Nefertiti by Michelle Moran – a review

Well-researched and beautifully written, Nefertiti is a compulsively readable first novel from Michele Moran, who gives gives readers a beautiful glimpse into the life and customs of ancient Egypt. Tracing the rise and fall of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Nefertiti, the story is told from the point of view of Lady Mutnodjmet (Muty), Nefertiti’s younger sister.

Married to Akhenaten, the unstable and suspicious 17-year old co-regent of Egypt, who is determined to break with tradition by replacing supreme deity Amun with a little known sun god Aten, Neferiti was chosen by Queen Tiye to balance and moderate his heretical views. Desperate to carve her name in history, however, Nefertiti soon throws caution to the wind and supports and encourages all of Akhenaten’s follies.

Knowing he cannot do much until his father, the Elder, is still Pharoah, Akhenaten decides to move to the desert city of Amarna, where he establishes his capital. However, since he is arrogant and unsuitable to rule over Egypt, Nefertiti’s father Vizier Ay becomes the real power behind the throne, working hard to reverse the damage caused by Akhenaten and ensuring he gains the upper hand over Vizier Panahesi, the father of Akehnaten’s first wife, Kiya.

That sets the premise for palace politics, court events and power struggles. The characters are well developed and engaging, and Michelle Moran manages to pull you into their lives from the first page itself.

Richly detailed, the novel brings alive the sights, sounds, colors and texture of life in ancient Egypt.

Her wig came below her shoulders and behind her ears, emphasizing her cheekbones and slender neck. Every strand of her hair played music when the beads came together, and I thought there wasn’t a man in any kingdom that could refuse her. Her entire body glittered with gold, even her toes.

And if you’re like me and wonder how much of the novel is based on truth, these words from the Author’s note at the end of the book should be encouraging:

While the main historical events are accurate, such as Ay’s rise to power, Akhenaten’s obsession with Aten, the dream of Amarna, and Nefertiti’s unparalleled influence at court, liberties were taken with personalities, names and minor historical events. For instance, no one can be certain how Mutnodjmet felt about her sister’s vision of an Egypt without the Amun Priests, but in an image of her found in Amarna she is standing off to one side, her arms down while everyone else is enthusiastically embracing Aten. In a period where art attempted to portray reality for the first time, I found this significant.

All told, this is a beautiful book that will transport you to the life and times of the epitome of beauty – Nefertiti. A must read.

If you like historical fiction, be sure to check out The Raven Spell’s review of The Courtesan by Susan Carroll. It looks like a very interesting read – definitely on my to-read list!

Bomb blast rocks Pune

German Bakery in happier times

A bomb blast destroyed one of Pune’s famous landmark’s on 13 February 2010 — The German Bakery at Koregaon Park, which is just about a kilometer away from my home. Luckily, my family is safe, though my mom gave me a huge scare since she wouldn’t pick up either her mobile or land line. Turns out she was enjoying a ghazal recital at The Residency Club when the blast happened, but I was shit scared and panicking, even though I knew that the chances of her being around that area were very slim.

This is really a sad day for Pune, which has always been a peaceful and peace loving city that has never been affected by communal tensions or riots.

My prayers are with the families of those who were killed and injured in the blast.

Nawalgarh — Rajasthan’s open air art gallery

Shekhawati: Rajasthan's open air art gallery

We take our annual holiday in December/January, as we prefer to be out of town during New Year (not ‘cause I like it quiet, just so we don’t end up greeting the new year with a fight!). This year, we did a road trip across Rajasthan — from Delhi to Nawalgarh, Jaipur and Udaipur.

We set off for Nawalgarh at around 10:30 on 24th December — pretty late, but that was hubby darling’s brilliant idea. Ergo, we had to fight our way through numerous traffic jams till we got to Kotputli, from where we mercifully left crazy old NH8 and ventured onto roads that were quieter and free of traffic. Thanks to a few wrong turns and one missed turn, it was around 6:00ish when we reached the hotel.

Being on the road for about 7.5 hours meant that we were pretty tired and cranky by the time we checked in. But the hotel, Apni Dhani, was really nice and welcoming. It has traditional Rajasthani huts arranged in a circle around a courtyard, somewhat similar to Mandore Guest House in Jodhpur in terms of the set-up and greenery.

