Chronicle of a Corpse-Bearer : Life Beyond the Tower of Silence

I came across this book on the Kindle Store on Amazon. I picked it up as the name of the author really compelled me to buy it. Chronicle of a corpse-bearer is the story of Phiroze, a son of a respected Parsi priest from Mumbai who falls in love with Sepidah, daughter of an old ageing corpse-bearer.

This novel has given me an insight into the Parsi community in India. Their migration from greater Iran to Gujarat, India. I read about how they revere and worship fire, and I absolutely loved reading about their rituals, traditions and customs, especially the one in which requires the disposing of the dead on the towers of silence. It is a really intriguing custom.

Towers of silence are the buildings which are circular in shape where Zoroastrians perform the funeral customs for the deceased. In Zoroastrianism the body of the deceased is considered impure and hence not to violate the sacredness of land, they refuse to bury or cremate the body. Instead of this, they place the body on top of towers of silence wherein the vultures come and eat the meat.

As of today, the last tower of silence is located in Mumbai, India. But the lack of vultures and urbanisation makes it difficult to maintain and continue operation. Tower of Silence is mentioned a couple of times in the book and the cremation place has been the central area around which  Chronicle of a corpse-bearer 

One aspect of the book I absolutely come to have loved is the way in which parts of Bombay has been described beautifully. Especially the South Bombay area which has the maximum number of Parsi’s staying.

This novel has been written by an Indian Author and a playwright, Cyrus Mistry. He has been involved with playwrighting and worked with short film scripts as well as documentaries. A Zoroastrian himself,  he has recently been awarded the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for his novel ‘Chronicle of a Corpse-Bearer’. Cyrus Mistry has written a couple of other books like The radiance of Ashes, and , Passion Flower : Seven Stories of Derangement of which The Chronicles of the corpse has been widely read and acknowledged.

The book rather starts on a very dull note and the writing is very monotonous. But a few pages later the story becomes gripping and interesting and Cyrus’s style improves here dramatically. The story becomes a little fast paced in the middle and again towards the end the writing style deteriorates. His writing is very complex, though vivid but very confusing at times. There were parts which were not required and the inclusion of too many characters was not necessary.  They didn’t fit in the plot  and hence were just brought in to increase the length of the novel. The novel was a bit of a drag but I kept on reading until then end, just to complete it.

The book is inspired by a true story as mentioned by the author. But the author could have done justice and written it in a better way. On the other hand, I loved the characters especially the protagonist Phiroze. This novel talks about selfless love and the undying spirit of commitment.

This novel by Cyrus Mistry is a long and arduous read but still I thought of giving it a shot. The author has written a lot about the Parsi Community in this book. Parsi’s are a small but a well-known community in India. Since I have been writing about India based on the books I read, I think this one community is absolutely worth a mention here.

One can read this book at their own discretion. Not a highly recommended read, but one should get it if fiction interests them.


Sources & References:

Chronicles of a Corpse-Bearer by Cyrus Mistry
Read more about Tower of Silence,  here.

Queer Quotient in Hindu Mythology

‘Vikruti evam Prakruti’

Vikruti evam Prakruti. This term in Sanskrit literally translates to ‘ What seems unnatural is also natural’. This is stated in the Rigveda, one of the four Vedas which form the basis of the Hindu Philosophy.

Some believe this particular term supports the homosexual behavior of human beings and deems it as as natural as anything else in this universe, else it would not have been created and included in these texts in the first place.

Hindu Mythology makes constant references to queerness, the idea that questions notions of maleness and femaleness. A lot of queer stories are related to Hindu Mythology where in Gods and mortals often change genders, indulge in homosexual activities as well as heterosexual activities as different reincarnated genders. Transgenders have also been mentioned in quite a few Hindu Mythological tales. All these various references just points out to the fact that queerness has been there since centuries in our culture, existing for more than about 2000 years now.

imagesShiva is at times referred to as Ardhanarisvara, who has a dual nature of femininity as well as masculinity. The male form represents the mind and the female form represents the nature, and they are interdependent on each other. This story comes from the Shaiva Agamas.

