Shelf Control #63: Coromandel by Charles Allen #History #Non-fiction

Wednesday the 31st of October–time again for Shelf Control, the last one this month. Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, simply pick a book from your TBR pile and write a post about it. Link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks!

This week my pick is a non-fiction title and a recent acquisition on my Shelf, Coromandel: A Personal History of South India by Charles Allen. This was first published in 2017 and I recently acquired a hardback when it was on sale.

One can I think, describe this one as both a history and a travel book as this isn’t merely the author narrating a history of the Coromandel Coast (the southeastern coast of the subcontinent) but visiting and exploring, “the less well-known, often neglected and very different history and identity of the Dravidian south”. The book explores various facets of the region going into archaeology, religion, linguistics, and anthropology to look at its people, places, and life, and also the influence on the region that came from the North, ultimately showcasing not only the past but also the present. (The final chapter I can see is a commentary on more current events.) The book’s ten chapters, introduction and ‘endnote’ have early illustrations and photographs as well as those taken by the author, besides maps.

I thought this would be an interesting read for me since I haven’t read history or travel books focused on this region. One is familiar with the broader history from more general histories of the country and school lessons but this one being focused on part of the South rather than the region as a whole, and being told from one person (the author’s) personal perspective would I think make it different from an ordinary history book. (Another book I read somewhat on these lines where history is told but with the author’s personal interests, perspective, and story woven in was The First Firangis by Jonathan Gil Harris which I enjoyed very much (review here).) (I also like the cover very much.)

The Author: Charles Allen, British historian and author, has written several works (over 20 books) on India, the country where he was born and where several generations of his family served under the British Raj. Among other subjects, he has written about Kipling, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the West’s discovery of Buddhism, and Mount Kailas.

Have you read any history books on India? Which one/s and would you recommend them? Did they change any views/perspective you had based on school lessons or otherwise? Any other books (whether or not focused on India) which are written from the author’s personal perspective that you enjoyed? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Information on the author and book are from the book blurb and Goodreads (here and here).

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.

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!