Writer | Blogger | Entrepreneur Tue, 04 Apr 2017 11:19:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 32 32 Malayalam Movie Review – Mammootty’s The Great Father Tue, 04 Apr 2017 11:04:56 +0000 How many of you remember this amazing actor in “Nirakkoottu”, a Malayalam movie starring Mammootty, released in 1985? As the avenging angel who escapes from jail to kill the person responsible for his wife’s death? How many of you remember also the amazing acting displayed by Mammootty in his role as a convict? In every scene he appears, he takes us on a roller-coaster of emotions, and finally when he kills the villain, we heave a huge sigh of relief and go home happy, and convinced, that justice has been served.

Is this review about “The Great Father” or what?

And then there is “The Great Father”. A father who loves his only child. A father who suffers incredibly when he finds her raped and left for dead in the elevator of their apartment. A father who promises to find justice for his daughter. Perfect premise, perfect beginning and the perfect story line in today’s world.

After the rape, Mammootty’s acting is stunning. Restrained. And absolutely believable. His first impulse is to call the cops, but then the need to protect his daughter from further “rape” by the insensitive media and society, forces him to keep quiet. After the child comes back home, the viewers are all ready to move on to the next stage – justice.

And it gets better. Enter Arya, Tamil Super-Hero, who is in charge of the special squad that has been set up to prevent child pornography and abuse. With both the father and the (good-looking, six-pack abbed!) law officer breathing vengeance, it is probably a matter of time before justice is served. At least that is what the viewers are led to believe when intermission rolls around.

But what goes wrong?

Everything. Instead of a hard-hitting movie on child rape and the insensitivity shown by the society and media, what we get is ego clashes, grand standing and the need to be a “man”. The rape is swept under the carpet (so what’s new?), the parents do not tell the world (again, what’s new?), and the child is asked by her counselor to forget the incident as a nightmare and be happy, as otherwise her parents will be sad (what the h$%&@#?).

A common sense approach for the movie? An average business man, Mammootty works with the law, cooperates with Arya, and together they help bring down the rapist and serial-killer. Applause. Justice served. Viewers emotionally happy. Box office success. Instead, Mammootty comes gun blazing in front of his daughter’s school, intimidates the law when they come to investigate, and generally goes around town beating the crap out of every bad guy he can find.

Wait, it gets worse. Arya, the “hit first, ask questions later” cop, has an ego the size of his biceps. Instead of investigating, he spends more time at the gym and on the streets beating up the bad guys. He has no time for being sensitive to the needs of the victims. He barges into Mammootty’s house when he is not around, forces his daughter to answer questions about the rape, and then threatens Mammootty’s wife and father that he would forcefully take the daughter to the police station if she does not “confess” all. He even arranges for “counselors” at the girl’s school who threaten the girl to admit that she is raped so justice can be served.

For God’s sake, did no one read the script?

If by now you are angry at the turn of events, how both Mammootty and Arya set about finding the serial-killer should get you raving mad. With a need to promote himself, the rapist sends information about himself to a media reporter known more for his “yellow journalism” than intelligence or integrity, and he in turn, is forced to hand it over to Mammootty during an “interrogation”, who in turn hands it over to Arya. In the meantime, Arya suspects Mommootty’s employee and beats him up, and then realizes he has the wrong person in custody.

As the movie enters the climax scene, it gets even more bizarre. Plus, logic and the story line have walked off in a huff. I squirmed in my seat as the rapist beats up not just Arya, but Mammootty also (who has a gun with him) and then takes our great father to the cliff to throw him over. And who is the serial-killer? If you still want to know after reading this review, you deserve to watch 151 minutes of this movie till the very end.

Is there anything good going for this movie?

Not really. Am sure this movie will be a great box office success as it has all the masala elements you come to expect of a typical crowd-pleaser. Stunts, acting, and superb heroes.

But this is what this movie lacked. With the kind of fan following he has and the credibility his messaging brings, I expected Mammootty to set an example, and poke holes in our society’s fabric where we are cowards with a warped sense of attribution (It is never the man’s fault. She asked for it. What was she thinking when she went out at night? ad nauseum……). Today it is okay if a drunk man gets mugged or beaten to death in a fight. He is the victim, and the law is ready to prosecute the perpetrator. No shame attached to this poor “victim”. Now, same situation, but different gender. Can you imagine society feeling sorry for a woman who goes to a bar, gets drunk and then gets raped?

Ultimately, what started off as a potential hard-hitting movie about child rape and how it wrecks family and society, ended with two egoistic men who break every law (and logic) to prove that he is the better man. Sad.

My rating?

1 out of 5 (Nirakoottu is 5).

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Movie Review – Night Shyamalan’s The “Split” Sense! Wed, 29 Mar 2017 07:43:44 +0000 It was sheer coincidence that I happened to watch Night Shyamalan’s classic movie, The Sixth Sense, on TV, the day before I watched his latest offering to movie goers and aficionados of the horror genre – Split.

I am not a big fan of horror movies. Conjuring, Poltergeist, even Jaws – I watched them through partially covered eyes and fully covered ears. But with Sixth Sense I knew Night Shyamalan had achieved the impossible (according to me) – a horror of a movie along with a story line and a denouncement even Dame Agatha would be proud of. This was reaffirmed with his The Village and After Earth. These movies showed his ability to not just scare us, but force us to continue to worry about the monsters under the bed and the skeletons in the cupboard, way after the popcorn is digested and way, way after the movie has disappeared even from local TV channels. The creeping sense of fear and anticipation of horror as we watch his movies – stuff that classics are made of. In After Earth, he turns our normal fear of the “bogey man” into an all-consuming, all-pervading monster that is ever present in the mind of every child and adult. Beautiful.

