Archive for the ‘History’ Category


Tracing India’s Geography, Historically

Review of The Land of the Seven Rivers – A Brief History of India’s Geography; Sanjeev Sanyal; Penguin Books 2012; Rs 399; pp 331

– Shana Susan Ninan

A non-fiction book that looks into the history and geography of a sub-continent, across centuries, across cultures and times. An author who passionately weaves history, geography into the readers’ urge to discover more about the past – especially that of India, Pakistan and other areas of the sub-continent.

Sanjeev Sanyal does the work of a historian, presents his book with details and nuances, and leaves the reader with much enthusiasm to read up more on the topics covered. And this isn’t your average history tome I’m talking about. In fact, there’s a lot of veiled history, details that were never taught in school history lessons, and quite a bit of humour. But what excited and appeased me the most was the fact that Sanyal has personally visited several historical and religious sites across the Indian sub-continent. He didn’t just Google information and images for the Asokha Pillar and then include the same in his book. Such dedication from an author’s side shows he or she isn’t just looking at publishing a book that people will read, but in making sure the facts in the book are at least close to the truth, and also that the author is passionate about the topic he’s chosen to write about.

Heavily touching upon the history of India’s geography, her civilizations and her cities, the ancient trade systems and routes, the appearance and vanishing of animals, motifs and peoples across the nation, conquerors and the conquered, gene pools in India, India’s influence in Southeast Asia, the changing cityscape of the country, etc. Sanyal gives you more than just a bird’s eye view of India.

Irving Finkel’s book, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood deals with The Flood that finds plenty mention in Sanyal’s work. Sanyal explains several possibilities of the myth and also how it came to be included in the Bible, the greatest propounder of the event. Another issue that piqued my interest was the presence of ‘beef-eating culture’ in the Rig Veda, common among the early Hindus of the Indus area.

This is a book that a contemporary traveller across India would find useful on his trips. Neat chunks of history that’s palatable and lingering.

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Rating: 5.7/10 (6 votes cast)

Delhi – City of Forefathers

Review of City of Djinns – A Year in Delhi; William Dalrymple; Penguin; pp 350

– Shana Susan Ninan

The city of Delhi, rather Dilli as old-timers recall, has been plundered, ruled over, built and rebuilt several times in the last few centuries. As a writer myself, I love to read works that evoke emotions in us: joy, pain, separation, empathy, elation, anger, or just about any feeling that we come across in our daily lives. The author evokes several of our human emotions by cutting across the language and culture barriers, and weaving together the history of the city of Delhi. His insightful first-person accounts and jaunty narrative stays in our minds much after we’ve moved onto another book.

I met Dalrymple for the very first time at the first Kovalam Literary Festival in 2008, by which time I’d read two of his books. A down-to-Earth, approachable author is what I’d call him. He read from his book, Nine Lives, which is one of my favourites. This book, too, to a certain extent is about the lives of people, communities and races. Starting with the taxi driver Balwinder Singh and Dalrymple’s own landlady, Mrs Puri, he paints the picture of the Indian Partition. He brings out the nuances in each character’s life – whether it’s a behavioural pattern or a communal feeling.

His digs at Indian English and its usage is quite a laugh. Visiting Delhi for the second time – first time with wife, though – he travels widely within India and abroad, talking to politicians, poets, princesses, sufis, taxi drivers, clerks, Britons, anglo-Indians,  and others, inviting us to be a part of his colourful journey. The conversations with those of the British raj era are interesting, different points of view elaborated nicely.

He and his wife track down several ancient palaces, monuments, bungalows and residences  that are now used as governmental offices, revealing their then glorious past. Although the text is history-heavy at times, the seamless flow of storytelling is his masterpiece. Adding to the theme of the various stories are the black and white water colour renderings.

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Rating: 6.5/10 (6 votes cast)

Chronicling Fort Kochi’s History

Review of Fort Kochi – History and Untold Stories; Tanya Abraham; Ink on Paper; Rs 350; pp 108

– Shana Susan Ninan

Published in 2009, journalist and writer Tanya Abraham’s Fort Kochi – History and Untold Stories chronicles several years of history of this part of the city. Surely a handy guide for locals and tourists alike, it engages us with historical details as well as relevant personal anecdotes and incidents. She has researched well, with first-hand information from her grand uncle K.J. Hercshel, who was a well-known figure in Kerala politics, to put across the history of the town in a story-like manner.

The book is divided into eight major sections. At a time when the city is under the spell of the Muziris Biennale, ‘Kodungallur and Cochin’ takes us back to the time before Christ when Muziris, present day Kodungallur, was a sprawling seaport, which traded with Rome, Israel, Greece, China, Arabia and other areas of the world.

