Love, Valour, and Some Reflections on Human Nature

The Glove and the Lions by Leigh Hunt seemed an apt choice for my poetry post this month, a ‘fit’ with my theme of ‘Kings and Queens’. There are after all, two kings in it–King Francis whose realm Hunt takes us to, and the lions, kings of their own realms, though in the human arena, they are mere prisoners, at the receiving end of much ill-treatment, and objects of ‘entertainment’ for their captors, rather than living beings.

The poem by Leigh Hunt immediately transports the reader into a world back in time, a world of kings, queens, and knights, of chivalry and courage, but also of things that weren’t the best part of that world. The poem is set in an arena, where a battle between lions has been organised, to ‘entertain’ the court, with King Francis, ‘a hearty king‘ who ‘loved a royal sport‘ sitting down to watch among his nobles, who include the Count de Lorge and the ‘one for whom he sighed‘.

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Picture: Pompeii: Battle at the Amphitheatre

Source:By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The scene down in the pit below may well have been a ‘royal sport’ but even picturing it in one’s mind, and the image that Hunt’s description conjures up, for me is very much like the Roman arenas–and while there aren’t any gladiators here,  animals are being made to fight each other, and there is obviously pain, and injury, and in all likelihood (though not explicitly mentioned) blood. These five lines of the second stanza that describe the scene down in the pit, bring alive the sights and sounds that one would have witnessed and heard–the blows, the thunderous roars, the sand, and froth–taking us right there amidst King Francis and his nobles.

“Ramped and roared the lions, with horrid laughing jaws;

They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams, a wind went with their paws;

With wallowing might and stifled roar they rolled on one another,

Till all the pit with sand and mane was in a thunderous smother;

The frothing foam above the bars came whisking through the air;”

 

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Painting from the Amphitheatre: Man with a Lioness

Source:By Unknown – mQFpkLIpgXBDjw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29859501

Thinking about this scene makes one wonder what pleasure human beings could possibly get or what makes them get any pleasure from watching others (human or animal) fight each other, cause each other hurt–what makes them ‘enjoy’ others’ suffering? And is fighting the only way might or superiority or strength can be proved? And why really does it have to be proved?

But of course, the role of this scene in the arena in the poem is very different, probably not so much intended to make us reflect on humans and blood sport but more to set the scene for that other aspect of human nature that the poem is really talking about–vanity, supposed glory–valued by so many above feelings that really matter in the end. The scene down in the pit, the roaring lions, the froth, and blows are simply meant to convey the danger down below, King Francis remarking at the end of that second stanza, “Faith, gentleman, we’re better here than there“.

Count de Lorge’s beloved (we aren’t given names) however, seems to think otherwise, or at least value other things much above the love the Count has for her, for she has no qualms asking ,or rather quite literally challenging de Lorge to go down into the pit by throwing her glove down there, asking him to ‘prove his love‘ and bring her ‘great glory‘.

“She thought, ‘The Count my lover is brave as brave can be;

He surely would do wondorous things to show his love of me;

King, ladies, lovers, all look on; the occasion is divine;

I’ll drop my glove to prove his love; great glory will be mine.”

 

knight 2

 

And so she does. de Lorge is not lacking in valour, certainly and immediately as he receives her ‘challenge’, not expressed in words, but simply conveyed by a look and  a smile, he unhesitatingly and in a flash jumps into the pit, and retrieves her glove. But, wait! things do not quite turn out quite as the lady had envisioned. For the Count is not only brave but able to see the lady’s action for what it is. So fittingly,

“He bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:

The leap was quick, return was quick, he has regained his place,

Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the lady’s face.”

The spell the lady has held over him thus stands broken, for while he might have loved her, she seemed to love glory more, and ends up receiving just the response she deserves. King Francis approves his Knight’s action:

“‘By Heav’n!’, said Francis, ‘rightly done!’ and he rose from where he sat;

‘Not love,’ quoth he, ‘but vanity, sets love a task like that.'”

So while Leigh Hunt takes us into the world of long ago, of knights and kings, of valour, chivalry, and of ‘royal’ sport, what he’s really showing us is human nature, leaving us with a couple of thoughts that make us question why we consider ourselves so very superior to other life, when we derive pleasure, even glory, from causing pain or danger to others (human or non-human); how we can claim to be ‘civilised’ when such (or at least some form of) blood sport continues even today; how we can claim to be ‘better’ than other creatures when all we value much of the time is fame, glory, (wealth), and power?

 

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Shelf Control #2

Shelf Control
Shelf Control, a feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies every Wednesday is all about celebrating the books waiting on one’s TBR. It involves simply posting about one book on your TBR and telling everyone a little about it, when and where you bought it, and what makes you want to read it.

This is my second week participating in this feature, and the book that I’ve chosen to share this week is Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.

Ballet Shoes

Subtitled, ‘A Story of Three Children on the Stage’, this one tells us of three orphan girls adopted by the same family, Pauline, who longs to be an actress, Petrova, who loves playing with cars and engines, and Posy who is happiest dancing all day long. They try to help their new family by joining the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, and vow to make a name for themselves. But little do they realise just how much hard work, and practice, practice, practice it will take. Published in 1936, this was a runner up for the inaugural Carnegie Medal. Illustrated by the author’s sister Ruth Gervais.

My edition: The 70th anniversary edition by Puffin books (it doesn’t specify the year).

When and Where I bought it: This was last year, from a second-hand online book shop.

Why I want to read it: Because I have read so so much about Streatfeild and about this book in particular. Because it sounds like a wonderful children’s story (which are especial favourites of mine), and because this isn’t a fairy tale but a story of real life where things aren’t always easy.

Interesting fact:  I remember hearing of the ‘Shoes’ books in You’ve Got Mail, but what I learnt much later was that all of Streatfeild’s writings weren’t ‘Shoes’ books. Ballet Shoes was so popular that many of her subsequent books were titled ‘shoes’, though their original titles were very different, and they have no connection with Ballet Shoes (except that they all come from Streatfeild’s pen, of course).

 

 

Review: Hidden Variables

Hidden Variables

My thanks to Netgalley for a review copy of this book. I picked this one up, while it does contain some paranormal elements, because of the description of the book which included the words ‘witnesses a murder’, and ‘to catch a killer’, and the combination of visions of the past and future and a murder mystery sounded an interesting read.

 

This is the story of Sophia Leto, who like the other members of the Leto family has certain ‘gifts’―the ability to look into the possible future, or rather various possible futures, and people’s memories of the past where they are especially strong, and to use that information to prevent untoward outcomes, and perhaps ensure a certain outcome which is seen to be good for the world. Sophia’s case is however, different from the other members of her family for while the others have been seeing visions of people they don’t really know (as has Sophia), she is very much a part of that future to come, and will have a role in changing the course of things, positively or negatively. As a result, Sophia is seen as a ‘freak’ by some of her fellow students, and it is only with her friend Annie that she can share what she is going through. Besides these visions, another vision that she’s been getting is of a boy, a fellow student at school named Avery, whose mother was robbed and murdered two years ago, which mystery still remains unsolved. There is some role that Avery must play in the future which is not clear to Sophia or her family yet, but as a result of the state of affairs, he is inclined to suicide which Sophia must prevent, and at the same time solve the mystery of what really happened to Avery’s mother. Sophia has much more at stake in all of this as her own future is also involved besides of course, that of the wider world. Alongside are some other-worldly spirits (not quite sure how I should describe them), the Thirteen, who have gone through some problems of their own in their world but who are now looking out for the earth’s future, and guiding Sophia and others to reach the ‘right’ outcome. Of them, we essentially meet one, Ahrl, who seems to have some of the same visions that Sophia does.

