Saturday, November 22, 2014

Atisa and the Time Machine - In Search of Kalidasa

Atisa and the Time Machine - In search of Kalidasa
Author - Anu Kumar, Illustrator - Priya Kurian
Publisher - Jaico Books
Ages - 12+

When the whiff of history is still in the air, I thought it would be appropriate to present the book review of this new book on the stands. This is the third book in the series of Atisa and his adventures.

Atisa, a teenage boy, has been on various adventures already in his time travelling flying machine (the earlier adventures are detailed in Atisa and the Seven Wonders and Adventures with Hieun Tsang). This machine has magically transported him to various eras, making him come in contact with the significant historical characters of that time period and partake of the adventures of their time.

Now, Atisa is summoned to the Gupta period, through a distress call for help, which his special sound catchers capture. It is the reign of King Vikramaditya and a pot pourri of events unfold at the same time. The king is on his way back to the kingdom after defeating the Saka tribes. Something sinister is afoot in the capital, which the king is completely unaware of. The astronomer Varahamihira is concerned about the superstitions of the people surrounding the forthcoming eclipse. There is a mysterious man, whom everyone is trying to protect by all means and his identity is kept a closely guarded secret from Atisa.  Then there is a funny trader who pops in and out of Atisa's present and the past going back 1800 years. This is the situation in which Atisa lands. 

Atisa's flying machine comes like a boon to the good people of the Gupta period. They seek his help in getting across secret messages and scrolls to concerned people. The story is all about Atisa's adventures, where he crosses path with numerous interesting people like - the path finders who are adept in finding the ways through the dense jungles, the astronomer Varahamihira and his daughter Lilavati,  the crucial 'gems' of the Vikramaditya's court one of whom is the missing person and Fa-hsien, the Chinese monk who happens to be in India then. The attitudes, fears and the belief systems of the people of those times, are revealed beautifully through the story. 

The book has multiple angles, all of which come together in the end. It is pretty apparent that the author has done a lot of research to bring in the various elements of that period together in this fictious tale. For a person who would have just read the facts of the Gupta period, the book would be a delight as it strings the information together in a story garland. It motivates us to seek more information of that time period.

I personally would have liked to see the actual facts of the Gupta period presented briefly in the end or in bubbles through the book, like some historical fiction books do. So even if I pick the book without any knowledge of the historical background, I could have understood the context  better with this. For example, a litte more information about the king and his dynasty, the nine gems of the Vikramaditya's court or a brief write up of the famous temple in Deogarh which comes up in the story, would have made it more interesting. A tighter editing would have been welcome too.

Priya Kurian's wonderful illustrations which give life to Anu's words, pop up every few pages. If you are a history buff, it is not a book to be missed. History, Fantasy, Mystery - all rolled into a single package! To know more about the author, you can read this interview with Anu Kumar and her recent writeup for CROCUS 2014.

(The book was received as a Review copy from Jaico Publishers, but the views expressed are purely mine)    

Monday, November 17, 2014


What a ride down history lane! We are sure this edition of CROCUS has aroused your curiosity for books of this genre.

We brought you books, both non fiction and fiction, from magnificent civilizations- Prehistoric to Greek, from Egypt to Harappa, from China to Mesopotamia, traveling from India to Peru.

Praba and Sheela ably led the scheduling; Lavanya Karthik continues to surpass herself and delight us with the flyer. Sandhya, Rachna and Anusha, with their compelling posts, set the tone for the fest and the theme.

You would have noted most book reviews were clusters- so that you can keep coming back to us for more of the sub-genre! See...we love you.

We had master storytellers and history buffs- Subhadra Sengupta,  Geetha Dharmarajan, Anu Kumar, Mala Kumar, Suhag Shirodkar and Anupama Hoskere- share their  priceless thoughts with us. We sincerely thank all of them and are sure these posts will get re-read and shared many times over.

We have noticed and are grateful for the steady increase in FB likes for our page. We will try and keep at it and share links on that forum as well. Leave us your suggestions and comments, we are always happy to hear from you.

