“Wives and Daughters” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters

After being introduced to North and South, a Victorian classic novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I absolutely loved, I picked up Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, hoping that it would assuage the withdrawal symptoms I was suffering from after finishing North and South and looking for another book that could inspire the same level of emotion. Wives and Daughters was Gaskell’s last novel before her sudden death in 1865; in fact, she was not able to finish it and it was completed by another writer of that time.

Wives and Daughters is centered around the life of Molly Gibson, a young girl living with her widowed father in a small English town in the 1830s. Her mother died when she was very young, but she still leads a very happy life, adored by everyone in the town, with many friends of her mother who watch out for her, and a very close and loving relationship with her father, who is a highly respected doctor. This tranquil state of affairs is completely upended when her father gets remarried. The new Mrs. Gibson is far from being the “evil stepmother” that is almost a caricature in most stories when the father remarries, but she is somewhat of an airhead, with not much sense, intelligence, and depth of character — all of which Molly has in abundance. This makes it very difficult for Molly to really respect her stepmother, and she finds her very wearying at times, but she puts up with it in good spirit — helped enormously by the fact that her stepmother has a daughter, Cynthia, whom Molly takes to right away. There is even less of the “evil stepsister” angle here that we are used to from our Cinderella fairy tale days — Molly and Cynthia form an instant sisterly bond that only grows stronger as time passes and it is their relationship that is the real highlight of the book.

There is, of course, the obligatory romance, and in Wives and Daughters, it is in the form of Roger Hamley, the son of a local squire who develops a close friendship with Molly but then falls head-over-heels in love with Cynthia when he sees her. This is not surprising, given that Cynthia is exceptionally beautiful and has that effect on most men. However, she does not have Molly’s character and depth of feeling — and she is the first person to acknowledge that. In contrast to Cynthia, Molly’s feelings for Roger are very intense, but she never lets them be known and does not ever feel jealous or envious of Cynthia for capturing Roger’s attention.

Of course, eventually, everything is resolved, and Roger and Molly do get together — it wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t. That said, this wasn’t really the point of the book. As evidenced by its title, the story was more about the close relationship between Molly and Cynthia and the experiences they go through together, including how they deal with a somewhat villainous character, Mr. Preston, the aristocratic lords and the ladies of the neighboring manor, and the gossip of the local townsfolk. At over 600 pages, Wives and Daughters is a long, extensive, minutely detailed book that captures much of the life of those times and the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, so much so that reading it is an experience in and of itself. For those who love reading about Victorian times, there’s so much of the book to sink into — the author seemed to be in no rush at all to wrap things up.

On my part, while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t fall in love with it as I did with North and South, and this brought home to me an important realization — that the inspiration behind any great work of art cannot be manufactured at will. Thus, there is no guarantee that anyone who has created an outstanding book, movie, painting or song will continue to do so with the same level of success. Inspiration has to strike, and while the creator cannot force it, he or she can make the best of it when it comes and create something truly remarkable that can bring joy to millions of others. And for those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor, we should appreciate that these could be “once in a lifetime” creations and savor them as such.

Wives and Daughters
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Date: Elder and Company, 1866
Reprint Publisher and Date: Norilana Books Classics Norilana Books Norilana Books, April 2008

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’ India and the First World War” by Vedica Kant

India and the First World War

A collector’s delight, this book has more photos than text. Even if you aren’t a serious reader you can enjoy the pictures and their captions. The gruesome realities of war come alive through the pages. According to Max Weber, the British and French armies comprised “niggers, Gurkhas, and the barbarians of the world.”

One and a half million Indians participated in the war. Over 70,000 were martyred. Gandhi, Tilak and Sarojini Naidu persuaded Indians to serve the imperial cause. Gandhi’s ‘Appeal for Enlistment’ leaflet said: “If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible dispatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army.” The 700 odd princely states saw the war as an opportunity to curry favour with the British.

The soldiers left behind hardly any traces of their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Most of the information was gleaned by reading their censored letters. There is only one first person account of soldier’s war experiences. Two Bengali gentlemen, Dr. Kalyan Mukherjee and Sisir Sarbadhikari, who wrote their memoirs, were part of the medical corps.

