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Parva Novel Review Essay

Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean | Amruta Patil

Worth its weight in gold

To know if a tale is worth its weight in gold, check if it reveals itself threefold. In your bloodstream. In the town square. In the turning of galaxies. If it does: Gold. If it makes you giddy just to think of the scope of the tale: Gold.” With these words in the preface, Amruta Patil sets a ruthlessly high bar for her retelling of the Mahabharat in sequential art.

The epic itself, of course, has proven 24-carat true over its centuries of re-forging and burnishing, but a reteller retains enough power to warp the wondrous into the banal. Thankfully, Patil’s labour of love, which fans of her previous graphic novel Kari have been waiting for since 2008, meets her own standards.

Proof threefold: When her Ganga stepped off the page in vivacious charcoal strokes to point out that “this matter of stealing cattle always ends badly”, my bloodstream pulsed with the mimetic reality that believers in the Mahabharat live with; this was neither hagiographic nor exoticized. Proof of the publicly shared appeal in the town square mandi of attractive retellings came when the bellboy at my hotel asked to see the book, and flipping through appreciatively, stopped, rather to my discomfort, at a tasteful pastel of Pandu and Madri making love.

Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean: HarperCollins, 276 pages, Rs799.

And my breath caught at the scope of her literary palette when I came across Patil’s explanation for the idiosyncratic behaviour of rishis—“the navigators of the multiverse [with] passion to intervene with necessary genetic data”. This is twining the narrative conventions of science fiction and fantasy with the metaphors of religious philosophy. Patil does this visually too, in moments like the two-page spread where the Aakash Ganga reaches down to drape herself around Shiva, sky meeting mountain, the moon a shared mistress of both.

It is a pleasure to sink into a retelling that is not unduly defensive about balancing spiritual passion with scientific rationality. Because Patil writes the way most of us live with the story—as though it is an elderly ajji or nani whose gnarled hands have given us oil massages and mouthfuls of dal-chawal, with a body familiar from snuggles and shoulder-rides, the flab and the bones alike smelling familiarly of talcum powder and sweat, whose politics and morality you may rage at with your feminism and Marxism but whose loyalty and devotion to the family is demonstrated through copious food-feeding and whose ancient mango-stealing past commands the reverence of feet-touching.

Her Mahabharat wanders through memoryscapes—now Vinata and Kadru are debating the blackness of a white horse’s tail, over there Janmejaya stews over his earth-scorching yagna, here people wander in and out of Ganga’s story demanding digressions about dogs or devas and meanwhile Ashwatthama broods wordless under the tree.

The best kathakars know that only a very shallow world can be fully explained, but rather, that contradictions and mysteries must populate the tale to provide opportunities for confusion and empathy. Patil embraces the multiple conflicting realities that make up the Mahabharat—she sometimes argues with it, sometimes provides sly interjections, but never for a moment did I sense that she has stopped believing in the urgent reality of it. Like a classical dancer who uses a 13th century padam with 19th century reconstructed hastas and 21st century lights to talk about a love for Krishna that is at once referencing a mythic past and a continuous present, Patil’s art swirls around charcoals and pastels, to collages on newsprint, to visual allusions across boundaries: Aphrodite arising out of the water, Tibetan lotuses, double-helix DNA, Orion in the night sky, snakes and ladders. Gandhari wears a kaftan while Kashmiri and Central Asian embroideries dance across the page border, Kunti wears a Bengali white sari with red border, while Madri is in a salwar-kameez.

There is meticulous craft behind Patil’s paean to this tale, and this is a graphic novel in the truest sense of the term because her art and her words come together like diamonds to show different facets of the same rainbow-lit characters (one of the small moving moments is a teeny Garuda bowing down while a Vishnu mask hovers in the background, and Patil writes about master sword makers who are relentless with their priceless work. It’s the sort of matter-of-fact acceptance of the magnitude of bhakti that straddles calendar art and qawwalis).

My one complaint, given how thoughtful the work is, is that Patil hasn’t deviated enough from the bigoted artistic tradition of colourism that codes darker skin tones for the poor, the asuras and the lower-caste, while Vishnu and Shiva are elevated to blue. Her palette is more complicated than the stark offensiveness of Amar Chitra Kathas, and she has jungle-roaming rishis satisfyingly tanned dark, but in the face of centuries of skin politics and anti-Dalit and anti-Dravidian rhetoric, it would have been nice if her art could have challenged the misinterpretation of “krishna” as blue instead of black.

Adi Parva is eponymously the beginning, and this volume ends with a recently widowed Kunti contemplating her return to Hastinapur with five young sons. We have yet to see what Patil will make of Arjun and Subhadra, Karna and Draupadi, Yayatsu and Krishna. The actual Mahabharat has not even begun, but already the river of Patil’s imagination is so vast and deep that it does not matter that we cannot see the shore banks. Like the majhi whom we must entrust ourselves to, she seems on a steady course towards the beloved.

