Challenging Destiny: A Biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji; Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran

I was looking forward to this book, after the author’s historical fiction debut. That one was a well-researched book, but the dramatisation in the fiction wasn’t to my liking; it was trite, and often unimaginative.

Challenging Destiny: A Biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji is a non-fiction book by the author, and is a very well-researched book. It refers to many of the various biographies of Shivaji that are in circulation and makes extensive use of extracts from these books. As the author tells you early on, Mehendale’s biography of Chh. Shivaji is the primary source for this book; needless to say, this book borrows heavily from Mehendale’s biography.

4136rg1qgkl-_sx332_bo1204203200_I was a bit surprised that the author has chosen to use an academic (in-text, APA) form of citation, rather than using endnotes of footnotes, especially given that there are numerous direct quotes from other authors. Perhaps, because of this, the texture of reading seems uneven, at times. There are times in the book, where references (like the definition of a gaon, mauja, and kasbah), are completely out of place, irrelevant, and do not fit in the narrative at hand.

Overall, for someone who does not know the life and times of Chh. Shivaji, it is good first book, which covers his life and career, fairly well. For someone with a more serious interest in history, there are other biographies.

I return to my pet peeve. This book is published by The Write Place, the publishing arm of Crosswords. It is a sorry state of affairs in Indian publishing where copy-editing isn’t given the importance it deserves.

It’s not oddicers, its officers. Not tilted, but titled. And, definitely there isn’t a word called agreeded.

Decline And Fall Of The Maratha Empire; Dr. M. S. Naravane

As far as understanding where the seeds were sown for the decline of the Maratha Empire, and even the roots of the eventual confederate nature of the Marathas, this is a wonderful book.

29740758I couldn’t help thinking, however, that Decline And Fall Of The Maratha Empire does an unintentional disservice to the achievements of the Marathas after the Shivaji era. And I say unintentional with much seriousness. As may be obvious from the title of the book, this book is an analysis of the decline and the fall. It assumes, but not explicitly, that the reader has more than a general awareness of the history of the period between the mid 1600s to 1818. If you pick up this book, without the background to this period, this book will come across as grossly critical, negative, and utterly depressing. Needless to say, that is not the author’s intention.

It perhaps needs pre-reading; on the lines of Rise of the Maratha Power, by Justice MG Ranade, or a similar book that describes this period’s history that is comprehensive and well-rounded.

While it is clear that the intention of the book is not to specifically shine light on the darker side of this history, it is a topical book. The reader should bear that in mind.

The analysis itself, is very well done. It is clear and well referenced. It is not a very long book, and the references are a treasure trove, if you are history nerd. Dr. M. S. Naravane writes clearly, unambiguously, with a good sense of the chronology of the start of the decline, and covers some of the not-so-obvious aspects of the issue.

Highly recommended if you are a student of Maratha history. One star removed, for some references which felt gossipy.

Halt Station India; Rajendra B. Aklekar

It has been years since I’ve read a book in two sittings. This one is it. “Unputdownable” doesn’t quite cut it.

Halt Station India, is a historical biography of the arrival of trains in Bombay. And while sketching this biography of the arrival, birth, and establishment of the locomotives in Bombay, Mr. Aklekar tells you another story, incidentally. That of the Bombay. And he tells it lovingly.  Very lovingly.

I’ve always loved trains and I’ve always loved this city. So, you can imagine, this book made twice the sense for me.

halt-station-india-original-imaefqdav64cru5s16th April 1853, the first passenger train service in India, plied from Byculla to Parel, and the rest, they say is history. Well, this book is about the rest. And of all the events that went in to make this service a reality. The entire narrative that led to this first service, right up to the Mumbai local trains of today, Mr. Aklelkar tells the fascinating story, smoothly, and proudly. There is extensive research backing up the story, but is never obtrusive nor does it affect the flow of the narrative.

The trivia, especially of names of places and such, is total treasure. But unlike other books, Mr. Aklekar uses trivia, not as a filler, but to build proper context, helping the reader visualise the changes that this great city has undergone over the years. I confess, I have started seeing my city completely differently.

It is also a very human story at the same time, lest you may take this wonderful book to be a drab, chronological sequence of the evolution of trains. Mr. Aklekar has taken the care and the effort to bring forth the people and their stories as he takes us on this rail journey.

Like a master craftsman, Mr. Aklekar has weaved art, architecture, emotions, technology, travels, trains, names, places, people, and spaces. Needless to say if you love trains or Mumbai – this is a great read. Even otherwise, this is an easy and an enjoyable read for all of us who like stories.