 

This was very different from my usual kind of reading because of the supernatural aspects, but I quite enjoyed reading it―one reason probably was that while this world does have its supernatural elements, it is also one in which the characters try to find explanations through science. Sophia’s father works at CERN (her mother at a hospital) and this is where she intends to get to herself, her interests lying in physics, and using this to explain what she and her family can see. It is a struggle of course, considering others can’t and won’t be able to understand this, and so they must always tread with caution. The other was of course that this was a murder mystery, and that element I felt was pretty well done because while one does get some clue that things are not what they seem at first glance, I couldn’t tell how it would turn out. Sophia herself is a really likeable character—she’s intelligent, has her head firmly on her shoulders. I enjoyed how Avery dealt with the girls who bully Sophia but also liked the fact that Sophia had the maturity to simply ignore them and not give way to anger. Despite all of this happening I also liked how the author dealt with the whole idea of visions and the future—that it isn’t as such anything definite but a whole host of possibilities, any of which may come to pass depending on the choices people make. Some aspects though (some characters as well) didn’t entirely make sense to me (this could have had to do with my reading), and I felt more explanation was needed. I only realised later that this was a prequel, and since I quite liked the plot and characters, I am interested to see how the story progresses (haven’t read book 1) and how things really turn out for the characters in the future.

Author Profile: Emily Eden

Emily Eden (1797-1869) is an author I might never have ‘discovered’ had it not been for a photo sent to me by a book friend of one of her bookshelves–and it wasn’t for the books on it that she’d sent it (but the knick-knacks). Anyway, since I have to look at all the books in bookshelf pictures, I looked at this one too and a Virago ed to two of Emily Eden’s books caught my eye. I found that these were available in public domain so downloaded and read them, and loved them. Later I discovered that these are the only works of fiction that Eden wrote but they are wonderful reads and well worth a visit.

Emily_Eden.jpg

The Author

Image source:  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Eden belonged to an aristocratic family, the daughter of William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland, and sister of George Eden, who was Governor-General in India between 1835 and 1842. In 1837, George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland, undertook a two-and-a-half year tour in the northern provinces of the country with a twelve-thousand-strong entourage, with hundreds of camels, horses, and elephants, accompanied by his sisters. (Incidentally George Eden did not have the most successful stint as Governor General, complications in Afghanistan bringing about his downfall. Return of a King  (2012) by William Dalrymple goes into this part of history, and is another book I want to read sometime.)

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George Eden

Image Source: by Susanna Hoe, Derek Roebuck (1999). The Taking of Hong Kong: Charles and Clara Elliot in China Waters. Curzon Press. p. 105. ISBN 0700711457. (Online: Google Books), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9940288

Anyway, back to the point, as a result, Emily spent time in India, where she travelled with her sister Fanny, and her letters describing her time there including descriptions of local colour, ceremonies, as well as political developments. Some of her letters are available in public domain through project gutenberg. Up the Country is one volume of her letters where she describes her time in the country, and this one’s on my TBR, and I am very much looking forward to reading it. Here’s what Goodreads has to say about this:

With an unfailing eye for the eccentric and picturesque, Emily Eden describes in her delightful letters the extraordinary experiences encountered in life on the road in early eighteenth-century India.

But what really made me choose her as the ‘author’ to write about this month were her two works of fiction. The Semi-detached House (1859) and the Semi-attached Couple (1860). The Semi-attached Couple (written in 1829 but published much later) is the story of the Douglases and their titled neighbours the Eskdales. Two of the Eskadale girls have married well, and the third Lady Helen has accepted Lord Teviot but feels the latter is ill-tempered while her fiancé finds her a little too attached to her own family (which is the reason behind his attitude). The marriage goes through but misunderstandings increase, and bring things to breaking point until fate intervenes. Other characters, Helen’s friend, Miss Mary Forrester, and Helen’s brother, Lord Beaufort have their own share of misunderstandings, and as the story progresses we see whether and how these clear up. While the overall tone and writing of the book is humorous and witty, the theme is the more serious of the two books, dealing with breakdown of relationships because of misunderstandings (and lack of communication) and a little because of age (Lady Helen is very young) as well. A New York Times review  describes it in these words:

It is a sophisticated psychological drama played out in pleasant country houses, at dinners, on visits, through letters, in witty dialogue and with clever commentary.

