The Scent of Pepper by Kavery Nambisan


The Scent of Pepper by Kavery Nambisan

Published by: Penguin Random House India

Fiction, 264p

Rating: 4/5

Book Summary:

Deep in Kodagu in South India, nervous, seventeen year old Nanji is married into the mighty Kaleyanda family, presided over by the Rao Bahadur, at a time when the British have just annexed this remote province. The kindness of her husband Baliyana, a talented veterinary surgeon eases her entry into a new home even as the British rulers settle into a life fit for royalty amongst coffee and pepper plantations. As Nanji braves her way through thirteen pregnancies, her husband’s obsession with the wife of British planter and the birth of a lame son, Subbu, she remains resolute and indispensable to her husband and home.

Soon however, troubles beset the family: the British rulers are no longer benevolent; one of Baliyanna’s brothers marries a woman with British blood and the Rao Bahadur falls into acute depression, a disease endemic to the area. To make matters worse, Subbu takes to politics, begins to wear coarse Khadi and show his contempt for alcohol, the favoured beverage of the Kodava.

My Review:

Kavery Nambisan’s The Scent of Pepper is written with a vivid imagery that takes you right to the roots and soil and the soul of Kodagu and its people. Though the main narrative focuses mainly on life experiences of Nanji, the characters, back stories and mention of her relatives and the people around her all contribute to bringing to us the cultural and political history of Kodagu (now present day Coorg) from pre independent India, its connection with British settlers and administration, the reach of the freedom movement and then the post Independent stupor. The descriptions of the bustle in the well to do Kaleyanda family, the intricacies of managing plantation crops and produce serve to acquaint us with the backbone of life in Kodagu.

I loved the portrayal of the women in The Scent of Pepper. Nanji who is a widow gets remarried and accepted to the household of the Rai Bahadur but faces no social censure. Her resoluteness and strength eventually takes her to head the household. Nanji’s mother in law Chambavva is regal and a woman of her own mind who decides to go and live in a widow’s home on her own after her husband commits suicide. The ties between Nanji and Chambavva is one without friction but the same cannot be said when it comes Nanji and her daughter in law Mallige for Nanji sees her as delicate. While Chambavva and Nanji are the traditional female characters who are the ones to accept the situation they find themselves in, Mallige as an educated woman becomes the first to follow her husband and venture out of the life in Kodagu. And though we do not get to have closer look at the character of Neelu, who represents the 4th generation of the Kaleyanda family, the mention of her nature and her return to the village towards the end of the book gives one the message of continuity and hopeful future.

Kavery Nambisan’s writing is poetic at times but also matter of fact when it serves the narrative. The spectre of people falling prone to depression and death by suicide is a firmament that stays throughout the book with various characters either contemplating or succumbing to it. The main characters are well etched and have interesting trajectories with their deep love for their old world, their wariness of the new and ultimately, coping with the changes that time brings.

My only complaint with the writing is the use of Kannada words liberally without any footnotes or a glossary of meanings which would have added pleasure to my reading. I feel in love with Kavery Nambisan’s writing earlier this year and this book only adds to that love. I would recommend this for people who are keen to read good Indian writing.




Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of A Global Bollywood Star by Aseem Chhabra


Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of A Global Bollywood Star by Aseem Chhabra

Published by: Rupa Publications

Non Fiction: Biography, 237p

Rating: 3.75/5

Book Summary:

Once upon a time a girl said, ‘In India, real people don’t become movie stars.’ The same girl became the biggest crossover star. That very girl can’t walk around in New York City now ‘without being mobbed’. That’s Priyanka Chopra for you. The quintessential ‘Girl Uninterrupted’. She came from a small-town middle-class family in North India. During the Miss India contest, she was grilled by none other than Shah Rukh Khan. She prevailed and won the hearts of millions. There was no looking back after that. Bollywood happened; and years later, she crossed over to America, as a pop singer, as a television star and as a Hollywood actress. Soon, New York City was plastered with posters of her from Quantico, a major television show in the US. Films like Baywatch followed.

