Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (Book 1)

Outlander by Diana Gibaldon
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

What a disservice this book has done. As I read, I was far removed from my daily life and the chores, much to the silent consternation of my family members; Outlander had swept me off my feet!

This is the first book in a series of eight books (so far, and counting) by Diana Gabaldon. It is 1945 and the World War II has just ended. Claire, a combat nurse, accidentally goes back in time, two hundred years in the past to 1743, and there begins the adventure. She encounters few McKenzie clansmen in kilts speaking with Scottish Gaelic dialect, who, suspecting her to be an English spy, take her along to Castle Leoch. There, she tries to heal patients with whatever amenities and herbs she is able to get. Amidst family politics, clan rivalry and the Jacobite rebellion, develops Claire’s relationship with Jamie. Their fierce and impassioned love in the thick of continual danger, constant insecurity and looming fear only gets stronger, and keeps the book together. Their love and dedication to one another is one of the things so wonderful about the story. As they are displaced hither and yon, one witnesses the loyalty and valor of friends who come to their rescue from time to time. Set in the pristine Scottish Highlands, the book is replete with rich imagery of the terrain and the flora, with detailed description of plants, trees and birds.

The Scottish Highlands. Outlander.
The Scottish Highlands

I had almost fallen off my bed seeing the page count of my ebook: three times of a ‘regular’ sized book. How was I ever going to finish it? (Besides, there is this Goodreads Reading Challenge 2017 I signed up for, you see.) I finished the book in not more than 4 days, staying up very late, getting up in the wee hours, and reading while waiting in the car! It was worth the while. It is amusing to see life in those times, simpler of course, but certainly not as convenient as today; our commonplace comforts in the 21st century are manifold over those of the richest of the rich of that time. The valor displayed by people in wars and combats made me shudder. The book is so long and detailed that one starts dwelling in that time, living life along side the characters. And since it is a series, the characters and their stories create for us a universe, not unlike the Harry Potter series of books. Having completed the book, I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Book # 2 is on my list.

Note of the TV series: I saw the first episode (because it was free on Starz), partly out of curiosity, and partly due to my longing to dwell more into the book. It is quite well made, the show, left to itself. But I would not want to watch it just yet, as the characters I created in my mind reading the book still linger, with obscure faces notwithstanding, that are close to my heart. I would not want to spoil the aftertaste while it lasts.

 A beautiful, intense and a memorable book.

Book Review: Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet – Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health
Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health

On a chilly winter evening, sitting by the fireplace bundled in my cozy throw and having hot chocolate or something, listening to the stories and secrets from times gone by… This is exactly how I felt reading through the book.

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet is a fictional memoir of an Indian Princess of her time and traditions in the royal household, written by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar. The book is replete with household remedies for health and beauty from either the kitchen or the garden, rather than the store bought jars and bottles. With the backdrop of her childhood in Rajasthan, her marriage, moving to husbands royal home in Hyderabad and her journey spanning seven decades of her life, the Princess describes all the health and beauty traditions handed down from generation to generation.

A Young Maharashtrian Bride
A Young Maharashtrian Bride

Did you ever have the urge to time travel? I always did, to travel in the past. To see the people and understand their life and lifestyle, their customs and beliefs, the wisdom that got lost with time. I’ve always been curious to know how we’ve evolved in our ways and values as a society. I have vivid visuals from the conversations as a child with my grandmother of her time as a child bride, her mothers home and then that of her husbands, her lifestyle and all the interesting stories. I have always wanted to know more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent that is as old as the hills. And  about Ayurveda. Oh – and how to be beautiful.

Maharani Indira Raje Holkar of Indore (A.L. Syed: 170 K.V. Talcherkar)
Maharani Indira Raje Holkar of Indore
(A.L. Syed: 170 K.V. Talcherkar)

As you read through each beauty formula in this book, you become one with this ‘beautifying’ process and certainly are inspired to try some out. I thought it had a similar effect that you get after shopping for clothes or cosmetics: it makes you feel beautiful. The princess also talks about the importance of saleekha (an Urdu word meaning balance and moderation, neither too much nor too little) that is expected of the palace women. Reading through such a desirable image of women makes you want to be like one, balanced, respectable, dignified and delightful.

After the massage (by Raja Ravi Verma)
After the massage
(by Raja Ravi Verma)

The long baths and head bath rituals in the zenana (secluded women quarters) are explained in engaging detail and exude sheer luxury- one of my many favorite parts in the book! After their long headbath they’d lay “... stretched out in the sunlight after the shampoo, their hair spread over a basket of herb incense smoke, lazily watching the parrots in the mango trees and laughing at some silly joke. That sort of vision makes me long to be young again, close to the earth and closer to other women. Somehow in those days we were all sisters in these simple pursuits. That was a very sweet comfort” I like the idea of women having the time to groom and feel good about themselves without rushing through it.

