Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: After Kurukshetra by Mahasweta Devi

Title: After Kurukshetra
Author: Mahasweta Devi (translated by Anjum Katyal)

Publisher: Seagull Books
Pages: 49
Price: 120
Genre: Fiction / Mythology / Women's studies
Rating: 8/10
Format: Paperback

‘After Kurukshetra’ is a collection of three short stories, originally written in Bengali by Mahasweta Devi and translated by Anjum Katyal. All of 49 pages, though a short read yet this book attempts to explore the impact of the epic war on common women. When we talk about Mahabharata, the narrative is usually about the men and women of the Kuru clan and people directly related to them; but this book actually makes us sit up and acknowledge what it meant to the common folk. Was it really a war for justice? Was this inevitable? Did this war justify the deaths of so many people, many of whom couldn’t even choose whether they wanted a war or not.

These stories are the offshoots of the main story of Mahabharata. They are born out of the author’s imagination. All the three stories are about women. Each story has ordinary women standing up to the royalty for what they think is fair and justified. All these women have been wronged in the hands of the royal folks. They felt used by them for their own greed and selfishness, in one way or another.

The first story is about five ordinary women, also widowed in the war, who have been brought into the palace to keep the pregnant and widowed Uttara (Abhimanyu’s wife) company. The story depicts the contrast in which women of royalty and common women are expected to deal with the loss of their husbands. Common womenfolk have more freedom, they will remarry and have children because that’s what nature expects of them; while royal widows will live a life of rules and regulations, there life will be spent in shadows, inside the corners of the women quarters.

These women are not of the rajavritta, women of royalty, nor are they servants or attendants. These women are from the families of the hundreds of foot soldiers – padatiks – from various other little kingdoms. They had been slaughtered every day, in their thousands, their function being to protect the chariot – mounted heroes. They were issued no armour. So they died in large numbers.

The women make no bones about questioning the need for war. When the head dasi (servant) of the royal women quarters call the war a ‘disaster’, they argue:

 ‘Disaster? What disaster? Huh, old woman? Was this some natural calamity? So many great kings join in a war between brothers. Some chose one side, some cross over to the other. It wasn’t just brother slaughtering brother. We know of quarrels – jealousies – rivalries too. But such a war for just a throne? This, a holy war?! A righteous war?! Just call it a war of greed!’

The war meant nothing to the common folks but there wasn’t a way to get away from the war. They had no choice. If they were called, they had to go.

‘This was not our dharmayuddha. Brother kills brother, uncle kills nephew, shishya kills guru. It may be your idea of dharma, it’s not ours.

It implores us to reflect on what true victory is. Was it truly a victory for Yudhishthir? The war sacrificed so many people and cost so much in terms of people and matter. The dead included farmers and traders. Their pyres burnt for several days, from which arose a sickening stench. The city was covered in gloom because of so many deaths. Who was happy? Even Pandavas lost all their children. None was left except Uttara’s unborn child.

Subhadra can’t hold back her tears. Slapping her forehead she laments, the sons are dead, their fathers are alive. Daughters-in-law have lost their husbands, while their mothers-in-law are still married.

 “So many hundreds of widows! So many homes in which mothers have lost their sons!

The second story is about Kunti. After the war, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti retreated into the forest. Karna’s death intensified Kunti’s guilt of abandonment. It gnawed at her during her last days and made her restless.   

What irony! What irony! Not one of the five Pandavas is sired by Pandu! Yet they are Pandavas. And Karna? A carpenter’s (sic) son.

While she mourned how she always failed her firstborn, a Nishadin (tribal woman) accosted her in the forest to remind about her gravest sin which she never acknowledged. She accused Kunti of abetting the deaths of a Nishadin and her five sons for her selfish interests; and that it was typical of the royalty to think nothing of the lives of common folks.

You couldn’t even remember this sin. Causing six innocent forest tribals to be burnt to death to serve your own interests. That was not even a crime in your book.

This story touches upon the conflict between the people from the royalty and common folks (specifically the tribals, in this case); what was the attitude of the kings towards ordinary people and how they only looked at them as means to their ends. The people from royalty certainly considered themselves as superior and therefore thought nothing of the sacrifice.

The third story is about a woman called Souvali, a vaishya (trader) woman, who was brought in the palace to serve Dhritarashtra while Gandhari was pregnant. She bore a son called Yuyutsu (or Souvalya). She was never accorded the respect and dignity fit for the mother of a king’s son and her son was also always considered and treated like a ‘dasiputra’ (son of a servant). And yet he was the one who did the final rites of his father Dhritarashtra as his only surviving son.

Never went near him, never called him ‘father’, and today I did the tarpan for him.

