Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay was a famous Bengali writer. Outside Bengal, he is probably most famous for his fictional detective, Byomkesh Bakshi. Byomkesh has a friend, Ajit Bandhopadhay, who is also a chronicler. One of these stories was published in 1952 and is titled Durga Rahasya (The Mystery of the Fort). Byomkesh cracks the mystery when Ajit quotes, “Abar abar sei kaman garjan (The cannon thundered again and again).” Bengalis, of a certain generation, will immediately recognise the quote and would certainly have done so, in 1952. Sudeep Chakravarti doesn’t mention Byomkesh. He has no reason to. While he doesn’t quote the specific passage Ajit quoted, he refers to the poem, “Palashir Yuddha”, written by Nabinchandra Sen in 1875.
Nabinchandra Sen has been accused of not being true to history, an issue also discussed by Sudeep Chakravarti. But that’s not the point I want to make. However, before that, there is a reference in the book that foxed me, a description of a recent visit Sudeep made to Plassey. (He made an earlier visit in the early 1970s, as did I.) “In front of the stage is a banner, proclaiming a stanza of poetry in classical Bengali: Kandari! Tobo shommukhe oi Polashir prantore, Banglar khoone lal holo jetha Clibhe-er khonjor (Captain! The battlefield of Plassey lies before you, Where Clive’s blade was reddened by the blood of Bengal)!” This is the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, in the famous poem, Kandari Hushiar (Boatman! Be Careful), written in 1926. I was a bit puzzled that Sudeep didn’t mention Kazi Nazrul by name, and by his reference to a stanza of poetry in classical Bengali.
Like hundreds of Bengalis, I have been to Plassey in my student days, decades before the present Palashi Monument was erected and at a time when the mango grove still existed. (I understand it has vanished now.) Plassey changed the course of history. It was a turning point. There is the history and there is the perception and there can be an imperfect correlation between the two. The popular Bengali perception is largely along the lines of the poems of Nabinchandra Sen and Kazi Nazrul Islam. A columnist-turned-prolific author, Sudeep Chakravarti won several awards for The Bengalis: A Portrait of Community. What is Bengal and who is a Bengali? All too often, Bengalis in West Bengal and India tend to forget a larger number of Bengalis live in Bangladesh. The book The Bengalis made no such error and in this volume too, art and literature from both sides of the divide are surveyed to portray the popular Bengali (Indian) perception of Siraj-ud-Daulah and Plassey. “Plassey is a Petri dish of sophistry and uncomfortable views. Sometimes, from surprising sources.” A bit like Rashomon, there are differing perceptions about Siraj-ud-Daulah, Plassey and Clive.
In the author’s words, “Despite the numerous published interpretations of Plassey and its aftermath, the questions continue to thrive. Was it really a battle or was it won before it began, as some historians surmise? What were the politics of the time that spurred Plassey — from a ravaged Mughal empire to the insecurities of the Seven Years War between two of the principal actors, Britain and France? What were the attractions of the plains and rivers of Bengal, the lifeline of trade and commerce that for centuries brought the produce of Bengal, the richest province of several Indian empires, to the homes and balance sheets of Europe?
Was the incident of the Black Hole of Calcutta, used by some to morally underpin the British expedition to Plassey, real, exaggerated or fictional? How is that incident and Plassey carried forward to this day, as the present remembers the past in various versions of living history?” One would have thought historians had already answered these questions. Regardless of what historians might say, history and the writing of history are never objective. Subjectivity creeps in. There is always newer evidence. Sudeep Chakravarti is not a historian who is an academic and his journalistic training and knack for ferreting out details make this a readable and fascinating book. It is just as well that he is not an academic historian, with preconceived biases and training.
