Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Book Review: Chakra - Chronicles of the Witch Way



When you pick a book called Chakra – Chronicles of the Witch Way with grey-green eyes knowingly staring at you from behind the cover art work, you cannot help but form a certain image about what the book may contain. Such is the genre, such the title and such is the cover feeding that image in your mind. 

What did I expect when I picked the book? 

I expected magic and scenes wrought with mystery and enigmas. I expected power and play, and power-play too. I was ready to be told about Japas and Japnis, the knowledge they commanded but the mysterious ways in which they worked. That the book would send my way awakened kundalinis and evil chimeras the blurb itself had claimed. All this, wrapped within the folds of a saga told by Ritu Lalit’s pen. Were the afore-mentioned expectations met? Yes. Did I shake my head in appreciation or nodded it off to sleep? My review should tell.

To the people who will argue that Japas are peaceful, I would like to point out that this is a work of fiction. I do, however, believe that Japas were actively involved in politics, and had at their disposal a lot of power, which was intrinsically violent.’

Ritu Lalit makes her aim clear in her introductory chapter - to portray aspects of Japas which she believed were not common knowledge, by weaving a story around them. Reader expectations instantly rise. The claim being made is big and a certain over-turning of traditionally known knowledge is expected. We get excited, as all things subversive are wont to make us. However, we wonder, why the genre of fiction then? Is it because story-telling is one of the oldest ways to disseminate knowledge or is it because she wants to use the garb of a fictitious narrator to comfortably challenge the ‘given’ with what she ‘believes’ to be true? While the dichotomy of the author-narrator voice is not so certain, we are left wondering, who exactly will be talking to us next at this point.

For this very reason, I wrote ‘Trust the tale not the teller’ before I made my notes on paper. I decided to let the book do the talking. See what ideas it threw at me and place them on the table, like mats, or like pieces of a puzzle that will make whole for me the writer’s aim, claim, how supported by the text and how organized in a book format. Some of the themes/techniques that make the tale levitate with ease as a reader's delight are discussed below.  

The scenes of conflict are set and described with an effortless skill which makes you see them as you read. They exude an energy, and to lean against a cliché, are racy without being a glorified depiction of violence. Interesting to note is how the bloody battles are fought somewhere between the realm of the magical and the natural. Yes, almost like Magic Realism. For instance, the timely rain that comes thundering down in the Baoli scene at the end of the book. Was it a coincidental monsoon shower, or a certain clan leader’s doing? By keeping the lines between the natural and the magical blurred, Ritu Lalit cleverly finds an ally in nature to support her claim that Japas' powers were ‘intrinsically violent’. She invokes natural phenomenon when she wishes in the book, quite like the Japnis themselves. And she makes Sinduri mutter on her sleepless night – ‘War is the basic nature of us humans’, which becomes an important underlying theme of the book.

The treatment of Time is something to observe. The narrative proceeds in a linear fashion, sans any onion layers across the time zones. However, what is interesting to note is how well the readers’ attention is shuttled between near-ancient and totally-modern, not in terms of time but in terms of setting. This juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern is craftily done. For instance, while we are still dusting off our clothes clean after the epical battle in chapter 1, the ‘pager’ makes its sudden appearance, as if to snap us back to reality and remind us of the context that we are actually sitting in. The descriptive scenes transpose us to foreign climes of conflict or calm, yet pull us back to the ‘now’ with little reminders of the present. Like a waking up. Only goes to show how involved a reader was in the middle of a desert or deep inside a jungle! 