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I. Bibliographic Information

Provide the essential information about the book using the writing style asked for by your professor [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.]. Depending on how your professor wants you to organize your review, the bibliographic information represents the heading of your review. In general, it would look like this:

The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History. By Jill Lepore. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. xii, 207pp.).

Reviewed by [your name].

II. Scope/Purpose/Content

Begin your review by telling the reader not only the overarching concern of the book in its entirety [the subject area] but also what the author's particular point of view is on that subject [the thesis statement]. If you cannot find an adequate statement in the author's own words or if you find that the thesis statement is not well-developed, then you will have to compose your own introductory thesis statement that does cover all the material. This statement should be no more than one paragraph and must be succinctly stated, accurate, and unbiased.

If you find it difficult to discern the overall aims and objectives of the book [and, be sure to point this out in your review if you determine that this is a deficiency], you may arrive at an understanding of the book's overall purpose by assessing the following:

  • Scan the table of contents because it can help you understand how the book was organized and will aid in determining the author's main ideas and how they were developed [e.g., chronologically, topically, etc.].
  • Why did the author write on this subject rather than on some other subject?
  • From what point of view is the work written?
  • Was the author trying to give information, to explain something technical, or to convince the reader of a belief’s validity by dramatizing it in action?
  • What is the general field or genre, and how does the book fit into it? If necessary, review related literature from other books and journal articles to familiarize yourself with the field.
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the author's style? Is it formal or informal? You can evaluate the quality of the writing style by noting some of the following standards: coherence, clarity, originality, forcefulness, accurate use of technical words, conciseness, fullness of development, and fluidity.
  • How did the book affect you? Were any prior assumptions you had on the subject that were changed, abandoned, or reinforced after reading the book? How is the book related to your own personal beliefs or assumptions? What personal experiences have you had that relate to the subject?
  • How well has the book achieved the goal(s) set forth in the preface, introduction, and/or foreword?
  • Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?

III.  Note the Method

Illustrate your remarks with specific references and quotations that help to illustrate the literary method used to state the research problem, describe the research design, and analyze the findings. In general, authors tend to use the following literary methods, exclusively or in combination.

  • Description: The author depicts scenes and events by giving specific details that appeal to the five senses, or to the reader’s imagination. The description presents background and setting. Its primary purpose is to help the reader realize, through as many sensuous details as possible, the way persons, places, and things are within the phenomenon being described.
  • Narration: The author tells the story of a series of events, usually thematically or in chronological order. In general, the emphasis in scholarly books is on narration of the events. Narration tells what has happened and, in some cases, using this method to forecast what could happen in the future. Its primary purpose is to draw the reader into a story and create a contextual framework for understanding the research problem.
  • Exposition: The author uses explanation and analysis to present a subject or to clarify an idea. Exposition presents the facts about a subject or an issue clearly and as impartially as possible. Its primary purpose is to describe and explain, to document for the historical record an event or phenomenon.
  • Argument: The author uses techniques of persuasion to establish understanding of a particular truth, often in the form of a research question, or to convince the reader of its falsity. The overall aim is to persuade the reader to believe something and perhaps to act on that belief. Argument takes sides on an issue and aims to convince the reader that the author's position is valid, logical, and/or reasonable.

IV.  Critically Evaluate the Contents

Critical comments should form the bulk of your book review. State whether or not you feel the author's treatment of the subject matter is appropriate for the intended audience. Ask yourself:

  • Has the purpose of the book been achieved?
  • What contributions does the book make to the field?
  • Is the treatment of the subject matter objective or at least balanced in describing all sides of a debate?
  • Are there facts and evidence that have been omitted?
  • What kinds of data, if any, are used to support the author's thesis statement?
  • Can the same data be interpreted to explain alternate outcomes?
  • Is the writing style clear and effective?
  • Does the book raise important or provocative issues or topics for discussion
  • Does the book bring attention to the need for further research?
  • What has been left out?

Support your evaluation with evidence from the text and, when possible, state the book's quality in relation to other scholarly sources. If relevant, note of the book's format, such as, layout, binding, typography, etc. Are there tables, charts, maps, illustrations, text boxes, photographs, or other non-textual elements? Do they aid in understanding the text? Describing this is particularly important in books that contain a lot of non-textual elements.

NOTE: It is important to carefully distinguish your views from those of the author so as not to confuse your reader. Be clear when you are describing an author's point of view versus your own.