Mr. Aklekar, easily is the custodian of the heritage of railways in Bombay, And I am glad for it.

City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi; William Dalrymple

Somewhere deep down, I feel sure of one thing: I am far from being the only one who picked up this book to know more about Delhi. The title is catchy; and it does draw you in.

9780143031062Having a bit of interest in history, I knew the broad strokes of the city’s history. I was hoping there would be more, in the book. I was mistaken. Apart from a couple of historical trivialities, it wasn’t very helpful, from a historical standpoint.

But I got to know the author, very well. Since it is categorised as a “travel book” the lack of a story of Delhi, is easily cast aside. Nothing to begrudge there. Somewhere after fifty pages or so, I didn’t expect to find any history in the rest of the book, but I continued, now, with a renewed interest in what Mr. Dalrymple thought and saw, of Delhi. The rest of the book is all about selective appreciation and a sense of wonderment. Very skilfully, the author picks up personal characteristics of a few people and paints a story of an entire community. In spite of the over-brush of humour, shades of disgust are visible. The shield of objectivity is broad and strong, and useless if someone’s standing beside you.

The story, and I don’t mean the history, is scattered carelessly, and that one trip to Scotland, while in Delhi, is long drawn, draggy, and dreary. Somewhere towards the end of the book, it’s almost as if, the author was reminded by the editor, to write something about Delhi.

Suddenly, we travel in light-speed through prehistoric and mythological times, from the pre-Islamic era. For that part, the author does not find any resources. For everything else, he always finds someone who has a friend who has a friend who provides the best documentary evidence. The last few pages were finished in such haste, you end up dizzy, when the book is done.

Apart from knowing the loosely linked experiences of man’s year in Delhi, there’s nothing worth, in this book. Unless, of course, you are interested in understanding how adjectives and other devices can be used to make a statement, without ever saying it. That is the only reason, perhaps, I give it an extra star.



The Afterlife of a Manuscript; Emily Levine

A delightful read for people with interest in History, Art, WWII, and peculiar stories of this world. Oh, yes, and if you have seen “The Monuments Men“, you’ll like it. (If you are curious enough)

Historians would like to think that they ground their narratives in all available evidence, and that their conclusions, as a result, have epistemological credibility. But we are only as defensible as our evidence, and that evidence determines what stories we tell.

via The Afterlife of a Manuscript – The Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Spice Route; John Keay

If you like big themes in history, this is a book you should pick up. I’ve read a couple of books by John Keay in the past, and he does good justice to history-telling. Needless to say, this is the history about the spice trade. The focus is on sea-trade rather than the silk route which was the overland trade route. And just the like the silk route was not exclusively about silk, the spice route is not exclusively about spice.

In The Spice Route, John Keay has spent considerable time on the origins; he brings in ample humour, intrigue and often changes the texture from a lofty to a specific event. The prose is dense but rarely unclear. The granularity of the matter can be jarring at times and makes you keep Wikipedia and Google Maps open in two tabs. The trivia, especially of the origin of words, people, and material, is interesting.

I was personally hoping for some more detail about the place of the Indian subcontinent in the history of the spice trade. While the geography often gets mentioned, I would have liked to see more specific historical references. The details are biased to Europe and South-east Asia.

By virtue of the trade and the diffusion of material around the world for a long time, and in complex ways, Keay explores the impact of this trade on society and the lives of people. The novelty, rarity of a spice, which inherently is of little worth, has within it, the capacity to affect the economy of different regions in almost opposing ways, is an interesting reflection of trade in contemporary times. At the end of the book, the sense of pride — this belongs to us — comes under scrutiny. What’s ours came to us many years ago from a foreign land; what’s theirs really moved from here to them ages ago.

After three or four chapters, the number of characters that enter the stage are too many. The places are plentiful and it can become a challenge to keep track. I found myself flipping back and forth a number of times.

To stay through the end of the book, you would need a good amount of interest in the subject. And while it’s filed under history, it’s really about economics, culinary interest, diffusion, and immense movement of ideas, people, and material for thousands of years.