The outcome is a book with 21 chapters (divided into three sections), seeking to answer the questions mentioned in the quote. The first section sets out the background, the lay of the land, including the battle of Mylapore. (One wouldn’t necessarily have expected this in a book on Plassey.) The second section is on the build-up, while the third section is on the familiar territory of the actual battle. A wide variety of reading has gone into the writing of this book. For a certain period of Indian history, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s name is certain to be figured. However, to illustrate the wide canvas of reading, a quote from Macaulay about the later Mughals was quite unexpected. The later Mughals “sauntered away life in secluded places, chewing bang (or bhang, cannabis), fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons”. That reading is not restricted to published sources in English. To write a book like this, a prerequisite is that the author should be Bengali or should be able to read Bengali. Since Sudeep is Bengali, the volume has been enriched and we have a very good history of Plassey. A blurb on the jacket says this book is “popular history writing at its very best”. That, no doubt inadvertently, tends to suggest this is diluted and dumbed-down history. This book is anything but that. It is extremely well-researched. But yes, it is not written in a pedant’s boring style.
If there is a complaint I have (other than Kazi Nadrul Islam not being named), it is about the epilogue, with its slightly cynical air. “Among all the morbid memories and mysteries, Plassey lives…While history is made destitute here… Then it’s all over for another year.” The cynical reference is to a memorial event on 23June. But events apart, Plassey lives in memories, notwithstanding the mysteries, and Sudeep has enriched that memory.
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Getting your storytelling right
When you are at an event—whether that’s a friend’s dinner party or a networking evening with peers—what do you notice in people? Maybe it’s an outfit that was particularly stylish or the fact that someone had lovely hair or was very elegant. And what makes you remember them the next day? It’s what they had to say for themselves, yes? We conversation you had that was funny or enlightening. An anecdote they shared that stayed in your mind. We remember people for the stories they tell. And that’s true for brands, too.
The maverick and very successful marketer and author Seth Godin says we now live in a ‘connection economy’, and what sets us apart from the Industrial Age is the fact that nothing is standardised anymore. Mass media, communication, marketing, and advertising are not the norm any longer. People now listen to those they want to listen to. They will click on the links they choose to and open the emails they feel matter to them. To communicate e²ectively and successfully, brands (and individuals) need to build trust, create meaningful connections, ask for permission to speak to someone, and exchange ideas in a generous and unique manner. You cannot stick to a formula. You cannot do anything that’s just enough—you have to bake the extraordinary into the routine. And you need to think out of the box as the rule and not the exception.
What all of this boils down to for brands, in my opinion, is storytelling. Now that you have a voice and are clear on your messaging, what do you have to say for yourself? And I want to dispel a common mistake I see people making these days of assuming that storytelling is just for social media posts. It’s really not. From the text on your website to the bio on your social media and the content you share online and offline, brand storytelling is another foundational aspect you cannot afford to take lightly. Today’s consumer no longer makes buying decisions based on price or product range.
They are driven by emotions and experiences, and they want to understand a brand’s values, provenance, and purpose before investing time or money in its products and services. Take for example the fact that if you want to buy a simple white t-shirt, you can choose to either go to a high-street brand, or support a sustainable organic label, or even buy that t-shirt with a high-luxe branded price tag. Each of these brands has a story to tell, and they have to share it consistently across platforms to not just reach their ideal customer, but also retain their attention and support.
When Deepika Gehani was talking to me about brand messaging, she also outlined the importance of knowing what to say, and who to say it to: ‘Many brand success stories are testament to the effectiveness of storytelling. Every brand essentially has its unique strengths, an angle, or a story, and customers want to hear about it. Sometimes it is the brand heritage and the journey, or sometimes the product may be state of art and innovative and therefore inspiring. This hook is an effective strategy as it compels people to make a purchase. Storytelling also helps in building brand loyalty with customers. However, there needs to be a healthy balance, and more often than not brands forget that the narratives need to resonate with your target audience. If a brand story is disconnected from the people that you want to influence, even the greatest version of it will not suffice.’
In all her years of experience, she finds that ‘honesty is what makes a brand communication successful. Any global or local or high-end luxury brand can plan the most outrageous campaigns, but if the quality of the product does not deliver, it is definitely a disaster in making. You have to focus on three things—your product and its USP, which clearly needs to be the highlight of your communication; understanding your customer; and planning, because without it, even the best ideas are unsuccessful.’
As much as it is tempting to stick to a formula or try pleasing an algorithm, your brand story needs a strong foundation and a lot of thought. So where do you start?
