Book Review – Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen

The Missing Queen by Samhita Arni

All of us grew up hearing about the story of Rama and Sita. And if you have not heard it as a child, you now see it on TV. And read about it. As Ashok Banker himself puts it in his review of The Missing Queen, “Of late, a jungle of mythological retelling seems to have sprouted on Indian bookshelves.”

So is The Missing Queen any different from the usual retelling/reinterpretation of the classics or the itihasas? Ever since I read The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakurani that retells the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view (a must-read, in my opinion), it has been tough to equate any other retelling that has that impact, relevance and a glimpse into what could have been. Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen comes close. But just.

First, the basic details:

Book: The Missing Queen

Author: Samhita Arni

Publisher: Penguin/Viking

Price: Rs 399 (Hardcover)

Pages: 179

Summary:

Ayodhya is shining. Trade is booming, the citizens are prosperous, immigrants are plenty to do the menial jobs, and the media adores the ruling family – Suryavamshi Rama. However, the black cloud that looms over Ayodhya? The ban imposed on the media and the citizens on all things concerned with the missing queen, Sita. The protagonist in the story is a journalist who is drawn to this missing piece in what is marketed as a model kingdom. The “Washerman” is the chief of the secret police in Ayodhya and is said to be “hawk-like” in ensuring that no person lets slip the question – “But where is Sita?”

The journalist does ask the question. To King Rama. On live television. As the camera zooms into his shocked face, the Washerman starts the witch hunt. The editor suspends the journalist, the secret police arrests her and throws her in jail, and the twist comes when her cell mate is none other than the “terrorist bomber” from LLF (Lanka Liberation Front) who tried to kill King Rama on the 10th anniversary of his vanquishing King Ravana, but is captured instead. The LLF stage a storming of the prison and in the confusion that results, the journalist escapes with the terrorist and goes with her to Lanka.

The journalist now gets the opportunity to hear the Lankan’s version of Ayodhya’s crowning moment – the conquest of Lanka. The rape, pillage and the barbaric killing of its citizens by the vanar sena even after King Ravana is killed on the battlefield comes as a shock to her (and to the readers). Leaving Lanka, the journalist now heads to Mithila and then the ashram of Valmiki (Ayodhya’s most prolific historian and the king’s authorized biographer) and finally sees Sita – tired, shoddy, aged, but with two handsome and brave sons. The story now roars quickly into its standard ending – the sons are with the king, and Sita sinks into the earth (apparently) and vanishes without a trace. Or so we are led to believe, until the last chapter.

So what’s the verdict?

While it is unfair to consciously or unconsciously compare a book to another one in the same genre (in this case with the Palace of Illusions), The Missing Queen does slip on the most vital question it asks – what really happened to Queen Sita? In the Palace of Illusions, there is no question left in our mind as Draupadi lays bare the palace intrigue and her personal dilemma and feelings. In The Missing Queen, we get a line here or a hint there on what could have happened. Very frustrating.

While the story is beautifully and imaginatively constructed, with ingenious twists and turns, in the end it still fails to convince the readers as to why Sita had to leave Ayodhya. While we get insights into the fate of women in Ayodhya (as compared to the egalitarian regime in Lanka where women are treated as equal citizens), and interviews with Kaikeyi and Urmila confirm that the queens in Ayodhya are no less than second-class citizens, I would have liked a more compelling theory as to why she went missing. Not rumours, not imagined conversations, not gossip – but a plain theory that explains.

However! But! Nevertheless!

I read it twice. Because Samhita Arni is simply a great writer. And even with the numerous retellings of the Ramayana from multiple points of view (I have read Urmila’s POV via Sita’s Sister by Kavita Kane, and Ravana’s POV via Asura by Anand Neelakantan), Arni does present a very compelling and readable book that reveals a version that potentially could have happened.

My review?

4.0 out of 5 (5 is reserved for The Palace of Illusions!)

So go ahead and read it and let me know your feedback.

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Three reasons why you should read the Srimad Bhagavatham

Krishna quote from ISKCON Desire Tree

If you are reading this blog, then you already know what the Srimad Bhagavatham is. Maybe you have read it already, or planning to read based on what you have heard about it. If Srimad Bhagavatham (SB) is on your bucket list of books to read, then this blog is for you.

Five years ago, all I knew about SB was that it contained a treasure trove of stories about Krishna. I purchased ISKCON’s SB, with A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s commentaries – 18 volumes in all. It stayed on my book shelf in my bedroom, and gathered dust as days went by. On January 15, 2016, I removed the clingwrap on the first Canto, sat down with a book and pen, and my life has not been the same since.

12 months later, I finished the last shloka in Canto 10 (saved the best for the last, as Canto 10 relates exclusively the stories of Lord Krishna!) It is simply impossible for me to explain in words the subtle transformation that happened as I read SB. But before I try and explain why you should read it, here is a quick summary based on my research notes.

