Posts Tagged ‘Zeenat Mahal’

I have wanted to read Zeenat Mahal’sThe Historian and the Hunter‘ for a while now. I loved two of Zeenat Mahal’s earlier books, ‘The Walled City‘ and ‘Haveli‘, and so I was excited to read her newest one. (Faiqa Mansab writes literary fiction in her own name, and she writes romance novels and fantasies as Zeenat Mahal.)

The Historian and the Hunter‘ is set in Lahore. Shirin and Laila are twin sisters. Their parents have been killed violently and they have been brought up by Madam Ara. Both Shirin and Laila work for the Council, which keeps the city safe from monsters and supernatural creatures. Begum, who is related to the twins, heads the Council and the Council comprises people from different walks of life, from different parts of the world. Shirin is the hunter. Whenever a new monster enters the town, she alongwith Emir, goes hunting. Laila is the historian. Her job is to study history, prise out its secrets, and help Shirin in her hunting and the Council in keeping the city safe. Strange things start happening in the city. A nau-guzzah, which is a giant, is suddenly spotted in the city after many decades. A churail, who looks like an old woman, but is extremely scary and nasty, is spotted in the city after a century. Shirin and Emir are extremely busy because of the arrival of these new ‘guests’ to the city. It seems some dark force is summoning them and more and more dark creatures listen to the call and start congregating towards the city. Why are these dark creatures being summoned? What is the nature of this dark force? Will Shirin and Laila be able to combat this dark force and save the city? The answer to these questions form the rest of the story.

The Historian and the Hunter‘ is fast-paced and gripping. Zeenat Mahal’s earlier novels are mostly romantic fiction, but here she has moved beyond familiar territory and has explored the fantasy landscape. But all the things that Zeenat Mahal’s fans love in her stories are present here, though the genre is different – there is verbal sparring and banter between the main characters, there is beautiful romance, there is humour, there is beautiful prose with gorgeous passages throughout the book. I loved most of the characters in the story, especially the twin sisters, Shirin and Laila (I liked Laila a little bit more, because she loved books and was mostly immersed in books), Emir, Rustam, Shahmeer, Madam Ara, Begum. Begum reminded me of the grandmother character in ‘Haveli‘ – she was loving, affectionate, strong and intimidating, all at the same time. I also loved some of the supernatural creatures, especially a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman who are actually snakes but appear in human form. I loved the scene in which they appear – it was so eerie and beautiful. The story weaves in some history with fantasy – for example the story of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is woven into the book and the father of Rudyard Kipling makes an important appearance in an interesting way – which is fascinating to read. There are two major revelations which happen towards the end of the book – I half suspected one, but not in the way it happened, but the second one was amazing and I didn’t see that coming.

I loved ‘The Historian and the Hunter‘. I am glad that Zeenat Mahal ventured into the fantasy genre and I am happy to say that she succeeds wonderfully. I can’t wait to read Zeenat Mahal’s next book.

I have a rant though, before I end my review. In the last twenty years – that is the whole of the 21st century till now – there has been only one fantasy novel published by Indian / Pakistani / South Asian publishers. That is Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy (the first part of the trilogy is called ‘The Simoqin Prophecies‘). (If you feel that this statement is wrong, please do let me know. I would love to hear more about original fantasy fiction published in this part of the world.) The two other books which can be almost included in this list are the English translation by Musharraf Ali Farooqi of ‘The Adventures of Amir Hamza‘, the Urdu fantasy epic, and ‘Ember of the Ashes‘ by Sabaa Tahir, but these two books were published by American publishers. So in nearly twenty years, while the rest of the world has gone gaga over fantasy fiction, South Asian publishers have turned a blind eye to the fantasy genre. I wonder why. While year after year, many new novel versions of the Mahabharata get published (I am so tired of them now. I think it is time for writers to close that shop and move on. I don’t think anyone needs one more new version of the Mahabharata. Just looking at one of those new versions in the bookshop now, makes my eyes ache), publishers keep avoiding original fantasy fiction. I don’t know why. I hear from writer friends that publishers say that fantasy won’t sell in India / Pakistan / South Asia. It is surprising to hear that, because readers from this part of the world love fantasy fiction and have lapped up Harry Potter and and every other international fantasy writer. I know friends who read fantasy fiction by international authors that I have never even heard of. Inspite of this, I don’t know why South Asian publishers have a myopic vision and continue to avoid this genre. There is money to be made, there is a readership out there, there is a potential market there, and there are filmmaking opportunities. What is the problem? I hope publishers and editors wake up from their long slumber and get some original fantasy fiction published. We need more books like ‘The Historian and the Hunter.’ Rant over.