Main entry gate to the Goyenka Haveli, Dhundold

But where it differs is in sustainability and eco-friendliness — they grow their own wheat, barley, maize, have a vegetable garden and also some fruit trees. So a lot of what you eat is actually grown at their property. Doesn’t get more organic than that!

Meeting area, Poddar Haveli, Nawalgarh

The owner, Ramesh Jangid heads the Intach chapter for the Shekhawati region, so he was the perfect person to guide us around the havelis and to tell us where to go and what to see. Though Shekhawati covers a pretty vast area — Jhujhnu, Mandawa, Dundold (some of the big towns) — he told us to visit the havelis of Nawalgarh and Dundold, which was just about 8 kms away, as they have some of the most well-preserved and finest examples of Shekhawati havelis. All the havelis follow the same basic pattern — there is a huge entrance first, with an outside area where the men could receive guests or people who came for an audience, then the main entrance (beyond which the women didn’t step out), where on the lower floor was the kitchen, water store and another drawing room where more important guests might be invited, and an upper floor that had bedrooms with a terrace on top.

Tea with a view, Goyenka Haveli, Dhundold


Made sense, so on the next day, after we were rested and refreshed, we headed into Dhundold. Our first stop was the Goyenka Haveli, which has been well-restored and is open to visitors. There’s an entry ticket of Rs. 40, and the caretaker shows you around. It had some beautiful carving — the door to the main house was made of bronze, above which was a carved wooden and ivory panel. The walls were brightly painted, with a variety of subjects, ranging from a train, to deities and scenes from everyday life.

There was a small little room where matkas of water used to be kept that had a thin door that was left open to let in air — that’s how you got cold water in the hot summer months! There was a typical Rajasthani kitchen, with a statue of a cook making rotis and serving them, and a lot of old vessels arranged in the room, including an okhli and batta. There were a lot of other statues around the haveli…a woman grinding wheat, another of a bullock cart, a third of a meeting…

Cotton sample booklets, Goyenka Haveli, Dhundold

Exploring the rest of the rooms, we saw some lovely antiques in the house, like a kid’s rocking chair and two gorgeous floor to ceiling Belgian mirrors…another room had a mini-museum, displaying old coins, 10 and 100 rupee notes (which were so much bigger than the notes today!), silver jewelry and silver candle stands. In another room I found some old codes and stamp paper, and a book of cotton samples — the owners had two businesses, selling cotton on commission and manufacturing Dundold tea. In one of the rooms a game of chausar had been laid out on the floor, and the caretaker explained how the game used to be played with shells, what the different throws meant, and how to keep count.

Wall fresco, Krishna and Radha with gopis forming the elephant, Poddar Haveli, Nawalgarh

Almost all the rooms had beautifully painted walls. Some of the paintings had recently been restored using chemical paints, but others still had the more than 100 year old original paints made of crushed stone and water.

That tour over, the caretaker told us to go visit the Goyenka’s centograph, which was typical to the centorgraphs found around the region. In fact, he said that most other centographs in Shekhawati were modeled after this one! From there, we wnet to the fort, which was pretty disappointing, as part of it had been converted to a hotel, and they rushed us in and out of there in 10 minutes flat!

We were back at the hotel for lunch, and then spent the evening lazing around…there was a classical music evening at the hotel, which was interesting (though I would have rather gone and seen at least one haveli in Nawalgarh that evening!).

Inner haveli gate, Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh

The next day was reserved for Nawalgarh. We started with the Poddhar Haveli Museum, which was absolutely mind blowing! Each and every surface of each and every wall was filled with varied frescoes, depicting everything from mythology to the kings, trains, Europeans and daily life. The guide explained it thus: In the olden days, the paintings were like TV — for instance, people couldn’t go to Bombay to see the train, so the traders who had been there described what a train looked like, how it ran, what the station was like, to the artists, who painted them on the walls of their house!