Havildar Abdul Rahman wrote to a friend in May 1915: “For God’s sake, don’t come don’t come don’t come to war in Europe…and tell my brother Mohammed Yakub Khan for God’s sake do not enlist. If you have any relatives, my advice is don’t let them enlist.” Amir Khan in a letter to wrote to Khan Zaman in Rawalpindi district, “…our guns have filled the German trenches with the dead and made them brim with blood. God grant us grace, for grace is needed. Oh God, we repent! Oh God, we repent!” Gulab Singh wrote, “Many men have had their feet cut off for they had been burnt by the frost.” Santa Singh wrote to his mother, “As a man climbs a plum tree and shakes down the plums (so that) they fall and lie in heaps, so are men here fallen….They too are the children of mothers.”

When a sepoy decided to marry a Frenchwoman, a fellow sepoy wrote, “Mahomed Khan, the lance dafadar, is engaged to a Frenchwoman on the condition that he becomes a Christian. The marriage ceremony is to take place in two or three days. We have done our best to prevent it, but all has been in vain.”

Ragbir Singh wrote, “I have been wounded twice, and now this is the third time that I am being sent to the trenches….If Parmeshwar (God) allows I will escape but the butcher does not let the goat escape.”

The Home Office sanctioned cremation at a site near Brighton, although the 1902 Cremation Act virtually banned open-air cremation. When ghee was in short supply and there was talk of serving margarine to the wounded sepoys, the War Office intervened with a note: “If it got about that we were using margarine, there might be an explosion similar to the old cartridge trouble of the Mutiny.”

By January 1915 Germany had decided to build a mosque near Berlin to cater to Muslim POWs. The Germans had initially protested against the use of Indian and African soldiers in the war – something they viewed as a breach of racial etiquette. A few months later these barriers crumbled and new liaisons emerged.

The story of the two Afridi Pathan brothers, Mir Dast and Mir Mast, makes interesting reading. The former won the Victoria Cross for bravery in war. The other defected to the German side along with twenty two others and later joined a German mission to Afghanistan to convince the Emir to invade India. The British had increased the Emir’s stipend so he was in no mood to rebel. Both Mir Dast and Mir Mast survived the war.

206 Indian POWs lie buried in a forgotten cemetery fifty miles outside Berlin. In fact the Indian dead are scattered all over Europe, some with memorials, some without. The question ‘who will remember me’ hangs heavy.

It wasn’t just Europe. 40% of Indian soldiers served in Mesopotamia in the blazing heat and chilling winters of the Arabian Desert. Sarbadhikari describes an incident where he and another soldier, after marching continuously for three days in hunger and cold, set off to look for food and found a piece of bread in the haversack of a dead white soldier. “We divided it between us and were eating it in the dark, when we realized that the bread had a peculiar taste. Then we understood. The bread had soaked up the soldier’s blood…”

In April 1916, 17000 British- Indian troops under Captain Townshend surrendered to the Turks after enduring a five month long siege at Kut al-Amara. They were marched off through the desert to a location in present-day Syria to build the Baghdad-Istanbul railway. They witnessed the Armenian genocide. A small Armenian boy who was the lone survivor of his family was adopted by an Indian sweeper, given the name Babulal, and brought back to India after the war.

The vast majority of sepoys took their sad stories with them to their graves. As Amitav Ghosh states in the Foreword, “…silence was one of the sepoy’s most enduring traits; it goes so far back and is so consistent that it is hard not to see it as an act of resistance in itself.”

The troops were demobilized after the war and many were out of work. Their story too remains untold. During the clashes that preceded the burning of the police station at Chauri Chaura in February 1922, Bhagwan Ahir, a Mesopotamia veteran, was thrashed by the police. The rest is history.

Overall Assessment: Invaluable for the photos.

‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’ India and the First World War
AUTHOR: Vedica Kant
PUBLISHER: Roli Books
Date of Publication: 2014

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca.jpg

Rebecca is, by far, Daphne du Maurier’s most famous book, and while I had read it years ago, I was inspired to read it again after reading My Cousin Rachel a few months ago. Billed as a “classic tale of romantic suspense,” I found this to be very true even though I had read the book before and vaguely remembered what the suspense was. It’s a testament to how good the book was that I still enjoyed it so much.

The story is that of a young girl who gets married to a middle-aged man, Maxim De Winter, whose first wife has died. She meets him in Monte Carlo – where she is employed as a companion to a rich American woman on holiday – falls in love with him, accepts his proposal of marriage, and returns with him to Manderlay, his stately estate in England. However, she finds herself continuously haunted by the presence of his first wife, Rebecca, at Manderlay. This is not a physical haunting – Rebecca is not a ghost story – but an emotional one. Rebecca seems to be everything she is not – beautiful, gregarious, bold, stately, decisive, stylish, with impeccable taste, the life and soul of a party. It seemed that she could do anything and was adored by everyone. The girl, now the new Mrs. De Winter – whose Christian name we are never told – is engulfed by extreme feelings of inadequacy. These are compounded by the housekeeper at Manderlay, Mrs. Danvers, who was devoted to Rebecca and makes no bones about how she feels towards the new Mrs. De Winter, despite continuing to do her housekeeping duties. She, the new Mrs. De Winter, also thinks her husband is still in love with Rebecca and can’t get over her death.

What exactly happened to Rebecca? How did she die? Why does Maxim look so haunted at times? Why is Mrs. Danvers so sinister, and so contemptuous of the new Mrs. De Winter? What does Frank Crawley, who handles the affairs of the estate for Maxim, know about Rebecca? And who is the shady Jack Favell, who comes to Manderlay to meet Mrs. Danvers and is supposedly a cousin of Rebecca, but is strongly disliked by Maxim and has therefore to keep his visit a secret?

While Rebecca is not a detective story — there is no “investigator” as such — it does have a strong element of mystery about it, with so many lingering questions that persist for most of the book. While that, in and of itself, is not unique to a novel, what sets this book apart is the masterful quality of the writing. It gradually builds up the suspense and captures the increasingly haunted feeling experienced by the protagonist — and thus, by extension, the readers — so vividly that I could almost viscerally experience a growing feeling of dread as I was reading it. And this is despite having read it before and guessing what the suspense was.

I can see why Rebecca has secured Daphne du Maurier a secure place in the annals of literary history. It is truly a timeless classic.

Rebecca
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Original Publisher and Date: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1938
Reprint Publisher and Date: William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2006

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Kind Worth Killing” by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing

It seemed like fate when Ted Severson accidentally met the beautiful Lily Kintner in an airport pub. Eventually he starts talking about his personal life and how his marriage with Miranda is going down the spiral and soon enough … Lily offers to help.

A deadly game begins there.

The author seems to have got the inspiration from Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. However, the best thing about this book was that at a certain point when we, the reader, think everything is predictable about this story, it suddenly takes a dangerous turn.

That single factor makes it a much better read than other similar works. I was literally like, “Oh, where did that come from,” at that point.

The story is narrated from a first-person point of view. So the story gets explained by each major character separately. However, the author has not taken any special care to make them “sound” different. The writing style remains a constant throughout the book for all characters.

Out of the lot, Lily Kintner was the most interesting one. You will start rooting for her and supporting a particular “obsession” of hers even if you suspect that she may not be doing the right thing.

It’s hard to write more about this book without spoiling anything. Some of the tactics used in the book to kill have zero logic if you think hard about them, but it doesn’t matter really since it is a thriller. The book is a good read. Yes, perhaps the ending could’ve been slightly different.

But then again, some of them are the kind worth killing!

The Kind Worth Killing
Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 2015

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“Keeping the Jewel in the Crown: The British Betrayal of India” by Walter Reid

Keeping the Jewel in the Crown.jpg

A brilliant book detailing the last three decades of the British Raj. The tactics used by successive British leaders to bring about irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims are clearly outlined. The Brits used every weapon in their armoury to keep India in the crown. These weapons included deceit, dilly-dallying and divisiveness.