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Think about your customer and what they expect from you. This is an important aspect to get very clear on because it helps you decide your storytelling pillars, the social media platforms you need to be on, and the offline strategy you have to employ. Chinmayee Manjunath, who helped me write this book and works with brands on content and communication strategy, has a couple of firm guidelines to help her clients understand their audience:
• How old is your ideal customer? This is absolutely the first step, because once you know the age group of the person you want to target, you can understand what kind of storytelling will appeal to them.
• How and where does your ideal customer consume content? This immediately helps you decide whether you need to be making Reels on Instagram or if your money is better spent doing in-store events, and maybe emailing a fortnightly newsletter. Or perhaps you need to do nothing online and focus on traditional media.
• What are the other brands that your customer supports, and is there a gap between what your competition offers them and what you can? Create a unique storytelling universe, and while there is always some overlap and repetition within an industry, getting very clear on your USP will help you stand out regardless.
• Is there a category of content or information that you know they would benefit from, even if they don’t know it themselves? Say, for example, you own a florist business and specialise in creating bespoke arrangements. What might be nice is to look at the mythology, healing properties, characteristics, and attributes of the flowers that you use. You could also share your own process of how you source flowers, what draws you to certain blooms, and guide your clients on how to choose flowers based on more than just colour and appearance. This adds many layers to what could be a very cut-and-dried process.
Next, you need to align your messaging—which the previous chapter helps you strategise on—with your storytelling pillars. Broadly, these are the most common five pillars, but you will need to tweak them according to your business and what your brand stands for.
1. Inspirational: Happy, cheerful, bright, and uplifting messaging, which is something everyone can and should benefit from. This is when you use quotes from famous people, create stunning flat lays, shoot beautiful visuals, and feature influencer shout-outs, for instance.
2. Educational: To build thought leadership, facilitate knowledge and create an environment for people to learn about your brand and your industry is essential. Content under this pillar includes tips and tricks, video trainings, and stories of culture and heritage.
3. Conversational: Engagement is always key, whether that means comments on a post or chatting with clients on the phone or via video calls. Your aim here is to spark organic interaction via events, giveaways, contests, and polls.
4. Community-building: This pillar is especially important on social media because it helps you convey the lifestyle you envision for your clients, share behind-the-scenes of the brand, and foster personal connections with your content.
5. Commercial: Fairly straightforward and essential to your marketing are calls to action, announcements of new launches or sales, and conducting lives on social media or events offline.
The excerpt is from ‘Pitch Perfect: How to Create a Brand People Cannot Stop Talking About’ (published by Penguin Random House India).
WHY YUDHISHTHIR IS STILL KNOWN AS DHARMARAJ
Through Dhritarashtra and Duryodhan’s discourse from the Mahabharata, the author has made an excellent effort to clarify the myths, confusion, and ignorance disseminated about Yudhishthir Maharaj.
By debunking the myths and misconceptions about Mahabharat and Yudhishthir Maharaj perpetuated by modern historians, mainly Western historians, and Indologists, this book is of great value.
While the government of India imposed a lockdown due to the global outbreak of Covid-19, it additionally sorted out for individuals to invest their energy and time at home. On Doordarshan, numerous programs were broadcasted, with the Ramayan and Mahabharat among the most notable. The entire nation enjoys likewise taken benefit of this step of the Government. Social media was flooded with people’s experiences watching the Ramayan and Mahabharat serials at the time. Even videos of the Ramayan and Mahabharat serials’ celebrity casts watching these serials went viral.
A book by Aditya Satsangi, an Indian origin Author who lives in America, titled ‘Yudhishthir: The Praan of Dharm’ (Kapot Publications, Delhi) caught my eye recently. I had a different perspective on Mahabharat before reading this book, especially Yudhishthir Maharaj. There was only one reason for this: I had not read the Mahabharat myself, and whatever knowledge I may have had about the Mahabharat come from B. R. Chopra’s Mahabharat and Ramanand Sagar’s Shri Krishna serial, or some other works or novels about the Mahabharat.
