118 years of Trust BOOK REVIEW
Sunday, September 13, 1998
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Scriptures are history in another form!
Retrieval of History from Puranic Myths by P.L. Bhargava.
D.K. Printworld, New Delhi. Pp. 146. Rs 200.
Goans go back to their roots
Tivolem by Victor Rengel- Ribeiro. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pp. 344. Rs 250.
Another dimension
(rather 22 more)
to space

Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes and the 10th Dimension by Michio Kaku. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 359+xvi. $ 25.
Sky, and where stars
speak in verses

I am the Sky — Poems by Bejan Daruwalla. Hind Pocket Books, Delhi. PP.0111 Rs 145.
So Many Crosses — Poems by Prabhat K. Singh. Pencraft Publication, New Delhi. Pp. 44. Rs 90.
The art of diffused thinking
Dogra Legends of Art and Culture by Ashok Jerath. Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi. Pp. 271. Rs 450.
An echo across centuries
Earth is But a Star by Achala Moulik. UBS Publishers Distribut- ors, New Delhi. Pp. 340. Rs. 225.
50 years on indian independence 50 years on indian independence 50 years on indian independence
50 years on indian independence

Scriptures are history in another form!

Retrieval of History from Puranic Myths by P.L. Bhargava. D.K. Printworld, New Delhi. Pp. 146. Rs 200.

INDIA has no sense of history, thought Karl Marx. We have no recorded history, unlike other countries. We believed in dealing with eternal time and it did not matter to us whether Babar came in 1526 or at any other time. The only history book that we have is Kalhan’s "Raj Tarangini", written in the 12th century, which gives an account of the kings of Kashmir. For the rest of history, we have to depend on the accounts by foreign travellers such as Magasthenes, Hieun Tsang and Fa Hein. Also on stone inscriptions and other memorials, coins and poetic accounts like "Harsh Charit", "Mudra Rakshas" (dealing with Chanakya, Chandra Gupt Maurya) and similar Sanskrit works.

It has been said that our history is embedded in the Mahabharat, the eighteen Puranas and such works. But they are so overladen with imagination and exaggeration, as fact is mixed with fiction. They do give a long account of the genealogies of the kings of various dynasties, but often there are inner contradictions that it is difficult to build scientific history from them. Swami Dayanand rejected all Puranas and put them in the list of books not worth studying. Our author P.L. Bhargava, winner of the President’s award to eminent Sanskrit scholar, who was professor of religion at a university in Canada for two years and is the author of seven books, attempts to construct history from Puranic myths. Myths of India as of Greece are products of imagination and are a thing of beauty and charm. They even provide inspiration and guidance to people, but are certainly not history.

The author has selected seven great men for his study, who are Vishwamitra, Parashurama, Bhagirath, Yudhishthir, Valmiki, Rama and Krishna. Certainly they are builders of our civilisation and culture, but they are no historical figures and accounts of their lives do not make history.

Perhaps the author’s objective is to give verified and accurate facts so as to clear the confused welter of contradictory accounts and traditions. He says that his aim is to shake up the beliefs of many indologists that the history of India before the Buddha has been irretrievably lost. He tries to search for that pre-historic history from the accounts of the various Puranas, Vedas, Upanishads, Brahamanas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Buddhist, Jain and other authorities. He depends heavily on foreign indologists like Pargiter, Jacobi, MacDowell and the rest of their tribe.

Contradict the widely held beliefs and "facts" and give your own version with quotations from the great books, that is research and contribution to new knowledge. For example, from the Ramayana he digs up fresh facts that Rama was 25 and Sita 18 at the time of their marriage. Lakshmana was 15 and the two other brothers were younger. Bharata and Shatrughna had gone to the distant land of Kaikeya (birth place of Kaikeyi) and stayed there for 12 long years (why ?).

The four brothers did not return together to Ayodhya with their brides, as is believed, since their marriages were held at different times.

He discusses these and other points threadbare with a string of quotations from various texts in his attempt to clear confusion. Mythological truth is what one firmly believes in and he would not change his opinion because a scholar presents a different theory.