Britain’s prosperity had long depended upon the exploitation of faraway colonies. When the American colonies bid goodbye in 1776, India became the ‘jewel in the crown’. After the First World War, when the danger of losing India loomed large, the Brits acquired new territories in Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Their commercial instincts remained uppermost.

A million Indians fought overseas in World War I and 54,000 died. The Brits followed different protocols for burying their own dead, whereas dead Indians were dumped in mass graves. The Memorial of the Missing at Basra (Mesopotamia) mentions about 8000 Brits by name. 665 Indian officers are named too but 33,222 Indian soldiers are reduced to a mere number. This was the pattern all over Europe: Cemeteries, tombstones and markers for the Brits, nothing for the Indians.

Churchill wrote in the Daily Mail in November 1929: “The rescue of India from ages of barbarism, tyranny and internecine war, and its slow but ceaseless forward march to civilization constitute upon the whole the finest achievement of our history. This work has been done in four of five generations by the willing sacrifices of the best of our race.”OMG! I’d always believed Churchill was a consummate racist but reading this statement really gave me the creeps!

When the Gandhi Irwin Pact was debated in the House of Commons on 12th March 1931, Baldwin made his infamous speech quoting a line from his cousin Rudyard Kipling, about the press having “power without responsibility…the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

When Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India, was refused entry to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club because he was accompanied by Indian friends, he established the Willingdon Sports Club which was open to all races. Lord Linlithgow, who became Viceroy in 1936, was prone to chasing butterflies in the Shimla hills. The book has a sprinkling of uncharitable observations on political opponents by various personages. The author even mentions that Nehru’s Gandhi cap was made by Scot of London. And Jinnah owned over 300 suits.

On 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany and the same day Linlithgow coolly made a radio announcement that India was at war with Germany. Earlier in August he had already sent Indian troops to Aden, Egypt and Singapore.

“Gandhi…thought that in the face of Hitler’s aggression, German Jews and Czechs should simply resort to non-violence and Britain should submit to German occupation.” When VK Krishna Menon was asked whether he’d rather see India occupied by the Japanese or the British, he said, “You might as well ask a fish whether it preferred being fried in butter or margarine.” The remark ‘a post dated cheque on a crashing bank’ is usually attributed to Gandhi but it was Nehru who said it.

The League’s demand for partition was by no means unique. Elsewhere in the empire there were similar instances. Though the dominion of Canada was created in 1867, Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island came in years later, and Newfoundland joined as late as 1949. When Australia became free, New South Wales and Western Australia chose to stay apart for years – and New Zealand became a separate country.

“Until the war, India had owed money to Britain. As the war went on she became a substantial creditor…” By 1945 Britain owed India 1260 million pounds. When the war ended Britain was indebted to the United States – and the loan was finally repaid only in 2006!

Of the INA, the author states: “The facts are that (1) about 40,500 Indian troops were captured in Malaya/Singapore of which 16,000 joined the INA; (2)a second unit of the INA was set up in 1943 and perhaps 24,000 Indian POWs were recruited; (3) at the war’s end there were thus about 40,000 men in the INA.” I tried to do the math. Only 500 soldiers were unaccounted for. Perhaps they had died or disappeared. In any case it looks like 100% of Indian POWs joined the INA, if British records are to be believed.

1942 was turbulent year. The Japanese captured Singapore-Malaya, Burma and the Andamans in quick succession. Gandhi launched the Quit India movement. “Rail and telegraph communications were struck at. In Madras, Bihar and the united Province, British servicemen were attacked and murdered…..The Government responded with enormous force……Rioters were fired at and aircraft were used to strafe saboteurs who were tearing up railway lines. In Bombay demonstrators were beaten with rattan canes. Order was not restored for six weeks.” It was estimated that 4000 to 10000 Indian lost their lives in the crackdown. On 31st August the Viceroy informed Churchill, “I am engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellions since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security. Mob violence remains rampant over large tracts of the countryside.”