‘Writings and Record on Muziris’ and ‘Flood of 1341 AD and Rise of Cochin’ tells us how Muziris wound to a slow death while Kochi flourished in its new fame. Located at the mouth of the mighty Periyar River, the port was inundated in a flood in 13 AD, was rendered useless. Muziris’ loss was Kochi’s gain, so to say, because Kochi now developed as a major port. All trade moved this side, and the city was the hub of commerce – spices, silk and many other items were traded from here. Abraham quotes several historians and travellers who have visited Kochi and was mesmerised by it. By and by, the city also changed its topography according to the traders and travellers who visited it.

The arrival of the ‘Paradesi’ White Jews to Kodungallur after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem is what Abraham starts with in ‘Fort Cochin in Focus’. The rise of the Jews once they move to Kochi, prominence of Konkanies and Mapillas, and close resemblance of the life of the Mapillas’ to that of those in Arabia are all mentioned here.

‘Portuguese in Cochin: 1498 AD to 1662 AD’ portrays how the Zamorin of Calicut welcomed Vasco da Gama and his crew in 1498 AD, helped them establish trade relations and allowed Pedro Alvares Cabral’s stranded men to continue living in Calicut and to make a life there. Sugar, spices, cotton and jewels were traded from here. The Portuguese gain importance in their allegiance to the Zamorin as well as the raja of Cochin, alternatively, and this helps them to move to base to Cochin, whose influence can still be seen today. Intermarriages and forced conversions to Christianity find space in the book. It is interesting to note that in 1545 the largest library in Asia was located here in Cochin!

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Rating: 8.6/10 (11 votes cast)

No Matter What You Write, Write With Your Heart

Review of Ammi – Letters to a Democratic Mother; Saeed Akhtar Mirza; Tranquebar 2008; Rs 295; pp 385

– Shana Susan Ninan

There might not be exactly a thousand tales in Saeed Mirza’s debut novel, Ammi – Letters to a Democratic Mother, but it sure did remind me of reading A Thousand and One Nights. Stories from his parents’ and grandparents’ lives, his own dilemmas and desires, and tales from contemporary life take the form of dialogues, narrations and soliloquies in this story.

Exquisitely crafted like a Persian carpet, the words flow into the readers heart like fine woven silk threads. Easy to understand, but thought-provoking when intended. The book spans various generations, countries and communities. It comes right up to post 9/11 when a lot of questions about Muslims and Muslim heritage were brought up, with some still left unanswered.

The imposing black and white photo on the cover serves as a gentle reminder that Ammi, Saeed’s mother is the centre of the novel. And, rightly so – the letter written to her is very strong in its tone, guided by the author’s relationship with her. Her belief in democracy and things modern is the faith from which she drew strength. Her lack of knowledge of fluent English and Mirza’s shortfall in the Urdu language are really not benchmarks in deciding who is more modern or not.

National Film Award winning screenwriter and director Mirza has deftly used various forms such as short story, lyrics, couplets, travelogue, memoir and diatribe to bring history to life. Mirza himself refers to this book as a “tossed salad”. Here’s a part of a particular story I enjoyed reading:

Who were these people opposing the war? They were Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Taoists, Buddhists, Jains, Atheists, Communists, Animists and Anarchists. …never before in the history of the world had so many people, believing in so many different philosophies and faiths, come together on a common platform. …they were the majority of the people of the world. They were people like you Ammi. They were people who never made the headlines but reach out to each other beyond the divide of race, language, religion and culture.   

Some tales reassure our faith in mankind and humanity, some pose questions in our minds, some prod us to find answers to queries, while some encourage us to continue believing in values and morals we have acquired over the years, as individuals and as families, and then as communities and nations.

The books ends with an interestingly-written screenplay by Mirza himself – as you draw to its close, you’re reminded of many instances in the novel itself.

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Rating: 6.8/10 (8 votes cast)

Historical Sketch Of The Dutch Presence in India– ‘De VOC India’

How has the Dutch, who ruled various ports and cities of India, influenced them? What is the impact of their rule in Kerala’s architecture, religion and culture? What is the reach of the Dutch rule in the country? Answers to these questions and more can be found in Bauke van der Pol’s yet-to-be-released book, De VOC in India.

This Dutch historian traces the influence of the Dutch on India and Indians during and after their 150-year rule (1615 to 1800, approx). Photos, rich text and detailed information make this a great read. Out of 25 chapters, a whole chapter is solely dedicated to Dutch history in Fort Kochi, a coastal hold of the Dutch in Central Kerala.