Rama’s story is found in nine Puranas and many other scriptures; this is true of every other myth. The author laments that there are many contradictions in them. That is only natural. Different authorities will give different versions of the same story, since there is no point in repeating the same story. Tulsi Das says there are a hundred crore Ramayanas, and they are sure to differ in many ways. History will remain elusive from these sources and there can be no finality, settled once for all. The object of such research will remain to stimulate the mind and broaden our understanding and mental horizon by intellectual gymnastics.

Another chapter asks "Did Rama banish Sita" because a washerman cast doubt on her purity since she had spent many months as Ravana’s captive? The Tulsi Ramayana does not say a word about it and so he rejects this episode as totally false. But it can be traced to the Valmiki Ramayana, which passage our author thinks, is an interpolation.

Levelling charges of interpolation and adulteration is a writer’s favoured tool to reject what appears false to him. Before the invention of printing — nay, before the age of pen and paper — no text could be written; everything was handed down through the oral tradition. In fact adulteration of holy texts became so widespread that the legendary Raja Bhoj (1000 AD) made a law making text adulteration a crime inviting imprisonment.

The writer mentions that seven kings are mentioned by name in the Rigveda. No sir, there is no history or geography in the Rig- veda; the Vedas are eternal, not bound by time and place.

Another chapter heading is "Did Krishna have a companion named Radha?" He tries to show that Krishna’s wives were Rukmani and Satyabhama, and Radha was not one of them. Whatever researchers may say, Radha Krishna idols are found in tens of thousands of Hindu temples.

"Was Vishwamitra the father of Shakuntala?" he asks and goes on to answer it in the negative. A great sage like him could not fall prey to the charms of Menaka sent by Indra to disturb his penance. In popular belief, Shakuntala’s son (by Dushyant) Bharat was our first king after whom our country is named.

Was Vyas the author of the 18 Puranas? Also the editor of the four Vedas, and the creator of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutra, the commentary on which by Sankaracharya is the textbook of Advaita Vedanta? Vyasa was not an individual but a gaddi like Sankaracharya; it is impossible for one man to produce such a stupendous volume of work. The first verse of the Mahabharata starts with a salutation to Narayana, Saraswati and to Vyas (would any author salute himself?).

The last word on such subjects can never be said. Quotations from so many texts make confusion worse confounded. The writer deserves credit for mastering so many texts and overwhelming the reader with his erudition which seems massive.

— P.D. Shastri


Goans go back to their roots

Tivolem by Victor Rengel-Ribeiro. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pp. 344. Rs 250.

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro in his novel, "Tivolem", subtlely focuses on the fundamental question of a man’s past, his roots. What draws and binds man to his roots? What propels a man to leave behind a fairly prosperous and comfortable life in some other country, only to return to the country of his birth and childhood? What is the compelling factor that makes the bond so absolute?

Incidentally, Rangel-Ribeiro (a Goan migrated to the USA) won this year’s Milkweed Paize, given each year to the best work of literary fiction published by Milkweed Editions of Minneapolis, for "Tivolem" , his first novel, several chapters of which were previously published as short stories. He was also awarded the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction in 1991 and was the former director of the Beethoven Society of New York.

The novel is set in a small village—Tivolem — in Goa, then a Portuguese colony, in the 1930s. Though the book is fairly voluminous, it does not bog the reader down with engaging ideas and probing realities. The striking feature of this book is simplicity. No endless philosophising, just a taut, linear narrative about the lives of four people, three men and a woman, who return to Tivolem, their native village.

Two of the four returnees, bachelor Simon Fernandes, a violinist and a retired civil servant from Kuala Lumpur, and 35-year-old Marie Santana, who returns from Mozambique to take care of her grandmother after her parents’ death, form the central characters, who find themselves thrown together by destiny.

Simon, hopeful of some day finding his European-looking wayward brother and Marie Santana, recouping from a broken love affair with Simon’s brother (whose identity eludes her till the very end), gradually fall in love despite disapproving glances and snide remarks by the villagers who think she has an "evil eye".