In the karmic worldview,one is queer because of karma, and it may turn out to be a boon or a curse.

Queer stories are not restricted to Hindu Mythology only. Most of the Queer tales are restricted to men, but a few exceptions are there, one of which were the Greek Poems of love and passion of a women for another women , by Sappho , which were written on the island of Lesbos, giving rise to the term ‘Lesbian’

Intrigued by the whole idea of the intersection queerness and mythology I looked up for a few books, and  Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you by Devdutt Pattanaik didn’t fail to impress me.

Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you
is short book with a few short tales from the Hindu Mythology which have an element of queerness. Men turning to women, Men loving men or individuals having unique sexual tastes , or stories even about cross dressers.

The book begins with a brief introduction on appreciating queerness and mentions how Hindu mythology has been defining the queer quotient since ages. It also gives an insight to the queer community in various other mythologies including the stories from the  Arctic and the  Vikings,  ranging to Egyptian, Chinese, Greek , Persian and biblical mythologies

The highlight of this book is this very historical acquaintance with the LGBTQ trends occurring in the pre Kali Yuga era. It’s fascinating to know what people condemn today was practiced long ago. And these are not the stories of ordinary people. The tales we are talking about,  largely revolves around Kings and God’s and people with quite some stature in the society. Seems like Indian history has been breaking barriers even before it was a barrier.

Tshikhandihe book has around thirty tales which revolve around various characters from the Hindu Mythology. Stories from Ramayana,  Mahabharata and tales from various Puranas have been roped in. This shows the diversity of the spread of queer culture back then.

The writing has been exemplary. I have now read almost half of Devdutt’s books, and it keeps on getting better every time. More than the stories I have loved his piece on discovery and invention of queerness, in which the historical existence has been discussed at length.

There have been a lot of similar stories in the book apart from, Shikhandi, who became a man to satisfy her wife.These includes the story of Arjuna, who became temporarily castrated for showing restraint, and other tales like that of Aravan , whose wife was the complete man and of course about Vishnu, who became a women to deliver his devotee’s child. So on and so forth, a few other stories have been explained in length and the list essentially is endless.

As always, Devdutt Pattanaik’s books have been filled with interesting illustrations. Apart from being a doctor, writer and a mythologist he is an impeccable illustrator. This book is worth a read if one wants to discover the roots of queer culture in Hindu Mythology and it is definitely a recommended book.

In 2009 , India was going through a social change. There was hope in the air. During that year Delhi High court decriminalised section 377, and everyone had the same freedom as anyone else. It was a renaissance period for people of this country. A change was happening, and people were quite vocal about it as well. In 2013 Delhi High court revoked the order. This back tracking of the judgement has had seen a lot of dialogue between regressive protectors of Indian Culture, pseudo progressive individuals as well as a few obnoxious punks and some open minded intellectuals.

Indian culture is all about being plural and being open to accepting. In the end its about loving another person. I have had the privilege of meeting quite a few notable people from the LGBTQ community at various conferences where they have been addressing the delegates. They have succeeded in impacting an audience confined in that auditorium but we are far from convincing the reality. Times are changing but one thing is certain, had Queerness been against our culture it would not have been expressed in our mythological texts explicitly.

Afterall,
‘What seems unnatural,is also natural’ – Rigveda

 


 

Quotes from Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you by Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik from devdutt.com
You can read more about the author on devdutt.com

Other Sources :

Blog, Times of India : Homosexuality in India – Progressive judiciary, regressive people

Speaking Tree : What do Vedas say about Homosexuality

 

First 100!

It brings me immense joy to know that my blog A year of reading India is now followed by more than 100 followers across various parts of the world with close to about 1000 readers and  viewers from about 24 countries. As a new blogger, this is really overwhelming! I am happy that the readers love the content and are interested in the books I blog about.