“American forces had been arriving in India from the beginning of the year (1942) and by the end of the war there were half a million American troops there.” We learn a few interesting facts about America’s attitude to British imperialism. Just before the Cripps Mission set off for India, Roosevelt wrote to Churchill suggesting that a temporary dominion government be set up in India.

Churchill in his war memoirs claimed that “…the peoples of Hindustan…were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island.” Feel like throwing up? So do I.

Overall assessment: Worth reading.

Keeping The Jewel in the Crown: The British Betrayal of India
Author: Walter Reid
PUBLISHER: Viking – Penguin Random House
Year of Publication: 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Child” by Fiona Barton

The Child

The Child follows up on Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, which I had written about last year. I am an aficionado of the mystery/thriller genre and I had found The Widow a very good book in that genre. It was not spectacular by any means – far from contemporary hits like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, let alone classics such as Agatha Christie’s many books – but it was a well written, entertaining, and gripping read. Barton’s new book, The Child, is in the same genre, and while it is as well written as The Widow, I would have to say that its entertainment and gripping quotient was a notch lower.

The mystery in The Child is that of a dead newborn baby, whose remains are discovered when some buildings are demolished in a London neighborhood and the construction site is being dug up for a new development. While the exact year of death cannot be determined from the remains as they have been buried for many years, the fact that they are wrapped up in a specific kind of plastic bag provides some clues on a possible time frame. A DNA test reveals a match with a woman, Angela, whose newborn baby mysteriously disappeared shortly after it was born from the maternity ward of the hospital she was in. While Angela has two other children who are now grown up and have kids of their own, she has never gotten over the disappearance of Alice, the name they had given the baby. The discovery of the remains on the building site gets her hopes up so she can know once and for all what happened to her baby and get some closure, even though it means definitively knowing that Alice is dead.

Just when everyone was certain the dead baby was Alice, a wrench is thrown into the mystery when further testing shows that the remains had been buried on the site at least ten years, if not more, after the date that Alice disappeared. So it is still Alice? If so, were the remains hidden somewhere else for over a decade and then buried at the building site? Is that even possible? And if, does that make any sense? Or is this another baby? But no other baby was reported missing in that time. And what about the DNA match?

This is the central mystery in The Child, and while Angela is one of the main characters in the book, there is also Kate, the intrepid reporter who is fascinated by the case and keeps digging into it, and Emma, another woman who happened to live at the housing development at the time when the remains were buried. Emma has a deeply disturbed past and secrets of her own, and for some reason, the story of the baby’s remains becomes one she gets obsessed with.

The mystery is, of course, resolved at the end of the book, and just as in The Widow, in a satisfying, entirely believable way, without any “curve ball” type of plot twists. While there is sufficient intrigue in the story to make The Child as much of a page-turner as The Widow, it wasn’t a book that I couldn’t put down — I read it over the course of a week rather than a day — and in that respect, I would have to say that it was not as gripping as Barton’s first book.

The Child
Author: Fiona Barton
Publisher: Berkley
Publication Date: June 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Villette” by Charlotte Brontë

Villette

I decided to read Villette by Charlotte Brontë because I wanted to become more familiar with her works. I had only read Jane Eyre before.

I’ve also always been intrigued by Charlotte Brontë’s life. She was a woman who experienced a lot of sorrow through the loss of some of her family members. It also seemed like she experienced rejection by people who held to certain religious views. This is why I was really interested in reading another one of her works.

Another thing that caught my attention was the idea that this story took place in a fictional town, “Villette.” I was interested to see what kind of town she would create. I imagined that she would create a fictional world, so that I thought it would be something entirely different from Jane Eyre.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t what I expected. Although she did create a fictional town, Villette actually turned out to be another novel largely inspired by real events in her life. Which made it, in some ways, very similar to events that occurred in Jane Eyre. If you have read Jane Eyre, you might enjoy picking up on these similarities and figuring out how each of the similarities could have been inspired by events that were real to her.