At one point, their relationship is threatened by the truth about Simon’s brother, who not only deceived her in love but also cheated her of all her money. However, their love sees them through.

Life is harsh inasmuch as it does not allow one to go back to the past and do things differently. But then again it does give one a chance to pick up what remains and start anew what was and has been. Marie Santana decides to put the past behind her, succeeding in circumventing the bitter memories and transcending all barriers—social and psychological—to find her own happiness.

She tries to emulate her father and have the kind of faith he had in people. His words: "In life, as in crossing a river, one sometimes has to row against the tide, turn a hardship into an advantage," inspire her to strive for courage and fortitude.

Often she finds herself wondering how her father would have reacted to a particular situation and takes the line she believes he would have wanted her to take. She knows revenge and retribution would not be his ways. Her adversity quotient is high and she emerges a survivor.

Rangel-Ribeiro’s character delineation is near perfect. He portrays the village folk in all their idiosyncracies, complacency and naivety and as concerned with matters of "eternal bliss and eternal damnation".

Minor characters like Josephine Aunty, the village gossip, and Lazarinh, whose "fame as a petty thief and hoodlum spread beyond Tivolem", are imaginatively crafted.

The epilogue ends with a little speech by Father Vicar who has a Latin phrase to fit any situation. "Antevicorian we canas triumphum". Do not sing your victory song before you have gained victory. (This one is for Josephine!)

"Amor omnia vincit" Not always true, but in your case at least, we hope that love with conquer all" (for the lovers).

And lastly "Vanitas vanitatum" Vanity of vanities. Do not hunker too much after power and glory, for in time those, too, shall pass" (for the mighty and the rulers of our destinies).

Humour and verbal virtuosity make "Tivolem" a truly engrossing read.

—Priyanka Singh


Another dimension (rather 22 more) to space

Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes and the 10th Dimension by Michio Kaku. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 359+xvi. $ 25.

TO most people, theoretical physics is the most exotic branch of science, exclusive to a chosen few amongst us, who are perpetually formulating strategies in a world of mathematical equations applied to objects defined in ways that strip them of all features real.

To the more knowledgable, it is the study of laws and mechanisms governing natural phenomena, their origin and their progress. Steven Weinberg in his Nobel lecture said, "Our job in physics is to see things simply, to understand a great many complicated phenomena in a unified way, in terms of a few simple principles."

The methods of study, have diversified into numerous sub-disciplines, each requiring high levels of training. Nonetheless, there are a few scientists who make serious efforts in communicating to the masses the essence of discoveries made in the laboratories.

Michio Kaku, Professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, is one such remarkable man. Kaku has hosted a weekly hour-long science programme on radio for more than a decade, talking to common people on issues of scientific interest and answering their questions. "Hyperspace" is one of his books meant for the non-scientist.

What is hyperspace? In our normal perception, space is three-dimensional. With a bit of reflection, we include time as a fourth component in the list of dimensions (before and after, just like in this or that direction). Our existence in the space-time reality seems self-consistent and completely defined.

We are so conditioned in this way of thinking that it would come as a surprise if we were told that this is merely a model of the world that we have constructed. Such a model is not adequate to understand many deeper mysteries that physicists investigate. Hyperspace is a model where the number of dimensions exceeds the usual four. It is now believed that the universe exists in higher-dimensional space. Most advanced of the theories related to this idea is known as the superstring theory that predicts the precise number of dimensions of the universe, namely 10.

Kaku takes us on a journey to higher dimensions in four parts with an elegant and lucid commentary on the conceptual and philosophical implications of the various theoretical breakthroughs. A master himself, he seems to be sitting together with us around a campfire on a winter night and telling us the fantastic stories about the universe and the minds that venture into its metaphysics. Kaku’s style has an intensely aesthetic and spiritual aspect to it.

In the very second chapter of the first part dealing with the fifth dimension, he talks about mathematicians and mystics and smoothly progresses from narrating, for instance, the life story of Riemann to how his work and thought leads to a profound conclusion: force= geometry. In fact, Riemannian geometry (as opposed to the Euclidean theorems) is the basis of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The chapter ends with interesting details of feats claimed by magicians in the late 19th century and the contemporary arguments for and against such charlatons.

