To The Everest

In everyday, urban saying sort of thing, a frequently used saying is your vibe attracts your tribe. Now I know this to be wholly true because , look at this book tribe I have !! And this holds true for my non bookish world as well. At a recent professional women’s event , I met a tribe member, who loved food ( so me! ), travel ( me again ) but more pertinently, shared my abiding love for the mountains, especially the Himalayas. As we bonded over the treks and the lesser known pathways to the Himalayas , it came about that Saachi Dhillon had written a book on her trek to Everest Base Camp. Naturally the book now needed to be read!

Everest for the non initiated is the highest peak of Himalayas and also the highest point on earth. The route to this peak is challenging and downright dangerous and many have lost their lives in the quest of the Everest (George Mallory of course comes first to one’s mind). The trek usually happens in many stages , the first being reaching the Everest Base Camp. And though it’s called the base camp, the trek is nothing but difficult and not recommended for first time high altitude hikers. However Saachi believes in living on the edge and the Everest Base Camp was the initiation right she chose to kickstart her high altitude trekking adventure.

Dreaming of Everest is an account of this adventure. Saachi’s journey starts off from the small Ramechhap Airport in Nepal and with the ultimate destination being the Everest Base Camp. It follows her journey as she meets her hiking group, walks through pit stops where everything is available for an exorbitant costs to small hole in the place where only few basics are available. She would watch the film Everest at the sitting at base of the the peak and be almost thrown off by a yak. She would lose things and find many insights about herself including the courage to continue when her body was ready to give up. And through of all this, the Everest beckoned and kept her company!

This book is one of the most honest books I have read about such endeavours in a long time. There is always glorification of all kinds of extremities in such genre; everything presented through rose tinted glasses of “struggles and triumphs”. Saachi avoids this kind of literary trope completely. She writes about the challenges but there is no romanticising them. The trek is hard. After a point food options are limited. Ill health makes an arduous climb even harder, taking a toll on your health physically and emotionally. There is no shower for days and fear of germs. These are realities that Saachi does not shy away from sharing. But there is no eulogising them nor crying foul. They are things that happen through the course of the travel and that is all there is to it. Her narrative does not digress from the main theme – the trek and the Himalayas. In fact she captures the stunning and startling beauty of these mountains beautifully. While there are valleys of flowers and beautiful sunsets, there is an awe inspiring aspect of Himalayas thats does not allow simplistic idyllic narrative. These mountains are formidable and the author’s writings leaves no room for doubt that this is not a walk in a park. She expertly blends in the cultural aspects of this geography with several insights into interaction with the local populace and adding a colorful flavor to what would otherwise have been a dry retelling of an amazing adventure. I also enjoyed the little interludes of the kind of music she listened to while hiking or the food she ate, and all of this added another layer to the storytelling. Finally the story of her own personal evolution is wonderfully interwoven with the everyday adventures. And in a stroke of good hard common sense , the book is replete with good advise for first time hikers.

To end , for a short book, it packs a powerful punch. To read it is truly start dreaming of Everest or at the very least, the other peaks of this formidable mountain range !

Once Upon a Time in India….

This week Karen and Simon are hosting another one of their amazing reading events – the 1954 Club. I love these  events as they force me to read outside my genre and explore more literary styles and authors. However with frequent Chemo side effects days ( where each part of my body felt like it belonged to someone else ) and work being ridiculously crazy again, I was not sure if I would be able to read, let alone finish something in a week. But I did manage and here I am posting a review only one day late!!

I went through the list of all books published in 1954 and after much deliberation ( there were many great publications that year ) I decided to pick up Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. The book blurb did not appeal to – another story about poverty in India but something about the book felt that this was an important read. Also I had been curious to read Kamala Markandaya for years. She was the first Indian author to write in English and one of the most premier writers of modern India. Therefore with the idea of now or never, I plunged ahead with this book which her first novel.

The story is narrated by an old woman called Rukmani, the youngest and educated daughter of the village headsman and follows her life after her marriage to Nathan , a tenant farmer. Nathan is very clearly lower in the social ladder than Rukmani but he proves to be a kind and thoughtful husband and together the couple start building a life together. A daughter named Ira, is soon born to the couple but the much desired male offsprings until years later when Dr. Kensington, a British doctor who had treated Rukmani’s mother gives her medication. Soon Rukmani has 6 sons but providing for the children becomes a struggle but Nathan and Rukmani make do until a new tannery factory is set up near their village and things begin to turn.