Time also comes into play in another fashion. While the telephones, the pagers and the coffee shops keep us from lingering in the world of ancients for too long, well-knit parallels with the present socio-political scene keep the reader from getting lost too. For instance, Hemant’s remark while eating lunch with Sami at Lata Tai’s table went thus – ‘We as a community have become decadent, corrupt and our laws are lax … we are fighting to bring about a change. I wish all young people to join us’ have been reasons behind many a protests at India Gate, or maybe this is about the Khaps? Then, when Lata sits explaining the Manan to Samaira she says – ‘They are supposed to keep Japas safe but in reality they are the private security of the clan leaders. Of course they enforce laws but only those that suit the leaders.’ Sounds familiar, does it not? And then the reader wonders. Is the world of Japas and Japnis a reflection of the larger world? Is this how the author is supporting her claim of intrinsic violence in the Japa community, by placing them right amongst our own undeniably corrupt, power-hungry and violent context? I believe so. 

Ritu Lalit uses the ideas of dreams and signs as narrative techniques splendidly well, positioning them at nodal points to take the plot forward, or to explain a thread left behind. Roma was plagued with the dreams of a grey pool with silver lights above it, a dream that scares her then and becomes her reality later. Her dream is important because it is so far removed from her situation then that it generates a feeling of suspense in us when a minute back, there was not the slightest hint of it. It makes us look forward. Sami’s escape route with Hemant from out of the Baoli too is something she says that – ‘Came to me in a dream.’ Suspense also makes it’s surprise appearance as nonchalantly as Saloni checking her grandmother Sinduri’s mobile for call records right after Sinduri’s ‘you are a good child’ and the bone chilling thrill of an escaped Roma checking the temple ruins. 

And then there are the humorous bits too, a classic style that the author enjoys and mastered in her previous book. The innocently mischievous donkey-riding scene from school is an endearing example. Then, when Nita sits down to chew on her sandwich with an appreciative smile towards a topless Jorawar, musing – ‘There should be a law against so much hunkiness’ we are caught off guard! Lata Tai’s chiding telling Sami ‘it is Japnis like you who create a mammoth head ache for archeologists. Ancient Siva temples end up in Brazil. Painful!’ cannot but make you smile. The board that Karam Japa installs at the entrance of Icchpujani Ashram with its ‘No, we do not rent rooms’ certainly made me laugh out loud. But not harder than when Mickey, on seeing Roma and Sami jump into the Baoli, shrugs – ‘The oldies will get them out.

But how can we miss, peeping from behind all these over-arching themes and teller techniques, the author herself? The narrator’s cloak making way to show us the author’s mind, that is, if there was a dichotomy at all. ‘Age is a great leveler’ she muses while describing Kusumlata Sivan. Marjina’s feeling of impending danger and the author saying – ‘everyone has a phobia, a private fear that gets internalized as a danger signal’ makes us nod a yes. A social comment makes its way in when she says – ‘South Asian countries are hard on their women…kidnappings, rapes routinely happen.’ Another comment gets put in Sikka’s mouth instead of coming to us directly – ‘This is Delhi, not Texas. In Delhi only the Jaats and politicians carry guns’. And even her opinion on short men (Vansh) being ‘like many short men, very pugnacious.’ And we smile. 

But I put all of the above aside, and talk about that one aspect of the book that stood out for me. If conflict and power-play is the underlying theme of the book, the spine that finally stands it up is the idea of family. Not in the conventional sense, no. The power that the book glorifies is the power of the feminine, of each Japni - glorious in her uniqueness yet part of the "sisterhood" that she nurtures. 

Blood binds, blood calls’ but do note, the men are not the givers here. Marjina awakens Nita to ‘not turn away from what you are, girl’ A sense of self is affirmed, even though contained in the world of witch craft, a world hunted down by men as is evident in a nostalgic moment of Sulo jiji when she muses – ‘They call us witches. We worship Nature. We worship Mother, the divine Goddess. It is Kaliyug now.’ Sami feels so good burning down one side of the mountain, a feeling matched within Roma as she plays with her own fire. An intrinsic link. When Sami ‘contained multitudes within. She will never be alone again’ it is like a sustenance she is drawing from her own power, her own core. Inside the Baoli, Sami ‘drew energy from her aunt’ Nita to survive, a symbiotic relationship. And in the culminating scene, Roma screams that the bones in the Baoli are ‘Indu …she wanted to live … have babies.’ Thus get included all women-kind in this powerful self-sustaining network of women. The Baoli itself becomes symbolic of a dark labyrinth, like a womb – where many died but through which many take birth and find themselves too.