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

“Sometimes, a story is not just a tale but the weaving of magic, a binding of words with lives, a knitting of magic into time, because words my friend, have power beyond anything you may ever have encountered.”

“What a grand thing it is, this destiny. What a kind thing, too, because our emotions would blind us, render us useless puddles of guilt, anger, love, hate and everything else—were it not for a string somewhere that pulls us up, or beckons us to follow it. That’s what it is, isn’t it, my dear? A broken thread has found its way into your life, and tugs at the other broken threads and now they all bite you like little vipers?”

“You think all the wars ever fought were started by evil men? No, Shirin half of them were started by idealists who thought they knew better, they knew how to set the world straight, they knew who deserved to live and die.”

“Decades on, room by room the roost of the zenana quarters had become a narrative of multiple revolutions, simultaneous histories, opposing arts and a synthesis of splendour and elegance.”

“They say this tale is as old as love; as familiar as pain; as true as death and as chock-full of betrayal as life can sometimes be. Like all stories that are important—those that survive through the ages that turn in cycles, that ebb and flow with the turning tides, and change with the shifting seasons—this, too, is the story of friendship and love.”

“The whetstone made a long screeching sound as she sharpened the blade against it. Sometimes, it emitted a few sparks. She watched out for those. They were so pretty, like little fireworks, like the small joys in a life, unexpected and extinguished too soon but leaving their mark on the heart.”

“She loved the silence of summer afternoons. The heat seemed to drink all sound into its vast opaque belly that had swallowed the world and everything in it.”

“People know of the past much as they do poetry and dreams. Half remembered, partially understood, often misrepresented.”

Emir : “Centres are sacred.”
Laila : “So are peripheries.”
Emir : “Indeed. Centres are meaningless without peripheries.”
Laila : “You are too much of a man to understand my sarcasm.”
Emir : “And you are too much of a woman to understand that you are being complimented.”
Laila : “Women are not the periphery. Men think they are and being called a meaningful periphery isn’t my idea of a compliment.”

Have you read Zeenat Mahal’sThe Historian and the Hunter‘? What do you think about it?

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I had a not-so-good reading year in 2016. I read only 18 books. That is not not-so-good. That is bad. I left some of the books half-read. Not because they were not good, but because I was distracted or got into a reading slump. I could finish reading only 18.

That is the bad news. The good news is that I liked most of what I read. Actually loved most of them. That makes me very happy. That means, my list of favourites will contain most of the books I read 🙂 I don’t have to differentiate between them and choose some over others for arbitrary reasons. That is one of the great pleasures of reading less number of books. That makes me very happy.

So, without much further ado, here is the list of my favourite books from 2016, in no particular order.

Short Stories / Short Prose Pieces / Novellas

(1) A Game of Chess and other stories by Stefan Zweig


My first proper book by Stefan Zweig. The title story was exceptional – it had some of the best passages I have read. There was also a beautiful description of the Riviera in another. Loved the whole book. I can’t wait to read another Stefan Zweig book.

(2) The Steppe by Anton Chekhov


Chekhov’s love letter to the Russian Steppe. Also his longest story. My most favourite of his.

(3) A Dreary Story by Anton Chekhov


One of Chekhov’s longer short stories. Loved it.

(4) The Walled City by Zeenat Mahal


One of my favourite discoveries this year was author Zeenat Mahal (the nom de plume of Faiqa Mansab) and her novella The Walled City. It is a love story set in the beautiful city of Lahore and evokes the sights, sounds, smells, people and culture of the city so brilliantly. It also had one of my favourite passages :

“Saqib watched his work with forced detachment. He’d put his dreams to sleep on canvas after canvas, crystallized in a vice of color and form. Some had emerged as twisted nightmares, others as singed vestiges of shattered hopes.
     This painting was both.
     Like the woman, it had exacted much from him. He could almost feel the weight of the palette knife in his hands again, as he’d mixed and smeared, brushed and stroked in a frenzy of ecstasy or despair, until she’d emerged out of its blankness in the arms of another man, a faceless lover. But her almond shaped eyes that had held him captive for so long, gazed out at him, even now. He wasn’t just the painter; he was voyeur and conspirator, sinner and judge, plunderer and savior. The man in her arms didn’t matter, not to her, not to him.”

If you want to read ‘The Walled City‘ online, you can find it here.

Faiqa Mansab’s new book “This House of Clay and Water” is coming out in May. I can’t wait to read it.

