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The Forest of Stories by Ashok K. Banker- Book Review

While writhing under impact of the some recently released,  largely publicised, and poorly written books, most of which seemed to have been written in trifle hurry, using the sales pull of Indian mythology as a positioning plank, I had picked up this book with a great deal of apprehension, telling myself, No, no no, Do not Prejudge. What held my largely shaken belief in great modern english writing, with Shiva speaking in expletives, was the trust in  the inherent strength of the Mahabharat  (which the author refers to as Jaya, as it was then known) as a story and the lovely, innocent and almost religious taste like a sip of Darjeeling tea on a dew-laden, winter morning which my last book around the the great epic, left in my thoughts, "The Difficulty of Being Good" by Gurcharan Das, a scholarly masterpiece.

Swinging between the worlds of extreme optimism and utter hopelessness, I picked up this book. The cynic in me, stood in an imaginary corner of my mind with a wicked smile, as I went through the introduction of the book. The author explains the real force behind writing this book, as he  writes," My attempt is not to win literary awards, or become famous or rich or even to get published", and as I read through it, I remembered what great Somerset Maugham wrote in "The Summing Up" when he wrote, "I write for myself, as if I were the most important person in this world, which I am to myself". Writing is a lonely and slightly narcissist vocation, it takes courage for an author to acknowledge it and use it to raise the level of his writing. The results are mostly satisfying both to the author and to the reader as it is in this case.I looked up and threw a knowing smile to the cynic in the corner of the room, I had made a right pick and as the author hand held me, pushed and prodded me as he ended the introduction with "Go on now, Get out of here" I gladly followed his voice.

I love a book with great sense of imagery, where words play with the ideas and thoughts and a world breathes through the play of words, bringing heavenly, breathing beauty to life. I love the book which you read through a paragraph, then rest your head back on the wall, close your eyes and you are transmitted to a world, vast, fresh and colorful and real. Something like the feel of ice, or smell of the soil which you almost physically sense through the word that and words carefully crafted, like beautifully laid out patterns of pearls. I have little patience with words not written with enough respect, enough deliberation. If you as a writer do not feel like putting an effort, as a reader why should I be putting it. The book comes out well on both counts. One actually travels down the foresty path of Naimisha-sharanya (though I would think it should be called Naimish-aranya, Aranya being forest), and you could close your eyes and almost see the riot of fresh greens around, the aroma of dense forest enveloping your being. One can almost feel the solitude of the air blowing through the plains  and even feel the taste of sand in the tongue as Ashok Banker describes the battleground from where the story is supposed to rise like a phoenix where traveller walks from "leaving a trail of triple prints in the fine dust of the plain that, in time, was erased by the gentle but incessant breeze that traversed the land, just as it had covered over countless trails before" and one is instantly haunted by the emptiness of the time, and the relative insignificance of human life.

 There is a point where the divide between prose and poetry fades away and that is the moment of glory, a literary Eureka. A good book is laced through such Eureka moments of literary awakening. You find one in each chapter and you find them so often that you so expectantly look for them that even when you do not find them on some rare occasion, the anticipation is a reward in itself. This is what you feel when you read in the third chapter as the story builds to its pace through great maze of word play as "An errant breeze curled around the traveller's neck, nuzzled him as tenderly as a gandharva's caress, and whispered sweet indecipherable in his right year before flitting away coyly." The quality of writing comes out, sneaking out of the pages now and then and you realize the love Banker has for the profession of story-telling, as with great love and adroitness he explains the exemplary story-telling skills of Vyasa under whose formidable influence "planets slowed their courses, suns paused in their burning, and comets hung motionless to listen." This imagination, this exemplary and fanciful description is hallmark of writings in ancient languages like Sanskrit and any attempt to write, re-visit or manipulate them tests the finesse of an author, inherently handicapped with modern day environment of shortened sentences and abbreviated words. A writer who can stand this test sure can consider himself to have graduated to a club of better authors, Banker does carve a space for himself there.

This book is in fact not about the story itself, rather about the story of the stories. The expectation of it to be a treatise is missed, or an analytical tome about the great epic of Mahabharat is misplaced and one much too swiftly moves to Paksha Three: The Tale of Parashurama. Mahabharat is touched barely and passes off too swiftly like a crowded railway station viewed from a fast, passing train's window. What one looses in Mahabharat, one gains in an interestingly told tale of Parashurama. A story which leaves more questions than answers, in the today's time of instant gratification and debauchery being an accepted way of life and even a sign and emblem of elusive freedom, it is hard to comprehend the sentencing of Ranuka, merely on account of her having witnessed an act of passion. While Parashurama, beheads her and then again seeks life for her, one can not but feel sorry for the helplessness of the woman in question. But then times were different, and a story needs to be told as it existed then and thus, without judgement makes an interesting read with surprising turns. The Sarpa Satra, which follows it is a lesser known tale, an tad confusing in perspective.
This however, ends and one is again in the known and familiar territory of the Tales of Bhrigu.The story which begins with painful event of Puloma, runs through multiple generations with the story of Chyavana and Ruru.
What begins with an expectation of a story about Mahabharata, comes out an interesting collection of many stories, some of them like Parashurama, better than other almost unknown coming from strange lands like "The Book of Snakes" all told with a deep sense of respect to the original story-teller and it is this respect, laced with a lucidity of words which is authors own, which makes the book so wonderfully readable. There indeed, is a great world of fantasy and stories beyond the western world of Cinderellas, which carry such great messages, without loosing their beautify. The book is calmly poised in the rare meeting ground between prose and poetry, with a well deserved four pointers, out of five, loosing one point merely because, the only story which gets absolutely less attention by the author is Mahabharat, but then that could be deliberate as that is already well known to most.

Rate: 4/5
Published by Westland Ltd.
Price: INR 295
This review is a part of the http://blog.blogadda.com/2011/05/04/indian-bloggers-book-reviews" ;Book Reviews Program at  BlogAdda.comhttp://www.blogadda.com">BlogAdda.com>. Participate now to get free books!
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