My understanding of Yudhishthir Maharaj before reading Aditya Satsangi was that he was the eldest son of Pandu and Kunti, therefore he was the elder brother of the five Pandavs. It is said that he was constantly preoccupied with his own thoughts. He was weak and perplexed, having gambled away his entire kingdom, siblings, and wife, forcing him to roam from forest to forest. Later, when the Mahabharat war erupted, he, too, fought the battle out of terror. After answering the questions of the Yaksh in exile, he was able to bring his brothers back to life. Also, people called him Dharmaraj. Another misconception was that Mahabharat and its characters are fictional, they have no basis in reality. I didn’t agree with it at the time, and I don’t agree with it now, but I didn’t know how to answer. The reason I haven’t studied Mahabharat has previously been stated. That is, all I knew was based on what others had said. My mind was in turmoil when I read the first few lines of the preface to the book ‘Yudhishthir: The Praan of Dharm’, because this is what we all desire to read but can’t find in books.
Those lines are as follows, “Mahabharat is the most studied great composition of Vyasadeva. The Western & Indian Indologists have been writing long commentaries creating fake news and commentaries which have long destroyed the identity of all Indians. Most Indians have been made to believe in fake narratives on Mahabharata that affect their faith. This book contains many authoritative versions of the stories from the point of view of Vyasadeva. Readers will love the wisdom, characters and their true identity.”
When I first started reading the book’s introduction, I came across something like this, “It has almost become a fashion to comment on Mahabharat without understanding the mood of Vyasadeva, the original compiler of Mahabharat. Nor do most people understand Ganesh, the original scribe of Mahabharat. ……………Most importantly they considered Vyasadeva as some ordinary author. When you consider him a mythological figure then everything in this world is fake. However, every single geographical description of the earth in Mahabharat is real. The names of landmasses, many cities and many regions have the same names even today. Where is all this fake news on Mahabharat originating from? From the vestiges of Romans, Greeks, Middle Eastern Historians, Christian Missionaries, Faith-based Cabals, and Islamic academicians have come some ridiculous brave attempts to make Indians not believe in Mahabharat. The mythology brigade has a newfound friend in the left that wants to undermine everything else to spread their neo ideologies.”
The introduction of the book has a variety of knowledge, and every Indian who reads himself as Sanatani will say, “These are my feelings.”
The book’s prologue was written by Dr Ratan Sharda, a well-known Indian TV personality, and author of numerous books. It occurred to me after reading the book’s account of Maharishi Ved Vyas that Maharishi Ved Vyas was the one who compiled the Mahabharat “Vyasochishtam Jagat Sarvam”, a Sanskrit word I’d heard or read since boyhood, presumably translates to the complete knowledge of this world is the leftovers of Maharishi Ved Vyas, and another lyric sprang to mind—“Dharmo Vivardhati Yudhishthirakirtanen”… That is, chanting the name of Yudhishthir causes Dharma to flourish.
After that, I had a lot of questions, like how can Mahabharat be fictional if all knowledge is Maharishi Ved Vyas’ leftovers? What makes Maharishi Ved Vyas a fictional character? What kind of personality would Maharishi Ved Vyas have had? We who follow Sanatan or Hindu traditions are constantly told that Ved Vyas is one of the eight Chiranjeevis (immortals), so how could his creation be fictitious or false? If chanting Yudhishthir Maharaj’s name helps Dharm to flourish, why is his face depicted so weakly? Many such questions began to appear in my mind, but I kept my attention on the book. The introduction’s final phrases will make the reader think, “Vyasadeva is the authority on all Vedic histories and scriptures. Minimising the position of Vyasadeva is the beginning of mythology.”
In this book, the author also outlines the Structure of Mahabharat. For Sanatan Dharm followers, knowing which is extremely important. As soon as I read the first chapter in the main portions of the book, the image I had of Yudhishthir Maharaj, which I had mentioned earlier, was completely demolished. Is this true? was the only thought that sprang to mind. So, until today, which Yudhishthir was I familiar with?
The author’s claim that he is writing everything on the basis of the Sanskrit version of Mahabharat and that it is not a work of fiction has led to this demolition of the previous image of Yudhisthir. Why is Yudhishthir Maharaj crowned Emperor, and why is he still known as Dharmaraj? What was the root of Duryodhan’s enmity? He was the son and the crown prince of Dhritarashtra at the time. What transpired after Yudhishthir’s Rajsu yagya that Duryodhan felt compelled to concoct a Dyut (gambling) conspiracy? These questions can be answered by scholars. But, based on what I’ve heard thus far, the answers are found in the narrative derived from the serial Mahabharat as well as commentaries or translations of the Mahabharat.