Now for the problems with the book. Few and far between, but there.  

While the author tries her best to present us with a quick introduction to the Japas and Japnis, one wonders if it is enough. Surely, we learn about them as we read on, but what does seem clear is that we are only half-aware. And that the amount of information given to us about them is just enough. Is this Ritu Lalit's way of making us see only what she ‘believes’ as true? Of fulfilling her aim to portray the ‘intrinsic violence’ in peace-loving clans, knowing all the while that the reader knows just exactly what she has told us? Or was she assuming a certain degree of pre-knowledge in her readers' minds when she wrote the book? 

Misplaced punctuation marks or confusion between Bhoomar-Bhumar I will put aside as editorial mistakes but talk of others which seemed graver to me. One, strange first person language makes its way into the narrative at a few points. A glaring example is Sami yelling 'Psychotic bitch, stupid cunt' on being bitten by Roma. No where did the characterisation of Sami prepare us for this. Then, there are some disappointing lacunae in the flow of narrative too. I call these gaps in the narrative “mood-gaps”. At the time when Nita’s apartment burns down and she is nowhere to be found, even as the readers feel the tension the children in the book do not seem too stressed. Then, the day after the temple girl sacrifice scene, Roma wakes up and does her morning exercises and chakras. Did she do these before, or is it only now, in her present avatar? Who taught her these? Sami’s childish fascination for the Rebel Chief makes her worry for Roma fade. Slightly unexpected, this sudden frivolous swing of heart, and then again a page later, ‘she did not have a taste for so much cheeriness, it was shallow’. Sami’s emotional portrayal in Lata Tai’s house seems to be fluctuating each passing page. The same oddity comes through when Nita reunites with Sami and Mickey, but nicely forgets to worry about Deep, who has run away.

However, call them slips on the author’s part if you will, they only go to show how emotionally involved we as readers were, perhaps worrying about Deep even more than his own blood. By the end of such a fascinating journey, you cannot ask, where did the lehenga for Nita’s wedding homa come from? Perhaps the elements conspired to blow one her way. Or maybe it was express delivered in the "bat mobile" Lata Tai owns. We need not know, even if we notice this small detail in the middle of so much else that grips. 

The book comes together very effectively, after her introduction with its aim. While we cannot say with confidence that we take the author's word for it, and like her 'believe' what she did about the powerful Japa clans (like I said, trust the tale not the teller!), as readers, we cannot miss to notice her skill at crafting her ideas in this one-of-its-kind book written by an Indian author writing in English.

In the end, a full circle has been drawn. 'Chakra' began with a homa which destroys and culminates with one which stands for hope, a beginning of sorts. I will venture to call it a positive note but I am wary of doing so. Tapan Japa’s exclamation in the beginning of the book – ‘This Homa has been cursed. There will be no peace until this distrust and hatred is purged. The end is approaching’ rings clear in my ear still, since the whispers continue to mar the mantras of the wedding homa. Of course, the end of each civilization contains within its folds the start of a new one. As Yeats’s gyres turn within each other, we close the book seeing Nita finding the ‘purpose for life.’ However open-ended and far from a closure this may seem, for now, the elements and the chakras are resting, and so are we. 



28 comments:

  1. Very elaborate and excellent review Sakshi.

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  2. Wow! Did I write that book or what???? You made me fall in love with my own tale, Sakshi. Brilliant review, thanks.

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    1. Oh your 'Did I write that book?' made me fly. Staying up here for a while now. Thank you for the 'brilliant', Ritu ma'am. :)

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  3. What an extraordinarily detailed and meticulous review, Sakshi! We as normal readers are not prone to reading such literary analyses. For us, a detailed review would be something like - 'Loved it! Read it in one sitting...didn't even eat dinner, I was so engrossed!!!!' (The more the exclamation marks, the more thorough the review, it seems)

    I am about a quarter done with the book but keep getting distracted away from it by one thing or another. This review makes me want to get back to it with a renewed focus.