Fresco depicting a train and a kingly procession, Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh

There some really interesting paintings, like one showing a woman feeding a child and doing makeup at the same time, another showed Shiv and Parvati on Nandi from the left, and from the right, Bramha and Saraswati on a bull. There was also a painting of the head of the house that was done in such a way that no matter where you went, it looked like his eyes were following you. Very interesting!

Inner courtyard, Muraka haveli, Nawalgarh

The other interesting thing about the haveli was that it offered a virtual tour of all of Rajasthan. A number of the rooms had been converted into galleries, which displayed everything related to Rajasthani culture, from paintings and carving of all the different regions, to wedding dresses, pagdis, all the main forts and palaces of Rajasthan, jewelry, musical instruments, marble work and miniature paintings.

The haveli just took my breath away! Imagine living in a house that was so gaily painted — I’m sure you could find a picture for any mood if you were living in such a place! At times I imagine it might have gotten a bit overwhelming, too, to live under the eyes of so many millions of paintings, but…it was absolutely fantabulous!

The crumbling Bhagwat Haveli, Nawalgarh

From there we went to the Bhagwat Haveli, which had some 100 odd year old paintings that hadn’t been restored. Though it was much simpler than Poddar Haveli, the paintings had an ethereal quality about them…some of them were fading, others were blackened by time and years of smoke coming out of the kitchen, some were peeling off a bit…but that’s the real charm, eh?

Sheesh Mahal, Nawalgarh Fort

We then went to visit the fort, which doesn’t look like one, and has only one room that is worth seeing — the Sheesh Mahal. The central dome is painted to show Jaipur on one side and Nawalgarh on the other, and the circular room is filled with mirror work and more paintings.

Fresco on an outer wall, Aath Haveli complex, Nawalgarh

I wanted to look around at a few more havelis, they’re all so beautiful, but since hubby dearest said no can do, no could do it was! I did manage to bug him into taking me to the Muraka haveli and the Aath Haveli complex, but that was about it.

The next day was check out time. We were off to Jaipur for an overnight stay, and then onto the next leg of our journey — romantic Udaipur!

Do your best and let it go

“The master does her best and lets go, and whatever happens, happens.” — Lao Tsu (Tao Te Ching)

That’s the mantra by which I’ve been leading my life…though I had forgotten it along the way. I stumbled upon this quote again, just when I needed it most! At the start of a new year, a new phase of my life (the rip-roaring 30s!) and just when I was beginning to allow a new pattern to emerge — allowing the “uncontrollable” to control me. So next time I’m going down that route again, I’m just going to re-member my mantra!

After all, how much of what we beat ourselves up for everyday is really worth what we put ourselves through? How much of it is going to matter next month, next year, or 10 years from now?

Think to yourself, when something is bothering you or a disappointment arrives: Is it really a matter of life or death, as my emotional reaction seems to insist, or just ephemeral local weather conditions which will soon be replaced by other thoughts and feelings? Thus, Buddha said to remind yourself that everything is impermanent, fleeting, contingent, like a dream, like an illusion. This will help loosen up your tight grip on unreality.

Why worry about that which is so fleeting and impermanent? It does nothing but detract us from our inner peace and tranquility.

Here is one secret of spiritual mastery and inner peace, freedom and autonomy: It is not what happens to us, but what we make of it that makes all the difference. We can’t control the wind, but we can learn how to sail better. It’s not the hand you are dealt but how you play it, as the cliché goes.

Touché!

Welcoming 2010

It’s that time again — we’re at the threshold of a whole new year filled with potential and promise…12 months stretching out ahead of us, when we can maybe rectify our mistakes from the previous year or gather the energy/initiative to achieve all that we wanted to last year but didn’t. At the stroke of 12:00 on 31 December 2009, sitting on the terrace of our hotel in Udaipur and watching the fireworks from the Lake Palace, we got around to discussing resolutions — their importance and relevance, resolutions we make and keep and those that we make and break.

At the dawn of a new year, we’re generally enthused about the “fresh” start ahead, and filled with that euphoria, list down all the things we wanted to do in the last year but didn’t, and call those our resolutions. We manage to keep them too, for a while, before discarding them on the wayside as we go about our daily grind.

