Tag Archives: Religion

BOOK Review: A Column of Fire [Kingsbridge no.3] – Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge, #3)A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book for an honest review and my first thought was about its physical form. 919 pages are crammed into tiny font on thin paper in a voluminous paperback that makes it really uncomfortable to hold and hard to read. If this had been a standalone book, I would not even have picked it off the bookshelf. But I read and enjoyed ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ and the slightly less romantic ‘World without End’. As book 3 in the series, I had to start this one and once I did, true to Ken Follett style, it had me gripped.

‘A Column of Fire’ is set in the 1500s in a Kingsbridge now torn by conflict. Here’s where you get to see how religion goes from being a spiritual guide to a dangerous political machine. In the past two books (and centuries), monarchs battled over land, property and wealth. In this one, they begin to battle over something even bigger – people’s belief and loyalty. Protestantism and Catholism go head to head in vicious, intolerant massacre. Overlaying these are the political machinations of the surrounding regions like France, Spain and Scotland.

History buffs will enjoy the references to the major Queens of England. Kingsbridge, having grown from the little village of the 1100s of The Pillars of the Earth, is evidently a bustling city by the 1500s and it produces several people who go onto play key roles in the fates of these kings & queens (Mary of the Scots, Elizabeth of England, Felipe of Spain, James of England). The Pope & the Catholic Church come across as just as powerful political forces as each of the monarchs.

These fictitious characters play major roles with Mary, Elizabeth and the others being support characters. That said, the Kingsbridge books have started to feel less and less about intimate stories of ordinary people and more about chronicling history in a fictional setting. While ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ was about small, unimportant people (of their times) like a stone mason, a woman of the forest and a monk, ‘A Column of Fire’ deals with the decisions and tribulations of successful traders, landed peers and political advisors.

I also saw a few modern phrases/references slip in which seemed incongruous to the timeline of the story. For instance, Page 99 had a mention of ‘a few Native Americans’ when I’m not sure if they were called that in the 1500s before the colonisation of America.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the previous two (especially the first!). The plot seemed more important than the characters and I found it easy to skip past entire pages. Given how long the book is, at some point of time it became about identifying what parts of the story were going to meander into things I’ve read about in history already, rather than where the plot itself was going to take me next. I do however want to mention that this is an extraordinarily clear-headed look at the exploitation of women & other races by a white male author. It’s also good to read a book that doesn’t pull any punches when it addresses the unfettered greed for power by the Catholic Church as well as the Protestant community, when it addresses history.

If you are new to the Kingsbridge series, don’t worry about not having read the previous two. Each book in this series stands by itself, being that they’re each set 200 years apart. But going through them in order allows you the additional enjoyment of watching regular lives turn into history and then legend and then be forgotten.

View all my reviews

Saffron Stories

This pen has no more ink to spill
when stories are being written
in blood running down streets.


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MayShortReads 01: The Man Upstairs

It turns out that May is Short Story Month. So I’m going to try and serve up a Tiny Tale every day through May. Enjoy!


Chandran stepped into his hawai chappals, grimacing. Even his slippers were slick with sweat. Nevertheless, he moved to the balcony, hoping the sky would be the monsoon grey that it should be at this time. No luck. The shop downstairs was blaring their music system. Chandran imagined flinging his slipper but had to satisfy himself with yelling,

Arre, volume kam karo!!”

Nandanbhai didn’t bat an eyelid, as he turned to send a red shower out of his mouth, onto the pavement. That Madrasi on the first floor did not have any manners. Godless people, cooking fish all the time! He turned back and touched the picture behind him, asking for blessings from the goddess of prosperity. Diwali was a few weeks away and he hoped Lakshmidevi would not withhold her bounty from his shop because of his nastik upstairs neighbor.

Outside, the kids were playing on the pavement. Chandran thought they were probably too dehydrated to be playing cricket in the ground. If August was this hot, what would October be like? He decided to take a walk, hoping outdoors would be drier and cooler.

By the time he took a turn around the ground, visited the cigarette shop and made his way back through the vegetable market, darkness had fallen. The kids had gone home, leaving behind a little circle of stones. He sat down at the bus stop and took out his mobile phone. The baniya would probably still be blaring his music and it would be impossible to hear himself think, at home. Shriya answered on the first ring.

Nandanbhai looked around the shop. He’d locked the cash drawer and the back stores. Then he turned and touched Lakshmidevi’s feet one last time before switching off the electric diya in front of the picture. Jignesh would be at the counter now till closing time but he was not allowed to touch the mandir. As he stepped out, he spotted the nasty nastik across the road, talking on the phone. He spat into the gutter and walked away.

Chandran unclenched his fist. He was silent but Shriya’s voice was droning on incessantly. His palm smarted as he realized the skin was lightly bruised from the stone he had been clutching. He chucked the stone at the wall. Some mud crumbled away as it made impact. Pausing to add a token ‘Hmm’ to the conversation, he bent and picked up another from the pile the kids had left behind. He aimed for the same spot on the wall that his last throw had touched. It rebounded off and hit the ground. The “Hmm”s went well with the throws. By the time he went home, it was past nine and the stone pile lay scattered across the road.

Nandanbhai was woken up at 6 in the morning by his phone instead of his wife. Jignesh’s frantic words had him scrambling and calling to his wife to join him at the shop. When he got there half an hour later, there were so many people on the pavement that it took him awhile to get to the shop entrance. He sent a prayer heavenward that the lock was on securely. Then he turned to join the throng, curious about the commotion.

Chandran would have slept through the noise. After all, it wasn’t the volume but the pitch of the baniya’s music that disturbed him every day. But his neighbor rapped on the windows until he woke up. “God has blessed us!” she told him excitedly before hurrying away. He moved to the balcony blearily and noticed the throng on the road outside, for the first time. They were milling around the bus stop on the opposite side of the road, the very same one he had been sitting at the day before, in fact.

Nandanbhai had made his way almost to the front of the crowd by this time. It was true, then! The wall behind the bus stop was usually plastered with posters but was empty today. And the loose mud behind it had fallen off to form a rounded shape familiar to everyone in this city as its most beloved God – the elephant-headed deity. Ganeshji had blessed their street with his arrival, indeed. What an auspicious occasion!

Near the shop, a boy, sitting in strong arms asked his father, “Why are they shouting?”

His father exclaimed,

“It is a chamatkar!”

Chamatkar? Who makes chamatkar happen?”


said his father and carried him into the throng.

The boy turned and stared upwards. His eyes made contact with Chandran. He nodded and turned to look at the chamatkar.

Ganesh 2


Explanation of all non-English terms used in the story:

Arre, volume kam karo = Lower the volume
Nastik = Non-believer, atheist
Madrasi = North-Indian colloquialism for people from South India
Baniya = Person from a business community
Diya = Lamp used for religious ceremonies
Mandir = Shrine to religious deity
Ganeshji = Hindu God with head of elephant and body of man. Very popular in Mumbai.

Ideamarked Jan2011: Astrology, Fiction, Photography, Music, Technology, Poetry, Social Rules & Life Lessons

The first month of 2011 has whooshed by slipperier than the icy roads we Mumbaikers nearly came to expect with a rare winter! I’ve been poking around into a lot of corners and old places, nostalgia washing over me with this old blog URL and template. After the daily post pressure of Reverb10 and a demanding December calender let up, January has been packed in a different way. I’ve been enjoying it and hope that it’s an indication of things to come in the rest of the year. Here’s a mixed bag of goodies to cheer you along at end of the first month:

  • Ugly Christmas sweaters by sun sign! (via Astrology.com)
  • Extra short stories for 2011 (via Sakshi)
  • A secret can be a burden. And someone who shares your burden has to be a real guardian angel. Like the one this postcard is about. (via PostSecret)
  • 1000 Life Lessons or How to stay alive forever (1000 secrets)
  • Doocing may loom high even on our sheltered desi selves as we all get connected. Here’s five ways to tread with caution on Twitter and Facebook (via EconomicTimes, tipped off by Gautam Ghosh, who is quoted in the story)
  • Mumbai through the eyes of my favorite Bangalore photo-blogger. No mains and crosses in Claustraphobicity, I’m afraid! (Mumbai Paused)
  • In marketers’ hell! Swoosh Eyebrows (via FoundShit)
  • An old favorite of mine and mamma to twin boys, this time she gets a sharp lesson in watching her words in front of the kids! (via Mamma of Twins)
  • A History of Nudism – short story at Daily Fiction‘s new blog.
  • So bad, it’s good. Move over French maid fantasy, Mmmbai is here! Aye Hiphopper by Ishq Bector (via Youtube)
  • Memorable moments and traditions from wedding ceremonies across countries, religions and social systems. (via Matador Network)
  • How technology/ mobile connectivity is helping Indian education (via EducationTimes, tipped off by Moksh Juneja, who is quoted in the story)
  • Social Rules To Not Making Empty Promises and To Mean What You Say – I can think of a helluva lot of people who need to know this and not one of them is shy! (link courtesy Arcopol Chaudhuri)
  • Echoes fade and memories die, Autumn frosts have slain July“….gives me goosebumps. (Lewis Carrol at OldPoetry)

'Tis The Season To Be Jolly

Celebrations are things you don’t exactly notice until you have to make a conscious effort to make them happen. Christmas has been an integral part of my life for years and years now – one of the consequences of growing up in a Christian environment and having a devout Catholic for best friend. My many yuletide memories include midnight mass, home-made wine, marzipan rolling and jiving at 2a.m. This year she’s a new mama and will most likely want to have a family Christmas so I’m not about to intrude.

Last evening the office bunch decided to organize a ‘Secret Santa’. Each of us has picked a chit bearing the name of one person at office. We are to be Secret Santa to the person whose name we picked. I went shopping immediately after work to fill up my Santa bag. I came back with chocolates and a funky toy thing that I think he’ll like.

This morning I walked into an office that looked like red had exploded in here. The HR mail did say ‘casuals with some red or white’ so I figured my wine-red with grey tartan on light trousers would be good. Everyone is dressed in a blinding shade of red with a few Santa hats here and there. I dodged to my desk before any of them would pounce on me. Thank goodness for the reindeer antlers I picked up on a whim last evening, intending to wear them for the mandatory photographs at the end of the day! That’s been accepted as suitable Christmas Eve apparel.

So I’m jingling bells (sewn onto the red antlers affixed to a green headband) when I’m walking. Which reminds me of the friend who suggested I decorate my Secret Santa gift with red ribbon and green mistletoe. I refrained of course, realising that she didn’t know the significance of mistletoe. Now mistletoe on a headband might be a really nice idea, mightn’t it? Especially if the object of one’s affection happens to be standing close by…hmm, hmm, hmm, some Christmas gift that would be! 😉

A couple of years back, the very year J got married, in fact and I decided not to intrude on the private celebration she was sure to want with her new husband….I went to a houseparty with another dear friend. Our host greeted us at the door with a hot bod squeezed into a tight tee, a knock-you-down grin and a Santa hat. The funny thing was that no one at the party was a Christian, practising or otherwise. Oh well, I rationalized, you can celebrate a holiday simply because it makes you happy. My celebration is not religious, it’s sentimental but what difference, either way? I don’t really remember getting home that night but we did have a crazy blast.

This year has been….well, much, much better than the heartbreaking hell that 2007 was. But it leaves us on a sad note, trailing behind a terror-struck debris in place of the unstoppable city I used to call home. Less than a month ago, I also lost a colleague, a work-buddy, my right arm at office. I feel the loss of this mild-mannered, always smiling 25-year-old every single day. Sid, I never told you just how much I relied on you, did I?

This year, I don’t know yet what I’m going to be doing. I don’t want to – like every other holiday this year – spend this one working off my sleep debt or doing something incredibly fashionable (and expensive). For the last holiday of the year I think I’ll celebrate it true Ideasmith-style – with loads of sentiment and nostalgia and warm practicality.

I’m meeting a longtime comfortable-as-a-cuddy-pillow friend and I think I’ll go to midnight mass with him. It would be nice to attend mass at my school church which is where I stood next to J for all these years. I guess I’ll bump into her there which should be good. It isn’t really Christmas without J.

Merry Christmas everyone!!

Finding My Religion


I spotted this on the Mains and Crosses blog awhile ago. I must stop to explain why I picked up this picture and decided to even write a post about it. I am not religious; haven’t been for many years now.

My school was a century-old institution that belonged the church that it faced. A village had sprung up around the church, decades ago and many of those houses still dot the landscape. To this day, that area is called ‘The village’ and the church is its most prominent landmark, with my school coming up a close next.

Between the school building and the church was a graveyard, always locked away. I entered it once, 7 years after I had left school. I was part of the procession for the funeral of a 21-year-old girl who had died in an accident on her way to her first day at work. She had been my classmate. Many years earlier, I had stood next to her at that very gate and she pointed to one headstone and said,

That’s my dad over there.

She was buried not far from him.

I remember the church as an imposing structure with a steeple and a huge bell on the top. It was reconstructed a couple of years before I left school to a spanking new design. But somehow it never recaptured the grandeur of the old church. Outside the church, a vast courtyard was laid out in neat tiles and slabs of marble here and there. As a child, I’d imagine that they were the graves of people who died before the graveyard was built and I always felt uneasy walking over them so I’d stick to the paths in between.

And ever so often, I’d turn back and look at the school building where I spent the better part of twelve years of my life. A few feet to the left of the church doorway, a statue stood, erected on a high podium and surrounded by a locked enclosure. In my six-year-old eyes, he seemed to tower up into the sky, long hair cascading over his shoulders, one hand on his heart and his eyes watching with a mixture of deep comprehension and gentle compassion. Even as a confused kid with no means to articulate the tangles in my mind, I felt understood.

All these years later, I find that same undefinable something reaching across to me that spoke to my soul before the words came in and decayed all faith. An idea of beauty is truly a joy forever until it is burdened by the weight of human foibles.

It was also remarkable to note the title of the post on the blog – St.John’s Road. It’s been over a decade since I finished school but I guess I never stopped being a Johannian.

20/20 vision at Lalbagh

And I would have to take the road on this day…. Mumbai’s twin obsessions – Ganeshji and cricket (okay, that’s national mania) spiral their noisy, raucous ways into my senses. The roads are alive and a heady hysteria of celebration. Like an oil colour with neon under-tints that someone smudged before it was completely dry. Colours blurring into lights, sounds echoing into one another, it is all one royal, spectacularly messy picture. What picture? A panorama – a constantly shifting, moving scene.

Lalbaghcha raja looks on benevolently as devotees lined up for 15 hours break into dance right in the middle of traffic, celebrating a victorious match. The fire-crackers all stocked up for tomorrow’s grand farewell for the city’s most beloved deity, are being let loose on the streets to cheer the boys in blue. Even ensconced in the safety of a dark car, I suppress a grimace. The noise! The blinding lights! Electricity being spent like nobody can afford it! And traffic grinding to a standstill.

Across the road, three kids are skipping down the road…I mean it, skipping down the road. Where in the vast machinery of this city do you get to see that? Today’s kids are all about X-Box and Beyblades and what not (or perhaps not, I’m too old to keep up with school fads). But these three are skipping down the road and briefly one of them stops and yells throatily,

Hum jeet gaye!!!!!!

to no one in particular. Ah, the magic of childhood, where you can scream out to the heavens and no one thinks it odd!

But up ahead, I can see a man weaving his way through the traffic on foot. And he has this huge smile on his face. In another moment, another traffic jam, I’d think he was one of those poor devils, driven to insanity by the hard grind of life in this city. You see them every once in awhile, clothes a-tatter, hollowed eyes and manic grins. But his smile has a look of pure beatification on it. It is the smile of a man who feels blessed, of one tasting something infinitely sweeter than success or any of the many thrills Mumbai offers. It is the smile of pure, unadulterated joy.

For a brief moment, I stay poised, the glue of skepticism holding me to the brink. I’m not religious! I don’t even like cricket! Think of the money being used while people are committing suicide in the rest of the state! And the other sportspeople who struggle all their lives for a scrap of attention that the nation lavishes on cricketers! There’s nothing glorious about that!!!

But there is something about that man’s smile. My city still remembers how to smile like that! And then smooth, graceful diver turned gleeful kid splashing into water, I fall into the celebratory moment.

Crackers exploding everywhere, a thousand fairy-lights gleaming overhead and another thousand twinkling back at them from the wet patches on the road. The world is one huge riotous celebration of life. Ganapathi bappa moraya!!! And our boys in blue have really, really, really done it!!!!

Lalbaghcha raja and the boys in blue just made my day. And the glow lasts me an entire evening. Two hours later, a well-dressed man outside a club is screaming into his cellphone,

Congrats, man!! We won!

And a fashionably bald man is hugged by a perfect stranger, right before my eyes. Across a hip bar, he starts to swivel his eyes heavenward and then stops short, shrugs with a smile and mouths,

Well, ganapathi bappa moraya and all that…

Strange it is then, that a machine-like, super-efficient, no-nonsense place like Mumbai…when it decides to feel, compels you to care too. So farewell, beloved benevolent elephant-god, bless our trials for another year and give us a reason to celebrate at the end of it. And welcome home, boys in blue, the adulation of a billion Indians awaits you!


In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

In the middle of the desert, the cactus is manna
But a sadist among masochists, is God. Or the Devil. Or both.

Hurt me! Heal me! Kill me! Spare me! Nail me! Resurrect me!

It’s pain and religion they need. The world is perfect.


Ideasmith, age 6

Dear Santa Claus,

Will you bring me a present too? I am not a Christian. But I say prayers in English in school and I know about Jesus Christ and Moses. I read about them in the Bible stories book. When I go home, I pray in Hindi or Tamil or Sanskrit and I also know about Murugan and Shiva and Rama. I read in Amar Chitra Katha.

Please bring me more books. Please make mummy like comics so she will let me read them.

Thank you.
Ideasmith, age 13

Dear God,

Sometimes I think I must be mad. But you will take care of me if I am, won’t you?

I know I’ll never be pretty but I wish at least one person would think I was.

Ideasmith, age 16

Dear Me,

You are my best friend…my only real friend. Thank you for holding on for so long. This too shall pass and you will come out of it stronger. Just keep the faith.

Still I wish someone understood.

Ideasmith, age 21

Dear X,

Won’t you re-consider? Remember our old times? Please remember…because I’ll die if you don’t. I don’t want to think of a life without you.

I never wanted anyone or anything as much as I want us.

Ideasmith, age 24


Once and for all, there will be no more mistakes. Never again, never EVER again will a man hurt you. This is the last of it.

He will pay.

There’s no hurry. Life is long enough for paybacks.

I want justice.

Ideasmith, aged 26

This year I want to:
Eat healthy
Take dancing lessons
Start the novel
Find love

Twenty years is a long enough time. From asking other people to make my dreams comes true to fulfilling my own wishes. There is a difference, though.

It is the difference between faith and confidence.

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