–Phyllis Rose, ‘Taking up Where Jane Austen Left Off’ (1982)

Still overall this was a read that I enjoyed a lot and which left me feeling more pleased than sad or upset. The characters are likeable, and Mrs Douglas (who fancies everyone but herself is unhappy and morose) and Lady Portmore (who likes to think every man in the Kingdom admires and blindly follows her), in particular, rather entertaining.

 

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Virago book cover

The Semi-detached House, which also in a way carries on with the themes of misunderstandings and first impressions (First Impressions was the initial title of Pride and Prejudice, wasn’t it?) but in a much more light-hearted tone and setting than the former. In this one, Lady Blanche Chester moves into a semi-detached house by the sea with her sister while her husband, Arthur, Lord Chester is away on diplomatic work. Lady Blanche is dreading her neighbours, the Hopkinsons who she believes would be odious.

“They call themselves Hopkinson,” continued Aunt Sarah coolly.

“I knew it,” said Blanche triumphantly. “I felt certain their name would be either Tomkinson or Hopkinson-I was not sure which-but I thought the chances were in favour of Hop rather than Tom.”

–Emily Eden, The Semi-attached House

On the other side, the Hopkinsons, who have heard rumours that Lord Chester’s mistress is moving into the other side of the house, are horrified. But the misunderstandings are soon set to rights with Blanche discovering that the Hopkinsons may look like she’d expected but are actually old acquaintances of her husband and very nice, genteel people, while the latter discover the truth. Blanche is kind-hearted, but a hypochondriac and given to an exaggerated imagination, which ensures that there are more such confusions and misapprehensions along the way in this fun story which also has its share of romance.

 “My dear child! what is the matter?”

“All sorts of things, Aunt Sarah. In the first place, I am very ill-Aileen has sent for Dr. Ayscough. Now, just hear my cough.”

“A failure, I think,” said Aunt Sarah, “an attempt at a cough rather than the thing itself.”

–Emily Eden, The Semi-attached House

Emily Eden is often recommended for fans of Jane Austen, and one can see shades of her characters, for instances Mr Bennett in Mr Douglas (and in his observations, though these aren’t as caustic as the former’s). Her writing and witty observations once again make one think of Austen. That she admired Austen is clear since she mentions this in the Semi-attached Couple, besides also mentioning Pride and Prejudice, through characters in the book.

Besides her writing, Eden also had another talent–painting/drawing–this I only discovered while looking her up to write this post. She captured portraits of various rulers, and also of more ‘common’ people she encountered in India, published as a book Portraits of the Princes and People of India. While last month’s ‘author’, Henry Cecil, fit into my reading theme of Lawyers and Books, I thought I’d write about Eden even if she didn’t fit the theme of  Kings and Queens, but she seems to have managed to do even that, through her artistic talents and portraits of the many kings that she made. Here are some samples of her work.

775px-Raja_Hindu_Rao,_brother_of_the_Baiza_Bai,_the_wife_of_Daulat_Rao_Scindia_of_Gw.jpg

Raja Hindu Rao

Image Source:By Emily Eden (British Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

shere singh

The Maharaja Shere Singh

By Eden, Emily [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

L0021825 A zemindar or farmer and a puthan a famous wrestler

A Zemindar or Farmer of the Upper Provinces and a Puthan, a famous westler

Image Source: By Emily Eden after: Lowes Cato Dickinson (images.wellcome.ac.uk) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Ranjit_singh_by_Emily_Eden.jpg

Ranjit Singh

Image Source: By emily eden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I started writing this post, I wasn’t sure if I’ll have very much to say. I chose to write about Eden because I’d enjoyed her books but there were only two that I could write about. But writing this has helped me discover so much more about her–author, traveller, artist, and historical figure, and a very interesting person.