So maybe instead of making resolutions, what we should make are goals — things we want to achieve in this year with definite action steps and a timeline. One resource that I find really handy when making my goals in the Goal setting workshop that I found about 5 years ago on a website called Tera’s Wish. Try it, it’s fun!

Avatar: Opening a Pandora’s box of issues

Watched James Cameron’s Avatar this weekend — it’s a brilliant movie!
The plot can essentially be summed up thus: Ex- marine Jake Sully manages to gain the trust of the indigenous Na’vi with the intent to double-cross them at the end. Along the way, though, he falls in love with cat woman Neytiri and with the philosophy and way of life of the cat people, finally leading an epic battle that will decide the fate of an entire world.

However, there is more to the movie than initially meets the eye. On one level, Avatar is a fantasy flick with stunning visual effects, but on another, it has a more shadowy subtext —a discussion about race, oppression and the annihilation of an indigenous people for access to natural resources. Cameron also draws heavily from Red Indian philosophy when characterizing the Na’vi people, be it their ritual of thanking the spirit of animals they kill for meat, their respect for nature, belief in the Ehwa (pure souls), or their gathering space under the Wisdom tree, where they can hear the voices of all the elders.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s a subtext on the length that developed countries are willing to go to secure oil or other natural resources (in the case of the movie, a rare mineral that can save the earth) —Col. Miles Quaritch giving orders to bomb the area that has the highest concentration of the mineral (right under the Na’vi’s wisdom tree). Makes you think back to the Gulf War and the battle against Iran.

Then there’s the colonizers creed — the indigenous people are always backward, even though they have a deeper understanding of nature and the environment, so give them western clothes, teach them the language, and get them to co-operate by any means possible. If that fails, use force. So what if their sacred spaces are destroyed?

Overall, Avatar scores because it caters to all kinds of viewers — those who just want to be entertained, and those who also want to think. Since there is no in-your-face preaching on the subtext of the movie, you can choose to ignore it and be amazed at the world of Pandora. Or you can have your cake and eat it too — enjoy the stunning visual effects while stimulating your mind. Either ways, you’re sure to love the movie!

Hippy times at Pushkar: Around town (part 2 of 2)

<— Read part 1: Getting to Pushkar

Bramha temple

Pushkar is a temple town. It is home to the only Bramha temple in the world, and has temples dedicated to both of his wives. The lake is surrounded by 52 interconnected ghats, which have about 500-odd temples. Of course, not all are open to tourists, and with such a profusion of temples, figuring out which ones to visit could be confusing. So it is something that is best done with the help of a guide. Our hotel, Inn Seventh Heaven, had tied up with a local priest to offer a tour of the most important temples in the city, and while checking in, I asked the front desk to arrange a meeting with the priest in the afternoon. However, the priest was out of town, and was to return on the day we were leaving, so that plan didn’t work out. We decided to walk down to the lake and figure it out from there.

Prayer at the lake

Our hotel was a couple of minutes walk from the main market, and we found our way to one of the ghats pretty easily (I think it was the Ganga ghat, but I could be wrong). There was a small shop there selling puja samagri, and the shopkeeper was a treasure trove of information. He told us the history of the lake — the mythology behind its creation, the reason why the only Bramha temple is in Pushkar, and why, despite Bramha being one of the most important Hindu gods, there are no other temples dedicated to him. Almost all of the information he gave us matched with what I had read in the Rough Guide to India, but it was interesting to hear it coming straight from a local, who colored that information with local traditions and cultural inputs as well. Contrary to what the guide books said, though, there weren’t too many people around to pressurize us to offer prayers at the lake. Although we initially thought that we would come back the next day to offer our prayers at the lake, since we were there, and as there was a priest around, we decided to do the prayer ceremony on the first day itself.

Prayers done, we headed into the market.

The bustling market

The market is a narrow road lined on both sides by small shops selling everything from music CDs to souvenirs, silver jewelry, psycadelic t-shirts, hippy clothes and Rajasthani fabrics. We also found a couple of guys there selling swords, which was something we were looking for a really long time. The idea being to pick up a samurai sword (or as close as we could get to one) and then carve a handle and scabbard for it and display it in our living room.

