Sunday, 19 November 2017

Origin - Dan Brown

Date of Reading: 11/10/2017
Author: Dan Brown
Publisher: Transworld
Place: London
Year: 2017
Rating: 3/5

        It is a truth universally known that in mystery novels the real villain will never be the one we are prone to suspect, but most likely s/he will be the one we put utmost trust to. Dan Brown novels never waver from this fact and this new addition is no different. But truth to be told, until the very last few pages, I thought I picked the wrong one . . . was almost hoping actually. Nope! That was not to be.
        As for the 'thrill' element, the novel was a bit disappointing. It is nowhere near 'Angels and Demons' or 'Inferno'. There is not much play with symbols either as is usual with Langdon series which was another let down. But the detailed tour of the country on which the story is set with lots of historical explanations will still glue you to the book. Spain was never one of my dream destinations, but thanks to 'Origin', it sure is now. . .

       Robert Langdon has flown to the Guggenheim Museum in Spain to witness his famous student Edmond Kirsch presenting his historic discovery to the world. Before the event Kirsch had revealed his secret to three prominent religious leaders -- Bishop Valdespino, Rabbi Koves and Allamah Syed al-Fadl -- as his discovery will have a strong impact on all religions in the world. They opposed his venture and Bishop Valdespino even went to the extent of threatening him with a voice mail.
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
        Unperturbed, Kirsch goes on with his plans. However, before the event, Syed al-Fadl is killed by Luis Avila, a former Spanish Navy Admiral. He is instructed by a man named Regent and his next target is revealed to be Edmond Kirsch.
         Admiral's name is successfully added to the guest list as a last minute addition. Meanwhile, all the guests are provided with customised headsets through which they are given a tour of the museum. Langdon's help identifies himself as Winston. Later he reveals that he is a computer program developed by Kirsch, trained in observing and imitating humans.
        Kirsch's presentation progressed well with advanced audio-visual inputs. But as he was about to demonstrate his discovery, he was shot down by Avila. Langdon is shocked and so is the museum director Ambra Vidal as she had added the name of Avila to the guest list at the request of Prince Julian, her fiance.
        Though the royal guards urged her to return to the palace, Ambra tricked them and escaped with Langdon, Winston guiding them along the way. Since Kirsch's presentation is a pre-recorded one, they hoped to activate it again from his home in Barcelona. What they need is a forty-seven letter password which is a line from Kirsch's favourite poem. In another part, Rabbi Koves is also killed by a hired assassin leaving Bishop Valdespino as the only survivor prone to the secret of Edmond Kirsch.
At Edmond's home, Langdon finds the outer cover of Blake's complete works in its first edition. It has been donated to the church Sagrada Familia and they head toward that place with the help of Ambra's bodyguards who had by then tracked them down.
        In the outside world, rumours abound as to the secret Kirsch might have uncovered and the reason for his murder. Bishop Valdespino and even the royal palace is counted as suspects. A website called gives out the details with the help of someone only identified as By then Ambra had realised that Julian's involvement in the murder is unlikely since she didn't get the request directly from the prince.
        Luis Avila is found to be a member of Palmarian Church, a group of anti-catholics with whom Edmond had a fierce rivalry. His mother, being influenced by the church, had died because of their severe ways of penance. Avila had lost his family in the bombing of a cathedral. The Regent had informed him that the bombing was inspired by Kirsch's speech making him partially responsible for the act. This is Avila's time for revenge.
         Father Bena escorted Langdon and Ambra at Sangra Familia to Blake's collection of poems which is displayed open on page 163 under Kirsch's strict insistence. They find that the password is the final stanza of "Four Zoas": "The dark Religions are departed & sweet science reigns". With the word 'et' replacing the '&' symbol, this makes 47 letters. 
Sagrada Familia