This biography of Priyanka Chopra explores everything that led to her phenomenal success—in Bollywood and Hollywood. Peppered with anecdotes and events from her life behind the screen, her real story is too a blockbuster. This is her incredible story, told with much flourish and detailing.

*My Review:

 *Thank you Rupa Publications for this review copy!

 I must confess that I am no Priyanka Chopra fan. I have liked her as an actor in Barfi and in the bits and pieces that I saw of her in Bajirao Mastani but that’s that. I only requested for a review copy from Rupa Publications because I had read another biography written by Aseem Chhabra, ‘Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star’ and loved the way he had gone about: by following the actor’s work, by regaling us with anecdotes that never titillated (most biographies on celebrities tend to do this) or breathed down my neck with breathless star worship.

Aseem Chhabra who is one of India’s best known film journalists has pretty much done the same with this unauthorised biography on Priyanka Chopra who has been the cynosure of global media attention with her short dating stint and now engagement with Nick Jonas. ‘Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of A Global Bollywood Star’ looks at the back story and journey of Priyanka Chopra as a middle class girl who ended up spending a bit of her formative years in the US, her journey to Miss World taking her to Bollywood where she ended up playing ultra glamorous roles, then eventually Quantico and then taking a small spotlight in the American entertainment firmament. Assem Chhabra has painstakingly laid bare before the readers the many pitfalls that were in Priyanka Chopra’s journey to the global sensation that she’s become now: the singing career that really didn’t take off, the slow slide of the Quantico fever and the movie choices that she’s taken up in Hollywood. He also brings to us the people who have remained behind the scenes to contribute towards the name and fame of the actor whose acting prowess really hasn’t shaken up the firmament.

Chhabra’s writing is crisp and he doesn’t fall prey to making readers indulge in gossip over the actor. Rather, the mention of Priyanka’s link ups to two married film superstars are mentioned in passing and there’s no fuss given on those counts. There is more attention given at making readers face to face with the drive and ambition behind Priyanka Chopra as someone who is willing to take risks and try uncharted territory in terms of not just her foray into the American entertainment industry but with her own homegrown production house venture to make quality films in Indian languages.

I would recommend this book to readers who love reading biographies and more so, if you are not looking at racy tit bits as the cornerstone of an interesting/racy biography! You can look up for a copy here










Baluta by Daya Pawar; Translated by Jerry Pinto




Baluta by Daya Pawar; Translated by Jerry Pinto

Published by: Speaking Tiger

Non Fiction: Autobiography, 299p

Rating: 3.75/5

Book Summary:

One of the first Dalit autobiographies to be published, Baluta by the Marathi poet Daya Pawar, caused a storm – not just with its unvarnished depiction of the pervasive cruelty of the caste system but also the extraordinary candour with which Pawar wrote about himself, his family and community and Dalit politics of his time. Set in rural Maharshtra – in the Maharwada, the area designated in each village for the Mahars so that they would not ‘pollute’ the main village – and in Mumbai of the 1940s and 50s – its chawls, slums, brothels and gambling dens where the poor and outcaste found ways to make a life – Baluta is a triumph of social commentary, story telling and self reflection.

Jerry Pinto’s brilliant translation brings this classic of Indian literature to English language readers for the first time. Almost forty years after it was first published, it has the power to shock and amaze with its description of how brutally the human spirit can be broken, and how valiantly it can fight its way out of the darkest depths.

My Review:

I picked up Baluta after I read about the life and times of another Dalit poet, writer and activist Lal Dil Singh of Punjab that led me to look up Dalit writings. While the oppression faced by many of India’s people on the basis of their caste or religion continues to this day and age, this book is a deep refection on not just the injustice brought on by the caste system but a brutally honest examination of power play within the oppressed. Daya Pawar spares none: not his community, not the high caste people, not the politicians, not the authorities, not his family and certainly not himself when it comes to critiquing practices, belief systems, personal principles, politics and taking a position.