So what about his latest movie, Split?


Actually the setting was perfect. I went to the movie at 10:40 PM (closer to the witching hour), with my daughters and three of their friends. I would have preferred a less scarier movie like “Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya”, but they pooh-poohed all my fears. As we entered the theater in Pune’s Phoenix Mall’s PVR Cinemas, it was actually empty. We were the first ones in. And not many people came afterwards. By the time the movie started, I was in an heightened sense of fear. I worried if I would look silly in front of these girls who were nonchalantly getting ready to watch the horror movie.

Once the movie started, I am afraid to say (pun intended), that I did not have to close my eyes or my ears. Nor did I have to pretend to be brave. There was nothing much in terms of suspense, horror or even a pretense to scare. The story was simple – as a result of childhood abuse by his mother, James McAvoy ( more about his acting later!) develops these different personalities, each calculated to saving/distracting/protecting him from reality. The film starts on a scary note – especially to parents all over the world – when three teenagers are abducted in broad daylight, in the parking lot of a mall, by James McAvoy. After that the story pretty much hits rock bottom. (Read the basic story in Wikipedia).

The positives

In one word, James McAvoy. His ability to move seamlessly between multiple personalities is amazing. Sure, I loved his acting in the X-men series, but he takes it to a new level in Split. He single-handedly carries the movie on his shoulders. The way he alters his walk, his posture, and his eyes with every personality – this is something every actor ought to watch and learn from.

The negatives

Is there a story? If it is, it is hidden from sight as the characters spew out a bunch of psychological terms that refuses to draw our attention. The story is basic, puerile even, and the need to scare dominates any attempt to move it forward. The scenes shift back and forth between the flashbacks of Casey (one of the abducted teenagers who has also been subjected to sexual abuse as a child) and Kevin (James McAvoy). As the last scene ends, we are too bored (and relieved) to even wonder why it ended the way it ended.

All in all, not Night Shyamalan’s best effort. It does not even amount to mediocre.

My review?

2 out of 5 stars. Only because of James McAvoy. (Sixth Sense is a 5).

So should you watch it?

Yes, if you like James McAvoy and yes, if you have nothing else to do on a Saturday evening.

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Four reasons why visiting the Kochi-Muziris Biennale should be on your bucket list Fri, 24 Mar 2017 15:00:07 +0000 Fact: My first ever visit to the Kochi Biennale was on March 23, 2016 – just a week before it winds down. I am ashamed that I have not visited one of Kochi’s most potent attractions (not just in India, but around the world). Not once, but missed it twice, and the third time around when I visited it? I barely made it a week before it closes. But now that I have, here goes why you should too.

Entry ticket

Before I get into the four reasons why a visit to the Kochi Biennale should be on your bucket list, here is a quick 101 about it.

Drumrolls please – presenting the WHO, WHAT, WHY and WHERE of the Kochi Muziris Biennale

WHAT: The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a bi-annual (happening every two years) art show that is spread across multiple locations and venues across Fort Kochi/Kochi. The first edition was on 12.12.12 – December 12, 2012. Currently, the third edition is scheduled to close on March 29, 2017. For close to 108 days, paintings, sculptures, video, audio and interactive art is on display. It also has some fine performances from world-class artists, usually over the weekends. Live shows where the artists explain how their art evolved is another unique feature. Every edition, the curator (Sudarshan Shetty is the curator this edition) sets the theme for the art and this year it is “Forming in the pupil of the eye.”

WHERE: The unique angle to the biennale is the multiple locations and venues that host the art work. Aspinwall, David Hall, Durbar Hall, Kashi Art Cafe, Cochin Club etc. are some of the venues where the art installations and paintings are presented to the general public.

WHO: The Kochi Biennale is the brain child of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF).  KBF is a non-profit organization that works to promote the cause of art education and infrastructure, and to improve access to art in India. The board of trustees read like the who’s who of the art world. Bose Krishnamachari is the president and Riyas Komu is the secretary. Incidentally, Bose and Riyas kick-started the biennale in 2012. Manju Sara Rajan is the CEO of the foundation.

WHY: I am going to wax poetic here. Why does the cuckoo sing? Why does the bee hum? And why do human beings do art? It is in our very nature to be artistic. To express what we think and how we can transform people with our art. There is no real reason for the Biennale. We just need it the way a bird needs to sing.

Now for the FOUR reasons why you need to head to the biennale sometime over the next week, or wait for it when the 4th edition rolls around on December 12, 2018.

To know the true meaning of EMPATHY: Imagine a pyramid made of cow dung and thatches. Imagine it being lit in the inside with really small lights placed at random spots. Imagine walking in the near darkness inside the pyramid with just the thatched walls for guidance. And now imagine voices reciting poems…in different languages, emotions and themes. The poems are by writers who have been banished/exiled from their country. As you walk in the darkness, fumbling and scared (a bit!), you feel their anguish and pain. Nothing can be worse than being banished from your homeland…and for these lost souls, I doubt even their art helped heal that wound.