Thanks Little Reader's Nook, Bookalore and  generous friends and bloggers for spreading the word about CROCUS in more ways than one.

Thank you  participants for your response to the very innovative CROCUSWORD. And winners, congrats!

And as we maintain always, YOU, the reader, are our star.
Stay with us and the rest, as they say, is history!

The History Mystery Series

The History Mystery Series
Written by Natasha Sharma
Illustrated by: Various
Publisher: Duckbill Books
Age: 6+

As a history buff, I frequently  find myself  defending the subject’s honour when it is slandered by my school-going daughter and her friends. Not that I can blame them, really, as I passed through the same school system and know full well how a subject as fascinating  as this can be so easily reduced to stale facts, endless  lists of dates, and dull reverential commentary on long-dead greats. For me, History, is the story of ourselves – it isn’t just great wars , mighty political transactions and who-killed-whom-where,  but also the mundane, everyday actions and ideas and oh-so – avoidable blunders (Christopher ‘I-found-India’ Columbus,  Akbar ‘I’m building me a fabulous new city’ -   this means you!! ) that pave the road to who we are today.  So you have to cheer for a series  that offers you “mysteries you’ll never find in history books’.

Natasha Sharma’s History Mystery series is whacky and irreverent (Ashoka the Great blowing bubbles in his bath! Akbar having a hissy fit!) and very entertaining. Designed in the chapterbook format for younger readers, it sets its tales in different historic periods , with some suspense, many oddball characters and a great deal of slapstick comedy thrown in. It also cleverly weaves in a lot of factual data, sneaking a quick history lesson or two right past its unsuspecting , helplessly giggly, readers.

Akbar and the Tricky Traitor , the first book in the series, has that noble ruler fuming over slanderous comments made about him by a neighbouring king. Clearly there is a mole in Akbar’s court, passing on every thought the Emperor has almost as soon as he has it – but who? Enter the Super Six, a quintet of spies who then proceed to muddy the investigative waters a great deal, before clearing things up.

Ashoka and the Muddled Messages is reviewed in greater detail here.

Raja Raja and the Swapped Sacks cranks the laugh-out loud comedy up a notch, and moves the drama to foreign shores. Someone is waylaying the great Chola king’s cargo of spices to China and replacing them with trash. So Raja Raja’s top sleuth, Only One, sets out to catch the crook, armed with little more than his wits and a barrage of knock-knock jokes, only to be promptly waylaid himself – by pirates!

Each of these books end with an impressive reading list – author Natasha Sharma has clearly done her research well, and it shows in the details. Ashoka, did in fact, have an all-woman posse of bodyguards, (though probably not as goofy as the ten Ts the author bestows on him), and dyeing your beard all kinds of crazy colours was, incredibly enough, a thing! Akbar’s meals were actually prepared and delivered to him in the manner described in “..Tricky Traitor”. And in the time of Raja Raja Chola , hero stones were indeed the equivalent of  sponsored ads in the present day.

My one grouse with the books would be that their plots sound rather similar to each other - cranky king, bumbling spies who add to the confusion before sorting things out, treacherous courtiers. That said, the books are  great reads and  brim with ingenious characters - Ashoka's T10 and  Kalapathy Arrghety's shrewish mummy were my favourites.

Given how far back India’s history stretches,  and the plethora of dynasties, despots and aspirants to the label ‘Greatest of the Great’ that  now squabble for space in  the footnotes of our history textbooks – I  look forward to seeing where the History Mystery series  takes us next. 

I received these books as review copies from the publisher; the views expressed here, however, are entirely my own.

Images courtesy: Duckbill 

Interview with Suhag Shirodkar

I feel very privileged bringing to you Suhag Shirodkar, the author of a book that I think every child (or grown-up!) interested in Indian history must absolutely read. 

This book, titled ‘Captured in Miniature: Mughal Lives through Mughal Art’, is one of my all-time favourites and I had reviewed it here on Saffrontree. Do check it out.

