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Archive for June, 2021

The Ocean’s Own‘ is the third volume of Nandini Sengupta’s Gupta trilogy. I loved the first two parts, ‘The King Within‘ and ‘The Poisoned Heart‘ and was excited when I discovered that the third part was coming out. I just finished reading it.

The Ocean’s Own‘ is not a sequel to the first two parts but is a prequel to the first part. It tells the story of the Gupta emperor Samudragupta, when he was still a prince. The story starts with the newly married Prince Kacha (Samudragupta’s name before he became the emperor) going on his honeymoon with his young wife Datta with their best friend Harisena accompanying them. The young couple are enjoying the first days of their married life together, when they receive news from the palace, which is not good. Soon they are attacked by unknown people in the forest. The subsequent action moves the story fast and we can’t wait to find out what happens next and who these unknown assailants are and as Holmes is fond of saying, what plots are afoot. To find out what happens next, you have to read the book 😊

Historical fiction in English written by Indian writers is typically set in the British colonial era or during the Mughal era. This is probably because many Indian writers feel that these are the eras in Indian history which international readers are interested in and so if they want a book to be widely read, it is better to set the story in these time periods. This is odd, because India has a rich history stretching back to centuries before the Mughal era. The Mughal era started in 1526 CE and the Buddha was born at around 480 BCE (according to one estimate), so that is 2000 years of history out there, for which some kind of evidence is available, even if we ignore the mythical origins of Indian history before the Buddha. But Indian historical fiction writers writing in English have ignored this vast span of time filled with amazing events and have focused only on the past five hundred years. Nandini Sengupta has tried to redress that and has set her trilogy during the Gupta dynasty which was there between the third and fifth century CE. This era was regarded as the golden age of Indian history and culture and it was the time that the great poet and dramatist Kalidasa lived. So Nandini Sengupta has broken new ground here, in terms of Indian historical fiction writing in English, which is inspiring.

The three books in the trilogy focus on three different emperors and this third volume, ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ is about the Emperor Samudragupta. It has all the things that Nandini Sengupta’s fans have come to expect from her books – a wonderful start filled with mystery and intrigue, unknown assassins trying to do bad things, palace intrigue, beautiful friendship, wonderful descriptions of sword fights and battle scenes, passionate romance. And last but not the least, the amazing strong women characters. There are the quiet strong women, like the princess and the empress. And then there is the courtesan, the assassin, the warrior, all amazing women. This book features the Pallava princess and warrior, Angai, who is a fierce warrior like Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who fights Achilles, and who teaches Emperor Samudragupta one or two things about how to fight in a battle, and gives him an education that he never forgets. She is one of the great characters in the story and the trilogy.

I loved ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ and the whole Gupta trilogy. Unfortunately, all good things have to come to an end, and I had a bittersweet feeling when I finished reading this final volume. I can’t wait to find out what Nandini Sengupta comes up with next.

Have you read ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ or other books in the Gupta trilogy? What do you think about them?

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I started reading an anthology called ‘The Oxford Book of Essays‘ and in that book there was an excerpt of an essay by Thomas Macaulay on Robert Clive. I loved this excerpt so much that I went in search of the whole essay. I found it online and it was around 120 pages long. It was a book-length essay. I just finished reading it.

First page of Macaulay’s essay

In his essay, Macaulay gives us an account of Robert Clive’s life. There are some sketchy details of his personal life, a little about his parents, a sentence about his marriage, but most of it is about his work during his time in India. Robert Clive came to India when he was seventeen years old. He worked as a clerk in the Madras office of the East India Company. He worked in the same position for around eight years. When he was twenty five, circumstances thrust him into the forefront, and he distinguished himself by performing amazing deeds and with one thing leading to another, this lowly clerk became the Governor of Bengal and laid the foundation for the British empire in India. It is an amazing, unbelievable story.

Thomas Macaulay was probably one of the three great British historians of the 19th century. The other two being Thomas Carlyle and Edward Gibbon. While Thomas Carlyle’s classic book on the French Revolution continues to be in print, it has been joined by other modern books on the subject. Edward Gibbon’s book continues to reign supreme as the definitive work on Roman history in English, as most historians feel daunted by the subject matter and have avoided coming up with a new interpretation of that time. Gibbon’s book has attained the status of a classic, as described by Mark Twain – always recommended but never read. Beautiful collectors’ editions of the book are available which are snapped up by young collectors to adorn their bookshelves. In contrast, Thomas Macaulay’s classic book on English history has long gone out of print. Today, Macaulay is regarded as a historian who wrote beautiful prose, but who propounded the imperialist point of view and so his books have fallen out of favour. To use a modern phrase, he has been ‘cancelled’. Which is a shame. Because going by the evidence of this essay, Macaulay is good, really good.