To get your daily dose of CREATIVITY: I entered this hall where beautiful post card type paintings were scattered around. Scenes from the markets in Goa where vendors were selling fish, flowers, liquor, sweets, pickles and breads. It was by Orijit Sen. But more than the art, what attracted me was the interactive part. As you walk in, you are asked to pick any five cards hanging on hooks near the entrance. These cards pose questions based on the art you would see inside. If you answer all five questions correctly, you will get a postcard by the artist. Because they made it interactive (and well, my competitive streak kicked in too!), I spent the next 10 minutes actually reading and understanding the scenes. I came to know that purple buttons are the names for a flower used in garland weaving. I figured out kismur is dried shrimp. And I realized that while art itself is creative, what is more creative was the way they made the entire experience more creative with the quizzes and the prizes.

To feel the PAIN and  SUFFERING: Raul Zurita’s “Sea of Pain” is unquestionably my most favorite installation. You take off your shoes, wade through this huge carpet of sea water in this semi-dark warehouse, and as you near the other end, you see this small poem painted on the wall. I am sure most of you have seen this picture of a 3-year old boy who died as his family was escaping from Turkey. As the boat on which the Syrian migrants were traveling capsized, the sea claimed the life of Aylan Kurdi. The poem is a heart-stopping tribute to the boy that died, and the emptiness he left in its wake. Many people told me that they cried when they read the poem. I could only stare and read it again and again, in an attempt to understand how the parents must have felt.

To become a GLOBAL CITIZEN: As you watch the different exhibits, one thing becomes very apparent. The Chinese had to grapple with the ill-effects of deforestation. The Americans had to deal with deathly cyclones. The Indians had to deal with the caste system. The Europeans had to deal with exile and imprisonment. No nation is free from godly and man-made pain and suffering. You realize that pain is universal. So is happiness. And that no nation or citizen can avoid one, and have only the other. And if that realization does not make us feel a part of the “Vasudhaiva Kudumbakkam” (translates roughly as “this world is my family”), am not sure what else can.

And now for some quick hacks to get the best out of your Biennale visit

  • Entry fees are Rs 500; Rs 100 for students. Mondays are free for all visitors.
  • There are free guided tours everyday at 11 AM and 3 PM. Do take the services of a guide – otherwise most of it, well, all of it, will go over your head.
  • If you have limited time, head to Aspinwall first. It houses a majority of the art installations. All the exhibits mentioned in this blog are at Aspinwall. It took us close to 3 hours just to do a cursory visit!
  • TM Krishna is in concert at 7 PM on Sunday, the 26th. Come on – don’t want to miss that. (View the calendar for the rest of the days here)
  • Read Vogue’s list of 12 must-see artworks so you know what to look out for when you visit.
  • Suspend your judgement please. Forget all the negative press and the discouraging comments your friends and family have said about the biennale. Go with an open mind.

There is less than 5 days for the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale to come to an end. You have to wait another 18 months to see the next edition. So instead of wasting your time on the latest Mohanlal movie this weekend (you can always do that the weekend after!), head to the biennale. 97 artists from 41 countries are waiting to show you a glimpse of humanity. Through their art.

PS: I have not added any pictures of the art work since I doubt my cell phone camera, my photographic skills (or lack of it!) or any other picture for that matter can do justice to it. See it with the pupil of your own eyes. 

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Book Review – Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen Fri, 17 Mar 2017 02:47:20 +0000 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


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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Yoga vacation at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Neyyardam, Kerala – all you need to know! Wed, 08 Feb 2017 05:32:04 +0000 Yoga vacation. The phrase conjures up visions of serene settings, enlightened devotees, and peaceful yoga practitioners. You get all these and more during a yoga vacation at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram at Neyyar Dam, near Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum – the state capital of Kerala).

I have been to the Sivananda ashram at Neyyar Dam three times over the last 2 years for a yoga vacation. I have usually stayed at an average of 4-5 nights during each of my visits. While I have joked about my experience there in a previous blog, these vacations have been an immense grounding experience in our life. During our first visit, Mukund and I had no clue what to expect. But by the third visit, we quickly and easily slipped into the ashram schedule, even though it was a year since our previous visit.

Here are a list of things you need to know about visiting the Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam for a yoga vacation.  