Hello Suhag! Thank you for agreeing to answer our many questions!
First of all, please could you tell us about what inspired you to write this lovely book?
Children enjoy things that are small, to their own scale. Our twin daughters (then about 7) took a keen interest in books we owned on Mughal miniature art. They loved the scenes of war, where elephants stomped and horses reared and enemy heads lay scattered on the dusty battlefield. The pored over the court scenes, fascinated by the faces and robes of emperor and courtiers and the bejeweled Imperial Throne. So I started writing little notes for them, pointing out interesting things to look for in a miniature and asking questions that would get them thinking about the context or setting of a painting. The book came out of that assembly of notes.

And aren’t we glad you decided to do so!
If you could go back to the Mughal period for a day, which emperor’s reign would you choose and why? What would you like to see?
Perhaps I would enjoy the reign of Jehangir best, the empire very much shaped by Akbar and the aesthetic pinnacle of Shah Jehan still in the future.
The streets of Agra would be a delight to walk through, thronged with people from across Central Asia and Iran and Turkey. Observing the people and their dress and hearing many tongues spoken...being a part of the milling crowd at the jharoka darshan, when Jehangir made his appearance...wandering the bazaars...oh, it would be a busy day!
I would like to see how Nur Jehan had rose attar made -- the roses picked at dawn and brought in to some wonderfully fragrant factory I imagine -- many hands working and the attar being distilled, drop by drop.
And then to visit a kitabkhana - like the one thats depicted in my book. It would be wonderful to talk to the artists and understand the kind of world in which they created their collaborative masterpieces.
Too much to see in a day, thats for sure!

Some day, when time-travel becomes real perhaps!
Okay this could be a tricky one but let’s say you were asked to choose for yourself any of the miniatures created in this period. Which would you pick?
Several. All.
I particularly enjoy paintings showing ordinary people. Like Akbar Supervising the Construction of Fatehpur Sikri thats in my book.
And compositions like Miskins below, combining real and imaginary animals.

Practically speaking though, it would be too heavy a responsibility to own a Mughal miniature. If one came into my hands, Id turn it over to a good museum in India.

What do you like best about the Mughal culture?
Undoubtedly the visual aesthetic and sensual appeal. The Mughal aesthetic was stunning, permeating every aspect of royal and noble life. The luxurious carpets, the brocade robes, the gemstones and jewellery, the marble screens, the fragrant gardens with fountains and fish-scale waterfalls, the miniatures each a jewel in itself, the hilts of swords and scabbards of daggers, the poetry and was a refined pursuit of beauty on such a magnificent scale that it could not in the end support itself.

The Mughal emperors had unique personalities and interests. What jobs do you think each of them would have had, if he were to live in the present times? (like Jahangir could have been a biologist perhaps).
It is hard to pin the Mughal emperors, who lived in such splendor and grandeur, to a present-day profession, but let’s try..
Babur: A poet and writer.
Humayun: not sure of him. Definitely he appreciated the arts enough to bring
miniature painters back with him from Persia. Lets say an art appraiser.
Akbar: A diplomat and senior statesman, or a strategist for the military, or the
head of a think tank.
Jehangir: Biologist and naturalist, yes, thats a good possibility. Jewelry appraiser, maybe.
Shah Jehan: Architect or designer
Aurangzeb: An interpreter of the law or a craftsman.

Intriguing indeed! Please tell us, what do you like to do apart from writing?
Many things. I work as a technical writer at a biotechnology company. Which means I write documents explaining complex scientific equipment or processes. It’s a different kind of writing from what we’ve been talking about, but it still involves creativity and is very enjoyable.
I also make ceramic tile, which is another area that lets me play with the Mughal, and other Indian, aesthetic. You can see a few samples of my work at Walks in woods and by streams...making fermented foods like bread and dosa and kombucha...identifying birds in their natural environments...long list.

You are clearly multi-talented! What did you read as a child?
About the same as most other children of my age who went to schools wherein English was the medium of instruction...Ladybird Books, Enid Blyton, Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I wish I had read not necessarily more, but better. What you read is at least as important as how much you read.