         Avila arrives in pursuit of the group, getting instruction from the Regent but dies by falling off the steps of the church in Langdon's unexpectedly brave attack. Using Winston's self-portrait in Guggenheim museum as a clue, Langdon locates him in Barcelona Supercomputing Centre. There they find Kirsch's massive supercomputer 'E-Wave' and with the help of Winston, they resume Kirsch's original presentation with more viewers in attendance as Kirsch's murder had aroused a worldwide interest in his discovery.
          His presentation claims to show the answers to two very important questions: "Where do we come from?" and "Where are we going?". He takes the failed Miller-Urey experiment to explain the origin of life on earth. The experiment was intended to create life in a laboratory using artificial circumstances, but it ended up in failure. Kirsch explains that its failure is due to the lack of time -- creation took place with millions of years. So with the help of his E-Wave, Kirsch re-creates the original conditions at the beginning of planet earth's formation and finds that it eventually leads to the origin of life finally proving that it was not a divine act.
         He then uses the same method to trace the future of mankind. The computer shows that if things progress like this, humanity and technology will merge together to form a better future devoid of conflict with regard to religion. This presentation was in contradiction to the one shown to the three religious leaders where it warned them of an imminent apocalypse.
        The presentation becomes a great success with debates going on in every media. Meanwhile Bishop Valdespino and Julian meet the dying King who confesses his homosexual inclinations and love towards Valdespino though they kept it on an entirely platonic level. The King dies soon after and Valdespino takes his own life to join him in the afterworld. Julian promises to Ambra that they will start over again and she returns to the palace. Langdon is cleared of all charges. Winston reveals that he will self-delete at 1.00 PM next day as per the former instructions given by Kirsch. Being a cancer patient, he was expecting his death and therefore had made all the preparations.
Dan Brown

        Next day, it suddenly dawns on Langdon that the mysterious Monte who was leaking things to the media is Winston. Monte and Iglesia mean 'hill' and 'church' in Spanish, alluding to Winston Churchill after whom Winston is named. Winston confirms his theory and says that he wanted to make Kirsch's presentation a success and turning him into a martyr was a sure way to attract an audience. So he hired Avila in the guise of Regent. He wanted him to be arrested at Sagrada Familia which did not go as planned. Winston self-deletes himself at the decided time, leaving Langdon to wonder about the dark side of technology.       

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Bharathipura - U. R. Ananthamurthy

Date of Reading: 18/03/2017
Author: U. R. Ananthamurthy
Translated by: Susheela Punitha
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Place: New Delhi
Year: 2010
Price: Rs. 375

          I did once hear that "Moby Dick" was originally intended as a scientific study on whales which was later wrapped up in an adventurous story to make it more palatable. I went through a similar sensation while reading this particular novel which could rather be called a philosophy treatise. Arguments and debates abound throughout, with the story patching it together to form an interesting read.
            'Oppressed class', 'untouchability', 'Dalit' -- all these words have become a part of common vocabulary nowadays, providing a platform for many a fancy seminar and conference. How many really empathise with them . . . is another matter to consider. Siding with the marginalised has become the new fashion lately just like the charities offered by the multi-millionaires to enhance their social profile.

       The novel presents its protagonist Jagannatha in the same mould. Being a western educated young man, he comes back from England carrying a new version of "white man's burden". His efforts to educate the Holeyaru, or the untouchables in Bharathipura, appear ridiculous as many instances reveal that his actions revolve around impressing his white girlfriend. He plays the hero by assuming the position of the light bearer to the untouchables whose names he keeps forgetting. His intended actions were noble but the hollowness behind it makes him less likeable.

          But that doesn't dim its charm as the story gives one of the beautiful and realistic portrayals of village life in Karnataka. It discusses the role of religion in the continuance of age-old and sometimes illegal customs and also mocks the lofty politicians who take advantage of this ignorance. All in all, it is slow but still, an enjoyable read penned by one of the popular Jnanpith awardees. 
         The story is set in the town of Bharathipura which is noted for its famous temple with its deity Manjunatha and his henchman Bhootharaya, the God of the untouchables. It is one of the major pilgrimage sites in the country. Yet even after independence, the place has retained its attitudes toward untouchability.

         Jagannatha, the son of town's wealthy landowner comes back from England after six years, determined to alter these situations. He wants to transform the town by leading the Holeyaru (the untouchables in the place) to the temple. The people there believed that if Holeyaru dares to enter the temple, he will spit blood and die.
         But these rebellious decisions of Jagannatha are not purely selfless. He also wants to impress his girlfriend Margaret that he can also be the tool of change. He writes long letters to her detailing his life in Bharathipura and the course of action he is planning to take. Margaret doesn't show the same enthusiasm as she later leaves him for his friend Chandrashekar towards the end of the story.
         The upper caste people are not happy either. They isolate him when he starts training a group of Holeyaru youth for temple entry. Even his mentor and lifelong family friend Sripathi Rao thinks that this attempt won't make much difference in the general attitude of the society. Jagan is also shocked by the way the educated and employed Dalits behave toward their own caste people. They insert maximum effort to alienate themselves from their caste and to become a part of the upperclassmen.