Who is Sivananda? What is the Sivananda Ashram? 
Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) is a spiritual guru who expounded on yoga and vedanta philosophy. He has authored over 200 books on yoga, and established an ashram in Rishikesh, under the aegis of the Divine Life Society – an establishment to systematically promote philosophy and yoga. One of his chief disciples is Swami Vishnudevananda, who established Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers, to propagate his master’s yoga principles.
The Sivananda Ashram (under Swami Vishnudevananda) is also established at Madurai and Uttarkashi, with centres in Chennai, Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram. These ashrams and centres are NOT affiliated to the main ashram at Rishikesh, but faithfully carries out teaching and practice of yoga as set out by Swami Sivananda. For more info about the ashrams, please explore this website.
What is a yoga vacation?
The ashram defines a yoga vacation as a stay where you follow the ashram schedule for a minimum of three nights. You do not need any previous experience in yoga practice, nor do you need to be affiliated to the teachings or the philosophy of the ashram. All you need is an open mind to explore the possibilities, and the willingness to try out the yoga sessions, which are conveniently divided into beginners and advanced courses.
What can you expect to do in three days? What is the schedule like?
On the first and the 15th of every month (roughly), the ashram starts the yoga course for beginners and advanced practitioners. You necessarily do not need to start your vacation on day 1, but it helps. Our first visit was on the 22nd, which meant a week had already passed by. So for our third visit, we timed it as close to the beginning of the course. Either way, the teachers are extremely patient and let you do the asanas at your own pace. They also have a special time during the day where they will coach you one on one, if you have difficulties with any particular asana. If you can afford the time, please do plan on going for at least 2 weeks so you get the full experience from your yoga vacation. The ashram also recommends the 14-day vacation, but the most I spent at the ashram was 6 days.
A typical ashram schedule is packed from 6 AM till 9:30 PM, with some limited personal time in between. (See the complete schedule here). In a typical day, you can count on being in meditation, lecture and bhajan sessions for 3 hours, yoga practise for 4 hours, karma yoga/volunteering for an hour, and in a lecture class for at least 90 minutes. Lectures could be on Ayurveda, Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatham, Philosophy, Patanjali yoga etc. In between, you will get your morning tea (at 7:30 AM), brunch (at 10 AM), evening tea and fruit (at 1:30 PM) and dinner (at 6 PM). Lights are switched off at 11 PM, and the morning bell for your wakeup is at 5:20 AM, with the first session of the day starting at 6 AM.
It is mandatory to participate in all ashram activities while you are at the ashram, irrespective of the length of your stay. However, if you are part of the Teachers Training course (TTC), Advanced Teachers Training course (ATTC) or special camps, the schedule would change accordingly. And if you have signed up for the Ayurveda related programmes (detox, wellness etc.), the schedule is also different. The basic ashram schedule is primarily for those who are on a yoga vacation. (See all the different programmes at the ashram here).
What kind of food can I expect to get at the ashram?
Unless you have signed up for the detox or the wellness programmes, all ashram inmates and attendees get served local vegetarian cuisine that is primarily based on vegetables and fruits that is grown in the ashram. In fact, very rarely would we get chapattis/rotis (which is mainly part of the North Indian cuisine). Actually, the food is sattvik, which means the cooks do not add even onions or garlic. You can expect meals that are extremely mild in terms of spice, highly satisfying and great for your stomach and your mind – exactly as we ought to eat.
The ashram also has a health hut that serves sandwiches, snacks, drinks and juices (all vegetarian again!) at certain times during the day so it does not clash with the meal times. This hut is open only during peak season (October through April). (See the complete list of facilities at the ashram).
Where do I stay? Do I need to book early? Are accommodations easy to get?
The Sivananda ashram has three types of accommodations – bedrooms (with and without A/C, in-room bathroom), bedrooms with common bathrooms, and dormitories. You can also bring your own tent and pitch it on the ashram grounds. Except for dormitories (which is on a first-come, first serve basis), you need to book in advance for the bedrooms. During the peak season, it is impossible to get a room, sometimes even if you call a month before your visit! So in short, depending on the time of your visit, and your desired accommodation, plan for it as early as you can.
How much do I have to pay for a yoga vacation? Or for the Ayurveda programmes?
Payment for the ashram accommodation covers food and all the activities at the ashram, including the weekly hike up the mountains! However, payment for the training courses, camps, wellness courses etc. are different and you need to contact the ashram office for more details. Here are the details only for the yoga vacation.
How do I get to the Sivananda Ashram at the Neyyar Dam?
The closest international airport is at Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital. Other airports in the state are at Kochi and Calicut. Since Kerala is a small state, the distance you need to travel by car or train/bus will not exceed 6 hours – unless you are coming into the ashram from the northern tip of Kerala! From Kochi, the car ride took 5-6 hours, with a couple of stops for food. From the Thiruvananthapuram airport, you can either take a pre-paid cab/taxi to Neyyar, or take a bus from the city center to the Ashram. Not sure if Uber operates at the dam! Will find out the next time I visit! Here are the contact details of the ashram. 
Some quick hacks to get the most out of your yoga vacation
Morning walk at Sivananda
  • Timing your vacation: Time your yoga vacation as close to the beginning of the yoga course at the ashram (usually around the 1st and the 15th of every month).
  • What to wear: Pack and wear comfortable, cotton clothing so that it is easy to practice yoga and meditation. Leggings, sleeveless dresses, or outfits that show midriffs/skin/legs are frowned upon. A typical outfit is t-shirts and loose pants/pyjamas.
  • What to pack: The ashram store sells some snacks and cookies/juices, and basic stuff you need for washing your clothes and cleaning your room. So there is no need to pack too much from home. Each room comes equipped with a mop, a broom and a clothes pane for drying your clothes.  Bring extra pillows, sheets etc. if you want, but the ashram provides a mosquito net, a pillow and a couple of blankets.
  • Going out of the ashram: Once you are inside the ashram, you need to take special pass to leave the ashram, which you can do during your free time. I would recommend you stay in the ashram and get used to doing nothing!
  • Friday trek/hike: Every Friday morning, the group hikes up the nearby mountain and does the meditation and prayer session there. It is a fantastic experience. See if you can fit in a Friday in your yoga vacation. Fridays are also free days… can leave the ashram after the morning meal, go around and come back in time for the evening meditation session. This is a good time to simply vegetate at the ashram (which is what we did!), visit the Neyyar Dam Tiger Sanctuary or hit the city. (Thiruvananthapuram!)

Come with an open mind

You may never have done yoga before. Or stayed in a place with just basic comforts. But do come with an open mind. Be prepared to experience a vacation that will make you want to come back for more. And changes the way you think about life.


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Three reasons why you should read the Srimad Bhagavatham Mon, 23 Jan 2017 09:19:53 +0000 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.