On his visit, van der Pol was amazed to see the names of streets that were once named in Dutch –Rose Street (Roose Straadt), Lily Street (Lelij Straadt), Napier Street (Heere Straadt) and so on. There were supposed to be seven bastions in Fort Kochi. Some are still in use – the Bristow Hotel (Holland Bastion), Thakur House( Gelderland Bastion), Bastion Bungalow (Stroomburgh) and Bishop’s house (Bastion Zeeland). Some houses, too, have been preserved in their Dutch style. A visit to Vypeen Island revealed the use of Dutch surnames.

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Rating: 9.8/10 (4 votes cast)

Roar, oh Tiger, For Thy Voice Should be Heard Far and Wide

Review of The Tiger Ladies – A Memoir of Kashmir; Sudha Koul; Beacon Press – U.S. and Hodder Headline – U.K. (2002); pp 228

– Inshah Malik

Sudha Koul was born in Kashmir. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Political Science from the University Of Jammu & Kashmir after which she taught Political Science at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi. Koul then joined the government when she became the first woman from the state of Jammu & Kashmir to be selected as an officer of the Indian Administrative Service. After marriage she moved to the United States and raised a family. Sudha Koul’s memoir The Tiger Ladies travels in time. In 228 pages, it makes a ‘Kashmiri’ out of you. It narrates the lives of people in the 1947 era till her being the third generation, and her horrors of staying and working as a single woman in the government offices in India. Also her life in the USA, which raises her identity questions of her Shavaite beliefs and makes time for her to seek answers in the form of this memoir.

The excellence and simplicity with which the complex subjects are dealt with is simply mind-blowing. The simple and pristine life of Kashmir valley as an upper class elite Pundit woman sees it is a heaven of its own kind.

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Rating: 6.3/10 (8 votes cast)

Will To Win

Review of Flight To Victory; Richard Hough; Dutton Juvenile; 1st edition April 30, 1985; Hardcover: 170 pages

– Shana Susan Ninan

Going through stacks of old books at a sale, I came across this book that said “Just for boys”. Richard Hough’s Flight To Victory can be read by both the genders, I found. And what a captivating book this is. Belonging to the young adult category, this book has Will (William Thompson) as the protagonist and narrator.

Hough’s stint at the Royal Air Force comes through in Will’s life at the Royal Flying Corps, which he joins at the tender age of 16.

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Rating: 6.7/10 (14 votes cast)

Happy Diwali Folks!

The day is about to end. But for most of us who celebrate Diwali, or Deepawali for some, the night is still young. I gave up burstin’ crackers long ago – yep, I did love them, but I hate the thought that 97% of them are handmade by pre-adolescent kids – and so I go up to the terrace just to see the city all lit up! The sight is lovely, I must admit.

Diwali is celebrated for various reasons in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other Asian countries. The main one being the celebration and lighting up of homes and temples to receive Lord Ram back to his loving people and country.

When someone asked me to refer books on Diwali for children, I sadly noticed that most of the books explaining the importance and relevance of the festival were written by westerners! Not that their writing and portrayal are any bad, but still…. We’ve been celebrating this festival grandly for scores of years now, and only a handful of Indians have written about it! Hmmm…. hint, hint.

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Rating: 7.0/10 (3 votes cast)

Out From The Shadows

Review – Themes In The Indian Short Story In English: An Historical And A Critical Survey; Murli Melwani; Prakash Book Depot 2009; pp207; Rs 175.

– Shana Susan Ninan

Interestingly, if we look at the chronology of story telling, man started writing short stories and penning down folktales way before the longer novel was even thought of. In that case, the short story is the parent, and the novel the step-child, a 360-degree turn on how both the genres are viewed today. Murli Melwani’s Themes In The Indian Short Story In English: An Historical And A Critical Survey is an expansive examination of the history and themes of the Indian short stories in English and the patterns that emerge from them. The book’s divided into six sections, plus one on the prospects of the short story in English in India, at the end.

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Rating: 8.8/10 (11 votes cast)

History, Love And A Bit Of Intrigue

During each of my travels to Kodagu, from where my mother hails, I discover something new and interesting about the place. As the language of the place, Kodava Takk, doesn’t have a script almost all the history of this beautiful hilly district of Karnataka is recorded in the form folk songs and lyrics. When someone writes stories or novels about the place, I’m overjoyed! I gotta get my hands on this one:

Victoria Gowramma – The Lost Princess of Coorg by C.P. Belliappa reveals much about Kodagu’s history as it does of England’s.

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Rating: 7.8/10 (5 votes cast)