Kaku blends philosophy, political thought, creative writing and science in building up his story of hyperspace. There is the "class struggle in the fourth dimension" and a reference to Fabian socialism of H G Wells and works of many other writers, reprints of classic art works, Bolsheviks, bigamists...all this leading to how Einstein developed the theory of space-time continuum.

In the second part of the book, the tenth dimension finally comes into being and the superstring theory is introduced. Unification of theories of electromagnetism and gravitation is the grand task that theoretical physicists took up in this century. The leader of the tribe was Albert Einstein and at the end of the century, the most well-known wizard is Edward Witten, the discoverer of the superstring theory. In between, there are a string of geniuses.

Ideas have also been borrowed from many other sparks of the past. The Indian mathematics wizard Ramanujan has a lot to do with the number of dimensions of the universe. The known laws of physics can be unified sensibly in a single formulation only if the dimension of the universe is either 10 or 26; the number 24 appears repeatedly in the work of Ramanujan. The string theory makes use of a Ramanujan function that has the same 24 appearing miraculously.

This number corresponds to 24 different modes of vibration of a string that is a fundamental unit of interaction in the universe. In the relativistic theory with space and time on the same footing, two more dimensions are added and the number becomes 26. In a more generalised form, Ramanujan function gives the number eight and this becomes ten in the relativistic framework.

The conceptual fallout of the superstring theory is seen in interesting ideas (phenomena really) like the time warps, colliding universes, etc. These are discussed in the third part of the book. In the last part, the philosophical aspects are dealt with in detail. In Kaku’s words, "... It is inevitable that philosophical, even personal, questions will intrude into the discussion..... Inevitably, the revival of higher dimensions in physics will rekindle the debate between ‘reductionism’ and ‘holism’."

Reductionism reduces complex phenomena to simple terms. Holism assumes that the determining factors in nature are irreducible wholes. The debate between holistic and reductionist modes of thinking has become particularly intense in the past 30 years, and is a major component of the "post-modern" critique. Consider the behaviour of an ant colony. The reductionist spends years analysing the basic building block in the physiology of an ant and inevitably misses some of the essential features that can be seen by considering the colony as an integral whole.

Kaku takes examples from diverse disciplines to drive the point. And finally he leaves the reader with generous freedom to choose for oneself or rather be tolerant of both the views. "Both sides, of course, have merit. Each side is merely addresssing different aspects of a difficult problem. However, taken to extremes, this debate sometimes degenerates into a battle between ... belligerent science versus know-nothing science."

Kaku comes out strongly against these extremes: "...belligerent science is science with a chip on its shoulder... (it) accuses the holists of being soft-headed, of getting their physics confused, of throwing pseudo-scientific gibberish to cover the battles, but is ultimately losing the war...may trounce out the opposition by parading out mountains of data and learned Ph.Ds. However, in the long run, arrogance and conceit...backfire by alienating the very audience that it is trying to persuade.

"Know-nothing science goes to the opposite extreme, rejecting experiment and embracing whatever faddish philosophy happens to come along...sees unpleasant facts as mere details, and overall philosophy as everything. If the facts do not seem to fit the overall philosophy, then obviously something is wrong with the facts...(it) comes in with a performed agenda, based on personal fulfilment rather than objective observation, and tries to fit in the science as an afterthought."

Kaku explains how this debate is equally intense in questions of wars, health-care policies and other issues of general interest. And as the only reasonable suggestion, he adds "a higher synthesis of both viewpoints (antagonistic only when seen in their extreme form) in higher dimensions". Most of the great scientists associated with these profound questions exemplify holistic lives, albeit often with numerous contradictions. Einstein’s involvement in political affairs and in the pacifist movements is well known. Edward Witten started out as a history major (Honours student) at Brandeis University with serious interest in linguistics. He has been a committed democrat and has active participation in pacifist movements in the USA.