Through Dhritarashtr and Duryodhan’s discourse from the Mahabharata, the author has made an excellent effort to clarify the myths, confusion, and ignorance disseminated about Yudhishthir Maharaj. Duryodhan himself explains why he is envious of Yudhishthir Maharaj, and it is in this envy that the great personality of Yudhishthir Maharaj is hidden. If I write in fewer words, after reading the first chapter of the book, Did Yudhishthir love Gambling?, readers will begin hunting for Yudhishthir Maharaj’s portrait in the market to hang in their homes. The meeting/dialogue between Yudhishthir and Maharishi Ved Vyas is also described in the book. Now, how could the Yudhishthir Maharaj, whose glory is recounted by Duryodhan himself, Maharishi Ved Vyas himself used to come to meet Yudhishthir Maharaj, be weak and confused? Do those who follow the Sanatan Dharm reject Maharishi Ved Vyas as well? The author has delegated this decision to the readers, which is a good step.
By citing Ved Vyas, the author attempts to dispel all of the issues surrounding Mahabharat and its events in this book. After reading the chapter Eklavya & Dronacharya, I learned that it was Dronacharya who later made Eklavya a master of archery through his fingers, which I had not known before.
Another chapter of the book, Kanik’s Political Advice to Dhritarashtra, is the hidden jewel of this book, which is vitally necessary for contemporary Sanatanis to read in order to grasp the Sanatan opponents’ crafty manoeuvres. In this 250-page book, you’ll find a wealth of information.
By debunking the myths and misconceptions about Mahabharat and Yudhishthir Maharaj perpetuated by modern historians, mainly Western historians, and Indologists, this book is of great value. This lays the foundation for readers to study scriptures such as the Mahabharat and Ramayan on their own. When generations of Indians are raised reading, hearing, and experiencing these stories, they will no longer consider India’s wonderful history to be mythology, fantasy or fantasy fiction.
The author is a Himachal-based educator, columnist, and social activist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
BOOKS TO LOOK OUT FOR THIS WEEK
A Place in My Heart
Penguin Random House, Rs 499
‘A Place in My Heart’ is a many-splendoured thing. It is a listicle. It is a celebration of the power of storytelling. It is also an account of a life lived in the Bollywood trenches. National Award-winning author, journalist and film critic Anupama Chopra writes about fifty films, artistes, and events that have left an indelible impression on her and shaped her twenty-five-year-long career. Shah Rukh Khan is here. So are ‘Super Deluxe’ and the Cannes Film Festival. ‘A Place in My Heart’ is a blend of recommendations and remembrances, nostalgia and narratives. It is a smorgasbord of cinematic delights, written, as Marie Kondo would say, to ‘spark joy.’ Above all, this book is a testament to Anupama Chopra’s enduring love for all things cinema.
A SACRED JOURNEY: THE KEDARA KALPA SERIES OF PAHARI PAINTINGS AND THE PAINTER PURKHU OF KANGRA
Karuna Goswamy & B.N. Goswamy
Niyogi Books, Rs 3,000
The Kedara Kalpa is a relatively little-known Shaiva text; and only slightly better known than it are the two dispersed series of paintings to which this study is devoted. But both raise questions that are at once elegant and deeply engaging. Ostensibly, they treat of a journey by five seekers who set out to reach the realm of the great god, Shiva—walking barefoot through icy mountains and deep ravines, frozen rivers and moon-like rocks, running on the way into temptations and dangers the like of which no man before them had encountered—and, in the end, succeed. The text is visualised with brilliance sometimes by members of a talented family of Pahari painters.
Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story
J. Rajasekharan Nair
Srishti Publishers, Rs 350
Did you know that the CIA had sabotaged ISRO’s top secret operation to transfer cryogenic rocket technology from Russia to India? Ever wondered what is the real reason why S. Nambi Narayanan does not want the whole truth behind the ISRO spy story to surface? Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was rocked by a spy case in 1994, taking down in its wake six persons, including S. Nambi Narayanan. They were blamed for passing critical rocket technology to a neighbouring nation and booked for the same. Classified exposes the hidden truth behind the spy story and how it highlighted the fractures of our premier institutions. It shows us how the spy case stripped them bare, down to their bones.