Young girls playing chaupat, precursor to Ludo (Hemlata Jain: Raja Deen Dayal)
Young girls playing chaupat, precursor to Ludo
(Hemlata Jain: Raja Deen Dayal)

Today, I am not sure why, but we seem to rush all the time; everything is a means to some distant or unknown end. We miss living the moment, which, I feel, these women did much more than we do. And they also got so much ‘girl-time’ and had the sisterly bonding, which is priceless!

The mention of flowers, the smells, the clear ponds, the changing seasons brings forth a myriad emotions and evokes memories you might or might not know you had. A passing mention of Kalidas’ Ritusamhara in the book brings forth such a beatific picture:

The temptress, Mohini (Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)
The temptress, Mohini
(Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)

One of our renowned poets, the famous Kalidasa, who lived in the fourth century, has written a poem on the seasons called Ritusamhara “Garland of the Seasons,” which expresses the rhythm and the joy of our seasons, passing from the heat to the cool of the monsoons, from the rains to the blessings of winter. He describes it all through lovely courtesans. Robed in transparent muslin in the heat of summer, they smear their breasts with sandal paste and their hair with light perfumes. Wearing flower garlands around their necks, they fan themselves with fans moistened in sandalwood water and swim in cool lakes full of lotus blossoms. Lac dye shines on the soles of their feet and jewels cold to the touch adorn their bodies.”

Enjoying the fragrance of the outdoors (Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)
Enjoying the fragrance of the outdoors
(Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)

For me, this book also took me back to my childhood days as I remember using the same shikakai and other herbs like Ritha, nagarmotha, orange peels etc. that my grandmother used to have powdered for the women of the house to wash hair with. I have used chickpea paste (besan) and other household ingredients as a skin scrub and cleanser. We used to make the spiced tea in our household to cure sore throat, using turmeric (haldi), holy basil (tulsi), peppercorn etc.

'Paandaans' and 'supari' cutters (Suresh Cordo)
‘Paandaans’ and ‘supari’ cutters
(Suresh Cordo)

Its a book by women, of women and for women for the most part. If you will let it, the imagery the words create will, along with the actual vintage photographs, paintings, postcards, zoom you back in time. And the sensuous indulgences described will delightfully keep you there, as time itself would seem to have become still, waiting on you. I have felt the comfort of finding the ‘me’ that lived back in time. A cut and dry account of beauty and health regimen would made a book quite informative, but quite boring all the same, had it not displayed the camaraderie, the belongingness and the love behind it that these women enjoyed, which was an integral part of their lives.

Personally, I find the book is a keepsake of sorts.

Women bathing (B. D. Garga)
Women bathing (B. D. Garga)

Book Review: The Hindi-Bindi Club

Hindi BindiFor the longest time, I have not read fiction. One sunny afternoon, I find a book that my brother shipped thinking I’d enjoy reading: The Hindi-Bindi Club by second generation Indian-American Monica Pradhan.

This book is about 3 women from India settled in the United States, and about each of their daughters. The way the book is written, each character speaks for herself.

There is Saroj Chawla from Punjab who is a great cook and runs a catering business. Her daughter is Preity, the Miss Perfect, as viewed by one and all. The other character is Meenal Deshpande who hails from Maharashtra. She is more philosophical than others and has learnt from the experiences she had to deal with. Her daughter is Kiran, a physician and a divorcee in her early thirties who comes across as smart and stubborn. And then its Uma Basu, a Bengali scholar and professor. Her daughter is Rani, a wild child growing up but now an artiste.

From the eyes of these three mothers and daughters, you get to experience their wonder years growing up, their challenges with motherhood/daughterhood in a foreign country and all the gossip of what the girls call “The Hindi-Bindi Club”. As I read on, at different points, I could identify with some, the goosebumps, the nostalgia. And above all laughed and laughed at the humor! Saroj has her roots in the cosmopolitan Lahore, a part of India before the horrifying Partition, to become a part of Pakistan. With the character, you go back to the days half a century back with the description of the beautiful city, the festivals, the cheer, the Basant (Spring) in Lahore. Its poetic. Reminded me of the old Hindi movies. Meenal represents the typical and realistic Marathi woman and her life as a girl in Mumbai. The Mumbai rains, the paper boats, the street food, the beach etc. Uma is from Kolkata – the city of so many shades and contrasts. She is an intellectual, has a tough past, how she deals with it and her triumphs, her perspective towards life- its all is very inspiring.

Then there is the second generation of the daughters and their lives and challenges. Thus, it is a seamless patchwork of old and new Bollywood movies into a spectacular melange; now who wouldn’t like that! The book is very entertaining and brings that warm and fuzzy feeling. Its one of those I didn’t want to end. I highly recommend it to women, especially women from the Indian subcontinent settled abroad. They can most identify with it. I will be surprised if no one makes a cross-over movie out of it.

The best part is, each chapter is followed by a recipe. That is a real treat in more ways than one! I actually tried out a few!

My last word: A delightful book that is a must read! 🙂