Why do you think miniatures are no longer a popular style?
Well, a miniature is a very personal art form, meant to be observed closely, enjoyed within a book or portfolio. Also, many miniatures supported or enhanced text in a book. A miniature is not something that easily goes up on a wall for public display and cannot be enjoyed by several people simultaneously. So I guess that automatically limits its popularity. But that doesn’t mean beautiful miniatures are not being painted. For example, you can see the work of the Singh twins at

We have seen some fabulous interactive displays of miniatures in the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. How can we make our museums more visitor-friendly, especially for children?
For sure I’m not a museum exhibit designer, but many museums around the world create displays that keep children captivated. So surely one can learn some lessons from those. Treasure hunts” in which children look for certain objects or aspects of objects within a collection would be useful.

We loved reading your book, because you have made the art form and its history accessible for children (and some grown-ups too!). How can we make more of this happen?
From what my publisher (Bipin Shah of Mapin Publications) tells me, the economics get in the way. For Captured in Miniature, the fees charged by each museum (in the West) for allowing reproduction were very steep. Considering that the paintings are the patrimony of India and the Indian museums provided rights for little or zero charge! Print runs in general, Bipin says, are small and initial costs high. But recently I read that the ‘young adult’ segment of the book publishing industry is looking up, so maybe things will get better!

Lastly, we want more books like these and hope there are some in the pipeline! Please say there are!
There are book projects in the works, and although not exclusive to children, they promise to be informative and entertaining for young audiences too. A guidebook to Old Goa, the capital of Portuguese India, is at Other projects are in progress. So keep checking

Thanks very much Suhag for your time, it has been a pleasure speaking to you! 

(Also thanks to Sandhya for putting me in touch with the author of this wonderful book).

Magic Mirror Books

The Tomb of Time (Magic Mirror series: Book 3)
Luther Tsai and Nury Vittachi
Scholastic India
Ages 8+

The Magic Mirror books have been co-authored by Nury Vittachi. That was reason enough for me to order these books, having read his delightful book The Day it Rained Letters a couple of years ago. The Magic Mirror series is a set of five books based on Asian history; books 3 and 4 are set in ancient China.

Around the time Emperor Ashoka had forty-feet high pillars carved with his inscriptions and erected across his empire, far away in China, there was another Emperor having a mountain made and a city built that he would fill with life-size terracotta soldiers. In The Tomb of Time, we join Marko and Miranda Lee as they travel to ancient China with the magic mirror and land in the Necropolis - the City of the Dead.

Right from page one, it is evident that something is brewing. Mira and Marko are at home by themselves – their parents are away. Their grandfather, a historian, has disappeared. All they have is a cryptic clue from him and instructions to get to 210, the Necropolis and bring back a wooden box. The siblings crack the puzzle and with the help of the magic mirror, head to the mysterious destination. 

They find themselves in 210 BC. Around them are men hard at work, building the Necropolis. The clay people are being carved – there are separate departments for making the limbs, torsos and faces. Within each group, there are further specializations – standing legs, sitting legs, kneeling legs! While the people are not real, the weapons are razor-sharp.

Mira and Marko meet chariot-makers, architects and craftsmen in the ancient city. Emperor Qin Shi Huang is feared by everyone. He had started off as a noble king, unifying the lands and people. Soon, he has all the rules rewritten to suit himself – the rules of physics, the law books. After his encounter with a thousand-year-old magician, Emperor Qin is obsessed with gaining immortality. In his quest for the elixir of life he has hundreds of alchemists eliminated. The emperor banishes his older son, the wise and kind Fusu, and makes his younger son the heir. He has a death paper issued to Prince Fusu commanding him to kill himself.

The writing is excellent, especially the dialogue. The tension keeps building up; there is no slackening in the pace. The kids are eventually caught and trapped underground, their magic mirror confiscated. Will they retrieve the wooden box and accomplish the mission? Will they escape the crossbow-wielding ghosts? How will they get out without the magic mirror?

A riveting story and the author’s note says it is all based on fact, even the minutest details. Such a fun way to learn about the past.

The Wall of Willows (Magic Mirror series: Book 4)
Luther Tsai and Nury Vittachi
Scholastic India
Ages 8+

The Wall of Willows begins where Book 3 left off: Pushed to a corner by the emperor, the alchemists make him a potion of mercury. Having ingested it over a prolonged period, Emperor Qin's time is almost up. On his death bed, the emperor decides to revoke the death paper issued to Prince Fusu and reinstate him as heir.

Meanwhile, at Marko and Mira’s school, an inspector has arrived to investigate. The school has performed remarkably well in the exams, arousing suspicions about malpractice. The teachers explain the improvement – a couple of students had been playing a time travel "game” and received “practical lessons” in Asian history from their historian grandfather. The kids had shared their stories with friends and now everyone was infected. The teachers too had woven the theme into art, English and mathematics. Naturally, the results were outstanding.

Marko and Miro are soon off on another adventure. This time their grandfather has entrusted them with the task of delivering the Emperor's letter cancelling the death paper. The kids set off in search of Fusu who is watching over the frontier while the Great Wall is being built. They reach the Great Wall in 210 BC, when it is just earth and stones. We read about the legend of the Lady of the Wall, Meng Jiang Nu. The kids meet the lady herself and listen to her tell the story of the construction of the wall. Meng Jiang Nu joins the kids as they flee from evil Chancellor Zhao. Read the book to find out how they escape from his clutches and how the kids turn their latest adventure into a history lesson.

Book 5, The Shining Scripture, is set in the year 602. Off to read it now.

[Image source]                 

The Poppykettle Papers

The Poppykettle Papers
By Robert Ingpen and Michael lawrence
Illustrated by Robert Ingpen 
Publisher: Trafalgar Square Publishing
Age level: 8+
In the wake of  all the terrific books discussed here these past few days -  books that take us back in time to visit actual historic events and see how people really lived- The Poppykettle Papers  is  definitely an anomaly . It is, after all, a fantasy, tracing the voyage of a fictional tribe of non-humans across the treacherous ocean in search of a new home. It is a story peopled with magically animated dolls, tetchy sea gods, strange sea creatures, talking wind gods –oh, and did I mention the vessel of choice for this odyssey is a little clay pot? Yet, it captures the anxiety and heartbreak of the reluctant immigrant beautifully, and shows us, through the eyes of its little heroes, what it means to lose one's roots and venture out into the unknown in search of new ones. The book also playfully appropriates a slice of Australian history, offering an alternate explanation to the Geelong keys mystery.  Originally published in two parts, The Voyage of the Poppykettle and The Unchosen Land-, the book proved so popular in Australia that locals actually began celebrating the mythical landing of the Hairy Peruvians with an annual festival!  The Poppykettle Papers remains among the best loved books in Australia even today. Sadly, the book is now out of print and one would be immensely lucky to find  a copy in a used book store or library.
The story begins with two young Australian boys finding a stash of old papers on their farm. Astonishingly, the papers turn out to be the account of an epic journey taken by five very unusual travelers. For the Hairy Peruvians aren’t just any tribe – they are the last of a clan of sacrificial Peruvian dolls brought magically to life, and settled on the coast of Peru in a little fishing village. The Hairy Peruvians are tiny (or, as they like to say, “of sensible size”) and remarkably long-lived. And yet they are dying out. For El Nino, the temperamental sea god has been ravaging their home for decades, until the Hairy Peruvians began setting out in groups on flimsy reed boats in search of a new home across the ocean. But none have returned. Bravely, the last five of their tribe set out across the ocean in an earthenware pot (the eponymous poppykettle)  fitted out for the journey, despite a prophecy that states only three of them will reach the shores of the ‘Unchosen Land” (their name for this strange new world they are forced to voyage to).
The narrative is alternately voiced by the five Peruvians – Aloof the Far Sighted, his sister Arnica, Andante the Whistler, Astute the Wise and the ancient patriarch Don Avante. The journey gets complicated almost as soon as it begins – the voyagers discover that they will never find peace in their new home unless they locate a certain feather and egg. These quests lead them frequently into danger, as they encounter adversaries like the wicked wind, the whirling ‘water devil’ , even a creature with blood red eyes living in a volcano. Will they make it to the Unchosen Land after all? What will they find there? And which three are the fortunate ones?