12 Cantos. 335 chapters. 14,326 shlokas. The actual number of shlokas in each publication could be different as commentators may club shlokas/chapters together for coherence and/or translation purposes. My statistics is based on Prabhupada’s (ISKCON’s) 18-volume Srimad Bhagavatham. In fact, in the Srimad Bhagavatham itself, it is mentioned that the Bhagavata Purana is supposed to have 18,000 shlokas. (SB: Canto 12, Chapter 7)

The Srimad Bhagavatham is a maha purana, along with 17 other famous puranas like Padma, Skanda, Brahma, Narada, Matsya, Garuda, Kurma and so on. There are specific criteria for a body of work to be called a purana. At the very least, it has to explain: creation of the universe and the world around us, maintenance and sustenance, expand on dynasties of kings and rulers, annihilation or destruction of the universe, and of divine personas that offer protection and benedictions.

The list of the key stories in the 12 cantos are below:

  • Canto 1: Greatness of SB, Vyasa’s confusion and Narada’s instruction, Vyasa starts composing the SB, Saving of Maharaj Parikshit in Uttara’s womb, Passing away of Bhishma, Disappearance of Lord Krishna, Parikshit gets cursed, Appearance of Suka Goswami
  • Canto 2:Process of creation, Background for Maha Vishnu’s avatars, Questions by Maharaj Parikshit, and Suka’s narration starting with how SB is the answer to all problems.
  • Canto 3: Vidura’s enquiry of Sage Maitreya, Creation of the Universal form and Brahma, Brahma’s search for the source of creation, Divisions of creation, Calculation of Time, the Sanat Kumaras, Varaha Avatar, Devahuti’s story, Lord Kapila avatar, His instructions to His mother
  • Canto 4: Daughters of Swayambhu Manu, Daksha and Sati, Dhruva charitam, Prithu Maharaj, Rudra geetam, story of Prachetas
  • Canto 5: Rishabha deva/Bharata/Jada Bharata incarnation, Descent of Ganga, Movement of the celestial planets, description of Ananta
  • Canto 6: Ajamila, Narayana Kavacham, Chitraketu, Diti, Pumsavana vow by wives for their husbands
  • Canto 7: Prahlada and Narasimha avatar
  • Canto 8: Gajendra Moksham, Kurma avatar, Nectar from the churning of the ocean, Vamana avatar, Matsya avatar
  • Canto 9: Sukanya, Ambarisha maharaj, Sree Rama avatar, His descendants starting from Kusa; Pururuvas and Urvashi, Parasurama avatar, Yayati, Prelude to Lord Krishna avatar
  • Canto 10: Lord Krishna’s avatara
  • Canto 11:Curse upon Yadu dynasty, Explanations of avatars, Instructions to Uddhava (Udhava Geetha), Instructions on detachment, renunciation and knowledge
  • Canto 12: Kali yuga, Symptoms of Kali, Bhumi gita, Final instructions to Parikshit maharaj and his passing away, Markendeya, Summary and glories of SB

Now for the three very important, very tangible reasons why you should read this book.

  1. A literary masterpiece: A piece of literature is classic for some very precise reasons – great plots, incisive character sketches, elaborate settings, intense dialogues, and unfolding of the story that captures the attention of even the most wandering of minds. Srimad Bhagavatham is a literary masterpiece of the highest order; a classic that gets better with every shloka. Srimad Bhagavatham unfolds as a “mother of all question-answer sessions” happens between Maharaj Parikshit and Sage Suka. The maharaj has just seven days to live before a serpent kills him. He approaches Sage Suka and asks him all his doubts regarding life and death, and the story behind how Lord Krishna saves him in his mother’s womb. The king’s questions, Sage Suka’s answers that also refers to numerous other conversations and question-answer sessions between other kings and sages, references and repetition to key lessons and learnings, elaborate sthuthis (poems of praises) that highlight the beauty of the Sanskrit language,……..before you know it, 335 chapters are over. Granted that the SB does not follow a linear method of story telling. But that is also why you cannot afford to let your mind wander! The constant questions and the precise but elaborate answers ensures that you are always in the moment – body and soul.
  2. A perfect combination of philosophy and stories: When you read the Bhagavad Gita, you know what to expect – one of the best treatises on the art of living, dying and everything in between. Now imagine the depth of the Gita along with a whole gamut of exciting and entertaining stories about famous and not so famous characters that you have read about? It turns into a racy read, where when one story has reached its climax, another one is already brewing around the corner. All it takes is a single question from the king and you are thr0wn headlong into another series of tales with new characters, settings and lessons. If I could draw a simile? Imagine combining the intense philosophy of a thousand Bhagavad Gitas with the action packed and exciting Arabian Nights? This simile just about conveys some of the amazing experiences you will come across when you read Srimad Bhagavatham.
  3. Art of Life: While you may seriously not want to read at end about the incessant war between the devas and the asuras, or about dynasties and lineages, what you would love to read is how the essence of the art of life is propagated throughout the work. Detachment amidst misery and happiness, understanding amidst profit and loss, fulfillment amidst life and death, surrendering amidst pride and humility…..we could fill a 300-page note book and not even scratch the surface of the lessons of life that Srimad Bhagavatam shows, explains, teaches, demonstrates and reveals. Daily religious rituals, detailed explanation of creation and destruction, the psyche of the divine soul within and around us, dissection of the mind, ego, intellect and senses – the sheer scale of what Srimad Bhagavatham successfully undertakes to reveal is mind-numbing.

Reading the Srimad Bhagavatham is not an ordinary undertaking. But it is not impossible either. Once you read the first chapter, you are hooked, and will get drawn into it steadily, sometimes against your will. Whether you embark on it as a literary masterpiece or to find out answers to your spiritual questions or simply because you want to surrender at Lord Krishna’s Lotus Feet, reading the Bhagavatham puts you immediately on the fast-track for self-enquiry. Once you are on this path, there is no turning back. Nor would you want to.


