Once as a complete book and most often as bits and stories. Never have I heard all the names of  Duryodhan's brothers.  I have heard of only Dushasan.

At the beginning of the book there is a chapter dedicated to the dramatis personae.  It lists the characters of Mahabharata with a tongue in cheek description of their role.

I have read some excellent reviews of the book, people who understand the various verses Karthika Nair uses and their significance.  I am not knowledgeable enough to understand them, all I can say is that the book is wonderful to read.  It is great to have your beliefs shaken up and fresh voices added to a well known narrative.