One thing which I really did not want was to convert it into a conventional Book Review Blog. As many of you might have noticed my reviews of the books I read weave around a particular story theme or concept , and I try to provide information, ideas and views not only related to the book but try to paint a picture on a wider canvas.

I have loved writing Mythology, Philosophy, Fiction, Non-Fiction by an array of Indian authors, and I still feel a lot more needs to be written about. Of my earlier posts I have written, my top five personal favourites are Jaya, which is a beautiful modern redering of the Mahabharata. Followed by Shantaram, which gives a vivid description of the Mumbai city, which now I call my home. I have loved Palace of Illusions, surely the fastest read I have undertaken in one sitting. Sita has been a very touching book for me personally and finally Gita which was very enlightening.

There are so many communities, cultures and vivid people all in this one small subcontinent in Asia. I am reading an array of books by Indian Authors and myself am intrigued by the variety of categories. Surely Indian writing is taking over subsequently, be it in a regional language or English.

I do have a few books lined up for upcoming posts, but I urge my readers to suggest books they would want me to write about pertaining to India or written by Indian Authors, and continue inspiring me in this journey of reading India.


Cover Photo by Vicky Roy

Godan : Munshi’s Last Masterpiece

I have been hearing about this book, Godan, right from my school days. We had a couple of short stories by Munshi Premchand in our curriculum. But I never picked up any of his novels, until last week when I came across Godan on the Amazon Kindle store and thought of giving it a shot.

‘Godan’ literally translates to ‘Donation of a cow’. In Hindu culture, a cow is supposed to be the most sacred animal and one who is worshipped daily. Godan means gifting a cow to a brahmin and a certain set of prayers need to be performed along with it.This is a very sacred ritual in the Hindu subcontinent.

Mythologically it has been mentioned in Shastras that the performance of the Godan ritual facilitates one’s route or journey across the Vaitarani River and it becomes very easy for the dead. This gift serves as a relief to the deceased along their journey.

So the book revolves around a villager, ‘Hori’ and his life as a peasant in India. Suppressed by landlords or Zamindars and being pushed into a vicious cycle of debts , this book clearly identifies the plight of the poor and still doesn’t fail to identify the  small joys they experience each day.

This is a book about the rich as well as much it is about the poor. Godan provides a large canvas of various interwoven stories set Uttar Pradesh short of Lucknow. A long and arduous read. What I thought was not necessary was too many secondary characters which do not have a major role in the novel which could have been avoided. A highly recommended read.

The book which is a translation in English by Jai Ratan & P. Lal,  fails to capture the emotions by Premchand. The writing is downright mediocre but the story makes up for the pathetic translation. One should go for reading it in Hindi only if the language is not a barrier.

Munshi Premchand’s words ring true even today, with great reverence that always leave their mark. Premchand’s original name was Dhanpat Rai, but he shifted to his pen name ‘Nawab’ Rai and changing it to Premchand short while thereafter.

 Munshi was a great laureate in both Hindi and Urdu. A lot of people say that he has been an unparalleled author in Hindi Literature, one of the first and he definitely struck a chord with the rich and poor alike.

This is my way to pay tribute to someone who has coloured true and vivid pictures of real India through his writings and it cannot get real than this. I think I selected this book because unless the heart of India is not read about, its villages not experienced vicariously, reading India seems incomplete.

Today I post this as a tribute to Munshi Prem Chand on his Birthday and I believe that more people should go ahead get a copy and read this brilliant masterpiece.