There were also a number of shops selling natural essential oils and incense — something not found anywhere else in Rajasthan. The reason — roses. In the desert. Honest! There are huge rose fields near Pushkar, so one thing lead to another, and in addition to rose essential oils, you get a huge variety of essential oils, the most interesting one being solid amber. It’s a slightly spongy piece of amber that has a beautiful, earthy smell, though at Rs. 350/- for a small little box, it is quite pricey. The shopkeeper assured us that the smell would last for 10 years (yes, 10) and that the tiny little box of amber was enough to perfume a medium-sized room! I picked up two boxes of that — one for me and one for mom — along with opium flower, white musk and iceberg essential oils.

Following the trail to Pink Floyd Cafe

Pushkar’s also a foodie heaven (though you get pure vegetarian fare). There are a number of street food joints, a lot of which cater to Israeli tourists, and you’ll also find a chai bar, an organic food kitchen and lots of pizza places. We also followed the trail to Pink Floyd Café.

Outside the Pink Floyd Cafe

It’s pretty cool, and definitely worth a visit, though the food isn’t much to write home about. It would be better to get yourself a cup of java or a cold drink and have a look around. The best food we had there, though, had to be our hotel food. They have a small menu, but orders are made fresh and the food is delicious. The best was their apple crumble with ice-cream — absolutely scrumptious.

Jholas and clothes galore

One walk down the market, and I bet you’d get hooked to the place! There are so many shops to explore and so much really cool stuff you can find. One of the shops that we frequented while we were at Pushkar was a clothes shop, which had tied up with a US-based designer who sent designs and samples in exchange for some free clothes and stoles to take back to the US! And if you think that means pricey stuff or haute couture, think again! There were really cool and different tops, skirts, pants, hippy-style clothes, and all of it really, really cheap.

Taking a break

We overheard a conversation between a couple of foreigners. One group had been in Pushkar for a week the other, for a month! When the newcomers asked the old-timer at Pushkar what the hell he found to do there for a whole month, his answer was: “Once you get through the first week here, you actually find yourself falling in love with the laidback pace of the city.” I’m not sure I could spent an entire month at Pushkar, but I’m pretty sure I could keep myself entertained for a week without any problems!

Dressed up for the tourists

The pace of the city is so laid-back, while still offering so much to do, that you can’t help but get totally de-stressed! We spent our entire trip roaming around the market, talking to shopkeepers and just relaxing. This was one of the most distressing holidays I have had in a really long time.

I want to say that we did visit a lot of the tourist attractions there, but honestly, apart from the lake and the Bramha temple, we didn’t go see anything else! Instead, we spent our time roaming around the market and exploring the shops (and of course shopping).

Biking to the sand dunes

One evening we also hired a bike and decided to go to the desert. However, the bike was pretty rattly, and we ended up not going all the way there after all. I also think we managed to lose our way, but it was a nice fun ride!

All-in-all, we had a wonderful time at Pushkar…and it certainly is on my list of places to visit again — this time, once the lake is full!

Hippy times at Pushkar: Getting there (part 1 of 2)

We’ve had a spate of long weekends recently, and continuing our love affair with Rajasthan, we decided to drive down to Pushkar, notwithstanding all the negatives people had to say about the place, such as it was going to be as hot as a furnace and dirty to boot. After a lot of stops and starts, we finally decided to drive down to Jaipur in the afternoon, stay there overnight and then go on to Pushkar, where we would stay for 3 nights.

Leaving Delhi at around 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, we reached Jaipur at around 8:00, thanks to a pretty nasty jam right at the entry to the city. We headed straight for our favorite hotel — Arya Niwas, where they upgraded us to deluxe room at no extra charge, and we fell in love with the place all over again! Their normal rooms are very comfortable, but quite basic.

The deluxe room at Arya Niwas


Their deluxe rooms, on the other hand, are simply amazing! The best part — a private balcony and an electric kettle!! Just what the doctor ordered! After a quick dinner, I headed out onto the balcony for some cool fresh air and a hot cup of tea. What bliss after that long and tiring drive!