V.  Examine the Front Matter and Back Matter

Front matter refers to anything before the first chapter of the book. Back matter refers to any information included after the final chapter of the book. Front matter is most often numbered separately from the rest of the text in lower case Roman numerals [i.e. i - xi]. Critical commentary about front or back matter is generally only necessary if you believe there is something that diminishes the overall quality of the work [e.g., the indexing is poor] or there is something that is particularly helpful in understanding the book's contents [e.g., foreword places the book in an important context].

The following front matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing its overall quality:

  • Table of contents -- is it clear? Is it detailed or general? Does it reflect the true contents of the book?
  • Author biography -- also found as back matter, the biography of author(s) can be useful in determining the authority of the writer and whether the book builds on prior research or represents new research. In scholarly reviews, noting the author's affiliation can be a factor in helping the reader determine the overall validity of the work [i.e., are they associated with a research center devoted to studying the research problem under investigation].
  • Foreword -- the purpose of a foreword is to introduce the reader to the author as well as the book itself, and to help establish credibility for both. A foreword may not contribute any additional information about the book's subject matter, but it serves as a means of validating the book's existence. Later editions of a book sometimes have a new foreword prepended [appearing before an older foreword, if there was one], which may be included to explain how the latest edition differs from previous editions.
  • Acknowledgements -- scholarly studies in the social sciences often take many years to write, so authors frequently acknowledge the help and support of others in getting their research published. This can be as innocuous as acknowledging the author's family or the publisher. However, an author may acknowledge prominent scholars or subject experts, staff at key research centers, or people who curate important archival collections. In these particular cases, it may be worth noting these sources of support in your review.
  • Preface -- generally describes the genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness to people who have helped the author complete the study. Is the preface helpful in understanding the study? Does it provide an effective framework for understanding what's to follow?
  • Chronology -- also may be found as back matter, a chronology is generally included to highlight key events related to the subject of the book. Do the entries contribute to the overall work? Is it detailed or very general?
  • List of non-textual elements -- a book that contains a lot of charts, photographs, maps, etc. will often list these items after the table of contents in the order that they appear in the text. Is it useful?

The following back matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing the overall quality of the book:

  • Afterword -- this is a short, reflective piece written by the author that takes the form of a concluding section, final commentary, or closing statement. It is worth mentioning in a review if it contributes information about the purpose of the book, gives a call to action, summarizes key recommendations or next steps, or asks the reader to consider key points made in the book.
  • Appendix -- is the supplementary material in the appendix or appendices well organized? Do they relate to the contents or appear superfluous? Does it contain any essential information that would have been more appropriately integrated into the text?
  • Index -- there may be separate indexes for names and subjects or one integrated index. Is the indexing thorough and accurate? Are elements used, such as, bold or italic fonts to help identify specific places in the book? Does the index include "see also" references to direct you to related topics?
  • Glossary of Terms -- are the definitions clearly written? Is the glossary comprehensive or are there key terms missing? Are any terms or concepts mentioned in the text not included that should have been?
  • Footnotes/Endnotes -- examine any footnotes or endnotes as you read from chapter to chapter. Do they provide important additional information? Do they clarify or extend points made in the body of the text? Should any notes have been better integrated into the text rather than separated?
  • Bibliography/References/Further Readings -- review any bibliography, list of references to sources, and/or further readings the author may have included. What kinds of sources appear [e.g., primary or secondary, recent or old, scholarly or popular, etc.]? How does the author make use of them? Be sure to note important omissions of sources that you believe should have been utilized, including important digital resources or archival collections.

VI.  Summarize and Comment

State your general conclusions briefly and succinctly. Pay particular attention to the author's concluding chapter and/or afterword. Is the summary convincing? List the principal topics, and briefly summarize the author’s ideas about these topics, main points, and conclusions. If appropriate and to help clarify your overall evaluation, use specific references and quotations to support your statements. If your thesis has been well argued, the conclusion should follow naturally. It can include a final assessment or simply restate your thesis. Do not introduce new information in the conclusion. If you've compared the book to any other works or used other sources in writing the review, be sure to cite them at the end of your book review.

Book Reviews. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Book Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Gastel, Barbara. "Special Books Section: A Strategy for Reviewing Books for Journals." BioScience 41 (October 1991): 635-637; Hartley, James. "Reading and Writing Book Reviews Across the Disciplines." Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57 (July 2006): 1194–1207; Procter, Margaret. The Book Review or Article Critique. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Reading a Book to Review It. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Scarnecchia, David L. "Writing Book Reviews for the Journal Of Range Management and Rangelands." Rangeland Ecology and Management 57 (2004): 418-421; Simon, Linda. "The Pleasures of Book Reviewing." Journal of Scholarly Publishing 27 (1996): 240-241; Writing a Book Review. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Book Reviews. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University.

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