This book review is part of #TSBCReadsIndia, a reading challenge where one reads a book from each State and Union Territory of India. Presenting the fourthof the 36 books to be read — the book from Gujarat — in this literary journey across India.
Fence byIla Arab Mehta is the English translation of the Gujarati original, Vaad (2011) by Rita Kothari. Published by Zubaan Booksin 2015, Fence (Paperback, 232 pages) was not my first choice for the book from Gujarat for the #TSBCReadsIndia challenge. But when I came across this review of Fence, it didn’t take me long to decide on this book as my read from Gujarat and order a copy for myself.
I started reading the book almost as soon as I got it, but found it very difficult go beyond the first 100 pages or so. I must have stopped and re-started reading the book at least 4-5 times over a two-month period before finally giving up and putting the book aside.
This was more than a year back, and in that period I read other books and periodically mulled over whether to continue reading Fence or give it up, whenever I saw it on my bookshelf. Last week, when I came across Fence once again, I decided to give it another, last, attempt at reading the book.
It took me three days to read Fence, cover to cover, but finish the book I did. And then immediately got down to writing its review.
Do you ever have a song, an idea, a story line, or an image stuck in your head? And it just refuses to go away? For some time at least? I have this with music — it could be a song, an instrumental piece, a jingle, a background score, etc. That particular piece of music becomes my “now’” song, and the “nowness” (pardon my English here) could be for any length of time.
Surprisingly, it was Twitter which introduced me to this gem, and I still can’t get over that. I was home on sick leave from work that weekday in October with a fever and body ache. Restless and unable sleep, I logged into my Twitter account to do ‘time pass’.
I first heard about Mahabalipuram in a chapter of my Class 8 or 9 Hindi textbook. While I don’t remember who the author of that piece was, I do remember that it was about the ruminations of a sculptor who wondered about the glorious temple ruins by the sea-shore and how they came to be.
Though the chapter didn’t mention Mahabalipuram as the place the sculptor was talking about, my Hindi teacher said that is where the story was based. He also elaborated a bit on the history of Mahabalipuram and that had me hooked. My young and impressionable teenaged mind found the description of a bygone era and the desolation of temple ruins by the sea-shore very romantic.
The visual stayed with me through school, college, university… till I actually visited Mahabalipuram in 1996. This was in the summer of that year and the heat and tourist hordes dispelled any romantic notion I had about Mahabalipuram. But the monuments left an impression on me — enough to make me want to re-visit it.
It took me almost 20 years visit Mahabalipuram again.
It all began with a Twitter DM (or direct message) I received from my friend and fellow blogger, Anuradha Shankar.
It was the summer of 2014 and Anu was travelling, or doing a temple run as she preferred to call it, in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. She would send me an occasional update about the temples she was visiting — delight over seeing exquisite murals in one or despair on coming across bathroom tiles in another.
When I received a DM from her that May evening, with a “See this !”, I wondered what was it she had sent me this time and whether it would be a rave or rant ! As it happened, it didn’t matter for the photograph that Anu had messaged me simply took my breath away.
I messaged back. Jain Art? In Tamil Nadu? Where? What? How? When? Anu replied, Yes. Yes. This is Kazhugumalai, 8th-9th century CE. Rest when I get back. I was stunned for till then I had no idea about the existence of Jain culture — past or present —in Tamil Nadu. I had wrongly assumed that Karnataka was the furthest South that Jainism had spread to.
That one photograph sparked off an interest in Jainism in Tamil Nadu, an interest that continues to grow by the day. From researching about the fascinating history of Jainism in Tamil Nadu to visiting heritage Jain sites in Maduraiand Kanchipuram to writing an assignment on reclaiming Jain heritage in Tamil Nadu (as part of the Indian Aesthetics programme at Jnanapravaha Mumbai earlier this year)… the quest into Jain heritage has been an ongoing journey.
The Thirumalai Nayak Mahal was the last monument our group visited in Madurai as part of a 3-day exploration of the city, its history and cultural heritage earlier this year. I was looking forward to visiting the Mahal as, apart from the Meenakshi Amman Kovil, this was the only other place in Madurai I was aware of prior to the visit.
Built by Thirumalai Nayak (r.1622-1655), arguably Madurai’s best known king, this almost 400-year old restored and renovated palace is considered to be one of a kind with rather unique design and architectural features. Thanks to the photographs I had seen online as well as this song, I had an idea of what the palace looked like before the visit.
Even then, nothing prepared me for the size and scale of the palace that Thirumalai Nayak built when I walked through its doors that afternoon in January. A large courtyard lay before me, open to the skies, with soaring columns, topped by arches, lining it.
But my first sighting of the palace interiors did not leave me awestruck (that came later); instead, it left me aghast !