(5) Strange Tales from the Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling


There is a story plot which I have been fascinated by. In this story, a character from a book jumps out into the real world. (Or conversely a real world character jumps into a book or a painting). When I first heard this story, it gave me goosebumps. I discovered that Jasper Fforde has written this. Jodi Picoult has also written this. Then I discovered that Cornelia Funke has written this before them both. I was amazed to discover that Woody Allen wrote a story with this plot in the ’70s. (In his story Madame Bovary jumps out of the book into the real world and falls in love with the reader). Then I further discovered that Raymond Queneau wrote this in his book ‘The Flight of Icarus’. I thought this must be the earliest form of this story. I let it be. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that Pu Songling had written similar stories. In the late 17th century! He seemed to be saying from the distant past – “Experimental writers from the 20th / 21st century – Take that! All these innovative plots that you think you invented (or copied from others without acknowledgement) – it has all been written and done and dusted.” Songling’s book is made up of ghost stories and stories of the supernatural written for grown-up mature readers. There are probably 500 stories of his. I probably read around 30 in this book. Many stories involve the main character, who is a scholar, who falls in love with a beautiful woman, but who turns out to be a ghost or a fox fairy or flower fairy. In many stories, the beautiful woman loves our scholar back, they get married and have children and live happily everafter 🙂 It is the kind of ghost story that I have never read before. This book deserves a proper review. Highly recommended.

(6) Contemplations by Franz Kafka


I read ‘ The Metamorphosis‘ and many other stories by Kafka this year. My favourite was this one – his first ever published collection containing short one or two page prose pieces. Very beautiful.


(7) A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler


A novel about an introverted, shy man whose life story it tells. Very beautiful. It got into many award shortlists. Wish it had won some.

(8) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski


I got this book years back when it first came out. I finally read it. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in post Second World War America. The difference though is that our American Hamlet cannot speak and his parents rear dogs.  So, while we are expecting Hamletian madness to happen, we get one of the most beautiful dog novels ever written. Almondine is one of my most favourite dog characters ever and Easy is another favourite. There is a black pup (of which animal we never know) which our Hamlet’s dad saves from the flood. It refuses to eat or drink anything and the part of the story where it comes is beautiful and heartbreaking. I really should have written a proper review of this beautiful book.

(9) The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner


This much awaited novel from one of my favourite writers is set in the aftermath of 9/11 and tells the story of ordinary people who show extraordinary courage. Gae Polisner says that the manuscript of her next novel has gone out already. I hope that novel comes out this year. We readers are always greedy!

(10) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura


The longest novel of the year for me (862 pages). The longest novel I have ever read on the Kindle too. It has been called the Japanese Wuthering Heights. It was long and epic and I loved it.

Graphic Novels / Manga

(11) A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (graphic novel – part 1)


I got this because I was planning to watch the TV show. Before long the show took over. But till then, the graphic novel version of the book was good, very good.

(12) Barakamon (part 1) by Satsuki Yoshino


A Manga comic about a young calligrapher who goes and lives in an island and his friendship with the islanders. Very charming! Can’t wait to read the next part!


(13) The Universe in your Hand : A Journey through Space, Time and Beyond by Christophe Galfard


Stephen Hawking’s former student gives his own version of the history of the universe. And I can confidently say that the student has excelled the master here. Galfard’s book is very readable. (Hawking’s book is unreadable after the first chapter – believe me, I tried). He uses storytelling techniques and science-fiction-movie-style narration to bring the most complex concepts alive. Probably the finest book on physics written for the general reader. One of the wonderful things that I learnt from this book was about the things we don’t know and which we will never know. This is a book that I will be reading again.

(14) The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg


Weinberg’s book has been called the finest account of the Big Bang theory ever written. Weinberg being a Nobel Prize winner himself, this book has been well respected. I have wanted to read it for years. Finally got to read it. The initial few chapters are easy to follow. The book then gets more challenging. The thing I loved about the book though was reading Weinberg’s thoughts on physics and why it is important and why we should be doing it. Weinberg’s humility as a person and as a scientist shone through when he talked about the larger issues in science and his confidence as one of the great scientists of the 20th century shone through when he talked about the science we knew and could predict. It made me fall in love with him. I will be reading those parts of the book again.

(15) Mr Tompkins in paperback by George Gamov


One of my friends has recommended this for years. I finally got around to reading it. It has two parts  – Mr.Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr.Tompkins Explores the Atom. Beautiful book on relativity, radioactivity, structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. It has one of the finest descriptions of radioactivity that I have ever read. The book also has a foreword by one of my favourite scientists Roger Penrose. That doubled my pleasure! Great book to gift to your young ones at home. I wish I had read this when I was in school.

Have you read any of these? Which are your favourite books from 2016?

Happy New Year! Hope you have a wonderful year filled with great books and beautiful reading moments 🙂

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