By the time Robert Clive died after moving back to England, he was regarded as a bad guy, as an employee of the East India Company who achieved great things and acquired great power, but who used that in unscrupulous and immoral ways to accumulate personal wealth. Macaulay tries putting things in perspective, by explaining both sides of the equation and lets us draw our own inference from it. It was wonderful to read. Macaulay’s prose proves that its reputation is not unfounded – it is beautiful to read. 19th century English prose, especially in the hands of great writers, is like Urdu. Every word, every sentence is beautiful, is a pleasure to read. We can experience that beauty in every page of Macaulay’s prose. It is sad that people don’t write like this nowadays. Even the best writers today write prose which is only a little better than mine. I’m just an anonymous guy who revels in his mediocrity. I can never write like Macaulay or Dickens or Eliot or Carlyle. If this is the best there is now, it is sad how things have sunk.

I enjoyed reading Macaulay’s essay on Clive. Macaulay has written more such essays. I am hoping to read them soon. I also hope to read his book on English history and find out whether it is really an imperialist tract, or whether it is really good, but it got ‘cancelled’ because people didn’t like Macaulay’s face or some aspect of his opinions and politics.

Have you read this or other essays by Thomas Macaulay? What do you think about him?

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I got into a deep reading slump in the last couple of weeks and so to come out of it I decided to read one of my favourite writers from my early teens, Tamilvanan. The book I read was called ‘Fly With Me‘. I thought I had read it before, but the plot was new to me – it looked like I had confused it with another book.

The story told in ‘Fly With Me‘ goes like this. A mysterious rich man invites one of his young associates one day to his home. This rich man tells his associate that he wants to hire a pilot who can steal a plane from the Airforce airfield and fly it and land it in a forest at a specific location. The associate says that he knows such a pilot but that pilot is in prison right now and he’ll try to get this pilot out. So this associate gets into prison himself and escapes alongwith the pilot. Then these two gentlemen go to the Airforce airfield and the pilot gets into a specific plane and starts it. While he is getting started, a beautiful, young woman jumps into the plane, just before it starts taxiing down the runway. The plane takes off with the pilot and the unknown woman inside it. To find out what happens after that, you have to read the story 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘Fly With Me‘. The first half was fast-paced and gripping with cool, stylish characters, but somewhere in the second half, the story lost steam, and the ending was too rushed and contrived – too many things happen in the last three pages that it feels like the author wanted to complete the story in a rush. The story seems to be inspired by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel and movie ‘Thunderball‘ and one of the characters in the story even refers to it in an indirect way. There is even a Tamil version of Blofeld in the story. He doesn’t have a cat though.

Tamilvanan was probably the first Tamil novelist that I ever read. I read my first Tamilvanan novel when I was twelve and I continued reading him till my late teens. He was probably my most favourite author for a significant part of that time. Tamilvanan mostly wrote crime fiction, murder mysteries, action thrillers and noir fiction. He started his career writing literary fiction, but soon switched to crime fiction. His arrival heralded a breath of fresh air in popular Tamil fiction. He wrote in genres which no other Tamil author had attempted before – like action thrillers and noir fiction. His heroes were handsome, dashing, chivalrous men and his heroines were beautiful, elegant, strong women. Even his villains were cool and stylish. Before his advent, Tamil crime fiction was mostly humorous and cozy, with only a few authors writing in it. Tamilvanan reinvented that genre with his gripping, page-turning, sometimes dark and gritty stories and his cool, stylish characters. I think he can be rightly called the father of modern Tamil crime fiction.

Tamilvanan’s most iconic character was a detective called Sankarlal, who was a combination of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. When he solved murder mysteries he assumed his Sherlock Holmes persona but when he went on international adventures to exotic locales like Berlin, Paris, Hong Kong and Geneva (exotic locales for Tamil readers), to solve international mysteries and catch the bad guys, he assumed his James Bond persona, frequently being involved in car chases and boat chases with typically a beautiful, kick-ass woman accompanying him. At the peak of his popularity, Tamilvanan couldn’t resist a narcissistic streak and introduced a new detective who was a fictional version of himself, had the same name as himself, and who sported a hat and dark sun glasses as the author himself. This new detective was a loner. He was not married or have any family or friends like Sankarlal, he didn’t drink tea or coffee but drank only fruit juice, he lived alone in a big house, and he solved mysteries. Though readers missed the handsome Sankarlal and his family of charming, eccentric characters, they were not complaining. The stories of this new detective were equally gripping and readers loved him.

One of the things that I loved about Tamilvanan was his prose. His prose was spare with short sentences, and he wrote in pure Tamil which was a pleasure to read. Even the conversations in his stories were written in this style, and they had nothing in common with the casual language in which people have conversations in the real world. This made the conversations in the stories so pleasurable to read. Most Tamil writers would use commonly used English words in their stories, but Tamilvanan refused to use even words like tea and coffee and juice in his stories, but used their Tamil equivalents. When I first read his books, I didn’t know the meanings of some of these words, because no one used them in everyday life, and I had to ask my mom what they meant. I still remember encountering the Tamil words for ‘juice’ and ‘file’ for the first time in his books. The characters in his stories also had pure Tamil names, inspired by names from classical Tamil literature, names which were beautiful and always had a meaning attached to them, the kind of names which parents don’t give their kids. His women characters had some of the most beautiful names that I had encountered in Tamil fiction.

