Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Indian Fiction’

When I discovered that Nandini Sengupta‘s first novel ‘The King Within‘ was coming out and that it was a historical novel set during one of the fascinating times in Indian history, during the era of the Gupta dynasty, I couldn’t wait to read it.


The story told in the book goes like this. Darshini is a courtesan-actress. She is travelling with her escorts to Ujjayni to participate in a music and poetry festival. During their travel, Darshini and her group have to pass through a forest. There they are attacked by a group of tribesmen. Darshini realizes that they are outnumbered. Just when she has given up hope and starts praying to the Buddha, the Enlightened One, a new man enters the scene and engages the robbers in a sword fight. People who come with him also join the fight. Before long half of the robbers are killed and the other half beat a hasty retreat. The newcomer introduces himself as Deva. There is more to him than meets the eye. Deva offers to accompany Darshini and her group to Ujjayni. He also introduces her to his friends. And thus begins a long beautiful tale of friendship between four young people which stretches across time and geography, a friendship which goes through challenges hurled at it by personal relationships and historical events. What happens to these four friends forms the rest of the story.

For a book which is around two hundred pages, ‘The King Within‘ is epic in scope. The story starts at a time towards the end of Samudragupta’s reign and continues through Chandragupta Vikramaditya’s reign till nearly the end. I don’t know how the author managed to pack in so much in a book of this size. I loved the historical characters who came on the stage – Chandragupta Vikramaditya, Dhruvaswamini, Kalidas, Saba Virasena, Fa Hein, Queen Dattadevi, Varaha Mira – they were all complex and beautiful and flawed and real. I don’t know whether Darshini was historical but I loved her very much – to me she was the heroine of the story.

I loved the depiction of the life of that ancient era in the book – the dress people wore, the food they ate, the different kinds of wines, the different types of flowers, what people did for entertainment, the music people listened to, the relationship between Hindus and Buddhists – this was very beautifully written. Clearly the author has done her research very well. I also loved the description of the swordfights in the book – beautiful, elegant, graphic without being gory – it was like watching Gene Kelly dancing around with his sword, thrusting and parrying, in ‘The Three Musketeers‘. I loved Nandini Sengupta’s prose – it flowed smoothly with an elegant touch, page-turning during action scenes and slow and thoughtful in contemplative scenes.

The story is gripping from the first scene and as the book transitions from the everyday happenings in the life of four friends to the larger issues of governance and managing the empire, we move from the particular to the general, from the everyday detail to the bigger picture on a larger timescale, and the whole transition is seamless and brilliant. Reading this book made me want to read more about the history of that period. That, I think, is one of the great achievements of the novel – making the reader want to read more.

I loved ‘The King Within‘. If you like historical novels which are well researched, have cool characters, dashing adventures, cultural interludes and also talk about the bigger picture, you will love this.

I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.

For what was love if not suffering? Was it not the touchstone that transformed the earthy into the ethereal, ecstasy into bliss, giving mere humans a taste of eternity? Why blame destiny when, as the Enlightened One said, ‘There is no path in the sky.’ If her actions were hers, so were the consequences. Darshini felt drawn to Urvashi, more strongly than she was drawn to Shakuntala. Shakuntala was blamelessly poignant while Urvashi was dignified in her tragic flaws – one a girl, the other all woman.

The relentless rains had made way for blue skies and a nip in the air. Winter was on its way and this was Darshini’s favourite time of year. She loved the autumn for its promise of a gentler season, unmarred by the harshness of summer or the bleakness of winter, an in-between time when nature’s bounty seemed so much more magnified. It did not have spring’s riot of colour, but autumn always felt like a time for celebration.

“Sometimes, I wonder if it’s all been worth it after all. You spend a lifetime putting in place relationships and then you turn your back for a moment and they all come undone. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing at all.”

If dawn is the purity of unspoilt promise, she thought, dusk is the brevity of conclusion.

Have you read ‘The King Within‘? What do you think about it?


Read Full Post »

Ever since ‘Centre Court‘ by Sriram Subramanian came out, I have wanted to read it. But the distractions of life and Wimbledon got in the way. Finally I put aside everything yesterday and read the book in one sitting. Here is what I think.