We set out for Pushkar at around about 9:00 am the next day. Most of the drive is on the excellent 8-lane Ajmer highway, though once you take the turn for Pushkar, the state highway isn’t all that very great. We passed through narrow, winding, almost deserted roads…the signages were few and far between, and just as we were wondering if we had lost our way…we heard the unmistakable thump of an Enfield, and a few minutes later were greeted by the sight of two foreigners tearing along the road on the bike. That could mean just one thing — Pushkar couldn’t be too far away!

I have to admit that the first sight of the town doesn’t inspire confidence. On the way to our hotel, we drove down a rather badly pot-holed narrow road…right at the turn to the hotel we were confronted by the sight of a cow lazily ambling along the road, with narrow little open sewers, which I hadn’t seen since my childhood in Shakarpur (Delhi). The hotel, from the outside, wasn’t all that interesting either, and I could feel my heart beginning to sink towards my knees, because I generally pride myself on being able to find us good, comfortable, atmospheric, budget digs! This, though, was a big white house, with one of those huge gates that has a small opening to let pedestrians in, with the name of the hotel — Inn Seventh Heaven — stenciled on in peeling paint.

The central courtyard by night

However, someone wise once said, “Never judge a book by its cover,” and that person was bang on target. Because when you push open the door and bend low to enter the gate, you walk out of a typical small Indian town and into…fairyland!

Sitting area outside our room

The first impression you get is of tranquility, soothing greens, cool whites, and warm reds and browns…and then as your senses adjust you realize that you’re looking at a fountain in the center, a courtyard filled with trees, inviting dark wooden seating with cushions in warm reds and oranges.

Roof top dining area


The hotel has a lovely rooftop terrace, with comfortable seating, again done up in dark wood, red and orange upholstery and lots of green. They play beautiful instrumental music up there, so it’s a lovely dinining experience.

The central courtyard by day


In short, I had done it again! Our room was beautiful, the hotel was magical and the staff friendly and helpful, so strike one for me!

—> Read part 2: Around Pushkar

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichei

Set in Nigeria, the novel traces the story of Kambili and Jaja, children of a rich, fanatical and oppressive Catholic patriarch Eugene Achike, presenting a moving picture of the effect of domestic violence on children; of religious fanaticism; of the political unrest in Nigeria and the privations and trials faced by Nigerians.

Eugene is a self-made Big Man. Brought up by Christian missionaries, he is a deeply religious, fanatical Catholic, who “punishes” his family for the slightest trespass against God, for not meeting his exacting standards or for disobeying him in any way. So deep is his fanaticism that he even ignores his own father, who is a “heathen,” and tells his children to “not eat in that heathen’s house.”

It isn’t until a military coup in Nigeria forces the children to live with their Aunt Ifeoma, where the laugher and conversations flow feely, that Kambili and Jaja begin to acknowledge the silence, oppression and violence that has marred their life so far. While Jaja is quick to adapt and acknowledge the past, it takes Kambili more time to get the “bubbles in her throat” to part and allow the words to flow out. It is at her aunt’s house that she meets her grandfather for an extended period, and learns that he is not a “heathen” but a “traditionalist,” described through a beautiful passage describing his daily morning prayer to the ancestors.

At her aunt’s house in Nuskka, she meets Father Amadi, a local priest who, unlike the priest back home Father Benedict, is a more easy-going and friendly, who sees nothing wrong in breaking into Igbo songs in the middle of rosary, and who takes an easier and more relaxed view of religion. This is her first taste of kindness from a grown man, and she transfers all her repressed love onto him.

The idyll of an escape from the oppressive atmosphere in Enugu is shattered when her aunt decides to leave for America and Father Amadi is transferred to Germany…

This novel is a beautiful coming of age story of 15-year old Kambili, a commentary on the political situation in Nigeria and a treatise on religious oppression.

I particularly enjoyed it because it gave me a peek into a new culture; exposed me to words that I had never heard before, such as umu m (my children), ke kwanu (how are you/how was your day?), nwunye m )mt wife); and introduced new smells, like that of frying plantains and bleaching palm oil. Though Adichie isn’t the first African author I’ve read, hers is the first book I’ve truly enjoyed. It most certainly is a must-read.