If you haven’t read her books so far, do try them (they’re in public domain, her books have also been published by Virago). I certainly am going to revisit them, and also read her letters from India (though I don’t expect these to be very PC). After learning so much about her I know they will be interesting to read. When I do, I certainly will post my review here.

Sources

Eden, Emily: https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eden-emily-1797-1869

Emily Eden on wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Eden

George Eden on wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eden,_1st_Earl_of_Auckland

‘Emily Eden’s Memoirs from a Strange Land’:http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/59669/7/07_chapter%204.pdf

Book Review: Prithvi Vallabh

I haven’t usually been sharing my book reviews in general on this blog, but this book really stood out to me for many reasons, so here is my review. This also appears on goodreads.

Prithvi.jpg

There’s this Hindi TV show called Prithvi Vallabh running currently, and when I saw the adverts initially (still haven’t seen the actual programme), it looked interesting and on looking it up further I found that there was a book by the same name in Gujarati, based on the same historical characters. What made me more interested in reading this was discovering (a little later) that the K.M Munshi who wrote this book, was the same Munshi who’d served as member of the Constituent Assembly (and who I came across quite often as a result in college courses) and later as minister. The version I read was of course not Gujarati but an English translation brought out by Bhartiya Vidhya Bhawan, and translated by H.M. Patel.

This is described as a historical romance and based on some surviving verses of a twelfth-century poem, as well as a fourteenth-century verse. The story is basically that of Munja, the brave, and handsome king of Malwa who has defeated Tailap of Manyakhet on sixteen (or was it eighteen?) occasions. But finally, with the help of Bhillam, Tailap’s feudatory King, now forced to serve as a mere general under the latter, Munja, also known as Prithvi Vallabh, the ‘beloved of the earth’, has been defeated and brought as prisoner to Manyakhet. Mrinalvati, Tailap’s older sister and de facto ruler of Manyakhet is keen on punishing and bringing to his knees, Munja, who she views as a sinner, who has insulted her by mentioning her in verse (but this bit—how or why–really never becomes clear). But when she actually meets and interacts with the enchanting, Munja, a man who is no ordinary mortal, she ends up falling in love with him. Alongside runs the story of Vilasvati, Bhillam’s daughter (who is engaged to Satyashray, Tailap’s son) and Rasnidhi, a poet who has been captured along with Munja and his armies.

While this is a ‘romance’ as described, and there are elements that could be seen as usual for the genre, this story captured my attention from the very beginning because of how different it was from anything that I’d read, and especially keeping in mind when it was written (1921). For starters, as a historical romance, I was expecting teenaged or just-out-of-their-teens heroes and heroines (many of the stories I’ve been reading lately seem to fall into this category) that one ordinarily encounters, in such stories and, while there were those, here were some completely different and unexpected characters. Mrinalvati, our heroine, is forty-five, a woman who was widowed at sixteen and for whom life has been all about austerity, controlling her emotions, barring out any form of joy or pleasure, a life that in her view is right and that she has imposed on all her kingdom, including young Vilasvati. This means no laughter, dancing or singing, no poetry or poets, only wars and prayers, and meditation. Then again, she is described on more than one occasion as ‘ugly’ and ‘greying’―so both a rather complex character, and very different from the typical heroine. But Mrinalvati is not the stereotypical heroine in yet another way, and that is that it is she who wields power in her kingdom, these are questions that weigh with her when she considers a possible life with Munja. Munja or Prithvi Vallabh too, describes himself as about to be fifty, and is Mrinalvati’s polar opposite, on the one side he is happy to experience anything and everything—ups, downs, love, hate, victory, defeat—and on the other, he lets nothing bring him down or distress or upset him in any way, in some ways rising above emotions much more successfully than Mrinalvati and her kin who observe an almost ascetic lifestyle and yet are keen to get revenge, to humble their enemy. Mrinalvati learns through Munja to actually love, and that love cannot be taken away from one, no matter what happens. Munja is in some ways a too-good-to-be-true hero, with perfect looks and demeanour, allowing nothing to frazzle him, in a way not a very human or real character but considering he as he is in the book is from a twelfth century poem, one doesn’t mind so much. On the other side, Vilasvati, who has been brought up under Mrinal’s guidance, and thus tries to supress any emotion, is also exposed to new thought and ideas and poetry, a new way of life through her interactions with the poets, particularly Rasnidhi, who have accompanied Munja and whose release her father has secured. Incidentally, there are plenty of references to poetry, and I read later on wiki that these were poems from around about the right time period.