I must say that it was really hard for me to get into this story because it was so confusing to me. At first, I thought that a lot of the earlier chapters were pointless. The main character, Lucy Snowe, spends a lot of time talking about two other characters, Graham and Pauline, and I couldn’t understand why. But everything comes together in a lovely way eventually. Every component serves its purpose in bringing the characters and novel together. Something that I learned through reading this book is to be patient in allowing the story to unfold and the characters to develop.

Another thing that made it really confusing for me, at first, was that there was a lot of dialogue in French (as the story is set in France). It wasn’t until halfway through the book that I decided to read using a translation app on my phone which did a great deal in helping me understand and enjoy the story a lot more.

Once I was able to sort out all the confusion and understand the story, I began to enjoy this book so much! Very much like Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë creates a strong passionate woman named Lucy Snowe. What intrigued me about Lucy Snowe was the circumstances she found herself in. She was lonely young woman who had to find a way to support herself.

“Thus, there remained no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look. I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances, as they are upon thousands besides.”

This is when I first became gripped by the novel. I wanted to learn about how she would survive. This to me, was the central idea throughout the novel and as events unfold surrounding this issue of her finding a way to support herself, she proves herself to be so resilient which was truly an inspiration to me.

A few things that stood out to me were her descriptions with battling depression due to loneliness. This story is told through the perspective of Lucy Snowe, so we are following her journey through her mind and how she perceives people and experiences around her. She’s also very poetic and passionate in her expressions, which was also something I enjoyed. There were many memorable quotes and descriptions very much like Jane Eyre.

I also think Charlotte Brontë did a great job at bringing her characters to life. Although we are in Lucy’s mind, she helps us understand those she encounters through Lucy Snowe’s dialogue and interaction with others. It was really pleasant to read about the relationships she develops with some of these characters. There were lots of moments that I laughed.

There were also scary moments! Several times, she describes Lucy Snowe’s encounter with a scary apparition that makes its occasional appearance throughout the story.

I almost forgot to add that there is a “possible” love interest in this story. However, it wasn’t quite clear who it might be until much later in the story. Therefore, the ambiguity between the two possible characters that could be the male protagonist caused me to stick with the story to see who it might be.

All in all, it was so pleasant to follow Lucy Snowe’s story. She was another woman who I found to be very strong. I really admired her work ethic and her resilience in finding a way to sustain herself and overcoming any emotional hardship. She was also true to herself and her convictions, and a sincere friend. It was definitely worth all the initial confusion and the brain work that went in to understanding this one.

Villette
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Original Publication Date: 1853
Edition: Penguin Classics, December 2004

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History” by Sanjeev Sanyal

Ocean of Churn

A delightful book by an erudite scholar with a penchant for genuine research and a superb style of presentation. Easy to read, easy to understand, difficult to put down. A masterly blend of history, geography, politics, biology, geology, genetics, and archaeology, interspersed with anecdotes and personal testimonies. This book ought to be adapted as a school textbook.

The author eschews the traditional narratives of history presented from the western viewpoint and gives us rare insights into the goings-on in the Indian Ocean rim from pre-history to the present. From the Ranis of Ullal who consistently resisted Portuguese incursions to Marthanda Varma of Travancore who decisively defeated the Dutch at Colachel, and the Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s whose ‘treasure fleet’ visited many Indian ocean ports, the author chronicles the crucial events in India’s history and deftly places everything in perspective.

“When Prithviraj Chauhan, ruler of Delhi, fended off a raid by Muhammed Ghori in 1191, he allowed the invader to return home to Afghanistan! Ghori returned the following year to defeat and kill Prithviraj. This led to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and opened up the rest of India to conquest.” Around 1200 Nalanda University was laid waste by Bakhtiyar Khilji.

The book begins with the fascinating story of Pallava king Nandivarman II whose 65 year reign ended in A.D.796. He was shipped in from a faraway kingdom in south-east Asia at the tender age of 12 to fill the vacant throne. Five generations ago, the brother of the Pallava king had migrated to the remote kingdom, married a princess and inherited the throne. When the time came to send an heir to Kanchi, the youngest of the four sons of the reigning monarch was chosen. And, boy, did he prove his mettle!