The plot is exactly the reason why I was not initially interested in reading this novel. Set somewhere between 1930s to 1950s India, the novel pivots on the beaten track of the struggles of farming community in India. In fact there were slew of novels that were published during this time that focused on this theme , some considered modern classics of Indian literature. There is no doubt that this was an important subject; until the Land Reform laws and the Green Revolution, farmers struggled between debt and starvation thanks to the gratuitous commercialization of land to produce only profitable crops like indigo by the British colonizers. Most these British colonizers and traders were more interested in making a quick profit, forcing farmers to grow crops that will not feed the populace and then sell them at pittance. This kind of brutal exploitation lasted for a few hundred years until India gained her independence and along with it a horrifying legacy from those years – huge fiscal deficits with majority of her people living below the poverty line. This was important theme for us to understand our past but I had read enough of this plot line and was not keen to take up another harrowing read especially when ill and irritated. But this where I made a mistake in underestimating the power and ability of Ms. Markandaya. The story does follow the struggles of Rukmani and her husband but the book is filled with hope and simple joys. Even when things are at the lowest, there is an effort to live and live to the best one can and to plan for a better tomorrow. The genius of Ms. Markandaya comes out strongest in her ability to portray this philosophy without sentimentality or dramatics; there are no miracles or swooping rescues from a knight in white armor, rather like real life if things can go bad, they do! But she weaves her story through the small everyday actions that actually adds value to life and the strength of character that resolves on never giving up. She captures the struggle between the old world and the new rising industrial world accurately; the change in societal order and mores are depicted subtly without getting pedantic or going into any ism. There is a nostalgia for the older more simpler way of life, but that is all it is and also a realistic acceptance of what the future would be like  The characters are superbly etched out – Rukmani , not a loud character or even markedly extraordinary, shines bright through her quiet courage, her ability to love and the complete lack of judgement when choices are forced on the family. She is way ahead of her years in understanding the value of education and more importantly, in accepting that sometimes life happens and a straight jacketed black and white is not the correct lens to see things. Her husband Nathan is a perfect foil, dignified and self reliant. He goes through his life with wisdom and kindness. The thing that makes his character stand out is his constant display of emotional intelligence; not only in accepting and respecting a wife who is a social superior in every way but also the ways of his children, who carve out lives very differently from his own life and beliefs. The supporting cast and crew  also are brilliantly drawn with each character standing independently, a remarkable achievement, considering the novel is action packed and is only 200 pages. The narrative is simple and linear but never for a moment does the pace flag; while I understood the plot arch, it was written so well and so tightly, that I finished the book in one sitting. And finally there is gorgeous prose of Ms. Markandaya , both sparse and lyrical, capturing the country and it’s culture vividly, bringing it alive in all its beauty and beliefs.

I am so immensely glad that I read this novel. Beautiful, enriching and memorable, one of the best books I have read lately! Exactly why despite everything I make it a point to be part of these reading events!

Murder and Mayhem in London

Many many moons ago, when I was wee little kid (comparatively speaking, as in I was about 20 years old) I was wondering through the shelves of the local British Council library for something interesting to read. I picked up a murder mystery set in 13th century England; I recollect I really enjoyed it. I recollect that the main protagonists were a Priest and a Knight and that is all I had to go on,  for I do not recall the character’s name, I do not recall the series name and worst, I do not recall the author’s name! Cut to the present, I am browsing NetGalley for a a good historical fiction to read during the holidays and I come across a Brother Athelstan’s mystery set in 1300’s England called The Mansions of Murders by Paul Doherty and considering the genre, I immediately request for it, and as I start reading, I suddenly find, what I had been looking for since last 15 years!!

MOM (2)

The novel is set in 1381 England, John of Gaunt is the Regent and with young Richard II as the King; the Great Revolt has been completely crushed and the Lords of the land, like Beaumont, Arundel and John of Gaunt rule with an iron fist. London is completely under the sway of underworld gangs, the riflers who ran the law around the slums of Thames, who were in turn used by Lords, in keeping control of London. The most powerful of these gangs are the Sycamores, led by Simon Makepeace aka, The Flesher. They are vilest, cruelest, and the most influential gang of London, running a host of businesses, from taverns to murder for hire to prostitution. They manage a Mansion of Murder, as is commonly known; a former Church now owned by The Flesher, with high walls and brutal dogs, let loose on people who become a problem for the former. In this background, where no one dares to raise their voice against The Flesher, a crime is committed against him – his mother’s who had recently died and whose body was kept in the Church for mourning, prior to the burial, is snatched away with demand for ransom. Furthermore,  Parson Reynaud of the same Church and Daventry, Arundel’s go between, are both found murdered inside the church! Meanwhile, Fat Margo, the embalmer in Brother Athelstan’s parish, dies, bequeathing all her possessions to the Parish. However, Brother Athelstan soon discovers, that the possession includes the unexpected but well preserved body of Margo’s husband and son, who were believed to have died in a battle 18 years ago. Thus, Brother Athelstan and Sir Jack Cranston, the Lord High Corner for London, try to solve for two unrelated mysteries, and find truths, closer home!