So while this is a romance, or two romances, it goes into much more in a way, the whole notion of love (in its ideal form), of joy and happiness, of ways of life, being human with all your emotions and pleasures versus being or attempting to be stoic, even the importance of art or poetry or such, and all of this through the story itself, rather than being addressed in a ‘narrator’s’ voice.

This read, which again falls within my theme of Kings and Queens, was a really interesting and unusual read, with so much that stood out, and I am very glad I got to read this. I am keen to explore more of Munshi’s works and hope I can find translations.

Shelf Control #1

Shelf Control.jpg

Shelf Control is a feature that I’ve picked up from Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and the graphic/picture is from there as well. This feature is all about celebrating the books that are already on one’s shelves, waiting to be read. So you write about what the book is all about, when you bought it, what made you buy it. Posts on this feature go up every Wednesday.

So the book I picked to kick off my participation in this feature is Snobs by Julian Fellowes.

Snobs cover.jpg

Snobs is the story of Edith Lavery, the only child of a middle-class accountant, ‘an English blond with large eyes and nice manners’, who ‘bags’ one of the most eligible bachelors of the day, Charles, Earl Broughton, heir to the Marquess of Uckfield, thus entering the world of the aristocracy, a world very alien to her, and so very different from one that she’s been brought up in. On the other hand Charles’ family isn’t too thrilled with the match, be his mother ‘Googie’  who is convinced that all Edith wants is the title, or his brother-in-law Eric Chase (who happens to come from the same background as Edith). What does life among the aristocracy really turn out to be like? Does Edith manage to navigate her way successfully and “fit in” or does she find it too hard to handle, especially since the marriage turns out to be very different from what she (in fact, both she and Charles) expects?

Snobs is Fellowes’ first book published in 2004, and the edition I got is Phoenix Fiction, 2005 (not the cover in the picture above).

When  and Where I bought this book: Last September; a second-hand copy from an online book shop.

Why I bought it: I’ve heard good things about this book, and the description sounded like fun. Plus Fellowes being the creator of Downton Abbey (something I really enjoyed) made me want to read it more.

Have you read this one? What did you think of it? Do let me know! (This feature will be back next week with another book.)

* The description I’ve put together from the blurb at the back of the book, Goodreads, and wikipedia.

Review: Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

I first heard about The Letter for the King when I happened to watch bits of the film version (Dutch with subtitles) on TV some time ago, and when I noticed the book on NetGalley, of course I couldn’t resist putting in a request. My thanks to Pushkin Children’s Books and NetGalley for a review copy of this title. This was written by Dragt in 1962 and the translation I read is by Laura Wilkinson, published by Pushkin Children’s Books which according to the blurb at the back of the book brings out children’s books old and new, from different languages and cultures.