Another thing that I loved about Tamilvanan’s stories was the way he reimagined Chennai. His Chennai was not the Chennai of the real world, in which people got up early in the morning and went to sleep early at night and life was simple and nice and boring. Tamilvanan’s Chennai was exciting – in the city depicted in the pages of his books, there were car chases and bike chases, boxing matches and horse races, there were night clubs which had beautiful dancers who had a gun inside their purse, and there were mysterious, powerful men living in dark bungalows in the middle of the city who plotted big crimes. It was a mythical Chennai which was present only in the pages of his books. Readers loved it. Many of them believed that it actually existed. Some of them went in search of these exotic places described in the book. Some of these places were present in the real Chennai, like the racecourse, but others were present only in the pages of his books, like boxing rings and night clubs filled with beautiful dancers. Tamilvanan’s mythical Chennai was a glorious reimagining of this beautiful city, where the imaginary version was more exciting than the real one.

In addition to crime fiction, Tamilvanan also wrote nonfiction. Most of his nonfiction was written for a young audience. He wrote inspiring essays dispensing advice to young people and also wrote books on fitness, health, martial arts, learning new languages and even the occasional biography. His book on Tamil hero Kattabomman was against the grain and controversial and his portrayal of Kattabomman was not at all flattering. Tamilvanan even wrote a sex manual which was popular among young men and women. It was unique in Tamil because it was the first time anyone had written a sex manual in Tamil – Tamil writers shy away from this topic – and it was a pure one-off because no one has written a sex manual in Tamil since. Unfortunately, it is out-of-print now.

By the time he passed away in the late ’70s, when he was in his middle fifties, Tamilvanan was probably the most popular writer in Tamil – he published his own magazine which serialized his stories and essays and he had his own publishing company which published his books. He was like a one-man army. He had inspired a whole generation of young people to become more confident, to read more, to acquire more knowledge, to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of their language, to have an international outlook. There had never been anyone like him before. There has been no one like him since.

Tamilvanan’s sons kept the flame burning and carried forward the family business after him. One of them handled the editorial responsibilities of the magazine he founded and wrote columns in it himself. The second son took care of the publishing company. The writer / editor son tried reviving Tamilvanan’s most famous fictional character Sankarlal and wrote a novel featuring him. It achieved modest success, but not at the same level as his dad’s books. Soon, this son gave up fiction writing and decided to focus on the columns that he wrote in the magazine dispensing inspiration and advice to young people. These columns became famous and the son became a famous writer in his own right. The son also delivered talks on topics which he addressed in his columns and he became famous as an inspiring public speaker who spoke in colleges and universities and on TV channels and who was admired by a young audience. At some point, the fame of the son eclipsed that of his dad and young readers started associating the Tamilvanan name with the son.

Tamilvanan’s novels led to an explosion of the crime fiction genre in Tamil. Many aspiring writers started writing crime fiction including crime fiction legend Rajesh Kumar, who became one of the most prolific writers in the world. It led to new monthly magazines which were exclusively dedicated to crime fiction and some of them were dedicated to just one author. One of these magazines paid homage to Tamilvanan by introducing an annual special issue which carried a Tamilvanan novel, which introduced Tamilvanan’s fiction to a whole new generation of readers. Unfortunately, the genres of action thrillers and noir fiction in Tamil died with Tamilvanan’s passing. Tamil writers were more comfortable writing about the things they knew and they didn’t like doing research and so there was no question of setting an action thriller in a ship or a plane or an exotic foreign locale. Tamil readers mostly like their crime fiction in black-and-white featuring good guys and the bad guys, with the good guys winning in the end, and a noir fiction novel in which everyone looked bad or there were shades of grey made readers uncomfortable. It was amazing that Tamilvanan ignored this and went ahead and wrote noir novels and encouraged readers to step out of their comfort zone. But later novelists decided to play it safe and avoided noir fiction because they didn’t want to antagonize the readers and noir fiction died a quiet death.

When I first moved to Chennai, one of the first things I did was to visit Tamilvanan’s publishing company, Manimekalai Prasuram. I was like a devotee on a pilgrimage visiting a temple for the first time. The office of the publisher was present in a modest building which looked like a house. It was so hard to believe that this was the place which brought out magazines and books which inspired millions of young people. Well, great things happen from modest places. It gave me goosebumps.

In recent years, the publishers decided to revive Tamilvanan’s fictional work and introduce it to a new generation of readers. They brought out beautiful, hardback, omnibus editions of his most famous novels. I went and got some of them at the book fair. It was nice to read them again and experience again the joy I experienced during my teens.

Have you read any of Tamilvanan’s books? What do you think about them?

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