Apart from debunking the Aryan Invasion Theory and a host of other myths such as the pacifism of Emperor Ashoka and the patriotism of Tipu Sultan, Sanyal tell us how Britain acquired the island of Manhattan, what they gave the Dutch in exchange, why the merchant Naruttam helped the Omanis recapture Muscat from the Portuguese, how the Bali islanders chose to make their last desperate stand against the Dutch in the chilling style typical of Indian warrior clans, and a lot more. The book is a treasure trove of historical facts that have been painstakingly researched, verified and cross-checked.

Remains of a 23000 year old farming settlement have been discovered near the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Europeans may have acquired their fair skin as recently as 5000 B.C. The Harappans exported ghee and cotton textiles. Many of the so-called ‘Indian spices’ were from Indonesia, e.g. cloves and nutmeg.

The Rig Veda indicates no knowledge of Central Asia or southern India. Its geographical canvas is the Sapta Sindhu or land of the Seven Rivers. The river Saraswathi mentioned in the Hindu texts is the Ghaggar River that rose in the Himalayas in the Punjab-Haryana region and finally flowed into the Rann of Kutch. The Sutlej and the Yamuna were among its tributaries. The Indus also used to flow into Kutch until an earthquake in 1819 diverted its course.

Indian soldiers were a global tribe long before the two World Wars. They had seen action at Gaugamela in 311 B.C. when Alexander of Macedon and Darius of Persia came face to face. The Indian cavalry continued fighting even after Darius had fled the battlefield. In 326 B.C. Alexander massacred 7000 Indian soldiers of the Massagan army because they refused to join his invasion of India. Seleucus Nikator gained an edge over the other generals of Alexander when he acquired 500 war elephants from Chandragupta Maurya (in exchange for Baluchistan and Afghanistan). Not to be outdone, Ptolemy managed to get elephants from Ethiopia and smuggled in Indian mahouts to train them for battle.

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea tells us there were a large number of Indians in Socotra Island (Yemen). Sanyal tells us the name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sukhadhara’.

Nearly half a century after Ashoka’s death, Kharavela of Kalinga sacked Pataliputra and sounded the death knell of the Maurya empire, yet his name is absent from history books.

The Kingdom of Funan in the Mekong delta, the first Indianized kingdom in southeast Asia, was established in the first century B.C. Nalanda University was partly funded by the Srivijaya kings of Sumatra. Roman women used to consult Indian astrologers. Madagascar was colonised by the Indonesians. By the Pallava period there were large Indian communities living in Chinese port towns. One of the largest merchant guilds called ‘The Five Hundred’ was established in Aihole, Karnataka.

Answers to many intriguing questions can be found in this book. How long have the Tamils been in Sri Lanka? Where did the Sinhalese come from? Why does Cuttack in Odisha have an annual fair called ‘Bali Yatra’? Why do the Mohyal Brahmins of Punjab join the Shia Muslims during the ritual mourning during Muharram? Why was Muhammad bin Qasim executed soon after his invasion of Sindh? Who first owned the Kohinoor diamond? And so on.

Observing that humans carry the DNA of Neanderthals and Denisovans in small proportions, Sanyal remarks tongue in cheek, “Given all this mixing, forget racial purity, it seems most of us are not even pure Homo sapiens!”

Overall Assessment: Truly a masterpiece. One of the best books I’ve read in recent years.

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History
AUTHOR: Sanjeev Sanyal
PUBLISHER: Penguin
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: August 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South.jpg

Two of my all-time favorite books are Victorian classics — Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – and I have been so starved of books in this genre that discovering North and South was like coming across a gem I never even knew existed. I stumbled upon its 2004 BBC adaptation — in the form of a four-part miniseries — on Netflix last week, remembered the recent write-up of the book by Nathalie Dorado-Fields, and started watching it – and couldn’t stop. It made me then get the book which I first obsessively read cover to cover, and then went right back and re-read it. It was simply that good.