Centre Court‘ tells the story of Shankar Mahadevan, who is a twenty five year old tennis player. Currently he is ranked 41 in the world. He is, at present, at Wimbledon on the eve of the championships. As his ranking is high enough, he gets a direct entry into the main draw. But as he is not seeded, life is unpredictable, as he could face a higher player in the first round and get knocked out. What happens next? Is he knocked out in the first round? Does he progress deep into the competition? I can’t tell you more about the story, because you should read the book and discover it yourself. 

Centre Court‘ is a rare bird, because it is a tennis novel. There are no tennis novels out there. I remember Monica Seles tried writing one which was supposed to be a part of a series aimed at young adult readers – a romantic novel series with a tennis backdrop. I don’t think it took off. The only kind of tennis books out there are ghosted biographies and table top books filled with beautiful photographs. There might be an occasional book about a famous match like the Federer – Nadal Final or the Borg – McEnroe final. Otherwise that shelf is really thin. Sport novels, in general, are very rare. I have read a couple of cricket novels, and loved them, but even in cricket, which is rich in literature, novels are rare. In tennis, novels are nonexistent. So ‘Centre Court‘ is unique. It breaks new ground. It is wonderful when a new literary experiment is attempted and it succeeds gloriously and we are there at close quarters to experience it. I loved that.

The second thing I loved about the book is this. ‘Centre Court‘ is a pure tennis novel. It has, of course, its share of drama, because sport is about drama after all. It has the inspiring story of an underdog we all love backing. It is about parents and children and family. It also has a whiff of romance. But, in the end, it is a tennis novel, a tennis novel of the finest kind. Does it mean that you need to know and understand tennis to follow the story and enjoy the drama? Not really. You can follow the story, enjoy the drama, emotionally invest in the main characters and go through an emotional rollercoaster with them, even if you are not a sports fan. But if you are a tennis fan, a tennis player or have been related to the game in any way, your experience will be richer. Because the book takes you on a tour of contemporary tennis history, talks about some of the great matches and players, tennis strategy and tactics, the politics in tennis, the administrators, and the evolution of equipment and technique. Sometimes it digresses into other sports like cricket and chess and draws parallels between them and tennis. It discusses many legendary sporting events in brief but sufficient detail. There is even a discussion on whether sport is art. So beautiful! When I saw that famous quote on being under pressure by my favourite Keith Miller, I couldn’t stop smiling! It was like the author took all the beautiful things about sport, put it in a novel and gift-wrapped it and presented it to his readers. All these beautiful things blend seamlessly with the story. How the author managed to do that, I have no idea.

If you are a tennis player or a passionate tennis fan, this book will embrace you, make you a part of the story and make you relive your own life. There is a description of the movie ‘Almost Famous‘ by music critic Tom Moon, which I love so much. It goes like this.

“There’s a scene in Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semiautobiographical film about his unlikely rise as a teenage rock critic, that illustrates the kinetic thrill of discovering music. The Cameron character’s big sister has just left home, and he’s checking out her record collection – gazing meaningfully at Cream’s Wheel of Fire and Led Zeppelin II as though trying to decipher sacred texts. When he opens the gatefold of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, he finds a note : “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.”

He follows the instructions, drops the needle on the hi-fi, and hears those galvanizing guitar chords, a call-to-arms across generations. Even though maybe he’s ten years old, he promptly gets the glassy look in his eyes which says, “Please don’t disturb this cosmic moment.” With this one scene, which has no dialogue, Crowe makes manifest something music lovers know in their bones. That if you listen intently, you will encounter more than just constellations of cool sounds – that lurking within them is information worth having, perhaps even a signpost pointing you toward the next key step on your journey.”

If you are a tennis fan and you read this book, you will feel something like that, about your past. I did. The past just came back instantaneously and I could see my whole life as a tennis fan unfolding before my eyes – Becker, Edberg, Lendl, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Jana Novotna, Monica Seles, McEnroe, Connors – the film reel moved on and on with beautiful vivid images. It was like being in the middle of ‘Cinema Paradiso‘.

So, that’s it. Read this book. You will love it. If you are a tennis fan, you will love it more.

I have just one regret. I wish Nirmal Shekhar, who was one of India’s finest tennis correspondents, was still around. If he was, he would have read this book and written a poetic essay about it. It would have been beautiful.

Have you read ‘Centre Court‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »