The Brahmin

Paperback: 265 pages
Publisher: Westland (23 March 2018)
A historical thriller set in 260 BC after Alexander’s invasion of India.
Tradition and espionage come together in Ravi Shankar Etteth’s thriller set amid the politics of the Mauryan Empire
THE BRAHMIN

Cast of Characters:

Ashoka: The king of Magadha

Asandhimitra: Ashoka’s powerful queen

The Brahmin: Magadha’s enigmatic spymaster

Hao: Brahmin’s deputy

Radhagupta: The prime minister of Magadha

Lord Suma: Kalinga ambassador

Mur: Suma’s niece

The Blood Flower: The assassin

Antochlius: Greek spy

Angkyo: Warrior monk

The Master: Buddhist prophet

The Chief Eunuch: Guardian of the harem

The Golden Scythe: An ancient weapon from the Ramayana age with the power to destroy the world.

Pataliputra: Capital of Magadha

Avantika: Ujjain

Plot:

265 BC. Ashoka seeks the Golden Scythe, a lost weapon of unimaginable power.
A concubine is found murdered in Pataliputra, which is teeming with Kalinga spies. A
furious Ashoka dispatches the Brahmin and Hao to find the killer. They learn the Kalingas
have sent a notorious assassin named Blood Flower to kill Ashoka. Now the Brahmin has
two killers to catch. Meanwhile, Lord Suma plots to sabotage the invasion. Secretly, Radhagupta,
hedging his bets in case Kalinga wins the war, is in cahoots with Suma. When they
come to know that a princess from Lanka has arrived with a message for the Brahmin, they try
to capture her. They hope she will lead them to the Golden Scythe. She seeks help
from the Brahmin. In the meantime, Asandhimitra, disapproving of Ashoka’s obsession
with war, goes to her palace in Avantika followed by Suma. The Brahmin sends the princess,
escorted by Greek fighter Antochlius to Avantika in secret. Antochlius dies defending her
in an encounter with Suma’s mercenaries. Then, a girl is killed in the Avantika palace. So is
the Viceroy of the region. The Brahmin, suspecting Suma and Radhagputa’s involvement,
lays a trap for them. Assisted by Hao and the warrior monk Angyo, he foils the plot. Both
Blood Flower and the murderer of the concubines are unmasked with unexpected consequences.
Ashoka gets his weapon, but is outwitted by the spymaster. The Brahmin and
Hao leave Ashoka’s court seeking more adventures.

‘Someone is killing my concubines,’ King Ashoka roared. ‘And you do nothing, Brahmin?’

Ashoka’s feared spymaster stood before his liege with an inscrutable expression on his smooth, golden-skinned face. His hooded, expressionless eyes surveyed the monarch without flinching. Ashoka’s hands clenched and unclenched as if throttling an invisible foe, his chest heaving beneath his loose cambric robe in frustration. The Brahmin knew it was going to be one of those days.

They were in the royal garden, where Ashoka’s large frame occupied most of the gilded wooden bench under the tree that bore his name. The scent of flowers perfumed the falling dusk. Six slave women stood around the king, gently waving fans made of peacock feathers. Their shapely legs were wrapped in scarlet silk embroidered with gold, and strips of the same fabric bound their perfect breasts. He thought of the dead concubine, the stench of her charred flesh, and the deadly token beside her corpse. He sighed.

Ashoka loved to watch his chief torturer chop Buddhist monks into octagonal shapes, then hexagons, squares, ovals and finally circles with his red-hot axe. But he was always surprised at the stoicism with which they bore the torment. ‘It’s a pity these idiots aren’t soldiers,’ he would say wistfully. ‘They can withstand so much pain.’

The king rose from his seat now, tightly gripping the Brahmin’s shoulder with his huge hand. The Brahmin knew he was looking for any sign of pain and decided to deny him the pleasure. Unaware of his spymaster’s thoughts, Ashoka said, ‘Your spies are bringing me good information. With our increased war taxes, our troops are better paid, and have good weapons and fresh horses. But murder in the palace is a serious matter. If someone can get into my harem and kill my women, they can get me too.’

A sharika bird cried out, the shrill sound of warning.

‘Have my enemies slipped a snake into my garden now?’ Ashoka demanded. Sharikas were highly prized for their ability to sense the approach of snakes.

The Brahmin permitted himself a smile. ‘Even if they did, the gardeners would have killed it,’ he replied.

‘Yes, true killers, my gardeners,’ the king muttered sarcastically. The Brahmin pretended not to have heard.

A breeze waltzed browning leaves down to the grass, followed by a shower of jasmine flowers.

Now they were arrayed behind their elder brother, astride their huge warhorses. They were his nine heads: counsellors of wisdom, strategy, statecraft, astrology, science, duty, love, compassion and secrecy. With these qualities, as one, the brothers were undefeatable. But the tenth head had not sought their counsel when he took the woman. They knew he would pay for his mistake and sorrowed. The king felt their sorrow as his own. But being a man of action, he gestured to the nearest one, the Prince of Secrets, and pulled out two gold cones encased in glass from holsters on his war belt. His hand flashed. In a single fluid movement the prince caught the cones in mid-air, wheeled his horse around and galloped away into the forest with the others riding hard behind him. They knew the implications. The war would be over soon, but not for them. Other wars would be fought by different kings in distant lands throughout time, and the Scythe and its twin had to be protected from them all.

Sunlight washed the paved stones of the wide street that ran square along the length of the palisade. The Brahmin knew it was incredibly difficult to scale it, or even to enter Pataliputra unseen through any of the city wall’s sixty-four gates protected by portcullises and soldiers – but not impossible. In his shadowy world, the spymaster knew that death was a persistent hunter.

‘How did the Blood Flower get in, if at all the Blood Flower did?’ the Brahmin mused.

Having reached the inner palace, he walked up the flight of steps to the wide verandah around the building. In perfect symmetry along the verandas lined with polished Chunar sandstone stood high teak doors that led inside to various parts of the building. Greek mercenaries wearing leather helmets, tunics, skirts and sandals guarded every door. Each soldier was armed with a xiphos, a short, leaf-shaped sword, and a huge iron-tipped spear. Alexander’s men had used these effectively to subdue the war elephants of Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes on the Jhelum river. After Porus was defeated, the fighting skill of the Greek warriors became known throughout Magadha and beyond. Ashoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta, had hired them in his wars against the Nanda kings, whom he deposed to become the ruler of Magadha. He had regarded the Greeks as his best fighters. So did Bindusara. The Brahmin knew that Ashoka, influenced by his grandfather, also had a special fondness for his Greek soldiers, whom he even employed as palace guards.

Suddenly a savage neigh, followed by a man’s anguished cries, was heard from outside. The cries were abruptly cut short by the repeated thud of blows delivered with great force. All talk and movement ceased inside the inn. Everyone looked towards the door fearfully, as if expecting demons to come charging in. The landlord thrust out his jaw, gesturing to a tall muscular man standing by the door, probably an enforcer, to step out and investigate.

‘It’s probably my horse, he doesn’t like strangers,’ the Brahmin drawled, drawing up a stool to sit. Antochlius did likewise.

The enforcer returned, his face ashen, and whispered into the landlord’s ear. The landlord rushed out and came back screaming and pulling his hair.

‘Your horse just killed a man. It pounded his body into pulp,’ he wailed, flailing his arms. The customers had stopped whatever they were doing and were looking at the Brahmin and the weeping landlord. The room clouded darkly with menace. The Brahmin nodded at them pleasantly.

‘I told him my horse doesn’t like strangers. Especially horse thieves.’

‘It’s my son-in-law who has been killed,’ the landlord shouted, pointing beyond the open door.

‘Your daughter married unwisely,’ the Brahmin retorted.

Later, sitting around the fire drinking with his friends, Antochlius would recall the events that followed. He said he still couldn’t figure exactly what happened. One moment his master was sitting by his side and in the next, with a fluid moment, he had drawn his sword and advanced on the men with a speed that defied the naked eye. He swore he saw him everywhere at once, looming up behind the gamblers, leaping over the tables like an angry tiger and even running upside down on the ceiling. The din of men shouting, women screaming, pots and pans scattering and tables being overturned filled the room. Within moments, it was over. The Brahmin now stood by his side, sword lowered, untouched and unchanged except for a few specks of blood on his shirt and pantaloons. His breathing was even. Most of the inn’s patrons lay dead or dying on the floor. Only the landlord stood, frozen in fear, his large protuberant eyes taking in the carnage. The women were screaming and rushing towards the door, each one jostling to be the first out of the room.

‘I don’t like people threatening my horse,’ the Brahmin said cheerfully.

The Brahmin had never felt so afraid in his life.

Much later, he realized that it was this fear that gave him the courage to continue fighting even though every muscle of his body felt as if it was on fire. His face was covered in blood and gore, and he bled from a hundred cuts and wounds all over his body. He remembered Ashoka’s face as a red grimy bloodstained mask through which his teeth gleamed like a demon’s.

‘You look like a ghost,’ he told the Brahmin with a fierce grin before collapsing in a faint.

The fighting grew thick around them again.

Most of the horsemen defending them had been destroyed. The Brahmin hoisted Ashoka on his back and ran through the dead and dying, almost slipping on the bloody, slimy mud that sucked at his boots. He whistled for Garuda as he ran. The great warhorse rushed towards them, slashing at the enemy soldiers in its way with its cruel iron-tipped hooves. The Brahmin threw Ashoka on its back and leapt on the saddle behind him. Bodies were flung aside in various directions by the force of Garuda’s massive shoulders as the great horse leapt forward, screaming in rage, ploughing through the mass of fighting men. Suddenly they were free and racing away from the battlefield.

The day was dying and Ashoka was losing blood. They rode hard and fast until Garuda grew weary. Then, just when it seemed that they could no further, faint lights became visible on a rocky rise ahead, and a monastery came into view.

Mur pouted and shook her head, hand held behind her back. ‘It’s a gift from my fiancé. He made me promise never to take it off. And that’s an interesting ring on your finger, by the way. It looks very important.’

‘It’s just a ring,’ the Brahmin shrugged.

He knew a deadly game of wits had begun between him and the beautiful Kalingan spy. He wondered about her mission. Whatever it was, he was sure it would reach its climax in Ujjain, where the queen was. Mur walked across to his table.

‘May I join you?’ She sat down beside Hao without waiting for an answer. Hao grimaced and edged away.

The Brahmin ordered well-cooked capon in mustard gravy, spiced with fried shallots, a bowl of boiled vegetables and roasted wheat cakes. Hao asked for a dish of kodrava rice seasoned with spring onions, peas and spicy goat meat along with a pot of rice wine. Mur raised her delicately plucked eyebrows.

‘You are hungry, aren’t you, sister?’ she asked Hao with a trace of smiling sarcasm.

‘Long ride,’ Hao replied brusquely, refusing to rise to the bait.

The Brahmin realized Suma had known all along that the queen would be in Ujjain. Which meant Kalinga’s agents had penetrated the palace; perhaps, even the harem. He had to put more security measures in place. But for now, Suma could not be allowed to leave Ujjain and communicate with his spies.

‘So, where is your gift? Here, or in Pataliputra?’ the Brahmin asked, a tad ungraciously. Asandhimitra shot him a warning look. Suma pretended not to notice.

‘It’s on its way to Ujjain, Your Majesty and will reach in time for your birthday tomorrow. I beg you to accept it as a token of respect and affection from our king, from one royal to another,’ he said.

She inclined her head gracefully.

The Brahmin noticed a flicker in Suma’s eyes, malevolent and triumphant. It disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Asandhimitra swept out of the room, with the Brahmin and Hao following behind. Upon reaching her chamber, she sank into a low divan and buried her face in her hands.

‘Suma is an evil man, I can see that. I am worried, Brahmin,’ she said. ‘I see darkness closing around the kingdom.’

‘I will protect it with my life,’ the Brahmin said. ‘As you do, too. Isn’t it wonderful what a pretty veil and a little paint can do?’

The night was a dark cowl closing over the land. The Brahmin and Hao were on the stone portico of the east-wing tower of the palace, right below the queen’s quarters. The Ujjain palace, where Asandhimitra stayed for most part of the year, was made of stone, though its inner walls were lined with polished teak overlaid with panels of fragrant sandalwood. Ashoka had a fascination for standalone pillars. The sprawling grounds of his palaces teemed with them, polished to such perfection that they looked lacquered. The palace gardens, too, were expansive, covering hundreds of square stadia, full of fountains, patios and walkways. And, of course, more pillars.

The Brahmin watched the sleeping city sprawled before him. Here and there, small rectangles of light showed – sleepless residents reading the scriptures, playing chess or making love to their wives or mistresses. Beyond the city, protected by spiked iron railings, lay the moat, its irregular edges pencilled by the moon. In it, pink lotuses bloomed and crocodiles dozed, their bellies full with the flesh of convicts. The Brahmin watched the lazy curve of the Shipra river, gleaming like a courtesan’s silver girdle. Far away, the forest watched the city, like a great army frozen by a warlock’s enchantment, ready to break loose and advance the moment the spell was broken. Lights from the cave dwellings that Queen Devi had built for Buddhist monks punctuated the sloping mass of the hillsides.

The spymaster felt a sense of foreboding. Something waited in the forest; something massive and monstrous, fashioned by Lord Suma’s twisted mind. He would know soon. As soon as Hao was back.

Whatever it was, he had a foreboding of danger to the kingdom which he strove so hard to protect. He suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder and turned around, surprised. He had been lost in his thoughts – a mistake no spy should make.

It was Asandhimitra. Her hair was loose and her sheer muslin robe did little to hide the lushness of her figure. The wind rose from the mountains and raced across the Shipra, tossing about droplets like a wet animal, to embrace them. Asandhamitra shivered and crossed her arms over her breasts. ‘I am afraid, spymaster,’ she said. ‘I am afraid for the king, for myself and Magadha.’

‘So am I. But fear is of no use. To be afraid of danger is to be wise, but to yield to fear is fatal.’

‘You are a loyal friend,’ she said, placing her hand on his shoulder again and smiling at him. He wanted to gather and fold the slender frame into his arms, and kiss the full lips that would taste of honey and wine. But he kept his face impassive and his body still, not allowing his emotions to show. ‘What is it about this woman that makes me feel so protective of her?’ he wondered. ‘It makes me vulnerable too.’

‘In this palace, surrounded by conspiracies, with war in the air and spies everywhere, I feel so alone. I belong only to Ashoka, but he is so far away.’ Asandhimitra’s soft hand travelled down to the Brahmin’s muscular chest. ‘I couldn’t sleep. Suma makes me uneasy. I fear he is up to something nasty.’

Yes, I too, sire. I am a descendant of that line.’

‘You mean a clan of brahmins descended from Ravana are secret agents in all the great courts of the land? Who was there before you in Magadha?’

Before the Brahmin could open his mouth, understanding dawned in Ashoka’s eyes. He slapped his thigh and the sound echoed through the vast room. People recoiled in their seats.

‘Chanakya!’ Ashoka roared. ‘He was one of you, wasn’t he?’

The Brahmin shrugged and continued, ‘Now let me tell you another story, from a time closer to ours. Almost a century ago, a Greek king set out to conquer the world. His name was Alexander. He defeated all the empires that lay in his path, and entered the land of the Indus. A few years later, he turned back to Macedonia, compelled by his homesick soldiers. A descendant of the nine accompanied him. His name was Kalyan.’

‘Kalanos of Taxila? Who joined Alexander’s army on its way back home, and immolated himself at Sousa? He was a spy?’ asked Asandhamitra. ‘He was the spymaster of Porus,’ the Brahmin said. The Greeks, who were taught by great philosophers like Aristotle, loved to debate with the learned brahmins of Magadha. Kalyan won many such debates, and Alexander was so impressed, he invited him to join his retinue. Kalyan agreed – for a reason only he knew.

The Brahmin’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock at the door. Two men entered. One was Angyo. The other man was cowled, and dressed in a deep crimson robe. His face was shadowed, but the Brahmin remembered him like a vision from a distant dream; eyes like lamps and a voice so gentle and hypnotic that it felt like the pull of the tide of an endless ocean.

‘Master?’ he whispered.

The figure gently walked up to them, and laid a hand on Hao.

‘She has recovered,’ he said. ‘Though it will take some time for her to be healed. The monks have done their work well.’

‘You made a promise,’ said Angyo.

‘I remember,’ the Brahmin said.

He got up from his paillasse and went over to his baldric, which was hanging on the wall. He fished inside its pocket and brought out a small bundle of cloth. Angyo held out his hand. The Brahmin shook his head.

‘I wish to give it to him myself,’ he said.

He stepped up to the Master and offered him the bundle reverentially. The Master handed his staff to Angyo and received it in his hand. As he opened it, a great light spread through the room, filling it with a sense of deep calm.

“Ravi Shankar Etteth is an author whose prose flows beautifully. His latest book, The Brahmin, is proof of that. The language he uses in the book is lyrical at its core and has a wonderful effect on the readers. This is rare, especially from an author with a background in journalism. “

(Writers Melon)

“It is a story which will leave you gasping for your breath and will surprise you in the end with itssecrets. The characters are very strong and well created and explained. The writing style is simple and bewitching. The story is highly entertaining and is amazing. A must-read book from Ravi Shankar Etteth. “

(Wonder Books)

”This book kept me awake beyond my bed time and often I ended dreaming about being a part of the story.”

(Gunjan Mittal)

“There comes a time in every writer’s life when he comes up with the perfect story, the perfect setting, the perfect plot and the perfect dramatis personae…The Brahmin is just that perfect story. “(The New Indian Express)
“The protagonist of the story have been beautifully portrayed with the expected perfection and the unexpected but natural human flaws. Throughout the story, the thoughts and character of Brahmin subtly teach us that even perfection can falter at times.”

(Goodreads)

“The master storyteller has woven a gossamer web that shimmers in shifting light reflected by “historical events” to entice the readers. The Brahmin is not just a tale of espionage and political intrigue. It offers many aesthetic delights that—like a double-crostic, an adults’ jigsaw puzzle, or a
set piece chess problem— call for “revisits”.Do not miss this one. I hope there is a sequel.”

(Sunday Guardian)

A period novel; that combines skilled storytelling with serious research, it has elements of epic genre, which go well with the representation of an underexplored aspect of Emperor Ashoka and his kingdowm”

(The Pioneer)

The Book of Shiva

Spiritual master Gyananda sends the young monk Asananda to find
The Book of Shiva, a mystic treatise rumored to be hidden deep in the Himalayas.
The people he meets on his journey are the clues. As he encounters one stranger after the other, each with their own distinct story Asananda begins to discover the power of the book.
The Book OF Shiva_Cover_Final

Cast of Characters:

Asananda: A monk on a journey seeking the mystical Book of Shiva
Gyanaanda: Head of The Ashram of Hope in Rishikesh
The River Riders: Boatmen who surf the Ganges
Tapussa and Vallika: Monks on the Lost Path of the Buddha
Raju: Autistic child
Amogh: Fruit seller in Rishikesh
The Small God
The Boat Woman
Paul: An young American in Rishikesh
A mysterious ascetic with a Brahma bull
The Keeper of the Charnel House
The Lost Child
The Penitent Murderer
The Storyteller
The Twins
The Wandering Man
The Abbess of the Lake
The Dancing Novice

Plot:

Spiritual master Gyananda sends the young monk Asananda to find
The Book of Shiva, a mystic treatise rumored to be hidden deep in the Himalayas.
The people he meets on his journey are the clues. As he encounters one stranger
after the other, each with their own distinct story Asananda begins to discover
the power of the book.
Does he find it?
What does it reveal?
The unexpected ending is an allegory of liberation. In these troubled times The
Book of Shiva shows seekers the way to empowerment with the message that
hope and divine mercy triumph by transcending suffering with the help of the
guru’s grace. The book also teaches readers that evil can be fought only with
compassion and that forgiveness should not be confused with mindless surrender.
The search for god is a journey with many names.
Endorsement By His Holiness Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev: ‘A sensitively told story
of a seeker’s quest that shows that the seed of enlightenment is in every being.
Enlightenment is just a realization.’
Books in the similar genre: The Alchemist, Autobiography of a Yogi

Asananda walked on, puzzled by the ascetic’s words. He was sure he had seen the ascetic before, but the ice dulled his senses. The evening sun cast a winged shadow on the darkening ice. Asananda looked up to see an eagle slowly circling in the pale sky whose edges were streaked purple and red; the bird’s shadow skated on the snow. Sunlight sparkled on its golden wings. It swooped down, its massive wings passing overhead in a swoosh of wind and grey feathers. The eagle flew low in a straight path as if it was inviting Asananda to follow it. He followed the invisible line its flight drew on the icy ground. A great cliff loomed ahead, swathed in snow that ran down its ridges revealing thin ruches of black. The eagle made straight for the cliff and Asananda thought it was going to dash against the rock. At the last moment, it swerved and rose sharply, flying vertically parallel to the precipice and came to settle on a promonotory uttering sharp, rasping cries. Asananda felt a divine purpose at work; the lama’s sandals were carrying him towards his goal. A narrow path snaked its way up along the cliff face leading to a small opening that stood out starkly against the snow.
He had found the cave.

*
As he climbed, his steps quickened, dislodging little stones and shale. Sometimes he almost slipped on smears of snow. He felt the drapes of a great weariness fall over him, marking the end of a long and eventful journey. The entrance to the cave was vaguely familiar; one he had left many years ago; a long narrow tunnel that curved to the right, blocking the biting chill of snowstorms and sharp winds. His footsteps echoed in the cave’s small confines. He reached its heart; a large space under an uneven arch of black, corrugated rock. At the centre, on the floor, was spread a large leopard skin. The light was poor inside; Asananda noticed a lamp beside the leopardskin. He sat on the skin and searched in his satchel for matches. A small oblong object that felt like a wooden box fell out of the bag; it was the gift Jnanananda had left behind for him with the woman who lived in the house that the merchant had built on the banks of the Nandakini. Asananda lit the lamp and placed the object beside him on the leopardskin; he would open it later after he found the Book. The light painted a relief of shadows on the grooves of the walls. In the glow, Asananda saw a book kept on a small folding stand in one corner of the cave. It was bound in soft tan leather, highlights glimmering in the lamplight.
“The Book of Siva!” he shouted exultantly, reaching for the book. He carried it back to his seat, holding it close to his chest. He felt its soul permeating his body, entering his bloodstream and filling him with radiance. He was afraid that it would disappear like a dream fading into the dawn. Outside the cave, a storm was swelling. A huge thunderclasp slapped the mountainside. Asananda opened the cover of the book. His pulse raced. As he turned the pages one by one, a look of puzzlement slowly spread over his face. Suddenly, he was seized with a great panic and began to ruffle through the pages in frenzy; his urgency mounting, along with dismay and agitation.

*

“How did you get the scar?” the monk asked.
“It was a gift,” the woman replied. “After the storm, when I woke up in the boat, I felt my face was burning. I touched my face and felt a scar, like the one on my beloved’s face. It seemed alive.”
“How did that happen?”
Roopvati gave a harsh laugh. “Everyone bears the scar of a great love,” she said. “In my case, it chose to manifest itself on my face.”
“Where do you live?” the monk asked.
“I don’t live anywhere,” she replied. “I go where the tides take me. At night, I park the boat beside the ghats, and sometimes I sleep in the boat. The sun has blackened my skin and bleached my hair, and my face frightens some people. But my body is still desirable, and so I do not go hungry.”
“Don’t you get passengers?” the monk asked.
“Sometimes, mostly men. The women are scared to get on my boat, once they see my face. Perhaps, they feel I am cursed; maybe they fear my scar will bite them. But it doesn’t bother me. I simply ask them to pay me in the only currency I take.”
“What is your payment?” asked Asananda.
“Songs,” Roopvati said. “I earn songs.”
The monk understood.
“Have you found his?”
She shook her head sorrowfully. “Only a few snatches here and there, sometimes parts of a tune. But never the whole song.”
Roopvati rested the oars, and for a while, they drifted along peacefully. A pair of white storks flew overhead. A fish leaped, like a sudden hope, and disappeared back into the water.
“You can never find what is not yours,” the monk said at last. “It was his song, and it can never be yours. He sang it not for you, but to himself, or a lover as he rowed from wherever he came from to wherever he was going. You happened to hear it one day, and imagined it was being sung for you. And that it was your song.”
“Perhaps you are right, monk,” the boatwoman said bitterly. “But that doesn’t stop me from searching. If I find the whole song, perhaps, I will find myself. That is the way of love.”
Asananda bowed his head. “Every journey has its own song that a traveler hums as he walks along,” he said.
“What is yours?” the boat woman asked.
“I don’t know. But, the only song I remember is the one I heard when I was a small child, and that too in bits and pieces,” he replied. “It was a lullaby. My mother sang it to me when I was small.”
“Sing it to me, then, monk,” said Roopvati.
“Its in Malayalam, a Southern language you wouldn’t understand.”
“Lullabies in any language can be understood,” said the boatwoman. “Please sing yours.”

“There are few books that you don’t merely read but you get to indulge in them. This book is one of those. I’m still mesmerized by the beauty of this book.“

(Goodreads)

“One of the few book teaching great meanings of life. Can teach much and has stories with morals within the stories.”

(Goodreads)

What sets the book apart is the narration that flows like a travelogue, the simplicity with which attempts have been made to deliberate upon some of the most complex emotions and human interactions and the characters and events.”

(Deccan Chronicle)

“A profound work of spiritual fiction with a heartwarming message.”

(IGNCA)

Drawing from sources as diverse as the Puranas, European mythology, Aghora and the Jataka tales, The Book of Shiva is perfect for a reflective day or week or year. s the knots of the multiple stories begin to unravel, the threads come together in a dazzling warp and weft—leading onto the climax.

(OPEN)

“Suddenly, out of a cacophony of books—many of which are read aloud these days at the 100 or more literary festivals—emerges this silent masterpiece of our confused 21st century.”

(Outlook Traveller)

The Village Of The Widows

The murderer began to laugh. He was confident that the police would come up with nothing.

Cast of Characters:

Jay Samorin: Aristocrat, satirist and criminologist

Deputy Commissioner Anna Khan: Vengeful widow of a cop killed in a terror attack in Kashmir

Charles Tsiranana: Madagascar Ambassador to India and Samorin’s friend

Radama Zafy: First Secretary in Madagascan Embassy, New Delhi

Samorin’s enigmatic aunt

Shekhar Samorin: Jay’s father and fighter pilot

VenuKurup: Shekhar’s batman in the Air Force

Dhiren Das: Samorin’s childhood enemy

“The murderer began to laugh. He was confident that the police would come up with nothing.”

When a diplomat at the Madagascan embassy in Delhi is stabbed to death in mysterious and quite possibly scandalous circumstances, the ambassador calls upon his old friend Jay Samorin to help find the murderer as quickly and discreetly as possible. In his somewhat unorthodox approach to solving crimes, Samorin crosses swords with the police officer in charge of the investigation, Deputy Commissioner Anna Khan, recently transferred from Kashmir where her zealous pursuit of suspected terrorists had threatened to cause an uproar. But it transpires that each has an intensely personal reason for their obsession with murder: Samorin’s father, a pilot and war hero, was hanged for the murder of his mother, while Anna Khan’s husband was killed by the Kashmiri Mujahadeen. Forming an uneasy alliance, the gifted amateur and the jaded professional start to untangle a shocking web of corruption, prostitution and callous medical malpractice. It is a trail fraught with danger, tainted by the older, deeper mysteries that lie outside the more tangible boundaries of a criminal investigation??”a trail leading back through the darkest recesses of their own lives to that elusive, haunted place known as the Village of Widows?

Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment legitimised murder in fiction when he hacked to death the old AlyonaIvanovna with three successive blows, the last one neatly breaking open her sinciput. Since then murder has marauded on the fringes of many a fictional work, good and bad alike.

*
In The Village of Widows too, murder is a raging presence. In the opening chapter itself, the novel sinks its teeth deep into your flesh with the graphically scripted killing of RadamaZafy. In the closing chapter, you have the slow slaying of Charles Tsiranana.
In between, Irfan Khan is slaughtered in Kashmir most brutally (his penis and testicles stuffed in his mouth), MrsHasan is slowly and painfully disposed of with engineered cancer, and Salma – she warms our hearts – is embalmed and entombed in a huge sculpture executed by the painter from hell, Dhiren Das. But, then, The Village of Widows is not a novel about murders. It is much more.

The first murder takes place at the Malagasy Embassy in Delhi. The secretly guarded geography of the diplomatic premises is laid bare for our benefit with ease and familiarity.

The killer is the protege and beloved of the victim, Zafy, the first secretary at the Malagasy mission and descendent of King Andrianumpoinimerina.
Remember LizavetaIvanovna? Just because she strays into the scene of Alyona’s death, she too gets murdered. Zafy’s murderer is about to kill his other lover Sansi when Deputy Inspector of Police Anna Khan kills him with a single bullet. Khan is a super cop with long hair, unlike the usual women officers who sport short hair.
With the arrival of Khan and ambassador’s friend Jay Samorin (the nameis all the more deceptive since he is a Malayalipractisingkalaripayattu and eating aviyal) to investigate the murder of Zafy, you tell yourself, here’s a bone-chilling crime story. But the story of Zafy’s killing comes to an abrupt close with the killer’s sudden death. However, it triggers a series of other mesmerising stories.
There is a run of episodes woven together with dexterity-the life and times of squadron leader SekherSamorin who writes his wife’s name in the sky with jet steam while flying MiG, his son Jay who loves wine and Khan, painter Das who has an ancient hatred against Jay, DrDubey who is involved in an illegal practice of genetic engineering and, of course, Khan’s sister-in-law Salma who is nothing short of coalesced poetry that runs all through the novel to the delight of the readers (her death at the hands of Das who wanted to transform her into a painting – which he did with a difference- comes as a shock, though).
At times all too familiar episodes, such as a rape, take an unexpected turn. In the distant black-and-white past of Jay, when Sivadas overpowers and rapes the dawani – clad teenager Shyamala, she doesn’t go to the nearby police station or an NGO working for rape victims.She simply tells him: “Do it again.” The inevitable fight between the ancient enemies, Jay and Das, both masters of kalaripayattu, is an orgasmic catharsis.
Redolent as it is with murder, hatred, love and passion, the novel could have easily taken on an exuberance and flourishes but is handled with finesse. For instance, when the beautiful Salma tells Jay, “Kiss me, make love to me, I am so alone”, all that he does is kiss the tip of her fingers.
Choreographed subtlety is the hallmark of this novel. The Village of Widows is a novel with unsettling denouements and arcane beauty. It is somewhat futuristic too, with the immoral use of genetic material that renders the widows of Brindavan cancer patients.Tomorrow you may not get killed like AlyonaIvanovna with a hatchet but like Salma’s mom with polymer deposit in your blood.

(India Today)

In Ravi Shankar Etteth’s The Village of Widows (Black Swan £6.99, pp302), even modern and sophisticated members of Delhi society remain under the spell of ancient myths and customs. Jay Samorin, an expert in the ancient Indian martial art of kalari, is also an amateur investigator of criminal cases. He is called in by the Madagascan ambassador to India when a diplomat attached to the embassy is murdered. The Delhi police appoint as their lead investigator deputy commissioner Anna Khan. She’s skilled in more modern martial arts, having gained a reputation for fighting terrorists in Kashmir. The Village of Widows is an engaging read and Samorin and Khan are set up nicely as contrasting but complementary characters who look as if they are set for a series.

(The Guardian, London)

Modern India is the setting for The Village of Widows by Ravi Shankar Etteth (Black Swan, £6.99 pbk), but the past is always present in this beautifully written novel. The country’s highest-ranking female police officer is called to a murder scene in a foreign embassy, but the crime is solved by a friend of the ambassador. This unconventional sleuth, a political cartoonist, is faced with more mysteries, one of which concerns his family history. The story unfolds gently, blending myth and legend with the present-day narrative, until the truth is revealed. It’s a fascinating, absorbing read.

(The Telegraph, London)

The Gold Of Their Regrets

‘It was a hypnotic sight, bars upon bars of it, gleaming, with the Nazi eagle insignia stamped on each. Gold has its own power, Jay, and I realized that day why men fought and died for it.’ ‘And murdered for it …’ a voice spoke from behind them.

Cast of Characters:

Jay Samorin: Aristocrat, satirist and criminologist

Deputy Commissioner Anna Khan: Vengeful widow of a cop killed in a terror attack in Kashmir

The Commander

Niki Tamang: Investigator

Tulsi: Leader of the dwarves of the lake

Bharadwaj, Youssef & Dayal: Indian National Army deserters

Mona: Bharadwaj’s nerdy daughter

Viki: Mona’s alcoholic friend

Shekhar Zamorin: Jay’s father and fighter pilot

1945. An aircraft bearing the Commander of the Indian National Army, his bodyguard and twenty million pounds in gold, crashes in the heart of the Burmese jungle. Only three men know the truth behind the crash, and what happened to the gold that disappeared mysteriously. Sixty years later, a stranger stalks these men, seeking the lost gold and revenge. Things come to a head when one of the three is found dead, flung from the terrace of his twenty-ninth storey penthouse in central Delhi. Can Jay Samorin and Deputy Commissioner Anna Khan stop the killer before he strikes too close to home? In this gripping tale of murder and intrigue, Ravi Shankar Etteth brings Jay Samorin and Anna Khan, first seen in Etteth’s The Village of Widows, face to face with a most determined and cunning adversary. It is a confrontation that will leave a trail of violence and death before it is concluded in the place where it all began.

It was a hypnotic sight, bars upon bars of it, gleaming, with the Nazi eagle insignia stamped on each. Gold has its own power, Jay, and I realized that day why men fought and died for it.’ ‘And murdered for it …’ a voice spoke from behind them.

 

  1. An aircraft bearing the Commander of the Indian National Army, his bodyguard and twenty million pounds in gold, crashes in the heart of the Burmese jungle. Only three men know the truth behind the crash, and what happened to the gold that disappeared mysteriously. Sixty years later, a stranger stalks these men, seeking the lost gold and revenge. Things come to a head when one of the three is found dead, flung from the terrace of his twenty-ninth storey penthouse in central Delhi. Can Jay Samorin and Deputy Commissioner Anna Khan stop the killer before he strikes too close to home? In this gripping tale of murder and intrigue, Ravi Shankar Etteth brings Jay Samorin and Anna Khan, first seen in Etteth’s The Village of Widows, face to face with a most determined and cunning adversary. It is a confrontation that will leave a trail of violence and death before it is concluded in the place where it all began.

For a moment time pulled way from him like cobwebs being snapped. He stared blankly into the night. The old soldier could see nothing ahead; not the bright garlands of light that were splayedacross the city, not the glowing arch of India Gate built in remembrance of those fallen in the Great War of 1919 when the British empire fought the Germans for the first time. His father had fallen at the battle of Neuve Chappelle, among the four thousands Indian soldiers who died on the cold March day in North Western France. An irrelevant war for a dying empire

 

*

 

The killer heard the approaching wail of a police car. Anna Khan’s official Ambassador car drove through the gates of the building on Feroze Shah Road and he felt a tightening on his ribcage. He knew he was being watched. His biceps clenched in a spiral rush of adrenalin. His instincts honed through the years told him to stay still. By new all about Anna, the woman who had more blood on her hands than many men he knew and he knew many such men.

 

*

Later with Ghost siting watchfully nearby, they lay on the soft grass under the moon and let it wash them. In its silver light the shadows dissipated and the wind brought the fragrance of distant frangipani and clear water.

: *

 

“Enjoy monk, “ the dwarf said bowing slightly and drove away.

Footsteps sounded behind him, and he whiled around in a crouch, his knee bent, ready to launchhimself in the air. He imagined himself turning, his right leg sweeping in a deadly crescent as he somersaulted and brought hos hands down on the necks of those who threatened him. But all he heard was a giggle from the shadows.  “Ooh brave warrior monk, frightened of the dark? The voice that came from the velvety darkness among the chinars was musical and mocking.

“Who are you woman? Why do you hide in the shadows?” he asked, starting towards the voice.

Sheila Kumar

First, the good news. This is a crackling good yarn, a murder mystery that moves at a rapid pace, is peopled with ingenious characters and at its centre, holds a story that in turn, holds the reader’s interest all through.

Next, the story; without spoilers. The gold of the protagonists’ regrets is a Nazi cache, a German war chest, evil gold, death gold, ill-begotten gold, but of course. The ingots, worth all of £30 million, is what a certain S.C. Bose was carrying with him on what was to be the leader’s last war-time sortie, on the flight that crashed in the fetid jungles on the Indo-Burma border.

And where there is gold, there has to be greed and greedy people; here, a trio makes off with the gleaming bars that came from Nazi coffers and was intended to re-infuse fresh blood into the war against those who ruled India.

Years on, the trio is stalked by a mysterious killer, a man of method, great economy of emotion and movement, deadly of intent and virtually unstoppable. Attempting to stop him are characters from Etteth’s earlier book The Village of Widows, DCP Anna Khan, the improbable Demon Cop, and her companion, Jay Samorin, profiler of crime nonpareil, the man who keeps a couple of fossas (Madagascar hunting cats for those who may not know, which includes most of us) as domesticated pet cats. As the story unwinds, we meet with a motley cast that includes a pair of lesbians, some dwarves and suchlike, and criss-cross briskly across Shan country in Myanmar, Delhi, Rishikesh, Kashmir, Dehra Dun, to end up in a private estate near Palghat, Kerala.At times, Etteth’s trademark linguistic flourishes threaten to tug the reader’s gaze away from the thrill of the chase. Some situations are a bit contrived and Anna Khan’s emotional baggage (torn between mourning for her murdered husband Irfan Khan and her lover, Samorin) tends to loosen the moorings of the narrative.The relationship between Samorin and Anna comes through as just a tad chauvinistic (in one episode they make love with her holding her weapon!); he is as much her guardian angel as lover. And, amusingly, or perhaps bemusingly, there are dollops aplenty of haute lifestyle accessories from Versace to Prada and Aigner, Partager to Armani that dot the story. All of this doesn’t stick in the craw of the tale, though.Etteth artfully places a red herring in the reader’s path for a while in a neat twist; the reader doesn’t know quite what to make of Khan’s assistant Tamang. Is he really what he seems to be?Then again, the character who dominates just about all the parts she features in is the enigmatic and ageless Tulsi. Tulsi, Jay Samorin’s on-off inamorata and protectoress, quite probably the deity at whose altar he worships, too, is a touch of pure exotica.All the bits about the ancient Chinese art of qui that straddles martial art and spirituality, is as entertaining as it is informative. The twist at the end, though, is a bit of a stretch; equally surprising is the fact that the killer doesn’t quite fit the image the reader is persuaded to form of him.“But there was never a passage that did not leave behind a sign, however small,” it says in The Gold of their Regrets. Etteth has followed that principle and in doing so, makes the book a fun read. A good murder mystery from a consummate word-wielder.

(The Hindu)

First in Amazon Editors’ Pick for May.

The Scream Of The Dragonflies

Now out of print, a collection of short stories in the horror-fantasy genre. The author is in the process of revising them.

A man takes his new bride to the Valley of the Dragonflies and receives an unpleasant surprise.

A traveler checks into an old hotel and discovers an old pile of billet-doux. The words open the window to another world.

An ancient creature’s centuries-old sleep is disturbed by construction machines with dire consequences for a village doctor.

A group of terrorists hijack a bus to a village where they meet an unexpected end.

A painter’s obsession with his beautiful wife leads him to an abandoned ice factory

As an American traveling in India, I picked this book up and found that it was written by a new author whose grasp of the anatomy of pain and longing is simply awesome. it is not available in the US  and I recommend anyone to read this book.

A rare book for the seeker of rarities, this will keep you in your chair without wanting to sleep or eat. It is a series of stories about how man can achieve redemption through pain. It is full of eldritch things, of the destinies of man and his soul often separated in different mirror faces.

Writing, as we know, is a sorcerer’s art. It conjures up out of squiggles on paper a world experienced by readers as if it has a tangible existence. Nowhere is this familiar property of the written word to make little material perform major imaginative feats more evident than in the genre of the ghost story. Ravi Shankar has, therefore, demonstrated sound literary instincts in choosing so durable a form for his first collection of short stories.

(India Today)

First in Amazon Editors’ Pick for May.

The Tiger By The River

Love, passion, hatred, terrorism and historical details make this novel worth a read.

Cast of Characters:

SeatiVarma: Prince of Panayur

Nina: Swati’s wife

Antara: Swati’s childhood playmate and keeper of the ancestral home

Rama Varma: Swati’s grandfather and King of Panayur

Freida: His German wife

Tipu Sultan”

ParangiCheykor: The warrior who rides the tiger of Panayur

ChoorikathiKombiyachan: the mad king of Panayur

Fernando Gomez: Portugese adventurer in Kombiyachan’s court

Father Charteris: Jesuit priest in Kombiyachan’s court

Neeri: The priest’s lover

Ponni: Kombiyachan’s queen and Gomez’s lover

Omar the Moor

Vel: Zamorin’s lost cousin

Kay: Vel’s partner

Salim: Antara’s son

Plot:

Delhi architect and direct descendant of the last king of Panayur, in Kerala, Swati Varma make a pilgrimage back to the place of his birth to scatter his wife’s ashes in the sacred waters of the Papanasini river. There he is reunited with Antara, a childhood companion and now caretaker of the crumbling, ghost-filled palace that was his home. As they talk, sharing memories and exchanging secrets, thousands of miles away Vel—a cousin Swati never knew he had—sets out on a quest for the truth about his family that will take him from America to Berlin and, ultimately, to Panayur. And so begins an extraordinary and healing journey. One that will lead both Swati and Vel back through the cruel and bloody, vibrant and myth-filled history of the kings of Panayur to the legend that lies at its heart—the legend of the tiger by the river. Love, passion, hatred, terrorism and historical details make this novel worth a read.

“What is inside?”the policeman at airport security took the urn from Swati’s hands. Swati’s wife’s red silk handkerchief was tied round its mouth. The policeman raised it to his face and squinted at it.

“The Queen,” Swati replied.

 

 

Antara smiled a hooded smile and pointed at the photograph in Swati’s hand. “More secrets, Your Highness,” she said. At the end of every journey one returns to secrets that always waits for one.

 

 

*

 

The path of the tiger was calling him, the trail along which the beast had padded from its lair to drink the moon-coloured water of the Papanasini River; along which it took its prize to vanish into the myth of the centuries, along which it raced into the waters to reach the queen of the veil to place its great head on her lap.

The trail of the tiger.

 

*

THE day before Kombiyachan enquired of Charteris, “What is the Portuguese word for decapitate?” the king of Chittoor had woken from a dream in which his dead wife appeared and urged him to flee to the mountains with Ponni. His daughter’s belly was swollen in her eighth month of pregnancy, and she had withdrawn into herself. She refused to speak or smile, and had fashioned a rough shroud with which she covered her face. The maids who were attending the king told him that the princess was perhaps going mad, that her mind had travelled inwards and that she made noises that echoed the gurgling in her womb. The king took Gomez into her room, hoping he would be able to rouse Ponni from her stupor. Gomez took her face in his hands, looked into her eyes and recoiled at the blackness he saw in them. The princess was absent from her own face. He knelt by her bed and placed his ear to her swollen belly. He felt his son inside but Ponni did not respond to his touch. He spoke to her in urgent whispers about their love, about his loneliness in the dungeon and his love for their unborn child. But Ponni did not move, and, as the guards dragged her lover from her, screaming and crying out her name, she lay still, lost inside the world of her womb.

 

*

 

When he discovered that Ponni had fled, Kombiyachan’s rage was terrible. He ran through the rooms of the palace searching for his fugitive wife and her father, his sword drawn and the panther trotting beside him. The rooms were deserted; he slashed at the copper lampstands and velvet canopies, plunging his sword into beds and cushions while screaming for his unfaithful queen to be brought before him. He had brought the bullock cart of royal punishment with him on the ship, drawn by twin oxen whose sides shone fat and white in the sun. They had tassels of gold strung on their painted horns. A plough of teak was attached to their necks with banded red rope, the end sharpened to a keen point. It was meant to go between Ponni’s legs, entering her vagina and severing the joints of her thighs as the oxen backed into her, slowly pushing into her womb and her stomach, collapsing her lungs and spearing her heart to emerge, glutinous with blood, bile and phlegm, through her broken throat. The disappointment drove Kombiyachan insane with rage and he ordered the soldiers to ransack the palace and burn it down. When he saw Omar dragging a chained Gomez towards him, he almost swung his sword at the Portuguese’s neck. “No, white dog.” The king checked himself. “You will die too quickly. I will find my queen and you will die together, slowly and painfully. I will prepare a festival for it.” Gomez looked at Kombiyachan sitting on the throne of Chittoor, which had been dragged into the front courtyard of the palace. By now the building had been torched and the flames now framed Kombiyachan. Gomez spat at him and screamed, “Now there are three of us. Try killing us all.” Kombiyachan’s forehead grew black with fury. “I will find her and your bastard!” he shouted. “And I will scoop the rat out of her belly with my sword!” Gomez grinned at him, through his filthy lice-infested hair and the caked blood at his mouth. He knew he had won.

In 1955, Angel Flores applied the term magic realism to Spanish-American writing describing it as 19th century realism dotted with fantastical moments beyond spontaneous human combustion; a ‘Dickens with weirdness’ if you please. Later the definition extended to include folkloric elements and in Ravi Shankar Etteth’s The Tiger by the River, we have a prime example of the expanse of this genre. And why despite it being a much used and abused genre, its peregrinations have an enchantment of its own. To read The Tiger by the river is to enter a world that is lush, exotic and haunting. A magical realm where the strange sits cheek by jowl with the comfortably familiar, and the whole notion of an objective reality perches precariously. That Ravi Shankar exercises a sure touch in this genus is revealed right from the very first scene when Swati Raja, prince of Panayur boards a plane with the ashes of his beloved Nina in an urn. And with that journey begins many journeys. Into the past and the future. Trails that lead Swati Raja to discover the many secrets of his family; of the mystic relationship between the royal family of Panayur and the tiger by the river.Of a grandfather who chose the death rail during Hitler’s regime to escape.Of the existence of a cousin. And of a child he had begotten. Of a love that had gone to sleep and was awakened again….Moving deftly between the past and the present, Ravi Shankar depicts the making of a man and his search for answers in his making. In fact, Ravi Shankar’s unravelling of the past is perhaps the more significant part of the book. And it is here he triumphs as a writer. Using a montage of myths and dreams, tiger spoors and cruel eccentric kings, queens with linen shrouds and pet panthers, of a landlocked kingdom with a navy and milestones of history, he creates a landscape that is at times dazzling and other times baffling and altogether totally riveting. In contrast, his treatment of the present is stilted. More so when the scene shifts to transatlantic realms. Verging almost on the caricature, characters come and go and achieve little in between. So much so when Ravi Shankar directs the leap back into Panayur, South India, to the imaginary past, the reader does so with relief. Here is humour and sorrow; feats of valour and sorcerers’ tales and Ravi Shankar’s deft strokes. ChoorikathiKombiyachan despite being a more mythical than historical character has greater drawing power than the live Vel Kramer- New York Times bestselling author and the other Prince of Panayur from across the seas. That Vel Kramer too begins to journey into the past to discover his present in the dilapidated palace at Panayur by the river Papanashini [excuse the alliteration] is a rather nice and ‘comfortably familiar’ twist in this fantastic rambling tale of princes and tigers. Though his writing is suffused with metaphor and a thousand images, Ravi Shankar does occasionally stumbles when it comes to moments of intimacy. While there is an exceptional scene in which as a pet panther watches, ChoorikathiKombiyachan shoves the ugly head of callousness and megalomania down Queen Ponni’s throat, elsewhere there is a quiet but heart wrenchingly tender moment between Swati Raja and Antara, his old playmate and his mother’s hand maiden. And yet, what deflects from these outstanding portrayals of the myriad pulls of desire is the almost juvenile obsessive regard for breasts. In fact, a purple-tinged paean to nipples lurks between the pages – them like date fruit; they the colour of dark honey; those that stiffened to coral…. They are a minor hitch in an otherwise eminently readable novel and any writer who conjures this word picture ‘He often noticed women’s lower lips: they told him more about the coarseness of their kisses than anything else. Bulging a little, like a small sac, as if greed and abuse lodged there….’can be forgiven such trespasses. Read this book slowly and carefully, as one would tackle a jackfruit. There is sweetness and there is substance; there is sunshine, honey and countless exotic delights for the senses. The trick is to not let the sticky bits bog you down and hamper your progress.

(India Today)

First in Amazon Editors’ Pick for May.

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