The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays

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Book: The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays

Author: Bhasa, translated by A.N.D. Haskar

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 127

Format Read: Paperback

Not much is known about the Sanskrit playwright Bhasa although there is a fair deal of speculation. He did, however, predate Kalidasa – for Kalidasa mentions Bhasa in what is presumably his first play, Malavikagnimitram. If Bhasa did live in the Mauryan period, his works might be dated to the third or fourth century B.C. as the Penguin edition suggests on the first page.

“The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” is a compilation of six of Bhasa’s plays, all of them tied in to the Mahabharatha. As the introduction reveals, the works of Bhasa were thought lost until palm leaf manuscripts of his plays were discovered in the Malayalam script. His plays are still performed, especially in that very ancient art form of Kerala, Kootiyattam.

The first play, ‘The Middle One’ or Madhyama Vyayoga, focuses on Bhima’s son Ghatotkacha. It has at its core a father-son relationship, of Bhima, exiled in a forest, meeting his son Ghatotkacha for the first time in unusual circumstances.

The second, ‘Five Nights’ or Pancharatram, has at its core a scene from the Mahabharatha, where the Pandavas, dwelling in disguise in the kingdom of Virata, are almost captured by the Kauravas, their sworn enemies. However, Bhasa takes liberties with the telling here – and introduces a cattle raid and a sympathetic Duryodhana, the Kaurava king. It is a very interesting take on the character.

‘The Envoy’ or Duta Vakyam introduces Lord Krishna as a character trying to mediate peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. But Duryodhana has none of it, and Krishna is incensed.

‘The Message’ or Duta Ghatotkacham reintroduces the character Ghatotkacha from the first play. This time, he attempts to the deliver a message to Duryodhana, who mocks him.

‘Karna’s Burden’ or Karnabharam focuses on Duryodhana’s close aide Karna, and his discovery of his parentage. He is not a Kaurava as he believed, and he cannot join the Pandavas. This play reveals his turmoil and self-doubt.

The last play, ‘The Shattered Thigh’ or Urubhangam is again portrays Duryodhana with a lot of pathos and feeling, and in a rarity for Sanskrit theatre, shows death on stage. The setting here is towards the end of the Mahabharatha war, with the Pandavas  on the verge of victory, and Duryodhana at death’s door.

The translation of “The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” is fluid, and Bhasa’s style is forceful yet crisp, and very evocative of the scenes of skirmish and battle. The scenes are stark, and the world is fraught with the tribulations of war and weaponry, a world where honour is held dear. Duryodhana’s characterization is especially fascinating, with the Kaurava king shown to be honourable, conflicted, angry and just – sometimes all at the same time. All the plays appear to be tied in to each other, with one picking up where the other left off. And yes, Duryodhana’s real name has also been used by his father – Suyodhana.

In “The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” each play is small, and some of them comprise a single act. All of them are powerful, masterfully crafted, and worth reading.

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The Northern Lights

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Book: The Northern Lights

Author: Philip Pullman

Publisher: Scholastic

Pages: 399

Format Read: Paperback

A long time ago, when I was in school, I came across a note in the school supplement of a national newspaper. It spoke of a book called “The Northern Lights,” the first book in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Since then, I’ve read the trilogy in its entirety, but I want to focus on “The Northern Lights” (or “The Golden Compass” as its American edition is called).

It’s about a girl called Lyra, and when the book opens, she’s up to some spying along with her companion, the daemon Pantalaimon. Lyra hides in a room where she is not supposed to be, ignoring her daemon’s grumbles, and stumbles upon magic and worlds she never knew existed. And that interest, for her, begins with a magical particle of creation called ‘Dust’ – with a capital D. And that Dust, it seems, is tied in with the aurora borealis.

Then, her close friend Roger disappears, and for some reason, she knows his disappearance has something to do with Dust.

The world of “The Northern Lights” is intricately crafted. It is set in London, and Oxford, but not the London of this world. Lyra’s Oxford is like our world in many ways, and very different in others. Here, everybody has a daemon, a sort of spirit companion that takes the form of animals, right from birth. To not have a daemon is unnatural, freakish.

The book is a little slow moving in the beginning as the world is built up, but that does not make it any less interesting. Lyra’s exploits are exciting, and there is a sense of wonder when the mysteries of Dust get more and more complex. Children vanish and a strange and exquisitely beautiful woman has been linked to their disappearance.

And through it all, Lyra begins to discover her true parentage.

Lyra Belacqua is an extremely precocious, often difficult and wild child, and she is very likeable, as is her daemon Pantalaimon or Pan. There are mysteries she must solve on her own, the truth of Dust she must uncover – and the plot is complex. Very complex. The sheer brazenness of her nature is mixed with empathy for those around her, a formidable combination considering the dangers lurking in her world. She must also deal with the mesmerizing Mrs. Coulter, and the harsh, sharp tongued Lord Asriel – both of whom have secrets of their own.

“The Northern Lights” is an immensely readable and captivating fantasy on an ambitious scale.