letter for the king cover

This was a lot like the book I last read (Band of Soldiers―teen heroes in times past, thrown into adventure and danger) but still a very different story, and of course in a very different place. Of course, this was part of my theme reads this month, the Kings here being the fictional kings of Dragonaut and Unauwen. Sixteen-year-old Tiuri with five other, slightly ‘older’ young men are about to be knighted by their King, the King of Dragonaut. The rules of the kingdom require that they spend the night before the ceremony locked up, in quiet contemplation, without food, water, or talk, and without letting anyone in or themselves out. But when a stranger knocks at the window seeking help, Tiuri breaks these rules not only opening the window but going out to the stranger’s aid. At first his task seems simple, to deliver a letter of importance to the stranger’s master, the Black Knight with the White shield, which Tiuri thinks he can complete and be back before the ceremony, though there will be some explaining to do. But when he finds the Black Knight with the White shield has been tricked and murdered, and the Knight, before dying hands over his task to Tiuri to complete, he realises what he must do will neither be quick nor simple. He must travel all the way to the kingdom of Unauwen to deliver the secret message to the King himself. Not only is the journey hard enough in itself, in pursuit of Tiuri are the Red Riders, responsible for murdering the Black Knight with the White shield, and also the Grey Knights who suspect Tiuri of the foul deed. Along the way, however, some misunderstandings clear up and he meets various people, in the forest and the cities he visits, who are more than willing to help him accomplish his task even if he can’t tell them what it is. But there are also dangers aplenty, and traps as many along the way, and Tiuri must avoid falling into these traps or being defeated (or indeed dissuaded) by the dangers if he wants to keep his word to the Knight and complete this task.

knight-armor-helmet-weapons-161936.jpeg

Image source: Pexels

At a little under 500 pages, this is not a short read but one which was very enjoyable for me. It may not feel as fast paced as one would expect from an adventure story but keeps one interested throughout, for while one might well know that Tiuri will accomplish his task at the end, one does want to know how he does it, and what each adventure he falls into along the way holds for him. Tiuri is a likeable character, believable as a young lad out on an adventure, doing what his heart tells him, yet regretting the Knighthood that he has lost and may never get again, and the same can be said about his friend Piak, who also finds himself at one point having to decide between two things he seems to want equally. While we may not face those very same questions, the kind of decisions they are faced with and must take, and the lessons they learn along the way are relevant for everyone in whatever age and situation.  (In fact there is quite a bit of wisdom hidden in there―no not the preachy kind). ‘Villains’ seem to lurk around every corner to bring young Tiuri down but they too are not all of the same shade, as one will see, and some can surprise one. The menacing ‘main’ villain of the piece though is only one shade and very well done. Tiuri may not have been made a knight at the start of his adventure, but his courage, loyalty, and even tenacity show that he is one even if he doesn’t have the title.  I enjoyed the world of knights and kings that this book took me into (and incidentally, now I finally properly understand what a Knight errant is―no I wasn’t entirely clear so far).

knight 3

Image source: By Paul Mercuri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This was also one of the few books I’ve read (there must have been others, though honestly I can’t think of one at the moment) where the return journey (though obviously shorter than the adventure itself) is given some space and doesn’t pass by in a blur. In it, old friends are met again, some explanations given, and some promise of ‘romance’ (like in the Band of Soldiers) is seen. I also liked the artwork, which decorates the pages between ‘parts’ of the book, very much. This is a combination of shadows/silhouettes and something like the spray feature on paintbrush (sorry again for my terrible terminology describing this) but I liked the effect the artist achieved―oh I just looked and the illustrations are by Dragt herself, something I hadn’t noticed at the beginning.  Dragt, incidentally, as Wikipedia tells me, is considered “the greatest Dutch female writer for children”. I look forward to reading more of Dragt’s books and also exploring Pushkin’s other titles. Four and a half stars.

Children’s Book of the Month: Band of Soldiers by Sardindu Bandhyopadhyay

The first of my ‘theme’ reads this month (my reading theme is here), and this ‘King’ in question in this one is the Maratha warrior–king Shivaji, who ruled in the latter part of the seventeenth century. More about him here. This book, originally Bengali was written by Sardindu Bandhyopadhyay, a screenwriter (for both Bollywood and Bengali cinema) as well as writer whose best known creation is perhaps his detective Byomkesh Bakshi, who with his Watson, Ajit Bandhyopadhyay solves some very interesting puzzles. Bandhyopadhyay (Sardindu, not Ajit) also wrote historical fiction, ghost stories, and children’s fiction. I read the translation in English (Penguin, 2005) of Band of Soldiers by Sreejata Guha, whose translation of one collection Bandhyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries, Picture Imperfect I’ve read earlier.