Apparently one who relies heavily on mental calculations, Witten says, "Most people... think of what physicists do as... incredibly complicated calculations, but... the essence of it is that physics is about concepts, the principles by which the world works."

After a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton and a brief teaching assignment at Harvard, Witten was a Professor of physics at the age of 28 years. Currently he has a joint position at the Institute of Advanced Studies and the university at Princeton.

The last word. "Hyperspace" is a great book, a truly holistic venture into the most exciting exploration of our times.

— Harjinder Singh


Sky, and where stars speak in verses

I am the Sky — Poems by Bejan Daruwalla. Hind Pocket Books, Delhi. PP.0111 Rs 145.

So Many Crosses — Poems by Prabhat K. Singh. Pencraft Publication, New Delhi. Pp. 44. Rs 90.

OVER the years we have known Bejan Daruwalla as an astrologer extraordinary and his "Stars Foretell"column "Ganesha Says..." appears week after week in a national newspaper. Now he is on a TV show where he talks about his predictions regarding important personalities and important events.

Now late in his life he dons the mantle of a poet and "I am the Sky" is his first collection of poems. He calls himself a "poet by passion and an astrologer by profession" and he works under his own credo of poetry. "Poetry is your protest, your cry of sorrow or exultation, your way of getting back at life," he says.

"I am the Sky" contains about 70 odd poems on almost all topics under the sun and it has the inherent weakness of all first collections — it contains the very first effort of writing poetry. "Come" is one such poem which is addressed to a friend.

"Come with me/to the wild wonderous woods (where)/ we shall smoke a cigarette/and watch the smoke/land like a garland/on the necks of the hyena and the were-wolf." A thought which has been expressed beautifully in a proseessay by J.B. Priestley titled "On Doing Nothing". At the other end stands poems which reveal that the poet has mastered the art and out comes a compact haiku-like poem:

"Woman, endure/endure like stone and monument/while I click you/with my eyes and heart/and frame you in silence."

A delicacy of touch is apparent in the poem "Fall" in which the poet tries to imagine the feelings of the last autumn leaf which is afraid of his own weight. "Afraid to look at the tenderness in the sky/and the mystery of the hills beyond" against the onslaught of wind and says:

"I tell you, stranger/I fear the flutter of my fall."

Daruwalla in quite a few poems makes a muffled dig at his own profession.

"Listen, astrologer, if you can/The Mocking Bird/is reading your horoscope."

The fervent feelings of a father for his mentally retarded daughter recorded in four poems disturb the reader:

"See, my painting/But I see only/Dabs of colour I merely nod at your painting/And (we) weep for different reasons."

A whiff of fresh air blows through these feelingly written poems and the personal favourite is "For an Old Man, Crack in the tea cup, fall. Frankly, Old Man I don’t know what do with you/

Please survive our generation/to lovingly torture the next."

* * *

"SO Many Crosses" is also a first collection of poems of Prabhat K.Singh, an academic-turned-poet, writer and critic. The poems (23 in number) are "the outcome of his painful vigils (which he has) kept over the affairs in life" in contemporary society and these poems "release an aroma of pain" which makes him grow soft with sorrow.

Shiv K. Kumar mentions the urbane tone, playful irony which are apparent in the poems, in his foreword to the collection. In this aptly titled anthology, the poet’s observant eye falls on the sordid aspects of the present-day society, and he becomes a mere spectator. He recollects his experiences for all of us, adding a comment here and a remark there.

Gaya, the city in which he lived and is living for the past so many years, becomes the focus of his attention and "It is a city/of river without water/hills without plants and men without minds," and makes it a symbol of illusion and reality.

Once in a while he gets away from the mundane realities and comes out with poems such as "Imagination" and "Hope" and writes, "Wanton rain/with welter of emotions, in lyric restlessness/causing ripples in a calm lake." ("Imagination").

Or "Chirping like a bird/and restless like a whirlwind, looking across the horizon/and wandering like a cloud." ("Hope").