Sita : Story of the Daughter of Earth

‘Animals fight to defend their bodies. Humans curse to defend their imagination of themselves. The imagined notion of who we are, and how others are supposed to see us, is called aham. Aham constantly seeks validation from the external world. When that is not forthcoming it becomes insecure. Aham makes humans accumulate things; through things we hope people will look upon us as we imagine ourselves. That is why, Janaka, people display their wealth and their knowledge and their power. Aham yearns to be seen‘, Ashtavakra said to Janaka

I was in my fourth grade when I first saw the Ramayana Series which used to run on Cartoon Network India, which was later made into a movie. It was phenomenal and so breathtaking. Even the animations were so realistic. Two years later in my sixth grade I read the Ramayana for the first time, in Hindi. The more I read about it ,the more I got lost in the enchanted world of Ayodhya.

I purchased Sita by Devdutt Pattanaik shortly after I finished reading Jaya by the same author. I had loved Jaya and was completely bowled over by it, and hence decided to give Sita a shot.

This book is an illustrated retelling of the Ramayana, and the central character is Sita, who was discovered in a furrow by King Janaka while the fields were being ploughed in Mithila. Hence she is also referred to as the daughter of the earth.

The book is written in a compelling manner , it starts with Hanuman and it ends with Hanuman, who is also the guardian of Ayodhya. The novel also concentrates on Sita’s  actions which are mostly associated with being at peace with herself and not wanting to be judged by a society, she has no part in. The story examines Sita’s actions as a spiritual side and her connection to nature than to the society.

Devdutt Pattanaik mentions in the beginning that ‘To all those who believe that the Mahabharata is more realistic and complex than the Ramayana; may they realise that that both epics speak of dharma, which means human potential, not righteous conduct.’

Dharma is about exchange, about giving and receiving . It is about outgrowing animal instincts, outgrowing fear, discovering the ability to feed others, comfort others, enable others to find meaning.’

As Krishna says in Gita,

‘Dharma is more about empathy than ethics, about intent rather than outcome. I follow Dharma when I am concerned about your material, emotional or intellectual hunger. I follow adharma when I focus on my hunger at the cost of yours.’

Ramayana has had numerous retelling’s and it beacons across centuries. Before second century there were the oral retelling’s by travelling bards, and then in second century the first written form of Ramayana emerged in Sanskrit by Valmiki. The poetry, all scholars agree is outstanding, and has been traditionally qualified as Adi Kavya, the first poem.

Ramayana apart from being quite popular across the length and breadth of the Indian Subcontinent is also very popular across Indian borders including Tibet, Vietnam, and a lot of South East Asian countries. But most of the scripts in which Ramayana has been written in India emerged from the script we commonly refer to as Brahmi.

A few centuries later even Kalidasa wrote a version of Ramayana. There have been numerous Bengali , Assamese and Odia translations as well. Ramayana is divided into Seven Books, and in Sita the author has divided the the book into seven corresponding chapters. The interesting part of Devdutt Pattanaik’s Sita  are the short notes at the end of every section which divulge a whole lot of information from various sources and are very insightful. Alternate theories by different retelling’s have also been discussed in this section.

Sita-1The story spans across different locations from Mithila to Ayodhya to Lanka, and during the fourteen years of exile of Ram & Sita accompanied by Ram’s younger brother Lakshmana, a lot of geographical areas has been covered by them on foot. These places, where they halted have their own significance and stories related to them.
After leaving Ayodhya, they reached Prayag shortly after. Prayag  also known as Triveni Sangam is the place of confluence of three rivers, Saraswati, Ganga and Yamuna, and is considered very Sacred.

Then they travelled to Chitrakoot and finally to Dandkaranya which covers a vast area of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Covering  a vast span across of the Indian Subcontinent makes it an important book with respect to my blog and hence I chose to write about it here. Personally I have loved Jaya more than Sita but the central theme of both the books is same. Dharma. A recommended read and a complete heads up to this book.

As for Sita, she went back the same route she came into this world, back into the furrow in the ground. And whatever remained of her above  the ground, her hair, slowly turned into blades of grass, which were being caressed slowly by Ram. He just sat there thinking of her, as he had always done, because she was always there in his heart no matter what the circumstances were.