The book’s title refers to the share received by people of the Mahar community, from the village produce, in return for various social ‘duties’ which may range from cleaning carcass to announcing events to playing music at weddings. The preface by writer, critic Shanta Gokhale sets the mood for what awaits the reader in Baluta while the translator’s note by Jerry Pinto gives a synopsis about the book and his own observations about Daya Pawar’s life and writing. Balutta is not written in a chronological structure but in fact, comes across as a conversation between the writer and reader and at times, a deep monologue by the author. There is utter honesty and self-deprecation when Daya examines his convictions about justice thanks to his education and political awareness and yet unable to take a stand when injustice is meted out in various forms. There is a languid pace when Daya Pawar writes about life in the village at Maharwada where amidst the oppression and the injustice, there is shared joy and community spirit.

The book takes readers to the socio cultural and politics of Maharashtra in the 50s and 60s that were prevalent in its rural areas but also in the city where the trappings of caste plays itself out. Pawar’s account and insights into the Dalit movement and its leaders, the activism and its subsequent failings are put matter of fact. While the author’s manner of writing reaches out to the reader in me, I couldn’t help feeling that the use of ‘Mumbai’ is a bit out of place in the book considering that this book captures much of the 50s to the early 70’s when ‘Bombay’ was what the city was called and known as. Would recommend this book to non fiction lovers and those interested in Dalit literature.

You can get a copy of this book here at Speaking Tiger









Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema by Satyajit Ray


Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema by Satyajit Ray

Published by: Harper Collins India

Non Fiction: Films, 171p

Rating: 3.75/5

Book Summary:

Satyajit Ray is acknowledged to be one of the world’s finest filmmakers. This book brings together some of his most cerebral writings on film. His films, from Pather Panchali in the mid 1950s to Agantuk in the 1990s, changed the way the world looked at Indian cinema. But Ray was not only a filmmaker. He was also a best selling writer of novels and short stories, and possibly the only Indian filmmaker who wrote prolifically on cinema.

This book brings together, for the first time in one volume, some of his most celebrated writings on film.With the economy and precision that marked his films, Ray writes on the art and craft of cinema, pens an ode to silent cinema, discusses the problems in adapting literary works to film, pays tribute to contemporaries like Godard and Uttam Kumar, and even gives us a peek into his experiences at film festivals, both as a jury member and as a contestant. Published in association with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Films and including fascinating photographs by and of the master, Deep Focus not only reveals Rays engagement with cinema but also provides an invaluable insight into the mind of a genius.

My Review:

Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema by Satyajit Ray is a collection of the maestro’s writings on the art and craft of film making from his writings in various publications over the years. There are three parts in the slim volume: 1).The Film maker’s craft that looks into the elements and process of film making; 2). Pen Portraits which are his impressions of some of the best names in film making and 3). Celebrating Cinema that captures the ambience, struggles and dynamics at film festivals across the world.

The first part of the book: The Film maker’s craft is an insightful and almost meditative look at film making that has Ray questioning what makes for a nation’s cinematic aesthetic besides; why he adapted Pather Panchali; whether a film maker should be and can be original and the various techniques that come together to make a film. I took my time reading this section enjoying Satyajit Ray’s observations and couldn’t help but marvel at the way they still hold true in this time and age of film making: that devices and technologies will enhance film making but that films will only speak and find their way to the sensibilities of audiences when they connect.

In the second part of the book Pen Portraits, where the author and film maker and writer writes about stalwarts in film making, there is only one Indian who makes it to his list: Uttam Kumar. Though this section is written more as profiles, the observations of the people Ray writes about, serve as important pointers. In his portrait of Uttam Kumar for example, Satyajit Ray states that the actor was already a popular star and then goes on to say subtly the shift between a star and actor while drawing upon the example of Gregory Peck as a star. The last section of the book is a wry look at film festivals across the world and though it all comes across as dated now, it takes readers to the world of jury members and competing film makers.