In this story also, a common woman of vaishya (trader) community, Souvali, was embittered by the injustice meted out to her and her son. She felt used and never acknowledged. She thought her son was foolish to behave like the men of royalty inspite of being the son of a common woman. She herself is not disillusioned to follow the rituals expected of the royalty.

She thinks to herself, if you must learn, learn from your mother. I was nothing but a dasi in the royal household but here, amongst the common people, I’m a free woman.

Though quite a thin book, it sparks a lot of thoughts. For a book that has to offer interesting facets of the war, the editing was a dampener. I have already written a lot about the stories. I do think that reading the original would make a bigger impact, so if you know Bengali, please read the original.  

Undoubtedly, it is a must-read for Mahabharata enthusiasts.

Check out my compilation of Books on Mahabharata here.  

Text in italics have been quoted from the book. 
Image credit

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: The Mahabharatha - a child's view by Samhita Arni

Title: The Mahabharatha - a child's view
Author: Samhita Arni

Publisher: Tara Books
Pages: 288
Price: Rs 650
Genre: Children's books / Mythology / Religion
Rating: 10/10
Format: Paperback

This book has been with me for a really long time. I bought it before my son was born, may be even before I was married. At that time, I bought this book for myself. 

Recently, we (I and my 6.5 year old) were discussing about Ramayana and the conversation veered off to Mahabharata. Mahabharata is so exhaustive and full of so many characters that I could not decide where to begin. The next day, I chanced upon this book in my collection and thought it was a perfect time to introduce him to this book.

According to her website, Samhita Arni started writing this when she was 8 and it got published first when she was 12.  This assured me that the story will not be complex and, moreover, when the book is written by a child it will strike the right chord with children. I also did not worry about what kind of details the story would have captured about adult relationships.

He took to it immediately. When he likes a book, he gets possessed by it. He would read it every waking minute.  It has been over 2 weeks. He has already read it twice. Mahabharata is a story that deserves to be read again and again. It always opens up multiple dimensions to the story or you start thinking about some different character every time. I am personally a Mahabharata fan too and I know my Mahabharata and Ramayana collection will be the last to go (considering I am no longer the hoarder I used to be).

No doubt, this is a fantastic book for kids who have started showing interest in Mahabharata. The best aspect of this book is its ability to narrate a complex story in a simple way. 

Samhita Arni writes in her foreword:  "There is much that we lose in growing up.As one grows up, we feel a little less strongly about things. Sensations are blunted. We develop a terrible habit of refashioning the world around as we want to see it, and ignoring that which makes us uncomfortable. There is a freshness in the way children see things, in the instinctive, individualistic reactions they have.Unfortunately, many think that the best way to instruct children is mot to encourage them to reveal their own, innate reactions and thoughts, but to teach them the right (and only) way to think, to see, to respond. This seems to be the goal of education - not to allow children to ask questions but to indoctrinate them; to let them learn by rote. I think there is much e, adults, can learn from talking to children, from their own, strongly individual reactions ad perspectives."

There are many things which work in this book:
- The pictorial family tree at the beginning helps in understanding the relationships between all the characters. Especially, in a story like Mahabharata, it is very important. Naturally, it came extremely handy to my son while reading the book. 
- The neat pictorial layout at the end captures 'Pandava Alliance' and 'Kaurava Alliance'. This was also very useful in understanding who supported whom in the battlefield.
- The illustrations, created when the author was a child, capture the essence of the story beautifully. A child reading the book identifies with it and it certainly aids understanding. 
- Spread over 55 Chapters, the story captures everything from Santanu to Janamejaya and everyone in between. 

Sometimes children point out such simple and obvious things which we unknowingly overlook. My son pointed out that Hidimbi wasn't shown in the layout showing Alliances; even Draupadi wasn't shown. I had to finally explain that during those times women did not enter battlefields. He found Amba's story quite interesting. He also asked if Ghatokacha looked the way he was shown; I said it was the author's imagination. Nobody has seen him! 

These days, we are having such discussions all the time since we have also added few more books to our collection. It is interesting how both of us are reading different versions simultaneously and even fighting to read the same book. 

This book certainly worked for us as the first book on Mahabharata for my 6.5 year old, and I highly recommend this book to the enthusiasts of Mahabharata - young or old. As someone rightly said 'a children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.' 

Note: Here is the link to the page on Mahabharata inspired books. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list.

Image credit (except the page on Alliances): Author website

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

100 Best Children's Books that Kids Love to Read Again and Again [Part 2]

This post is part of a series on 100 Best Children's Books that Kids Love to Read Again and Again. Read the first post containing books 1-10 here.  

11. One Ted Falls Out of Bed by Julia Donaldson, Anna Currey

Age: 2-4 years
Buy From: Amazon India | Flipkart

I chanced upon this in a bookstore and was immediately charmed by the bedtime story which incorporates counting from one to ten, and back from ten to one. It helped that it was from one of our favourite children's authors, Julia Donaldson! Combined with Anna Currey's delightful illustrations of a young child's room, this sure was a winner.