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Quotes from Sita by Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik from devdutt.com
You can read more about the author on devdutt.com

 

 

Yayati: A Poetic Masterpiece!

For a long time I have been wanting to explore some Marathi literature. But how does one select from a vast ocean of amazing literary pieces. Its difficult to pick one ,and I was very much tempted to read all of them at once.

This land of Maratha has experienced countless stories; right from Shivaji to the very contemporary ones, and they have been beautifully illustrated in countless written forms. Eventually I started asking around a couple of friends who are really into Marathi literature and drew up a list of quite some interesting books which have been recommended in the past.

From this list, I short listed close to about thirty books to choose from and finally set my heart on Yayati by Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar.

This I did for particularly two reasons. Firstly I knew that Yayati was a character in the Mahabharata. I read about him first when I came across a chapter bearing his name in Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya, and hence was intrigued to read more about him. Secondly for the love of mythology I simply went for this novel. As much as I would want to read the original edition of Yayati my insufficiency in reading and comprehending the language compelled me to stick to the English translation.

I have always loved how complex Mahabharata is. That is why they call it an epic. Every characters perspective is different on the tale. What may be good for one might not be good for the other.I guess in true sense nothing is good or evil but our thinking makes it so, and hence Mahabharata never fails to fascinate me with its different aspects.

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Yayati is often regarded as selfish, self-centered and a very materialistic person. So much so that he started neglecting his own Kingdom and daily affairs and indulged in wine and women. But this was so contradictory to what Sage Kanva once had to say about him. Sage Kanva blessed his daughter Shakuntala, mother of King Bharata on her marriage that: ‘May you be as dear to your husband as Sharmishtha was to Yayati’.

This was indeed puzzling.These scattered pieces of the puzzle were put together by VS Khandekar beautifully in his novel Yayati.

Yayati existed approximately thirty five generations before the actual war of Mahabharata took place. Son of the great Puru king Nahusha and his wife Viraja, Yayati was the crown prince of Hastinapur,being from the Puru Dynasty. Nahusha was himself carrying a curse, that his children will never be happy, and that pretty much shaped Yayati’s life.

Yayati was tricked into marrying Devayani, daughter of Guru Shukracharya, in spite of Devayani being a Brahman. As he was smitten by her beauty Yayati didn’t protest much, but as it turned out the marriage was a unsuccessful one.

But eventually Yayati set his heart on Devyani’s maid, Sharmishtha, or dearly called as Shama by Yayati. They married behind Devyani’s back and even had a son called Puru.

The interesting part is later after many years; Yayati was still so immersed in himself that he asked to exchange his old age with his youngest son Puru. This is quite fascinating by many aspects. Puru’s love and affection for his father knew no bounds and he readily accepted this fate upon himself.

They say sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free. Yayati realised this very late in life. Its not the material possession or the beauty which you are going to carry with you in your grave, but the number of lives you touch.

I love the concluding lines of the book which actually sets the theme for the entire novel:

Oh man, desire is never satisfied by indulgence. Like the sacrificial fire, it ever grows with every offering.

A truly beautiful and an immersive story. Yayati was  originally written in Marathi, which went on to win the Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi Awards and hence subsequently got translated to English. This novel is a masterpiece by VS Khandekar.

A highly recommended read to everyone, especially those who are interested in mythology. The translation by YP Kulkarni does justice to the original version but the original version in Marathi is supposed to be more vivid, and one can enjoy the mythical past vicariously.

Before I Begin

Its been quite a while since the conception of setting up this blog and writing the first blog post. In the past few months I have read some of the most amazing works by a few Indian Authors and came across quite profound literature on the Indian Subcontinent.

So I set up two personal challenges for me, the first one being reading 100 books in 2016.This seemed next to impossible, along with studying for a crammed up graduate course to doing two research projects simultaneously and undertaking a global level challenge. While running from pillar to post and juggling between all the activities and managing to scrape through my exams and quizzes the one thing that I have relished a lot has been reading new books.