The Lessons of History; Will & Ariel Durant

6940427This is the right book to read, to get a context of history. For an amateur historian like me, it provides the appropriate context to understand history beyond the chronology of events and people. The Lessons of History, by Will & Ariel Durant is a collection of twelve essays of history in different contexts. Race, earth, religion, war, economics, and such. Each essay looks at the role and impact of these contexts in history, in a relatively simple way, which, however, is not simplistic or reductionist. It has in it some very thought-provoking quotes (which I think I will be quoting for a long time now) which are quite relevant in today’s times. In fact, the entire book, written in 1968, is relevant even now. If you like philosophy of history, this is a definite read.

Frontiers of Karma: The Counterstroke; Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran

I really, really wanted this book to be amazing.

frontiers-of-karma-the-counterstroke-400x400-imadyqbnwftv6pgrIt did start with some promise, I will admit. Deeper into the story editorial fatigue seems to have set in. Without doubt this is a tough history to fictionalise, but this is not the first time it has been attempted (perhaps the first time in English). And any historical fiction brings in a bit of the author and her imagination no doubt. That is what a reader signs-up for, when he picks any historical fiction. Yet, when I consider the possibilities for this story, it fell short.

The book is more of a festival of adjectives, than anything else. Too much of looking at the skies and too many types of clouds. The focus of fictionalising is on embellishments and not the story.

Most of the rating of this book was shaved off because of the typos. In a book of 400 pages, a couple of typos, though unacceptable, is understandable. But after you lose count, especially of typos that can be corrected with a simple spellcheck, it simply makes you sad. Spelling mistakes break the flow of reading; distract attention, and displace you from the engrossed state that a reader should be in. I felt that the author, editor, and publisher have not taken enough care for a book that could have had a huge impact in the historical fiction genre.

I hope the following two books (it’s a trilogy) make for better reading than this one, especially with the spellings.

The History Manifesto; David Armitage, Jo Guldi

23218890Generally a good read, if you don’t mind the academic style. The theme is compelling, for sure, however, the book is too broad-based for my liking. Perhaps that’s the message of the book, come to think of it.

I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed the book, yet I cannot say I disliked it either.

As an amateur history enthusiast, there are many parts of the book that fail to leave an impression. Also, the repeated references to climate change were uninteresting.

In fact, if you do not want to go through the book, read the introduction — it provides a very good overview of what the book is all about, and should satisfy an amateur’s understanding of the three approaches that the book talks of.

In conclusion, I think this books is written for a very specific audience; and it’s not me.

Land of The Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography; Sanjeev Sanyal

Land of The Seven Rivers: Sanjeev Sanyal; Cover ImageOne of the extremely rare times, when I bought a book because of its cover. The title and the subtitle — I discovered eventually — is misleading. The subtitle is more interesting: “A Brief History of India’s Geography,” and the cover photo even more so, a stylised map of India, depicting the major rivers in the entire country. It turns out that the seven rivers in the title refer to the Vedic Sapta-Sindhu, not the rivers of the country. Major rivers in the peninsular region are barely find a mention in the book, if at all.

I’ll admit, I should have know better.

If you pick up Land of The Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography imagining it to be a treatise on India’s geography based on all its major rivers, you would be mistaken.

Progressing through the book, somewhere in the middle, I had this uncanny feeling of what lay ahead. A sense of predictability loomed. The book was beginning to sound less about the history of India’s geography and more about the geography of India’s history, mapped, in an uninspiring time-linear fashion, dotted with historical trivia to capture the oft dwindling attention of the reader. Even the trivia is relegated to a “did-you-know” status than seamlessly weaved in the main narrative. The good intentions of the author notwithstanding, the geographical references are basic and sparse. Plenty of locations find a mention, but it has less to do with geography and more with historical events. Further they are directionally skewed to the east and the north of the region, due, in no small measure to the fact that that’s where the author hails from and lives in, respectively. Where interesting references to geography exist (and there are a few) the context is global, or meta-regional, rather than regional.

The texture of the writing is quite uneven, sometimes academic, sometimes narrative, sometimes opinionated, and interspersed with parenthetical sarcasm being passed off as wit; the reading experience is rough, and even bouncy at times, as quick sweeps are made between eras. The granularity of the writing is jarring.The many disclaimers in the narrative lead me to believe that the author knew that this needed to be a larger book, to do any justice.

Almost every section in the book proceeds in a specific direction, and concludes with an end-of-the-day disclaimer by the author, saying, “I don’t mean to imply…” If the author intended to  create a “both sides of the story” narrative, this is hardly the way.

This book will serve well for someone who is looking for an over-generalised, trivia-laden, and an event-skimming history of the region. For them, this is a perfect book.

For the serious reader of history, this is definitely worth a skip.