This blog is dedicated to my guru, Radhika chechi, whose Narayaneeyam classes for over 18 months kindled in me the desire to read the source for Melpathur Bhattathiri’s inspiration. Her humility, love for Lord Krishna, and her constant encouragement showed me the way. Her advice was simple and practical – “just one chapter a day, moley”. My heartfelt gratitude and humble pranaams.


  1. AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s commentaries on Srimad Bhagavatham
  2. Kamala Subramaniam’s Srimad Bhagavatham
  3. Weekly Narayaneeyam and Srimad Bhagavatham classes by my guru, Radhika chechi
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The Only True Reason to be a Vegetarian – here goes! Mon, 16 Jan 2017 14:12:26 +0000 I have been a vegetarian all my life. It started off for religious reasons (I am a Tamil Brahmin), but while there were no strict checks made on our diet by our parents (in fact, we were encouraged to eat omelettes when we dined out, and take the cod liver oil capsules daily to improve our health), being a staunch vegetarian was somehow an implicit and unwritten (and unmentioned) code of conduct in our family.

As I grew up, and I had the freedom to experiment with alternate diets, I really did not do so. I am not sure if I can attribute it to my religion or my conventional upbringing; it was more a deep conviction that it was wrong. If you had asked me then, I would not probably been able to spell out why it was wrong. In my mind, I associated being vegetarian as one of the basic tenets and rules by which I want to live my life; religion was just an easy way of explaining it away!

In my earlier blog, I explored popular reasons to become a vegetarian. Today, after four plus decades of practicing vegetarianism in spite of countless opportunities to be otherwise, hours of online research and talking to people, I know exactly why one should be a vegetarian. So here goes.

THE ONLY REASON YOU OUGHT TO BE A VEGETARIAN: Being a vegetarian increases your spirituality

A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses.George Bernard Shaw

I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Being a vegetarian goes far beyond following the rules and regulations set by your religion. However, I would like to introduce a religious concept here. Food, according to the Bhagavat Gita, can belong to three categories. Saatvik food is wholesome, juicy, and sits light on the stomach. Rajasic food is spicy, rich and you tend to sleep after the meal! Tamasic food is pungent and stale, almost to the point of being spoilt.

Depending on the kind of food you eat every day, your behaviour and the way you think gets affected. This is the also the toughest reason to analyse and substantiate, but being a vegetarian goes beyond your physical body. It is a way of life, where you refuse to be violent (or eat the product of violent actions); where you refuse to succumb to the call of your tongue and rise above petty delights; where you understand that every action has an equal reaction, and you want a sense of peace that comes from non-violence. Combined with a sense of compassion and a feeling of well-being, your body will feel light. Satiated. Comfortable. This sense of well-being does pervade into your soul and make you more spiritual –  a state where you are more in touch with your body and the inner being that resides in it.

What is your relationship with food?

Every person has a special relationship with food. We eat for comfort, we eat to reduce stress, we eat when we are sad, happy, lonely, or at a party. The equation that you share with food determines where you are in your spiritual journey. At the first level, eating is purely physical – you eat to satisfy your tongue and your stomach. Self-control is tough and binge-eating is more common than not.

As you evolve, your relationship becomes less emotional and more intellectual. You leave fad diets behind and start eating to ensure that your body receives the best nutrients it needs. You also start experimenting with different cuisines and pick and choose the healthier options among them. At this level, food brings emotional as well as intellectual satisfaction.

At the deepest level, you eat to maintain a higher level of awareness. Food that is light, wholesome and easily digestible. Food that your body does not have to expend a lot of energy to digest and get rid off. Food that is eaten only when you really need it. At this level, fasting, eliminating pungent foods, or staying without food for a higher purpose is common. For instance, Hare Krishna followers eat only food (prasad) that has been first offered to Krishna. They believe that untasted food offered to the divine first and then consumed imbues  it with a special consciousness that spreads to those who eat it too. When you are at this level, the notion of self-control or craving does not enter the picture – you simply are neutral to food, and eat it purely so your physical body can continue to facilitate the spiritual journey.

To eat meat or not?

What is the difference between religion and spirituality? Is there a difference? For the purposes of this article, there is a quantum of difference between these two words. Here is the meaning that comes closest to how it is being used in this blog.

Religious: Having or showing belief in and reverence for God or a deity.

Spiritual: Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul

Based on this definition, being a vegetarian may or may not be a tenet of your religion, but it has everything to do with being a spiritually aware person. You need to become a vegetarian if your ultimate goal in life is to be in touch with your inner self, and be everything you want to be.

Food that is great for the tongue or for the soul? End of the day, this is a personal decision. On the other hand, if you have equal access to both a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian fare, a spiritual bias indicates, in fact, insists, that you pick the vegetarian option.


  1. – Gandhi’s speech to British Vegetarian Society
  2. Quotes about vegetarianism –
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The Only True Reason to be a Vegetarian Mon, 16 Jan 2017 13:49:30 +0000 Here are three popular reasons why we adopt a vegetarian diet. Go through them…and then I will tell you the only reason why you should become a vegetarian!

REASON 1: Being a vegetarian is healthier for your body 

Even as a junkie I stayed true [to vegetarianism] – ‘I shall have heroin, but I shan’t have a hamburger.’ What a sexy little paradox.Russell Brand

Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie. ― Jim Davis

This is probably the number one reason most people take to a vegetarian diet – to lose weight, to become healthier, to reduce cholesterol and so on. They equate a vegetarian diet as healthier than the non-vegetarian one.