I have read books on Mythology, Philosophy , Psychology, Fantasy , Biography, Autobiography, Entrepreneurship and Fiction this year, and a lot of them have been by Indian Authors. I hope to finish my 100 book challenge provided I keep going at the current pace.

The second challenge has been to set up and maintain the blog which you are currently reading. The challenge includes reading 29 books about India or by Indian authors. 29 books signify the twenty nine states of India.

The entire purpose is to understand the rich heritage culture, narratives art and rituals across the subcontinent. The books that I have considered taking up talk about the vast geography of the subcontinent, the history and stories about India.

I will also be blogging about my new found love,  mythology of the Indian sub continent. To understand the Hindu mythology a paradigm shift is required, which I will be portraying in my further posts. A lot has been written about mythology and a lot of views have been expressed on the same, but none the less it has been governed by the Hegelian Maxim. “All that is rational is actual and all that is actual is rational”.

In Hindu metaphysics things exist only when they are observed and there are a few things which I wound want to undertake. Be is the Shiv Shakti relationship or Arjun-Krishna or Jaya-Vijaya relationship or the song by Ashtavakra for King Janaka, every incidence has a story to tell and a meaning behind it.

I will also discuss about the Indian queer quotient, and the presence of queerness in Indian history, which has become such a taboo in the modern Indian society.

The first book which I will Blog about will be Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik. This book features in my top five favorite books of all time. This will be followed by a post on ‘My Gita‘ by the same author.

I would like to end with some food for thought. Since I have been talking about Gita, a verse from the same , which happens to be my favorite.

Arjuna, you grieve for those whom you should not feel sorry for, and you argue as if you are a man of wisdom. But the wise grieve for no one: neither the living, nor the dead.- Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 11

I hope I do justice to all the posts, please let me know your suggestions and your thoughts on the same.

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An Appeal

India is a country of 1.2 Billion people. It is more than the sixth of the world’s total population. Divided into twenty nine states and seven union territories, this giant peninsular is vast. Here one not only finds, people speaking so many different languages and dialects, but one notices a cultural shift every few kilometers. This vast ethnicity has contributed so much to India’s rich literature. There is an enormous generation of culturally rich knowledge and learning’s which await to be explored.

My father is an Ex-Army Officer from the Indian Army. The best thing about this has been moving to various places every few years. Not just my geographical understanding of the region has been solidified but I have learnt the shift in social cultures and traditions across the length and breath of the country. I have grown up in small towns as well as big cities. I can ride the roughness of a small village, and survive the madness and high of a metro at the same time.  The experience has been just amazing until now.

But I don’t want to stop there; I want to explore more of this country which I proudly call home. I would want to spend a year of reading India. Experiencing India, vicariously. With such rich background, I am yet to experience it fully. And hence this project has been a small initiative to fill in the void I think has been missing.

A step to know India better through the medium of Print would be a good way to begin.

So what is this project all about?

During 2016 I am going to read 29 books signifying each of the 29 states in India. It could be either originating from a particular state or written by an author of a particular state. In turn I would also be blogging about these books as and when I read. And each of these, which is, Reading, Researching and Blogging about all the books from each of the states will be done in a period of one year.

I understand a lot of local books might not have been translated to English, hence finding the really good ones would be a challenging task. Hence I appeal to each one of you to please suggest me books, be it fiction or nonfiction, self-help, history, adventure, folklore or a collection of short stories from each state of India. Also I would request each one of you to share the post and help spread the message.

You can help me suggest books in the comment section below, or get in touch with me via E Mail, Facebook or Twitter. All details are mentioned in the contact page of this blog.

This will help me in shortlisting the best books for the project. What I am in particular looking at is that, each book should have a reflection of a particular state in some manner or the other and a story worth sharing. Also please connect me to the right people in case you think, who will be well informed about such books.

I hope I do justice to the project, and bring the best out of each book.