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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How do writers write? The journey of an idea from conception to completion

billywilder

People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it. – Harlan Ellison.

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“Don’t relay the client’s feedback” – and other important advice when dealing with freelance content writers

Beware of advice—even this.” – Carl Sandburg

Delayed submissions, below-par work, shoddy construction, clear lack of understanding of the topic, inadequate word count, improper research sources (even worse—quotes from competitors!) – I am sure all of us have encountered these in our daily job as a content marketer in charge of a content calendar, and a team of freelance writers.

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The Freedom to Write. Responsibly.

Responsibility is the price of freedom” – Elbert Hubbard

People demand freedom of speech as compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use” – Soren Kierkgaard

Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes” – Mahatma Gandhi

As I celebrate India’s 67th Independence Day, I am amazed at the freedom kids and adults have, to speak what is on their minds. And text, tweet and email it. Even before a thought appears on their tongue, it seems to have appeared in their social media accounts.

So when engagements get broken and friendships take a back seat due to free speech, what is our responsibility as a free society that gets to gab all we want, online and offline? Can we say the first thing that comes to our mind? Or should we think through, calculate the pros and cons and then message it out? Sure, some thoughts don’t need any filter (“Good morning! How are you?”), but what about the ones that hurt, assume, implicate, exploit or anger?

Hmm, tough one, isn’t it? How do we know what will cause negative emotions, and what will not? How do I know if a simple message like “these politicians are morons” will not cause a state-wide bandh and an arrest? How do I know if what I sincerely feel does not set off a ticking bomb? Does this mean I do not voice my angst and my anguish? Does this mean I keep quiet when injustice happens? How else can I share and support the good things happening around me?

Questions are endless. So probably are the answers. The only person who can answer this honestly is you. The freedom to write brings with it the bondage of responsibility. We are accountable for what we write, and every word we write has to be weighed against facts and common sense.

Write every word as if it reflects your integrity. Therein is the true freedom of expression. And probably why great men’s words continue to be spoken time and again.

Wishing you all a year filled with love, freedom and mistakes! And the floor is now open for responsible discussions!!!

 

 

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The trials and tribulations of working from home

Work from home? Easier said than done. No matter how many smartphones, ipads, laptops, and wifi you arm yourself with, nothing can make working from home easy. That’s because we forget a small factor called “Life”.

Think I am exaggerating? Hmmm, methinks an illustration is in order.

9:30 AM: The Palak lady – Spend 10 minutes searching for 18 Rs – she needs exact change, and since neither my cook nor the maid has any, they invite me into this. At this point, since my laptop is starting up, I don’t mind the invite.

10:15 AM: Caretaker – to give receipt for the check I had written that morning. Ordinarily he does not ask for me, but the receipt is incorrectly worded, and he wanted to check if that is okay. I say, fine. And then spend 5 minutes chatting on the issue of finding good gardeners and security guards and iron men. (of the ironing kind, not the WWE)

10:20 AM: Call from courier service asking for the exact location of my house. Spent 7 minutes describing the location from every possible direction, since he was not sure where he was going to come from. Sigh!

11 AM: Call from my daughter’s school: Report card is posted online, please check before coming for Parent Teacher meeting on Friday. Additional appeal for donations for the local musical that the students are planning in January. I try, very ineffectively, to prevent my cash outflow, but end up promising to to do “something”.

11:AM to 11:15 AM: Rushed online to look at my daughter’s report card. Could not log in initially, and once I did log in, the report card was not updated. Sent an email reporting the problem.

12:30 PM: The caretaker again: He had corrected the receipt (even though I had assured him that the earlier one was fine) and wanted the other one back. I had already balled it up and thrown it in the trash can, so had to retrieve it, dust it, smoothen it and give it back.

1:30 PM: I call my cook, tell her to tell anyone else who calls or rings the bell that “I am not there”

2:30 PM: My daughters rush in, one excited as I was working from home, the other equally disappointed since she cannot watch “Grey’s Anatomy” on Star World. After explaining in minute detail of their escapades at school, they rush off for their lunch and bath. Time to really get my work done.

3:30 PM: The cook rings my room bell from downstairs, and when I come out of my room, she asks loudly – “Madam are you there or not? The courier man is here.”

I switch off my laptop, sign the courier receipt, join my kids for lunch, and launch into their homework, table tennis, yoga, and music lessons the rest of the day.

Please do keep in mind that the above schedule is in addition to the multiple bathroom breaks (I am a firm believer of the “2 liters of water a day” school), snack and chai breaks, and stretching my legs in front of the TV. Also do keep in mind that not all days are like these. There are worse.

Still think I should work from home? Hold on, there’s the door bell. I’ll be right back. But don’t hold your breath.

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