This bedtime book is for the kids who have just been introduced to numbers. The setting is that of a child's bedroom at nighttime. While the child is sleeping, his teddy bear falls out of the bed.  

(excerpted from the book)

One Ted falls out of Bed,
He tugs and pulls the bedclothes BUT
Two eyes are tight shut.
He jumps and shouts and makes a fuss,
Till three mice say, "Play with us!" 

There are four toy cars, five stars, six dolls, seven trolls, eight balloons, nine musician frogs and ten red bricks. The teddy bear tries to get back into the bed by building a stair with everyone's help but he fails to climb up and everything falls down. A commotion ensues. This leads to the countdown from ten to one, and at the end, the teddy gets back into the bed. 

It is a wonderful bedtime story that ends on a calm note. We have enjoyed it a lot.

12. Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle, Jill McElmurry

Age: 2-5 years
Buy From: Amazon India | Flipkart

All kids go through a phase when they are enamoured by big trucks and vehicles. So, I was hunting for a good book on the same theme. This book showed up on a few websites and I never regretted getting it. 

There's a little Blue truck, which is the friendliest truck around. It always makes time to say hello to all the animals that it meets along the way. The setting is that of an idyllic countryside. There's a big dump truck that is full of pride and self-importance. It feels that it has big important things to do and hasn't got time for anybody. Now this big truck gets stuck in mud puddle. The more it tries to get out, the more it gets stuck. Then comes the ever friendly little Blue truck that tries to help the dump truck, but it could not do much on its own. Its call for help is immediately noticed by all its friends, and with their help, both the trucks get out of the puddle. The big dump truck finally admits that no matter who you are, everyone needs the helping hands of friends in life. 

This book deftly combines a whole lot of farm animals, trucks and an important life lesson. With rhythmic text and beautiful illustrations, children love to look at this book again and again.

(excerpted from the book)

"Thanks, little brother,"
said the Dump to Blue.
"You helped me
and they helped you.

Now I see
a lot depends
on a helping hand
from a few good friends!"

13. Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown

Age: 2-5 years
Buy From: Amazon India | Flipkart 

Young kids love books on animals, and 'Big Red Barn' is another delightful book on the farm life. With rhyming text, the book takes you through the routine on a farm; introduces all the animals which stay on the farm in harmony, make noises, play together and at the end of the day settle down for sleep. 

Kids love to look at the vibrant illustrations and all the different kinds of animals. They like to figure out how the barn is laid out, where each animal stays, as different pages show animals in different settings around the barn.

(excerpted from the book)

The sheep and the donkey,
The geese and the goats,
Were making funny noises
Down in their throats.

An old scarecrow
Was leaning on his hoe.
And a field mouse was born ... 

In a field of corn.

14. Watch Out / Saavdhaan by Ajanta Guhathakurta, Shamim Padamsee

Age: 2-4 years
Buy From: Amazon India 

Kids are attracted to other kids, and animal baby stories. It's instinctive. When I got this book, my son must have been 2. With minimum text, it looked like a good one for him. It tells the story of a lioness and her cubs. When the lioness goes to look for food, she warns her cubs to take care of themselves because the forest is full of dangers for baby animals. But cubs do what kids do, they throw caution to the wind and start enjoying themselves - they play, they pounce on small animals, they roll, they run, and generally, have a good time; but there's danger at every step. Finally, as the day ends, Mamma lioness comes back to protect them, and they eat and go back to sleep. 

This is a bilingual book with simple text like...

Let's play.
Let's pounce.
Let's roll.
Let's drink.

This is also useful when the child starts reading another language (like it was hindi for us), since this is a bilingual book. This was read several times in our household. I used to talk some more about the forest, the animals, the dangers, how mothers protect their babies, etc. 

15. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, Felicia Bond

Age: 3-6 years
Buy From: Amazon India | Flipkart 

I have 6 books from this series and each one of them is creative and entertaining. This book starts with a boy offering a cookie to a mouse, and how that triggers a chain of events which eventually leads back to the cookie.

(excerpted from the book)

If you give a Mouse a cookie,
he's going to ask you for a glass of milk.

When you give him the milk, 
he'll probably ask you for a straw.

When he's finished he'll ask for a napkin.

The illustrations are super cute, and the story is humorous. We had fun following the mouse. Each book in this series follows the story in a similar format. You can also make your child imagine some alternative scenarios.

16. The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle

Age: 2-5 years

I love Eric Carle's books. They are simple and attractive, and packed with a lot of information and learnings. No wonder our first book was by Eric Carle; and we have several of his other books, all equally worthy. 