The Magician

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Book: The Magician

Author: W. Somerset Maugham

Publisher: Vintage

Pages: 233

Format Read: Paperback

Now this was interesting.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, in Paris, the cynical and self-proclaimed rational doctor, Arthur Burdon, meets a corpulent and vicious magician called Oliver Haddo. In the beginning, Arthur finds Haddo comical and worthy of contempt, in spite of his friend Dr. Porhoet’s observations that there is more to the man than it seems. Haddo manages to impose his sinister presence on Arthur’s acquaintances, and then his fiancée Margaret. And Margaret, though repulsed by Haddo, finds him fascinating at the same time…

…and so begins the story of “The Magician.”

There is a lot of occult terminology in here, and black magic. And of course, Haddo himself is based on the magician Aleister Crowley (who, after having read the book was annoyed at the depiction of himself and reviewed it). The introduction to the Vintage edition, titled ‘A Fragment of Autobiography’ gives some insights into the book by the author himself.

What made “The Magician” intriguing for me was the black magic and its hold over the innocent. Haddo’s power is absolute, it cannot be resisted, it cannot be brushed aside or pushed away. Or it seems like that anyway to those caught in his web of nightmares. At first, the magnetic nature of the man draws people to him – but it’s a peculiar attraction that fascinates and disgusts them. Arthur dislikes Haddo on sight, and apparently so does Margaret. But the magician’s power is such that he can bend wills and no rational man can stand in his way. Or so he thinks.

The evil nature of Haddo certainly overshadows everything else in this book – the man is very well portrayed. Arthur, having lost his fiancée in a bizarre series of events to Haddo tries to win her back. As for Margaret, she is innocent, and suddenly, mysteriously seductive, loyal, then disloyal, sweet natured, sharp tongued, and unpredictable. You know, exactly as a thrall of a black magician would behave.

It was fascinating, this book, and very readable.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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Book: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Publisher: taken from Selected Poetry, published by Penguin

Format Read: Paperback

“And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong:

He struck with his o’ertaking wings,

And chased us south along.”

– The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

 A bit of poetry for this post.

The “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was part of my school syllabus, and I was eleven or twelve years old when I read it first. “The Rime…” is a haunting, eerie poem with ghostly undercurrents.

In the beginning, a hapless wedding guest is accosted by a mysterious mariner – the ancient mariner – and thereupon begins a tale of damnation. The wedding guest is flustered, because he is getting late for the ceremony, and yet he holds no power over the hypnotic story of the ancient mariner and ends up listening to him.

There are memorable lines in “The Rime…” and an allegory woven into the poem, all to do with an albatross. Sailors die and are resurrected, the ship sails on, and the ancient mariner recalls all of it with a strange, trance like clarity. Much to the wedding guest’s chagrin, he’s entranced by the mariner’s tale that is reminiscent of a waking nightmare. The ancient mariner, in a moment of madness, shoots the innocent albatross – and spells doom for his fellow mariners and their ship. It is unclear how old he is, but it is clear that is he condemned to the un-life, and hopeless wandering.

The poem touches on the human experience with the supernatural, and the use of rhyme is particularly evocative. The forces of nature, as the ancient mariner discovers, are not benevolent, and the albatross, such a mundane bird, eventually has ties to greater unseen mysteries.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is one of my favourite poems. It has it all – ghostly whispers and allegory, the human experience, and a flowing cadence to its lines. Lines read many years ago in that old school textbook remain in my mind today. Perhaps that is what made the poem so appealing – it is beautifully narrated, a compelling work that drew me to it over and over again.

Jamaica Inn

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Book: Jamaica Inn

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Publisher: Virago

Pages: 302

Format Read: Paperback

“Jamaica Inn” was originally published in 1936, a couple of years before Daphne du Maurier’s iconic novel “Rebecca.” I read this one the first time a few years ago, and found it a fascinating tale of dark suspense. Since then I’ve reread it a few times and enjoyed each reread.

Twenty three year old Mary Yellan finds herself alone after the death of her mother, and, having no other family left, decides to move in with her Aunt Patience at the mysterious Jamaica Inn. And the Inn stands alone in a hauntingly desolate moor. It’s a place most people avoid. At least, most honest folk steer clear of the inn.

“Jamaica Inn” is a gothic tale of romance and mystery. It is also very atmospheric, with an undercurrent of shadowy deeds. du Maurier’s descriptions are masterfully done, and while “Rebecca” takes these a little further, “Jamaica Inn” does really well on its own.

The moor, in all its lonely glory, comes to life as Mary tries to adjust to her new life at Jamaica Inn. Her Aunt Patience, married to the innkeeper of Jamaica Inn, is jittery and nervous and really very odd. She’s not the woman Mary remembers from her youth – and she’s trying to keep secrets that are obviously driving her over the edge. Her uncle Mary learns to avoid – but he’s up to something and curiosity gets the better of her, leading her to truths she would rather avoid. And of course, there’s the romance, with the innkeeper’s younger brother Jem taking an interest in Mary. He is also a dubious character, and a horse thief in the bargain.