Band of Soldiers

(Penguin, 2005)

Shivaji took on, among others, both the Mughals and the Bijapur sultanate, and established his own kingdom at Raigarh. This story is set in the time when Shivaji and his band occupy the fort at Torne, and are fighting essentially the armies of the Bijapur Sultan, whose vassals include at that point, Shivaji’s father Shahji. The story is told from the perspective of sixteen-year-old Sadashiv, who is thrown out from his village of Dongarhpur where he has been living with his uncle, to go and fend for himself. He decides (partly at the suggestion of his friend Kunku) to go and join the band of the brave Shivaji.  He not only does that, but once trained as a soldier, he proves himself a brave and clever aide undertaking several dangerous missions like infiltrating the enemy camp, delivering messages in enemy territory and to people not so easy to reach, even outwitting dacoits, besides playing an important role in helping Shivaji fulfil his plans. There is also a little touch of ‘romance’ for Sadashiv but saying any more would just be a spoiler (but it does bring him some further adventure). The book is in the form of five connected, yet separate parts, each a complete adventure in itself.

The_coronation_of_Shri_Shivaji

(The Coronation of Shivaji)

Image Source:By Chitrashala Press – http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/1600_1699/marathas/raigarh/raigarh.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18970994

Band of Soldiers made for a fairly fast paced and exciting read, which I enjoyed very much. Sadashiv is a likeable ‘hero’, courageous as well as resourceful, with presence of mind to do what the situation calls for and accomplish the task which he is assigned to do. I also felt that as the stories go on, we see Sadashiv grow as well―in the sense that while even initially he does prove his intelligence carrying out his missions, in the latter stories, he also comes up with the broader plans himself, when Shivaji’s own don’t work out as expected. He reminded me very much of G.A. Henty’s ‘heroes’, also in the same age bracket, showing similar bravado, and having similar adventures, and of the other book I’m currently reading Letter for the King, which also falls into the same category. I liked how the adventures of Sadhashiv have been woven into the stories of the historical characters, Shivaji, Tanaji, Jijabai and Shahji, among them. Unlike some (not all, of course) other historical fiction where historical characters merely make an appearance, or play a smaller part, in what is essentially the fictional character’s story, in this one, they are very much a part of the fictional character’s story as he is of theirs, and in a very believable way. The book also gives one a ‘feel’ of the period it is set in, from the uncertainty, danger, and want that was the daily life of people caught amidst warring armies, to things like what journeys for someone in Sadhashiv’s position would have been like, or even the kind of food (I always go there) that would have been eaten. We also see Shivaji’s progress through the stories as he captures through war and strategy fort after fort and more territory, on the way to establishing his kingdom. In fact, I read somewhere that Bandhyopadhyay was planning to write more these stories tracing the whole of Shivaji’s reign, but unfortunately didn’t end up finishing this. More about this here.

Sadashiv finding hidden treasure.jpg

(Sadashiv finds treasure: illustration by Dipankar Bhattacharya, back cover of Band of Soldiers (Penguin, 2005) (apologies for the bad picture))

The translator I thought has done a very good job overall, and except at one or two points, one hardly feels one is reading a translation. I also loved the cover illustrations (both front and back) by Dipankar Bhattacharya, and wish that the publishers had thought to include some inside as well. As I mentioned, I’d only read one collection of Bandhyopadhya’s detective stories featuring Byomkesh Bakshi earlier, and this book, in a totally different genre, and indeed a completely different setting (both place and time) proved a very pleasant experience. I really enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to reading his other book By the Tungabhadra (also historical fiction, and available in translated form). Great read!