As the day for the temple entry draws near, others too join the mission. Neelakantaswami and Ranga Rao, members of the Mysore Socialist Party organise it as a movement. Ananthakrishna, a former freedom fighter also joins hands with them. A few days before the planned entry the Holeyaru huts catch fire though the source of this arson is never found. One boy dies in the fire. But Jagannatha was determined to continue his mission. He was even accused in an anonymous letter that he is an illegitimate son to his mother. Jagan suspects that this could be true, but looks ahead with all the strength he can muster.
        Meanwhile the chief priest's house witnesses another set of incidents. His son, Ganesha Bhatta supports Jagannatha inwardly as he is tired of the customs Manjunatha's presence impose. His father treats him as a mere boy and he craves for some freedom. The day before the temple entry he decides to put an end to all this. He goes to the inner sanctum and somehow dislodges the deity and throws it into the river. Then he attacks his father and shuts himself in the temple waiting for Jagannatha.
         The next day the Holeyaru hesitate before the temple gate. Neelakantaswami pulled the first man, Pilla, inside while Jagan stood there motionless. Others followed Pilla inside the temple. But they found that the deity is removed by Ganesha who opens the door only when he hears Jagan's voice.
U. R. Ananthamurthy
        Rumour soon spread through the town that the deity is not polluted since the priest's son removed it through some divine inspiration. They refuse to accept that Ganesha had a nervous breakdown. The glory of Manjunatha heightens as the preparations to reinstate the deity progress.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Twilight in Delhi - Ahmed Ali

Date of Reading: 01/02/2017
Author: Ahmed Ali
Publisher: Rupa
Place: New Delhi
Year: 2007
Price: Rs. 295
Rating: 4/5

          It is in a second-hand bookshop that I had my first glimpse of 'Twilight in Delhi'. In spite of the tattered and dusty shape it was in, the book was intriguing and that made me buy a personal copy. The story of a pre-independent Delhi told through one of its affluent families; it doesn't offer any breathtaking mystery or thrill, but just the drama of day to day life.
          This is a delightful read from beginning to end with its slow paced rhythm that will definitely take you into the world of Mir Nihal and his family. Trust me, you will even feel the heat of Delhi's summer!!! And in the backdrop we get the colours of Delhi with its pigeon and kite fliers and as the story progresses the place too transforms by the imperialist hands.
          Mir Nihal is an orthodox Muslim family man who leads a comfortable life with his two sons being a part of the government service. Another of his sons, Asghar, leads a love lorn life as he wants to marry Bilqueece, a girl from a lower social class family.
          In order to get permission from his parents he seeks the help of his elder sister, Begam Waheed, who comes home to arrange the marriage. Begam Nihal tries talking to her husband about this but Mir Nihal remains adamant. So the women of the house plans for the wedding secretly, thinking Mir Nihal can be persuaded later. Asghar goes to Bhopal with Begam Waheed to wait out the year before he can marry Bilqueece.
         Meanwhile Babban Jan, Mir Nihal's mistress, dies leaving him desolate. In his hurry to see her for the last time, Mir Nihal forgets to lock the pigeon coop and most of his beloved birds become the food of one stray cat. Both these incidents affect him deeply. He gives permission for Asghar's marriage to Bilqueece and takes up his old hobby of studying alchemy.
           On the day of King George's coronation, Mir Nihal goes with his grandchildren to watch the parade. On the way back he comes across a beggar who happens to be the son of the last Mughal Emperor. He gives him some money and walks away meditating on the change in Delhi.

       Asghar and Bilqueece get married but the romantic spark he had for her soon disappears. He gets a job and a separate home and a daughter, Jehan Ara, is born to the couple. Bilqueece's father dies causing her great distress. This worsens as she feels the disinterestedness of her husband also. She becomes weak due to tuberculosis and dies soon after.
         Bilqueece's younger sister Zohra helps him to look after the child. He gets infatuated with her and eventually she too returns the feelings. Asghar takes his parents' blessings for the marriage, but Zohra's mother opposes the proposition as she had often seen Asghar ill treating Bilqueece.
        Asghar's brother Habibuddin is brought home sick. Mir Nihal had been denigrated to the state of an invalid by then. Habibuddin dies and after his funeral Asghar finds Zohra's servant waiting for him with a letter. It informs him that Zohra is being married off to someone the next morning. He weeps bitterly with a broken heart.

Something to ponder . . .