It seems that the poet is afraid to look within his own persona to offer candid comments or deeply felt reaction to the various "crosses" crossing his path day after day and this very thing makes it an impersonal study of the various maladies which afflict modern society. At the most, he provides dry lyricism to his thoughts.

— R.P. Chaddah


The art of diffused thinking

Dogra Legends of Art and Culture by Ashok Jerath. Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi. Pp. 271. Rs 450.

WHILE migrating to India during partition in 1947, a train load of terrified Hindus (the term includes Sikhs as well) was stopped by a violent mob of Muslim fanatics — created on the pattern of Hindu fanatics by a short-sighted and lalchi leadership of the time — for a whole night at a small railway station called Lala Musa. However all passengers were saved by a brave Dogra army officer who, with only a handful of soldiers, kept the mob at bay the whole night.

My mother had told me umpteen times this chilling tale how the trapped-men and women spent that long, dark, hot and humid night. She would always describe it rather graphically and with moist eyes that sparkled with her unbounded gratitude for the brave Dogra, since our family of five (including me as a toddler) was among the passengers. Naturally I too developed great admiration not only for that particular officer but also for the Dogra community as a whole.

Although I do not believe in social or racial stereotypes (Alduous Huxley says laudatory epithets as "brave", "artistic" and so on do not apply permanently to any particular social group), I started reading the book under review with a certain pre-conceived bias in favour of the Dogra community.

The Rajput clans which settled in the northern hilly terrain, between the Chenab and the Ravi rivers and known today as Jammu, threw up the powerful Dogra dynasty of Raja Gulab Singh, who was made the king by the Sikhs in 1820. He expanded his territory to the north, annexing Ladakh and Baltistan. Before that the region, peopled by the hardy and martial Dogra race, had remained part of the Sikh Empire.

At the conclusion of the first Sikh war, the treaties of Lahore and Amritsar elevated Raja Gulab Singh as the maharaja of an extensive but somewhat ill-defined Himalayan kingdom "to the eastward of the River Indus and westward of the River Ravi".

For the British colonial rulers, the creation of this princely, protected state helped to safeguard their northern flank in their advance to the Indus and beyond during the latter part of the 19th century. The state thus formed part of a complex political buffer between the British Indian Empire and the Russian and Chinese empires to the north.

For Gulab Singh, the confirmation of the title to these mountain territories marked the culmination of almost a quarter of a century of campaign and diplomatic negotiation among the small hill kingdoms along the northern border of the Sikh empire.

The book, though written with the good intention of projecting the rich cultural aspect of the Dogra land, fails to keep its focus on any particular aspect or period but presents many disjointed factors, all of which require sensitive handling to make the volume readable. In the name of research the author has merely collected facts and figures from various chronicles and other sources and strung them together without a comprehensive design.

By widening his canvas to an unmanageable proportion, the author has in fact brought many aspects like the number of diametrically different and now accepted as separate and distinct miniature schools of Pahari painting under one category — Dogra. Thus he simply fails to hold the reader’s attention. It reminds me of a Punjabi culture enthusiast who went to the extent of calling the legendary singer Lata as a Punjabi by asserting that she is in fact Lata Mangesh "Kaur".

Strangely enough, the author has also chosen to highlight, apart from other things, the valour of the Dogra community, and talks in detail about their superstitious, gullible and orthodox nature. This clearly shows how right Alduous Huxley was when he stated: "At first sight it might seem as though artistic ability were a matter of racial inheritance. But when we look more closely we find reason to doubt if this is so. There are no artistic or inartistic races; there are only, within each social group, certain sets of artistically fortunate or unfortunate accidents. Many facts point to this conclusion. Thus in the course of history, the same people may produce works of art of widely varying quality. Egyptian art was some times superb; but at other times (as the contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb made only too clear) it could be deplorably cheap, theatrical, and vulgar."

However the most painful part of the book is its language. I am neither a language specialist nor an orthodox grammarian to he angry at the slightest distortion of the accepted norms of language and hence don’t mind usual mistakes like an occasional wrong use of a preposition ("of" has been tagged to the verb "comprise" at a few places in the book). But one certainly draws the line at paragraphs such as these:

"Some rural games are very popular among the children. They are not financially so viable to afford to play costly games" (p 59). One of the games mentioned is "rope flying" (perhaps the author means skipping).