It’s a complicated plot in “Jamaica Inn” that leaves you guessing until the end. The innkeeper of Jamaica Inn has his reasons for staying so far away from civilization. Mary is a little too curious for her own good. Patience likes to block out thoughts of everything around her and behaves like a child. Jem is peculiar, rough and strangely attractive to Mary. Never mind that he has some of his brother’s traits. That was a little disturbing.

“Jamaica Inn” is dark and eminently readable, a novel I really like going back to every now and then.

The Loom of Time

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Book: The Loom of Time

Author: Kalidasa, translated by Chandra Rajan

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 343

Format Read: Paperback

There are many legends surrounding the great Sanskrit poet and dramatist Kalidasa – from his being a court official of the Emperor Chandra Gupta II, to his being divinely blessed by the Goddess Kali, turning him into a literary genius. Whatever the case may be, there is little doubt that the surviving works of this incredible writer from antiquity are rendered in exquisite and expressive Sanskrit.

“The Loom of Time” presents three of Kalidasa’s works, and Chandra Rajan has done a commendable job translating these pieces. The English versions are poetic and beautiful, capturing a lot of the lilting cadence of the original Sanskrit. And the three pieces in “The Loom of Time” are, in order, Rtusamharam (The Gathering of the Seasons), Meghadutam (The Cloud Messenger), and Abhijnanasakuntalam (the Recognition of Sakuntala).

Rtusamharam, as the title suggests, is an ode to the seasons in six cantos, beginning with summer, and ending with spring. Each season is also linked to romance and separation, reunions and longing. Woven in to the poetry is also an astute understanding of nature and the flora and fauna of the time, as well as the subtle interplay of human emotions.

Meghadutam has a celestial being, a Yaksha, punished and separated from his wife. In his desperation to get a message across to her, he spots a cloud – and imagines the cloud to be a messenger that can carry his words over the eternal skies.

Both works of poetry I found fascinating and rich in imagery (of jasmine flowers and jewels and incense, among others) – and strikingly lyrical.

Abhijnanasakuntalam is a play combining elements of mythology, and romance, song, poetry, and a sprinkling of magic. Sakuntala, brought up by the sage, or rishi, Kanva, in a forest hermitage, meets King Duhsanta. Soon they are married, and the King returns to his capital, with Sakuntala to follow later.  But tragedy strikes when Sakuntala, daydreaming about her husband, ignores the sage Durvasa when he comes calling. And earns his curse in the bargain, meaning that Duhsanta will forget her (and their son, when it comes down to it) when he sees them. Sakuntala’s story has its roots in the Mahabharata.

Also accompanying the translated pieces are notes, a lengthy and very useful introduction, and a glossary. I found all of these very informative, especially the introduction, with its references to the Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni, which discusses stagecraft and the performing arts among other things.

I’m happy this translation exists, because I, for one, have been looking forward to reading Kalidasa’s works for a long time. “The Loom of Time” was exactly what I was looking for, and I hope to read more.

The Legend of Kuldhara

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Book: The Legend of Kuldhara

Author: Malathi Ramachandran

Publisher: Niyogi

Pages: 279

Format Read: Paperback

I had heard of Kuldhara before…it is that ghost town in Rajasthan, a forsaken place that is a tourist attraction, and a source of tales. Theories of why the place was abandoned range from gradual migration due to earthquakes, to the more romanticised tale of an overnight desertion to escape a certain Divan’s lascivious gaze on a maiden.

It is from the second that author Malathi Ramachandran draws her inspiration in “The Legend of Kuldhara.” The novel recreates a Rajasthan of two hundred years ago as the story follows the villagers of Kuldhara and their disappearance.

Saalim Singh, the ambitious, vengeful, and cruel Divan of the Maharawal Gaj Singh, already married some six times, suddenly finds in Kuldhara a beautiful girl by the name of Pari. A man accustomed to getting what, or who, he wants, the Divan makes the mistake of attempting to force Pari’s father into give her in marriage to him…and Saalim Singh finds himself outwitted when entire village vanishes by the next morning.

The characters in “The Legend of Kuldhara” are memorable, with depth and nuance, especially Pari, who is young, and has that air of child-like glee and mature wisdom. There is also Saalim Singh, self-centred and wrathful, and one of his wives, Parvati, a tragic character who was once radiant, and now prone to peculiar dreams. She wishes her husband would return to her and waits with desperate hope. There is Colonel Tod, the British Political Agent for Rajputana, for whom Saalim Singh has plans.

And threading the lives of these characters together, and foreseeing the fate of Kuldhara itself, is the strange old man with the stringed ravanhatha instrument. On the face of it, he appears to be a folk singer of unusual skill, but coupled with his music is an almost mystical understanding of fate, and an oddity that defines his persona – he never speaks, but he does always sing.

“The Legend of Kuldhara” is a beautifully crafted novel that evocatively portrays the romance of the desert. The colourful sunrises and the ringing of temple bells, the old man’s haunting melodies, and the sprinkling of surreal enigma over the course of the story make this book an unusual and absorbing read.