Banter and bonding
‘You’re late for work, Kittu,’ Ravi Pant remarked, grave concern on his face, as he took a bite out of his lightly buttered toast. ‘When is she not?’ Shamik added his unsought opinion. ‘Dadu, we should get her married. Get a house-husband for her who would pitch in.’ ‘Because there are not enough duffer men in the house already?’ High BP chimed in calmly. ‘You’re always targeting me, Dadu,’ Shamik whined. ‘Kittu is right. You boys need to start acting your age and take responsibility for yourselves,’ Ravi Pant’s voice assumed a deeper baritone, warning Shamik to curb the nonsense.
‘Hear that, Shamik?’ Kittu glared at the twins, conveying with her eyes that if they helped out a tad, she wouldn’t be so drained. Sometimes she felt like a single mother of four. ‘Better organisation, better planning. Little changes, big rewards. That’s what Kittu Di needs. Learnt that in class yesterday,’ Shamik attempted a wisecrack. ‘I agree, Kittu Di. Better planning is all you need. Otherwise you’re very efficient,’ Nishant didn’t spare her either.
Kittu wanted to punch the boys, but that would be a losing proposition. Instead she opted for a mind game. ‘Nishant, someone called for you while I was cleaning your room. Esha, I think her name was.’ A slice of apple he was about to munch on plopped on to his plate. ‘She said she had accidentally left an important letter in a library book. Said she wanted it back.’ Nishant’s demeanour went from brat-like to pup-like in under a second. A hapless look emerged and stayed put. He pleaded with his eyes to keep his secrets between them. She smiled slightly in agreement, pleased with the dice rolling in her favour. ‘Kittu Di, I know you’re late for work. But could you please stop by the dhobi and check on my trousers?
I need them for a party tonight,’ Shamik was lazy and incorrigible.
‘You want a good spanking?’ ‘Who wants a spanking, ever?’ Shamik mocked. ‘Unless, you know, it was me asking someone on a romantic night,’ he winked and added so softly only she could hear. ‘Shut up. You’re so cheap.’ ‘What? I’m talking about Bark Twain.’ Bark Twain jumped to his feet at the sound of his name. ‘Who’s the bad boy? Who’s the bad boy?’ Woof, came the response. ‘The bad boy is our Mehul Malappa,’ High BP handed out his verdict, helping himself to a generous serving of oat bran cereal. ‘His father should have trained him before allowing him to run for chief minister. And what is all this nonsense he keeps tweeting?’ ‘Bauji, it’s just facetiousness that creates a sensation on social media. Bad leaders the world over are resorting to it.
Why blame the poor kid? And please, watch the sugar,’ Ravi pointed at the cereal bowl High BP had just filled to the brim with cold milk and cereal. ‘It’s not just bad leaders. It’s bad journalists too. I read what your respected Mr Verma tweeted on the marginalisation of minorities yesterday. Despicable it was.’ ‘Also the truth,’ Ravi retorted, helping himself to some ketchup, which he smothered on his omelette. ‘He’s your boss, not your god. You can call a distasteful tweet a distasteful tweet once in a while. I’m glad I did.’ ‘I don’t treat him like a god. It’s not like a public sector bank where you blindly worship authority.’ ‘There’s a fine line between worship and respect. It’s definitely not the private company culture where everyone’s on a first name basis. You wouldn’t know.’ High BP was at it between mouthfuls of cereal. ‘Can you pick up a different variety? I don’t like this,’ he ordered Ravi, pointing at his bowl. ‘Respect in the guise of—’ Ravi had developed selective hearing just like his father. ‘Wait, what do you mean you’re glad you did?’ ‘I’m glad I gave your Mr Verma a fitting reply. Will set him straight,’ High BP announced smugly. ‘You gave a fitting reply to my boss?’ The hand that held Ravi’s omelette-laden fork stood frozen in the air. So did his mouth, a few inches away from the fork. ‘Sure I did. It was nasty but fitting. He asked for it.’ ‘On Twitter?’ It was a futile question, but Ravi still posed it, hoping against hope. ‘Arre bhai if he wrote on Twitter where else would I retort?’ 110 Parinda Joshi ‘Bauji! You don’t even have a Twitter account.