As I read through the novel, I remembered why I wanted to find this series again – simply because it is such a good thriller. 14th century London comes alive in Mr. Doherty’s hands, with its slums, and gangs and dirt. You can feel the stink, the sweat and the ugliness of London as it rises, very different from its current modern avatar! The history is impeccably researched and all details and nuances of 14th century, wonderfully crafted in the main narrative of the novel. The characters are all well rounded and without getting into too much off background, the motivations and actions of all, both primary and secondary easily understood and come across as extremely plausible. The plot moves along smoothly, though sometimes, Brother Athelstan’s mediations seems to slow down the narrative a bit, it does not really hamper the overall flow. The end was, while not wholly surprising was presented in a very innovative manner and tied in all the lose ends, extremely well! The only thing, which left me a bit bemused was the title of the novel, as the actual Mansion, has very little to do with the actual mystery and seems in hindsight, a bit sensational, which may take away, the actual good solid storytelling of the book! To end, this is a very enjoyable, thoroughly gripping book, well written and a good read for all Historical Fiction cum Murder Mystery aficionados!

Thanks to Severn House and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book for review.

Piracy in Restoration England

After much wringing of hand and utter confusion and mental distress, I plodded forth to read Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier as part of my Reading England project, focusing on Cornwall. As many are already aware, I had no patience with Rebecca and completely lost my sanity with Jamaica Inn, why then would I venture to another Du Maurier? What can I say, except I was hoping for third time lucky??!! Not the best logic, but considering there is a huge reading population that swear by Du Maurier, I really really wanted to give her another chance before I shut the door completely, hence the Frenchman’s Creek adventure.

The book is set in Restoration England, and at the very onset, we are introduced to Dona, Lady St. Columb, who has made a hasty departure from the decadent London Court of Charles II and is heading for her husband’s Cornish country estate of Navron with her children. Dona who has been married for six years, has adapted to the life of Charles II court of being vacuousness and frivolity without really ever belonging to it. After an attempted practical joke on a old Countess, that jars Dona to reality, she heads to Navron, seeking peace and trying to find her true self, away from the bustle of London and her clumsy husband Harry. In Navron, she soon discovers, that the county has been pillaged  by attacks from a French pirate and Dona soon learns that Navron which overlooks the creek that flows into the ocean is used by the French pirate as a hideaway. Her exploration of the creek soon brings her in contact with the great Pirate himself and Dona seeking adventure, soon becoming friends and then falls in love with him. She finally agrees to go on piracy expedition with him against one of her neighbor’s vessels. The attack is a success and Dona promises to return to the pirate after she has met her children; however once she is back in Navron, she discovers that Harry and his detestable friend, Rockingham are back with some serious designs of harming the pirate and Dona has very little time to decide on actions that will determine the pirate’s as well as her fate!

Restoration England, Cornwall and Pirates, how bad can the book be? Guess again! It was TERRIBLE! No third time lucky for me. The characters are all ridiculous and unbelievable.Lets start with Dona, she is beautiful and she is bold. That’s the beginning and end of her. She married a man of her choice and them she found him clumsy, though through the novel I could figure out that Harry, albeit clumsy was devoted to Dona. She finds the life of London shallow., after indulging in all manners of shenanigans for six years. She finds Rockingham impertinent, after she allowed him to flirt with her and kiss her. I mean this woman does everything she wants, without thought or deliberation and when the results are not to her liking, she claims boredom and dissatisfaction. The way she treats Harry is disgraceful; she orders him about, never giving him any explanation of her conduct, behaving in a illogical autocratic manner through the novel. In my opinion, Harry should have left her to begin with. Then we have our Frenchman, who is a rich, aristocrat who indulges in  Piracy because of boredom. Arrrrgggghhhh! What is it with this boredom??? Is there no better way to kill it than doing something criminal.The justification Ms. Maurier is quick to point out is that the Frenchman only robbed the rich. I may have lost my common sense here, but being rich is not a crime for which you have to pay through the actions of a Robin Hoodsque character. However stealing last I checked was a crime, regardless whom you steel from! The remaining cast and crew are nothing to write about, there is the cliched loyal servant and the classic evil villain and the goofy nobleman. At least in Jamaica Inn, there was some brilliant and torrid description of the land and climate, that set the stage for the adventure; the language in this book is just placid; it hardly changes or moves, except for one reddening storm, which came and went! There is no originality in the plot nor is there any real thrill and  I kept going simply because I wanted to finish what I had started, as a form a self torture for picking up another Du Maurier.

I know I have sworn this before, but I am truly never ever reading any Du Maurier again! She is completely unbearable. A complete waste of time!

P.S. As I look back on my review of Jamaica Inn, O had warned me that this was a bad book and I had said I would not even venture near it and then I clean FORGOT!! Next time as an act of kindness if you see me attempting another Du Maurier, just point me towards Jamaica Inn review and then this one!