This is a lavishly illustrated book, and Robert Ingpen’s artwork is absolutely  stunning - he brings the Peruvians and their gods alive with his brush strokes. But even without his art, this would still be a riveting book – it is packed with humour and suspense, and the frequent bickering of the five travelers. They may survive the elements and every angry god out there, you think, but will they survive each other? There is tragedy too, but the heart-warming end of the book more than makes up for that. A modern classic, about survival, family, courage against all odds …. and the importance of packing light.

Images courtesy:

Non-fiction: Smart Green Civilizations - green lessons from the past

Smart Green Civilizations - green lessons from the past
Text by Benita Sen
Published by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) press.
Ages 8-12 years

These are a set of 7 books - Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient China, Indus Valley, and Ancient America. There could have been one more - Ancient Australia - which was populated for centuries by the Aborigine people, who have their own distinctive culture.

In each book, Teri, a little girl, gets transported across to one of the ancient civilizations, and is given a guided tour by an iconic person/god associated with that civilization. The reader, along with Teri, gets a peak into how the people then lived, the gods they worshipped, the beliefs they had, the houses they lived in, the food they ate, and the great ideas each civilization has given to the world.

In Ancient Mesopotamia, we learn about the invention of farming, the wheel, the first sailboats, and writing which developed for purposes of business and record-keeping, and the fact that their sexagesimal system (to the base of 60) is still followed today in calculating time.

In Ancient Egypt, we learn how they knew how to harness the life-giving Nile waters for irrigation, the agriculture leading them to riches enough to build a great civilization. We learn about their phenomenal ship-building skills, their proficiency in mathematics that they used so well in building the pyramids, their knowledge of the human body and medicines that was useful in the mummifying techniques, and their pictorial writing - the hieroglyphs.

In Ancient Greece, we learn about the various gods, the Olympics that were dedicated to these gods, the Greek mathematicians, scientists, physicians, astronomers, etc., who still make sense to us, art and architecture - south facing homes that were built to trap the heat in winter, and avoid it in summer. We learn about the large ships they built that were driven by hundreds of slaves, thus giving them control over where they went, and the battles they fought, especially that of Troy.

In Ancient Rome, we learn about the civilization that set the tone for all later civilizations in the western world, about their social structure, their politics (democracy, the senate, the idea of a citizen), their elaborate meals, the grand architecture, the fine arts that borrowed a lot from the Greeks, and the knowledge of medicine and surgery (surgeons used painkillers made from the poppy plant).

In Indus Valley, we learn about the well planned towns and cities with their granaries, wells, baths and drainage systems, their trade relations with Mesopotamia, usage of domesticated animals for travel and for farming, and their as yet undeciphered script.

In Ancient America, we learn about one of the greatest ancient civilizations unknown to the rest of the world until almost 6 centuries ago - the Mayans and Incas. We learn about the various foods that originated there, that were staples - now very familiar to the rest of the world. Corn, chocolate, chillies, tomatoes - we cannot imagine modern food without all of these! We learn about their art, and their architecture, that they created without the use of the wheel - the wheel was found to exist there in recent findings, but was used only in children's toys, and not harnessed for travel or work as in the rest of the world.

In Ancient China, we learn about their social structure that was very strict in its hierarchy, the innovative farming and cuisine, that made excellent use of whatever was locally available, the art of silk making that originated here, and was kept a closely guarded secret for centuries. We learn about the Great Wall and the terracotta army that was buried with an emperor in his tomb, the ancient wisdom and sciences - medicine, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and much more. The Chinese script is like calligraphy, and unlike any other script - each character stands for something, and thousands of characters have to be learned to be able to read and write.

There are many more things we learn about each civilization. But above all, we learn, in the footnotes on each page and on the last page of each book, made from re-cycled paper, how these peoples used natural resources and lived in harmony with nature, using environmentally friendly methods.

An excellent set to introduce a child reader to each of these ancient civilizations, and impart a message on environmentally friendly living.

Images courtesy goodreads.
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