‘Bauji! You don’t even have a Twitter account.’ ‘So? The iPad does. I used the Twitter icon on it.’ Ravi buried his red face in his palms, then ran a hand through his hair. ‘That iPad is MINE. It’s got MY Twitter account. Do you realise you just wrote a nasty retort to my boss using my name?’ ‘So what? Tell him it was your father. You wouldn’t dare anyway.’
The excerpt is from A House full of Men (HarperCollins India).
THE HAUNTING TALE OF A GRAND CITY AND ITS WOMEN
‘The Begum and the Dastan’ takes you on a journey. It masterfully develops and conjures the scene, transporting you in time and allowing you to become a part of the lives of its characters.
Tarana Husain Khan, whose book The Begum and the Dastan (Tranquebar) goes back to the year 1897, when in the princely state of Sherpur, Feroza Begum, beautiful and wilful, defies her family to attend the sawani celebrations at Nawab Shams Ali Khan’s Benazir Palace. When Feroza is kidnapped and detained in the Nawab’s glittering harem, her husband is forced to divorce her, and her family disowns her. Reluctantly, Feroza marries the Nawab, and is compelled to negotiate the glamour and sordidness of the harem.
This is a book that takes you on a journey. It masterfully develops and conjures the scene, transporting you in time and allowing you to become a part of the lives of its characters.
Dastangoi has its origins in the Persian language. Dastan means a tale; the suffix -goi makes the word mean “to tell a tale”. In the bazaar chowk, Kallan Mirza, a skilled ‘Dastango’, spins a hauntingly familiar tale of a despotic sorcerer, Tareek Jaan, and his grand illusory city, the Tilism-e-Azam, where women are confined in underground basements. As Kallan descends deeper into an opium addiction, the boundaries of fantasy and reality begin to blur.
And in the present day, Ameera listens to Dadi narrating the tale of Feroza Begum, Ameera’s great-grandmother. Confined to her house because her parents haven’t paid her school fees, Ameera takes comfort from Dadi’s story.
As her world disintegrates, she is compelled to ask herself if anything has changed for Sherpur’s women. The author also mentioned a few crude details about child marriage and love slavery.
Inspired by real-life characters and events, The Begum and the Dastan is a haunting tale of a grand city and its women.
The book tells three parallel stories: Feroza Begum’s life; the Dastan, which is full of ‘Aiyyars and Tilisms, Paris and Princes’, and is narrated by a character within Feroza’s story; and the frame story, which takes place in 2016-17 and attributes the tale of Feroza Begum to a young girl being narrated by her grandmother. One of the book’s standout features is the presence of a ‘Sher’ in each chapter.
You’ll really like to know how Feroza lived her life, her ideas and goals, and her death in this brilliantly researched novel. You’ll be amazed at how much emotional involvement the author has made in the ancient tale.
Apparently, since it was intended as a cautionary story for young girls, it makes you feel stifled and vulnerable at the same time.
The 19th century “Nawabi’ culture has been meticulously researched and presented by the author.
If you try to find out about the metamorphosis of Feroza’s character—how she starts to “accept” the circumstances with the Nawab, and if a modern reader would be comfortable with that, Khan asserts in her book that the protagonist’s options were limited by her predicament. She was confined to the Nawab’s harem and her family had abandoned her.
How did a woman in the late nineteenth century deal with such circumstances?
It might be difficult for the “modern” or “feminist” person to understand her actions. Tarana didn’t want Feroza to be a modern woman dressed in ancient clothes. She also didn’t want to project these sensibilities onto Feroza’s character. In fact, she had to restrain herself from putting her words and thoughts into her persona. She belonged to a certain time in history, and her actions and thoughts had to mirror those times.
The prose is beautiful and almost surreal, and the characters shimmer with such excellence that it’s difficult not to admire them.
The author, who has weaved two timelines into the book, insists that at the core of The Begum and the Dastan is the question of patriarchy.
To begin with, Tarana was focused on writing Feroza Begum’s narrative, but because of her first-hand experience, the issue of the plight of the female child in small-town India had been plaguing her.