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Book review – Paulo Coelho’s The Spy

Mata Hari the Spy!

Heard of Mata Hari? The dancer, the spy and the traitor? Well, so-called traitor? Paulo Coelho creates a magical narrative of Mata Hari’s life, written in the form of a letter to her lawyer. She holds nothing back as she relates her life story from the time she is raped by her school principal when she was sixteen, to the time she is shot down by twelve men from the French army.

But first let’s get the basic details out of the way.

Name of the book: The Spy

Author: Paulo Coelho

Translated from Portuguese: Zoe Perry

Published: 2016

Pages: 186 pages (Hardbound edition)

The basic story:

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Of books and blurbs – poem written 18 years ago!

I do not apologize for this “naive” poem I wrote in 1996……came across this when I was cleaning my desk at work. Nothing thrills (or embarrasses) me more than coming across an old piece of writing! This comes across as so cliched and trite (“merry brook”?), but I am still smiling after reading it half an hour ago….

http://theadvocate.com/multimedia/photos/2178888-133/photos-weekly-gallery-022612.html
Image courtesy: theadvocate.com

Of books and blurbs

Reading a book is like no other,

Even space travel goes no further

I explore within a single page

The entire earth, Man’s bonded cage.

Books are my passion. My addiction.

A never-ending world of fascination.

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The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis

Warning: This blog may offend those who were offended by the book and/or the movie

I do not know the nature of the controversy surrounding the movie or the book. Probably not knowing really helped as I read this book with an open mind. But having read it, I can see why it may have generated controversy!

The Last Temptation is an extraordinary depiction of the inner struggles and temptations Jesus goes through before he succeeds in answering his true calling – that of the Messiah. Not just any other Messiah who leads on Earth through preaching, but the Son of God who has to give up his Life so others can believe.
Nikos Kazantzakis writes simply and elegantly of the harsh life of the Jews under Roman rule, especially in the country side. This fictitious account seems to arise from his own search for inner truth which led him from Freud to Nietczhe to Buddha. One cannot but sympathize with Jesus (and the author too) as he tries to make sense of his visions and inner voices and reconcile them with what his disciples yearn for.
In one of the most telling conversations where the Disciples struggle to come to terms with Jesus’ preachings, John asks in response to his Masters exhortations that the old commandments are no longer large enough – “Does God’s will change then, rabbi?”

Jesus’ reply – “No, John beloved. But man’s heart widens and is able to contain more of God’s will.”

This widening of heart to contain more of God’s will is, to me, the essence of spiritual growth, no matter what religion, faith or dogma we believe in. As human beings, we constantly struggle to understand what God expects (Sometimes demands) of us. God does not ask for a lot – He simply asks we open our hearts to His love.

All in all, a must read for those of you who are looking to expand their horizons, and widen their heart!

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On Alchemists and Lost Symbols

It was sheer coincidence that I read both the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown over the same weekend. I had 2 dental, 1 x-ray, 1 blood test, 2 pediatrician visits, and 2 gynec visits all in the space of 4 days and had plenty of time while waiting for the Doctor to read both of them end to end! No, we are all fine, but it was time for our annual family medical check-ups.

Now for the similarities – both are about searching for a treasure on a physical level and searching for inner meaning and happiness on a metaphysical level. Both dip into the vast wisdom of the ages – the Koran, the Gita, the Bible, the Vedas for infinite wisdom and to explain why things are the way they are. And finally both the books try to explain a complex and complicated concept in simple terms.

This is where the similarity ends. The Alchemist is pure wisdom, while The Lost Symbol is pure drivel! Dan Brown seems to have lost his creativity, his innovative research, and his power of persuasion. I have read every book he has written and while Deception Point and Digital Fortress appeal to me the most, some credit has to be given to Demons and Angels, and to the Da Vinci Code. But what in horror’s name is the Lost Symbol?

On the other hand, the Alchemist survives the test of time even after 25 years. The story is simple, the characters  human, the hero is heroic without any major antics or idiosyncracies, and the story setting is elemental. Each word leads to the next with nothing lost “in translation” and the story moves powerfully and magnetically to the right climax without any false moves. Everything is explained simply and correctly. The conclusion – if you have a dream or the power to dream, everything in the Universe will conspire to help you achieve it.

Wow. Double Wow. Sure, thousands of self-help books and gurus are telling us the same thing. But the Alchemist says it in a way that is deeply touching. And compelling. So go ahead and buy this book and start reading it. Often. It ranks up there in the “Top 100 books to have in your book shelf when you retire” list. As for the Lost Symbol, I would recommend you sell it along with your bunch of old newspapers and at least recover some of the money you wasted buying it.

Keep dreaming and stay the course.

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