    Oh, and I hope Ritu cuts out a cheque to you for writing a review that's better than even the best publications in our country might have managed!

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    1. Rickie, your review of reviews makes me smile. But your review of my review makes me really happy. Thank you. When published authors such as yourself say this, I feel confident that I am on the right track. :)

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  4. This is what I call an accurate, professional critical review. A very very good change from the usual reviews we get these days that just wax poetic about the characters or the “awesome writing style”.
    I do hope who ever reads it appreciates the sheer effort that has gone into writing this !
    And yes, Ritu should really pay you for this !

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    1. Thanks, Ruchira.
      I do hope readers of the book connect with what I am saying here. The 'effort' was enjoyable. :)

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  5. Wow, if the review is so eloquently worded then I surely must pick up the book itself sometime soon and read it, more so because the author is somebody whose blog posts I thoroughly enjoy although they are few and far between nowadays.

    Sakshi, this has to rank among the most balanced, eloquently worded (I know I already used that term) book reviews that I have ever read. Period. This is evidenced by the comment that Ritu Lalit herself has left on this post :)

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    1. You must read the book, although, if you haven't read it you should not be reading this. Not a spoiler exactly, but can still influence your mind. Do read the book and re-read this for any further discussion :)
      Thanks a lot, Jairam. Yes, Ritu ma'am's comment made me soar!

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  6. A different take on how reviews are done I say :) And frankly speaking It doesn't really give away much or create a bias, but def. got me interested enough to pick up a copy and read :)

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    1. Yes, more like a semi-literary review, but I enjoyed writing it as much as I did reading the book. A review should not play the spoil-sport, and I'm glad you think this did not.
      Happy reading, Seeta. :)

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  7. As all the above have already commended your brilliant take on this :)

    I wanna laud you on the flaws cause hardly have I read about this in a review and I personally (as a newbie author) love this aspect cause that is the stepping stone to awareness and success.

    Ritu is an amazing writer and you did justice to her creation by putting in quite a bit of sweat while reading/critiquing her work.

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    1. You'll go a long way in your writing career, Ruchira, if you are so open to being told what a reader saw as missing in or amiss with the book. Good luck for that! Also, thank you liking this. I worked hard, but I enjoyed every bit of it. :)

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  8. Sakshi, brilliantly reviewed! I have read so many reviews but this has to be the best one! Keep up the good work.

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    1. :) Big words there, Swati. Made my day, really. Thanks a lot. :)

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  9. Thoroughly enjoyed the review. :) I have read the book & I nodded all the way reading the review.

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    1. Good to know you had read the book and then approached this review. And that you nodded in agreement. What else can I say except - we are readers of a feather then. :D

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  10. You've really put in a lot of effort in the review Sakshi. I am yet to read such a meticulous review of any book. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had read the book myself. I really wish this 'reader's block' would lift from me. I am hardly able to read anything these days. :(

    You really as a balanced and thorough woman. Your thought process is admirable.

    Kudos!
    Dagny

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    1. I sure hope you will come back to read this once you finish reading the book, Dagny. That is when you will add to the perspective that I carry home from the book. Looking forward to that. :)

      And I will take that very personally - the 'Balanced and thorough'. Of course, the 'admirable' made me sit up on the fan. Let me, please. Keep those pins away, will you. :D

      Thanks a lot, Dagny.

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  12. Interesting review Sakshi..Well penned :-)

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  13. I haven't read a better review than this. Honest, exhaustive, analytical and yet retains the mystery around the story. I know Ritu is an author par excellence but you girl, you are really something. Brilliant is the word.

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    1. Thank you, Alka. That's a great thing to read. :)

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