Ameera, who lives in the present era, wonders if anything has changed for young girls today.
The author wants her readers to ponder something other than Feroza’s predicament. Feroza’s anguish went unnoticed, and life remained hidden beneath the palace’s grandeur and glitter. The suffering of women, patriarchy, and regressive practises intended towards women, which were prevalent in the period, still exist in society now. It’s structured in such a way in the book that you’ll be overwhelmed with feelings and fury.
Patriarchy has an impact on young girls in Indian households by limiting their image of themselves and placing physical limits on them. As a result, Ameera’s existence is a modern counterpart to the life of the veiled Begums and their limited possibilities. This intertwined tale of women who lived in separate eras and universes but whose fates converged in the same way will undoubtedly make you uncomfortable as well as relatable. The author did an excellent job of writing this piece of history, which many were unaware of in a very profound way.
While reading this novel, you will realise that Feroza’s story is not the only one that has disappeared from the pages of history and whose voices inhabit oral history. There have been women who have had an impact on political decisions and cultural developments but are rarely mentioned in cisgender male histories. This book deals with those characters mostly. Unfortunately, not much has changed for women. To make this a complete book, the author has done an incredible job of combining fiction and history with a delicate hand of imagination. The story lives with you long after you have read it.
Dr Tarana Husain Khan is a writer and cultural historian. Her writings on the oral history, culture and the famed cuisine of the erstwhile princely state of Rampur have appeared in prominent publications such as scroll.in, Eaten Magazine, The Wire and in the anthologies Desi Delicacies (Pan Macmillan, India) and Dastarkhwan: Food Writing from South Asia and Diaspora ( Beacon Books, UK). She hosts and curates a website on Rampur culture and oral history. She lives between Rampur and Nainital with her husband.
Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bangalore-based Management Consultant, Literary Critic, and Co-director of the Kalinga Literary Festival. You can reach him at email@example.com.
BOOKS TO LOOK OUT FOR THIS WEEK
AN ATHEIST GETS THE GITA
Galyna Kogut, Rahul Singh
Rupa Publications, Rs 295
‘Will this make us happy?’ This question troubles 25-year-old IIM graduate Anveshak Jigyanshu, an investment banker in Singapore, as he meets his two-decade senior Charan Saket. Their conversation reminds the reader of the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Anveshak, a self-proclaimed atheist, is mesmerised by the compelling arguments put forth by Charan as they both explore the world of science and its limitations, what proof means, the dilemma of ethics and finally, what real and everlasting happiness is. In a way, Charan explains the essence of the Bhagavad Gita. Slowly turning from a disbeliever to one who accepts logic, Anveshak discovers the key to his question.
In a tightly gripping narrative, the authors gently persuade the reader to relook and understand the essence of the Bhagavad Gita in the modern world. This book will change the way one looks at happiness.
THE COMMONWEALTH OF CRICKET
HarperCollins India, Rs 499
The Commonwealth of Cricket: A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind is a first-person account of this astonishing transformation. The book traces the entire arc of cricket in India, across all levels at which the game is played: school, college, club, state, country. It presents vivid portraits of local heroes, provincial icons, and international stars.
Cast as a work of literature, The Commonwealth of Cricket is keenly informed by the author’s scholarly training, the stories and sketches narrated against a wider canvas of social and historical change. The book blends memoir, anecdote, reportage and political critique, providing a rich, insightful and rivetingly readable account of this greatest of games as played in the country that has most energetically made this sport its own.
The Happiness Trail:
A Road Map to Success
HarperCollins India, Rs 299
We live in a fast-paced and highly competitive world. The last few years have seen changes not witnessed in centuries. Have all these developments increased our sense of well-being? Data seems to suggest otherwise!
The Happiness Trail shows us an attainable, contextual way to achieve two seemingly complementary goals, happiness and success, that we many a time discover to be contradictory.
In The Happiness Trail: A Road Map to Success, Ramesh Venkateswaran lays down five easy-to-follow approaches to a happy and successful life, which he calls the five I’s: Integrity, Interact, Involve, Imbibe and Impact.
Armed with this road map, the ever-elusive happiness seems within reach and success a natural consequence.
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