This book starts when a spider is blown across the field by the wind. A silky thread trails from her body. She lands on a fence post near a farm and starts weaving her web. Now, as she weaves her web, animals from the farm approach her one by one and offer an alternative, fun thing to do; but the spider is so engrossed in her work that she doesn't stop to chat with any of them.

So, from a horse offering to go for a ride to a cow suggesting to eat some grass, from a goat proposing to jump on the rocks to a pig asking to roll in the mud; there are several farm animals that kids can learn about. At the end, when the spider completes her web, a fly gets caught into it just like that. So, she doesn't have to bother about catching one to feed herself.
What I personally love about this book is how it conveys a strong message in the most simple way (which is a characteristic of all Eric Carle books). It tells in the most subtle way how hard work, single-minded dedication and perseverance pays off. 

Note: Pay attention to the size of the book you are ordering. 

17. Marvin Gets Mad by Joseph Theobald

Age: 2-5 years
Buy From: Amazon India 

I had bought this book quite by chance and both of us loved it so much that we bought the other book in the series called Marvin Wanted More, as well.

The story is about Marvin, the sheep, and his friend Molly. While they are grazing, they find a tree full of juicy apples. Now Marvin really wants to eat one particular apple on the tree but no matter what he does to get that apple, he isn't able to reach it. After trying for a really long time, he dozes off. When he wakes up, he finds that the apple is gone; and when he looks around, he finds Molly eating that apple. That makes him really, really mad. 

When he gets mad, his whole body changes - he grows mad teeth, mad horns, mad feet and mad tail; and also starts doing mad things, hurting everything around. He shouts at his friend, hits her with his horns and starts stamping on the ground, which makes the ground crack and he falls deep inside. He is alone in the dark, empty pit, from where no matter how much he cries for help, nobody is able to help him. Now that he is alone and stranded, he starts thinking about all the things he did in his madness and feels sorry for it. Meanwhile, Molly finds him and also gets a juicy apple for her friend. 

It is an excellent story with a powerful message. It is not only relevant for kids but also for grownups. When we all go mad, we do a lot of things which hurt others and which also get us into trouble. Moreover, we always end up with lots of regrets for our behaviour during the madness. It is a good book to discuss behaviour.

18. Let's Go! by Anthara Mohan, Rajiv Eipe

Age: 2-4 years
Buy From: Amazon India  

I came across this book while looking to buy a bunch of books on vehicles. I was thrilled to get my hands on this book which had most of the vehicles found on Indian roads like autos, cycles, rickshas, scooters, cars, bus, etc. At the same time, it also introduced young kids to numbers from '10 to 1'. 

Every page spread contains a number and that many children with a different mode of transportation. The text is minimum. So, the book starts with '10 children come walking',  and goes on to ...

7 zoom in on motorbikes
6 get down from rickshas
5 climb out of autos

I love Rajiv Eipe's illustrations. I had noticed it in 'the Big Little Man' as well and was looking to get another book by him. The pages are teeming with the bustling energy of Indian roads. It's a fabulous book for young kids. Even as a grown up, I felt drawn towards the way this book has been laid out.

19. Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh

Age: 2-3 years
Buy From: Amazon India 

It is a cute story about colour mixing. When your child starts learning about colours, this is a good one to have. My son used to love looking at it over and over again, and he learned how different colours mixed to form a third color. 

We have a small board book. The story is about three white mice who find three jars of paint and discover the joys of colour mixing by chance!

(excerpted from the book)

Once there were three white mice on a white piece of paper.
The cat couldn't find them.

One day while the cat was asleep, the mice saw three jars of paint - 
one red, one yellow, and one blue.  

They thought it was Mouse Paint. They climbed right in.
Then one was red, one was yellow, and one was blue. 

They dripped puddles of paint onto the paper.
The puddles looked like fun.

20.Karadi Rhymes (Book 1) by Karadi Tales

Age: 2-5 years
Buy From: Amazon India

The best thing about this collection of poems is that it is centered around India. It
celebrates different facets of India. The first poem, an absolute favourite with me as well as my 6 year old is ‘Just Like You’. Essentially, it talks about Unity in Diversity; how people from different parts of India look different, speak a different language, and yet are like us. There’s a poem about Saree, about crows, about cricket, about Indian festivals, Indian rivers, even Mangoes! 

This book is accompanied with an audio CD in Usha Uthup's voice. You can find most of these poems on YouTube. It will help you get to know the book better. Here are some of the links:

Just Like You
Ganga Yamuna Krishna
There's a Cricket Match in Town Today
To the Beach I like to Go 
I salute my Flag (a song about Indian flag)
'Sa' sing the Sunflowers
Eid is Here (song about Indian festivals)
Yards and Yards of Silk I see (a rhyme about sarees)  

Also Read: 100 Best Children's Books that Kids Love to Read Again and Again [Part 1]