Are all vegetarians healthy? I would be the first one to admit – not really! But then good vegetarian food is not deep fried vegetable pakoras and bhajis, paneer and vegetables sautéed in oil beyond recognition, pooris and baturas. Nor is it syrupy gulab jamuns and death by chocolate desserts! Good vegetarian food is wholesome, juicy, and consists mainly of grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and dairy products with very little or no oil, ghee or sugar.

The FACT OF THE MATTER THOUGH? No matter what you eat, if you eat more than what your body needs, your diet is not healthy. However, there is no research that proves conclusively that eating meat (or not) is healthier. From only a physical view point, it is impossible to conclusively prove that one diet is better than the other. There are just way too many variables that go into this equation – personal health restrictions, climate, availability, environment, culture, societal norms, taboos etc.

However, a vegetarian diet is less hard on your body: digestion, metabolism and processing is faster, smoother and gentler. A vegetarian diet is also proven to improve your mood, reduce your stress and make you happier.

REASON 2: Being a vegetarian is better for the environment

By eating meat we share the responsibility of climate change, the destruction of our forests, and the poisoning of our air and water. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian will make a difference in the health of our planet. ― Thich Nhat Hanh

Eating meat is bad for the environment, claim multiple studies. Here are a couple of the more popular ones that are quoted often in online media.

  • A 2009 study found that four-fifths of the deforestation across the Amazon rainforest could be linked to cattle ranching. (Source)
  • Analysis of the production and distribution of 20 common agricultural products found that red meat such as beef and lamb is responsible for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains. (Source)
  • Study shows red meat dwarfs others for environmental impact, using 28 times more land and 11 times water than for pork or chicken. (Source)
  • University of Oxford scientists and found that meat-rich diets – defined as more than 100g per day – resulted in 7.2kg of carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, both vegetarian and fish-eating diets caused about 3.8kg of CO2 per day, while vegan diets produced only 2.9kg. (Source)

The FACT OF THE MATTER THOUGH? For each of these studies, there is a counter study that states the opposite. While there is no conclusive proof that being a vegetarian is better for the environment, simple logic states that farmland dedicated to growing fruits, grains and vegetables feeds more people more efficiently.

REASON 3: Being a vegetarian is merciful/compassionate

For remaining staunch to vegetarianism a man requires a moral basisMahatma Gandhi

I would never give a human the fine distinction of being called an animal, because an animal may kill to live but an animal never lives to kill. Humans have to earn the right to be called animals again.
David Duchovny, Holy Cow

I made the choice to be vegan because I will not eat (or wear, or use) anything that could have an emotional response to its death or captivity. I can well imagine what that must feel like for our non-human friends – the fear, the terror, the pain – and I will not cause such suffering to a fellow living being. ― Rai Aren

I usually ask why when someone mentions that he or she is a vegetarian. One of the more popular responses? Compassion towards animals. Their reasoning is that as intelligent and moral human beings, if we do not have the ability to be compassionate towards lower beings, there is no point in calling yourself humane.

The fact of the matter though? While compassion is a noble sentiment, there is no compelling research or body of science that has proven that being a vegetarian means you are more compassionate. Case in point? Hitler was supposed to have become a vegetarian around 1938….just before the Holocaust. Just saying!

So why should you become a vegetarian? Here goes the only reason why you should go down this garden path. (Pun intended!)

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Qayamat Se Dangal Tak – Movie Review of Dangal Sat, 07 Jan 2017 07:37:08 +0000 If people are not laughing at your goals, then your goals are too small – Azim Premji

Ask Mahavir Singh Phogat what his dream is and he will reply – ensure that his daughter wins a gold medal for India in wrestling. And assuredly, everybody considers this the joke of the day. As villages roll over themselves with laughter, Mahavir Singh scolds and disciplines, taunts and derides, as his two daughters prepare to be wrestlers in a tiny hamlet in Haryana.

And just as the villagers wipe their tears and catch their sides, Mahavir’s two daughters go to the next village to compete in a wrestling fight. With boys. And predictably, his daughter loses. But not before everyone has been shocked out of their stupor.

As they say, the rest is history.

Smarting from a defeat at the hand of a boy, Geeta Phogat now starts pushing her father to take her to the next fight. There is no looking back as she goes on to win the National Sub-Junior and the Junior Championship. Along with her sister Babita Phogat, they turn Indian wrestling on its head and grab golds and silvers in international matches. Geeta even qualifies for the Rio Olympics, the first ever Indian female wrestler to do so.

Geeta and Babita, along with their sister Ritu and cousin Vinesh have bought international fame for India. The Hindi movie DANGAL captures skillfully and effortlessly the enormous struggle they face as they catapult to fame, not just themselves, but also a sport that India (and Indians) are not too good at.

So what is so amazing about the movie? Apart from this inspiring true story? In two words – Aamir Khan.

I have alternated between idolizing Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan since 1988. As a teenager, I was caught between SRK’s Fauji and Aamir Khan’s Qayamat Se….. Coincidentally, both happened in 1988. After Dilwale (DDLJ) the scale had tilted in favor of SRK, but then Dil Chahta Hai happened and I was hooked firmly to Aamir Khan’s starry career.

After Lagaan, Three Idiots, Dhoom 3, and of course PK, I was ensconced in Aamir’s camp. No more wavering. And now after watching Dangal (twice as of January 7, 2017), I am going to die as an Aamir Khan fan. The following three scenes/scenarios are simply too good and worth watching over and over again…(keep them in mind when you watch the movie).