As with most Victorian classics, North and South is, at its heart, a love story, and as with most books like it, the romantic tension between the hero and the heroine is sustained throughout the book, literally right down to the last page. The heroine here is Margaret Hale, the daughter of a clergyman who is forced to move with her family from the idyllic pastoral community in the south of England to the gritty industrial and manufacturing community in the north. The hero is a mill-owner in her new surroundings, John Thornton, who is taken with her right away, but whom she finds too harsh and unfeeling until it is almost too late.

While it would be easy to write North and South off as just another romance, what makes it so much more is how it captures the weighty social issues of that time related to industrialization — the growth in manufacturing, the increase in factories, the economic disparity between the mill owners and the workers employed in them, and the class divide. It provides an unflinching look at the lives of the mill workers, their extreme poverty, and their poor health, attributable in large measure to the unhealthy working conditions and polluted air inside the mills. A large portion of the novel is centered around a strike by the mill workers, and the part played in it by the workers’ union. This was when unionization was first starting, and while the strike didn’t end up benefitting the workers in this case, the perspectives of both the workers and the mill owners are the subject of extensive debate and discussion between the various characters. Also, the book does not shy away from the harsh realities of life at that time — there are quite a few deaths and even a suicide. It reminded me a lot of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which portrayed the brutality of criminals and the pitiful treatment of orphans in mid-19th century London in the same heart-rending vein. You feel like you are there and can viscerally experience the pain.

Usually, novels like this are written entirely from one point of view, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre. But North and South was unique in that respect — it takes you inside the head of both the hero and the heroine. You can feel both of their feelings, their emotions, their reactions to each other, and to the world around them. It made the book so much more richer and the story so much more vivid.

I am thrilled to have discovered a new book to add to my much-loved collection of classic literature as well as another author in this genre that I so much admire. I have already added Elizabeth Gaskell’s other books to my reading pipeline.

North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Publication Date: Chapman & Hall, 1855
Edition: Norilana Books, Nov 2007

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine

I had the privilege of reading this book along with a friend. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, since I didn’t know too much about it except from what the title suggested, that it would be about time traveling.

When I first started to read this story, it reminded me a little of the Sherlock Holmes’ series because we are introduced to the time traveler through the perspective of another character, very much like how Watson recounts his observations of Holmes. The time traveler is passionately proposing his idea of time traveling and introducing the machine he has invented to a group of men who are very skeptical of him.

On their second meeting, the time traveler shows up late to their dinner meeting and when he arrives, he is looking very haggard. It turns out that he had just returned from visiting the future. What follows from then on is the time traveler sharing the story of his journey into the future and what he experienced there.

I was really excited and curious to know what happened to him over there. Why was he looking the way he was? Would they finally believe him? Was he even telling the truth? Those were some of the questions that sustained me throughout this book.

Another thing that intrigued me about this story was that it was a science fiction book written in the Victoria Era. I was curious to know how science fiction would play out during that time period. Moreover, it was my first science fiction novel. Some of the science fiction aspects that I really enjoyed were the descriptions of the actual travel into the future and the descriptions of the world and inhabitants he encounters over there. I look forward to continuing to explore this genre thanks to this book.

The author, H.G. Wells, seemed to be very passionate about issues and changes that were going on during his time period due to industrialization. His beliefs come through heavily in his story. It seemed like he believed that the type of progress that was happening during his time would bring about moral decline. These are themes and questions that arise throughout his story. I enjoyed this part as well because I was able to understand what aspects of society were important to him, and it caused me to question where I stood on the issues he would bring up.

This was something I wasn’t expecting. I thought it would mostly be fantasy-like but I enjoyed that he was able to create a fantasy world that symbolized real issues. It was fun to read about this world and imagine it, but it was also interesting to think about the heavier issues that each of these aspects represented.

Overall, it was a fun book to read, especially since I read it with a friend. It was fun to briefly be part of this world and also discuss the heavier topics that were brought up. It was also a short book. If you enjoy the morality aspects that are often brought up in Victorian literature, along with the fantasy elements from science fiction, you might enjoy this book.

The Time Machine
Author: H.G. Wells
Original Publisher and Publication Date: William Heinemann, 1895
Edition: Signet Classics, October 2002

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.