My major complaint with the book is that it could have paid better attention to the editing to avoid repetition. Considering that the writings have been put together from individual writings by the author over time, it is only natural that they would have written about twice or more in his writings since they were for different publications at different times. But to have those anecdotes repeated looks careless. Having said that, I will recommend this book for non fiction readers and those who love the medium of films.

You can look up the book here or look it up on other sites to get yourself a copy!


The Mulberry Courtesan: A novel by Sikeena Karmali


The Mulberry Courtesan: A novel by Sikeena Karmali

Published by: Aleph Book Company

Historical Fiction, 259p

Rating: 3.75/5

Book Summary:

In 1857, the shadows are falling thick and fast on what is left of the Mughal empire. The last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is a broken, bitter man in his eighties who has retreated into religion and poetry. Zafar’s empire extends no further than the precincts of his grand palace, the Red Fort in Delhi, but this hasn’t prevented numerous court intrigues and conspiracies from flourishing within the Lal Qila; these involve the emperor’s wives, children, courtiers, hangers-on and English functionaries among others. Flung into this poison pit is Laale, a young woman from an Afghan noble family, abducted from her home in the mountains and sold into the Mughal emperor’s court as a courtesan. Fiery, independent and beautiful, the ‘mulberry courtesan’ captures the ageing emperor’s heart, giving him hope and happiness in his last years. Told against the backdrop of India’s great revolt of 1857 and the last days of the Mughal empire, The Mulberry Courtesan is an epic tale of romance, tragedy, courage and adventure.

*My Review:

*Thank you Aleph Book Company for this review copy.

The Mulberry Courtesan by Sikeena Karmali is set from 1852 onwards and focuses at length on the events and tumultuous times in British India during the 1857 revolt. It follows the story of Laale, a beautiful and intelligent girl who at 19 is set to marry her cousin. Fate intervenes and a Sepoy of the British East India Company abducts Laale in order to gift her to his English commanding officer. What follows in the life of Laale from this point on is the crux of the book: at times, Laale is just carried away by the pull of events around her with no say or power in how she is being treated but at times, she comes to her own and holds her agency in shaping the course of her life. From being raped, to being sold in a slave market, to being taken in by the neglected and sidelined wife of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar; Laale take things to her stride with an intelligence and purity of her soul that ultimately brings her face to face with the Emperor with whom she develops a deep spiritual and intellectual bond. She becomes the 8th wife of the Emperor in a secret ceremony and gives birth to a son who is presented as a girl so the child would not fall prey to the intrigues and scheming of the Court and the Emperor’s wives and concubines.

I absolutely loved it that the rivalry between the court poet of Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mirza Ghalib gets a mention in this book. The later becomes Laale’s poetry mentor at the request of the Emperor’s first wife who is trying to reclaim her influence over her husband ruler of the Mughal Emperor. The catty comments of the courtiers at the Mughal Court when Laale recites her composition insinuating that she couldn’t have written the verses for herself makes for a delightful scene for we all know that many women of the Mughal Court were lettered.

The book is an engrossing read and the pace never settles down: I read it in a day. I loved every moment of the political undercurrents of the book along with the more spiritual aspects of Bahadur Shah Zafar who has often been misconstrued as being a ‘weak ruler’. The closing part of the book that sees Laale safe with her son and hearing about the death of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Rangoon is almost poetic and made me wish Laale had been a real person who stood by the Emperor in the manner that the book has portrayed. However, I am putting short of giving a 4 star to this book for I felt that the book was rushed in parts: I definitely wanted more of Laale’s thoughts and not just as reactions to people asking about her life or situation. Recommended for historical fiction lovers!

You can get more details of the book here: AlephBookCompany