"In spite of griefs and sorrows a man gets used to life, for its flow must always go on." - 120

"For if it were not for Hope, men would commit suicide by the scores, and the world would remain a barren desert in which no oasis exists." - 125

Ahmed Ali
"Life goes on with a heartless continuity, trampling ideals and worlds under its ruthless feet, always in search of the new, destroying, building and demolishing once again with the meaningless petulance of a child who builds a house of sand only to raze it to the ground." - 150

"And Izrael, the angel of death, had not a moment to spare. From house to house he rushed, from door to door, snatching the souls away from human beings burning with fever yet hungry after life, wanting to live on in a world which did not care about them at all." - 233

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Illicit Happiness of Other People - Manu Joseph

Date of Reading: 02/04/2016
Author: Manu Joseph
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Place: New Delhi
Year: 2012
Rating: 3.3/5
From: Prachand Narayan

          This is my second book of Manu Joseph and I was surprised to find how dissimilar they were  -- both in theme and in its expression. In terms of story, I will always prefer 'Serious Men', but this particular one is not without its attractions. Manu's vivid diction has successfully captured the day to day life of a Madras society with the Chacko family occupying the centre point. But the mystery element that weaves the whole story together lacks the necessary pull. . . and is kind of boring . . . (I must confess that I did have a peek at the ending in the beginning itself).
          What makes it memorable and unique are some interesting scenes that many a household may witness; a despaired father coming home drunk pouring abuses on the neighbors, a young Thomas gathering courage to face the world every morning, and Mariamma pouring out her troubles to the silent walls. The all too optimistic Unni Chacko looks aloof and out of this world, but not his family and friends and they make the real story of this work. Now to the story:
          Three years after the suicide of seventeen year old Unni Chacko, his father Ousep receives an unfinished comic of his son by post. It was returned undelivered as a fire in the post box had burned the delivery address. Ousep's restless mind began to hope as this may finally lead to what he always ached to find -- the reason of his son's sudden death who until then had lived a very happy life.
          He starts interviewing Unni's friends again and through their words a picture of Unni emerges for the readers as well as for Ousep. As a cartoonist he showed wisdom far beyond his years, but while his fellow classmates sweated for the IIT-JEE exams, he led a carefree life focusing more on the pursuit of the metaphysical. 
    Ousep himself is a journalist whose unaccomplished writing career has turned him into a drunkard who coming home at night enact dramatic scenes for their neighbors in Balaji Lane. His wife Mariamma secretly wishes for his death and pours down all her complaints loudly to the silent walls. Amidst this drunkard father and half witted mother the youngest son Thomas Chacko leads a life of shame, frightened to meet his neighbors' and friends' gaze. Along with this he cherishes a secret crush towards Mythili, their beautiful neighbor who has gone aloof after Unni's death. But on Mariamma's request, Mythili agrees to take tuition to Thomas and gradually he grows bolder.
            When Ousep gets admitted to hospital on a sudden heart attack, Sai Sankaran, one of Unni's close friends decides to confess the story of the comic. It is about a man named Philippose who had tried to molest Mariamma when she was a little girl. When Unni came to know about this incident, he secretly travelled to his mother's place in Kerala to take revenge. But Philippose was already dead and Unni comes back disappointed.
          As the secret of the comic is solved Ousep reaches a dead end. The only other option is Somen Pillai, the other close friend of Unni, who refuses to meet him. Ousep's enquiries reveal that he is affected by corpse syndrome where the person thinks he is a corpse and leads a completely depressed life. Due to his constant pestering Soman comes out of his secluded room to narrate what happened on Unni's last day. They had spent thirty minutes in a room with a naked woman without touching her in order to test their strength against temptation. Later Unni leaves Soman's house and after a few hours kills himself.
          Meanwhile Mythili learns the story of Philippose from Thomas and her comment startles him -- "Philippose should have killed himself, not Unni." Ousep stitches the facts together and rightly assumes that after leaving Somen's house, in a fit of passion he tried to seduce Mythili. Ashamed of his act he kills himself thinking that everyone will soon come to know of his crime. But Mythili kept everything to herself and Ousep believes that soon she will be ready to mend the broken ties with his family.

Something to ponder:

"A scooter in Madras is a man's promise that he will not return home drunk in the evening." - 4

"But then the fate of shy people is that all their fears usually come true" - 5

"The most foolish description of the young is that they are rebellious. The truth is that they are a fellowship of cowards" - 9

". . . the ultimate goal of comics is the same as the purpose of humanity - to break free from language" - 18

Manu Joseph
". . . the fate of love in Madras is neatly divided into four kinds of suicide. Lovers who know that their parents will never let them marry go to a cheap hotel room, get into wedding clothes, and eat rat poison. If they elope instead, their parents will consume the same rat poison. If it is only the girl's parents who object to the marriage, she is most likely to immolate herself. Men who are spurned by girls almost always hang themselves from a ceiling fan. Men very rarely set fire to themselves for a girl" - 248
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