  1. The advice villagers give Aamir Khan on how to ensure his wife gives birth to a son
  2. The advice that Geeta and Babita’s friend, who is about to be married off as a child bride to a groom twenty years her senior, gives to them about learning to enjoy wrestling and appreciating the effort their father is taking for them
  3. The advice that Mahavir gives Geeta after watching clips that show how she consistently lost first round matches

What was sensational about Aamir Khan? Was it that he put on 25 kilos over 6 months? Was it his effortless acting as Mahavir Singh? Was it the way he learnt and portrays wrestling moves? Was it the way he single-handedly moves the script along?

All of that. But the magic potion is the way he sinks into the character of a father who wants his daughters to succeed against all odds. And mighty odds they are. I have written before of the politics involved in sports, and the lack of sportsmanship.  Of course, what my daughters face in table tennis is the tip of the iceberg. Mahavir’s daughters face every obstacle possible before they come up trumps. I love the way Aamir Khan portrays this unshakeable belief that his daughters will succeed, no matter what. With restraint, class, and an unimaginable sense of humor (which creeps up suddenly every now and then!), Aamir Khan shows every one that he is a cut above the rest. In every way possible.

So why should you watch the movie? Watch it for the acting, the songs, the wrestling lessons, the setting, the story, the script, the acting, the songs, the…….you get it. Now stop reading this, and book that ticket.

Happy viewing.

My review? 5 out of 5 stars. And if you want to compare, I would give Lagaan and Chak De a 4.5 out of 5. That is how good this movie is. And Aamir Khan.



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Book review – Paulo Coelho’s The Spy Tue, 03 Jan 2017 11:01:34 +0000 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:

Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, aka Mata Hari, was born in the Netherlands. After a stormy childhood, where is he brutally raped by her school principal, and a stormier marriage to an officer twenty one years her senior, she escapes to France and begins her career as an exotic dancer. Rather successfully. And with success, fame and high profile lovers, comes the inevitable arrogance, pride and the naivete that these would last forever.

The first world war changes everything. Mata Hari is invited to Russia to perform there (just a week after the Archduke is assassinated) and is recruited as a Russian agent to spy on the French.

Mata Hari hurries back to France, seeks the help of the French counterespionage and offers her services as a double agent. This is where her life starts to tumble.  Both sides think she is working for them, but are suspicious enough to watch her every activity. As the French countryside is invaded by the Russians, the French government seek to shame a public figure (read: scapegoat) in the hope to revive the people’s patriotism. (At least this is Mata Hari’s, and her lawyer’s version of the events). She is arrested, pronounced guilty after a quick trial, and is ordered to be executed by the firing squad.

Why I liked it:

While I have come across the name in some war fiction novels, I have never read about Mata Hari until now. I picked up the book just because it was Coelho’s latest offering. While I was prepared for some self-delusion and arrogance, what struck me, right from the prologue, is the straightforward, sometimes brutal and shocking, reciting of everything that happens to her. She lays no blame on others or herself. It was as if she had numbed herself of all feelings when she strips to become the first nude dancer in France, and that numbness continues as she waits in her prison cell for either the pardon or the firing squad to come.

Coelho has this ability to sink into his character’s skin not just effortlessly, but also with empathy. The narrative leaves no time for one shock to sink in before the next one strikes. In just 186 pages (of which four of them list the items in her trunks at the time of the arrest), there is no attempt to create the historical or political context in the story. Written in the form of a letter, Coelho wastes no word or phrase that does not move the narrative along swiftly to the firing squad. These lines epitomizes Mata Hari’s attitude to her fame and popularity –

“I had long lost any illusion of being loved for who I was and now accepted, with a clean conscience, flowers, flattery, and money that fed my ego and my false identity. For certain I’d go to my grave one day without every knwoing love, but what difference did it make? For me love and power were the same thing.”  Page 87, The Spy by Paulo Coelho.

Coelho also offers the readers a chance to see the whole story from Mata Hari’s lawyer’s point of view. I was delighted to read the brief but well explained forty pages or so of the letter the lawyer writes to Mata Hari just 11 hours before her execution (on October 14, 1917), informing her of the turning down of her appeal for pardon, and the sequence of events that led to her trial. Here we get a glimpse of some of the politicking and deal making that is pretty normal in today’s government circles, as powerful lovers deny any knowledge of her and friends turn away from stepping up to help. The last line in his letter is so abrupt and helpless – “Go with God, my beloved.”

What I did not like:

I was hoping for a biographical sketch that offered more details about the woman, the person and the dancer who had the French in a tizzy! Instead, we get a too brief  outpouring of facts mixed with the right amount of emotions that, though portrays Mata Hari sensationally, left me a bit unsatisfied. I would have liked to know more of her, about her, and from her.

My review

Total Disclaimer Alert! I love Coelho. I am an unashamed fan of his Alchemist. I liked Brida, Veronika Decides To Die and The Devil And Miss Prym. I, however, was shocked by his previous book, “Adultery”. It was trash.

Apart from that aberration, I love his books and this is no exception. I liked the approach, the narrative style, the counter point by the lawyer, and the tragic ending in the epilogue. Prosecutor Andre Mornet concedes to a journalist in 1947 that “Between us, the evidence we had was so poor that it wouldn’t have been fit to punish a cat.”

Here goes my rating: 3.8 out of 5. I would read it again. (Just so you know, I rate Coelho’s Alchemist a 5 and his Adultery a 0.5! Read my review of The Alchemist in an earlier blog.)

Happy reading!


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