Land of Marvels

…by Barry Unsworth.

Set in the early 1900s, a British archeologist, John Somerville follows his life’s dream to uncover the Assyrian civilization and spends a few years in vain heading an excavation in Tell Erdek. Somerville’s desperation hits a high level as he runs out of funds and is still unable to justify his hard work so far. After three seasons of digging at that site, he finally finds a piece of ivory statue and hopes that that’s the start of him discovering something much bigger. What proves as a roadblock to him now in achieving his goals is the German railroad that is to be built through his work site – it makes him anxious every time he hears of any news of the railroad construction’s progress. As Somerville is caught up and too focused on discovering the past and bringing to light a civilization, he remains unaware of the other things that go on around him. Everyone seems to have a secret agenda of their own, which is all unveiled with time.

What attracted me to this book in the first place was its front cover. As I read through the summary and realized that it’s on a subject that I’ve never read before, I didn’t think twice before wanting to give it a shot. And I can now say that I wasn’t disappointed a bit. The story has so many angles to it – politics, love, betrayal, tragedy, science, history, and even a little bit of religion at the end. And all of this comes together as a well woven tale surrounding Somerville and his aim.

What I found very distracting at times was that there were way too many details about the characters pasts or about archeology in general that didn’t really apply to where the story was heading…the former bored me a bit, while the latter helped in learning something new. I felt that the first half of the novel was very slow paced. It took me quite few days to get through that, while the last part took me only half the time. If you lose interest while reading the first part, it might be hard to push yourself to read through the second half, which is where most of the story actually happens. So don’t give up way too early, if you are to get your hands on this book.

Overall, an interesting novel that comes recommended if you want to read something based on archeology specifically, although there is much more to the story than just that.

My rating: 4*.

*for the rating scale, click here.


Chanakya’s Chant

… by Ashwin Sanghi

Two thousand years ago , there existed this brilliant king-maker, economist and tactician. After his father’s murder under an egotistical king, he made it his life’s purpose to unite Bharat into a single sovereign under a worthy ruler. He was VishnuGupta , better known as Chanakya ,the son of Chanak. In an unstable Bharat which is facing the imminent threat of the invincible Alexander , the comprising kingdoms are busy fighting among themselves leaving their subjects to the mercy of the Gods. Chanakya identifies potential in the son of the chief army general and takes it upon himself to make ChandraGupta the ruler of Bharat. He plots mercilessly to meet this goal. He brews trouble between kingdoms , manipulates many people and tweaks a lot many circumstances to achieve this aim.

In the present day we have Pandit Ganagasagar , a lowly history teacher , who learns the rope of politics and vows to counter the corruption , poverty and waywardness plaguing India. He finds a suitable candidate in young Chandni Gupta. While grooming her for the post of the Premier, he works very hard to build a new political party and garner enough support to wield power at the central level. He employs a repertoire of political gimmicks like manipulating oppositions , blackmailing high-placed officials and even smoothing international relations!

The book basically comprises of two stories narrated in a parallel manner to the reader ,of course each of them pausing at tantalizing moments. The protagonists are wily teachers who do not want to hold the reins to great power. As Chanakya guides ChandraGupta , Gangasagar grooms Chandni for the highest power in India.  What follows is a series of cleverly plotted events that ultimately leads to success in both the stories. The pitfalls and the master-plans are detailed in a very realistic and well researched manner. The games of politics and the idea that every event can be controlled is laid bare in front of the reader. But the best thing about the storylines are that instead of each of the gurus mirroring each other, we have both of them coming up with different but suitable plans for their wards advancement in their present eras. This makes for a lot of unpredictability in the story and good thrills for the reader.

Political intrigue is the crux of the book. Being straight and naive will not get you anywhere , the author seems to say. One has to manipulate every circumstance and luck plays zero part in these games. If you have strategized well enough then everything will definitely go through your way. Necessary sacrifices for the greater good are ruthlessly made in the stories. Just as Chanakya gives up his love for the country , Gangasagar does not tolerate anyone who tries to tarnish Chandni’s reputation.

Reading this review you may get alarmed at the ruthless power hunger , but these king makers do not, for one minute, forget that they are doing this for the good of the country and the society , to bring in a ruler and a time which the common man deserves. This aspect , I must say, has been beautifully captured by the author.  This may not be the best of the books I have read , but kudos to the author for the masterful plot and the obvious research of current and ancient politics. The events in the book are very much plausible and give a true insight of a real life power struggle.

A definite must read.

My Rating – 4

The White Tiger

…by Aravind Adiga.

The story is about Balram, born in one of the poorest villages in India, the Darkness, as he calls it; he is forced out of school to work in a local tea shop. As the boy realizes that he is no good at helping out in the shop, he decides he wants to learn driving to become a driver. And he goes on to achieve his goal…a local taxi driver teaches him driving for a price and then Balram finds a job as a driver to one of the landlords’ family from his village. Eventually, he moves to Delhi with the landlord’s son, an American return.

What happens in Delhi, how Balram grasps the master-servant divide that is prevalent all over the country, how he gets fed up being the servant and plots bigger plans, how he goes from a driver in Delhi to a rich entrepreneur in Banglore, what all he sacrifices, what gruesome acts he does in order to achieve his ambition to become that business man…all that constitutes to the rest of this interesting tale. Sometimes intriguing, sometimes witty, the book delves well into that big divide of classes, the rich and the poor, in India.

I have mixed feelings about the book, mostly negative.

While, I can say that the author keeps language and the narration simple and storyline was somewhat interesting, there was some level of depth lacking to the story.  The author paints a good picture of all the characters, sure. But I found it hard to connect with any of those characters. While I did feel pity for everything Balram had to go through, I couldn’t get myself to understand why he would go to the level of killing his master…the one he repeatedly says he liked and was faithful to. Yes, the reasons were given as to why he did what he did, but that wasn’t compelling enough to justify his acts, I felt.

So yeah, I can’t say it’s one of the best reads ever.

If you watched Slumdog Millionaire and didn’t like the storyline because you thought it portrayed India in a negative way, then this book is not for you. It has many similar elements – the corrupt politicians, the dirty slums (and the westernizing cities), the heartless criminals, the I-will-do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-ahead (even murder) attitude, the exploit-the-poor mind-set, etc.

Overall, an ok novel with a good narrative…that’s about it.

My rating: 2*.

*for the rating scale, click here.