"Three Dogra brothers and their kith and kins (sic) were employed by the lord of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was a shrewd politician and a great statesman that India has ever produced. He was the only lord who could make us of these dare devils for his own ends... Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a great strategian (sic) and a great psychologist in his own terms. He knew the psychology of his courtiers to the extent that he arose from rags virtually to become the great lord of north India that almost all the hill states in the north were subdued by him. The boundaries of his kingdom thronged for minor and central Asia" (p 18).

A book on art and culture with poorly printed pictures seems to be very much out of place in an age when printing technology has scaled great heights.



An echo across centuries

Earth is But a Star by Achala Moulik. UBS Publishers Distributors, New Delhi. Pp. 340. Rs. 225.

This is Achala Moulik’s fourth books of fiction. Her earlier novel, "The Conquerors", dealt with the love and war of two families between 1757 and 1958. It claims to have been a best seller and also of high literacy merit. Her first novel, "Camellias for Caroline", was a best seller and was translated into the French, Swedish and Finnish languages.

Born in Calcutta, she had her education abroad, wherever her father, a diplomat, was posted. She graduated from London University and joined the IAS and was allotted to the Karnataka cadre. History being her major subject, she took to writing historical romance. If fiction can be called an escape from reality, she is among bureaucrats like Abhimanyu Chatterjee who have taken to writing fiction. But Achala Moulik has also produced non-fiction works such as "Our Bengal", "Pageant of Karnataka" "Immortals of Italian Literature", "World Heritage Monuments of India" and "Monuments and Sites of India".

"Earth is but a star" is a historical romance that begins in 15th century Spain. It was a period when Spain drove out the Moors and reconquered southern Spain. It was also a period when the brutal Inquisition rolled across Europe. Against this background comes Count Manoel de Almeida, a nobleman with Spanish and Portuguese connections. During the reconquest the count falls in love with Elvira, who had been given asylum by the Moors after her father fled Spanish during the Inquisation.

Wooed by a Moor nobleman and the Spanish count, Elvira chooses the later. But the Inquistion soon claims her as a victim and the count is helpless. Dejected and depressed, he returns to Portugal, where he marries a noble woman. After several years the count sails to India with Vasco da Gama and travels through Calicut, Cochin and Thanjavur. Then follow the discovery of the Cape route to India, spice trade and the conquest to Goa.

The restless spirit of the count is however not satisfied until he meets Iravati, who is no one else but Elvira reborn. The story here takes a strange turn. Fate again intervenes to separate the count and Iravati, when the Spanish officer escorting Iravati to Goa falls in love with her and he turns out to be the count’s son.

Achala Moulik is at her best when she describes romantic encounters. She fills a vast canvas in time and space but the promised "adventure, romance and glory" are not much in evidence. The author tells her story as a simple narrative and as seen from the author’s viewpoint. Stirring events are blandly narrated and a few paragraphs are all that are there to describe the conquest of southern Spain or Goa.

"Confronted with this sudden attack, Rasul Khan, who was governor of Goa, hastily gathered four thousand soldiers to meet the Portuguese army led by Dom Manoel de Almeida and ....

"The Muslim Bijapuri army offered desperate resistance to the Portuguese-Hindu onslaught of fifteen thousand men who poured into the suburbs of Panjim. Canons were unloaded from ships on the Mandovi and Zuari (beaches) and trained on the laterite walls of Adil Shah’s fort. Walls were breached, ramparts were blown away along with the Bijapuri canons, and Albuquerque’s Indian soldiers entered to fortress. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, as bloody as it was brief, as the Hindus of Honnovar and Gersoppa fought the Muslims of Bijapur to put King Emmanuel’s banners on the broken citadel."

Such a narration fails to inject passion into the "stirring events and adventures of the count". The book is however readable and the characters are colourful, especially the female ones.

— Padam Ahlawat

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