07 July 2018

Ladders in the Sky by Murli Melwani

A gift of his travels

I picked up this book and started reading it as reference material for a research paper on the global Sindhi diaspora. The author is a global Sindhi businessman and I knew, in a patronising sort of way, that I was surely going to learn something interesting. Halfway through the fourth story, when I had to get something else done and it was a wrench to put the book down, I realised that I was in fact reading entranced. These were splendid stories: good plots, lifelike characters, beautifully laid out in clean, distinctive language. What made them even more fascinating was that each one is set in a different, exotic location. Murli Melwani is an inveterate traveller and this collection, as the jacket describes it, is a “gift of his travels”. 15 of the 23 stories are set in different parts of India and in them we encounter separatist movements, landslides, cramped urban spaces, insights into different aspects of religious devotion and various other complex situations in unexpected locales. Murli grew up in Shillong. Between school and college, he travelled a lot and visited different parts of India. Later he worked in the English Department at Sankerdev College, then took up a Coca Cola distributorship and for a while ran a bookstore. In time, he moved to work in Taiwan and his job took him to countries around the world, doing something many Sindhis do.
A little more than half the book features this diaspora, families which originated in Sindh and now live and do business in countries around the world. Water on a Hot Plate is set in Toronto. Hari and Rajni are visiting their son and in this story, they meet an Indian Chinese lady who runs a restaurant there. They converse with her in Mandarin – from their several years in Taiwan; of course they speak to her in Hindi and English too. From the Bollywood music playing in the background, Hari can tell that the India she belonged to was not the India he had left. Resh, their lunch guest, is visiting from Curacao. She speaks Dutch and English and even idiomatic Papiamentu – a Portuguese and Spanish-based Creole language – but not Sindhi.
Writing a Fairy Tale is a gripping love story in which we somehow journey into the rainforests of eco-versatile Chile – and also, unexpectedly, encounter the Arabic aspects of the country too. The Mexican Girlfriend is also a love story, and though set in a home by a lake where migratory birds flock – a real place – has more sinister than exotic twists. Followed by The Bhorwani Marriage, a high-energy satire of Sindhi weddings, including an expose of the business opportunities offered by matchmaking in the diaspora, it appears that Sindhis don’t really do romance. Family comes overwhelmingly first; business and profits are a priority; living comfort is never going to be sacrificed for a lover. 
It’s not that everyone in the community is money-minded. This book takes us beyond that stereotype, with businessmen who are polite, mature and love to read. And the skilled portrayals of many different kinds of relationships reveal the author to be an exceptionally subtle and discerning person himself. Even the businessman in Shiva with a Garland, lonely in his marriage, “had grown sensitive and become aware of many things. He had come to understand the right and wrong of things and the meaning and worth of happiness.”
Still, Murli is not just an observer of humans and their situation, not just a weaver of tales. He is a skilled businessman too and his stories give us practical never-fail tips on selling, exposure to business cycles, and the understanding that large investments, even the most obvious, could turn out to be ruinous.  There are young employers who clone themselves, swiftly learning the trade and soon enough snatching it out from under their employer’s feet to set up as competitors. Some families have members living in other countries: the father ships out goods from a manufacturing location while the sons sell in other parts of the world, creating hugely profitable companies which run around the clock. So while Murli’s Master’s is in English Literature, this book tells all kinds of things he didn’t learn at IIM-A.
I wrote this review for Hindustan Times and it appeared on Saturday 9 Jun 2018 and can be read on the HT site on this link.
Before I wrote it, I emailed Murli Melwani to find out more about him and we had an interesting discussion. One of the emails was about the pseudo Sindhi names that his book has, creative and great fun, as his explanations show, with the personality trait cleverly embedded in the name like erudite clues in a detective game! Murli said:
Phado in Sindhi means someone who throws a spanner in the works in order to negotiate an advantage. No Sindhi would take on a name like that!
Karomuwani: a curse word in Sindhi is “Karo mu thia yi” which figuratively means “you are behaving like a blackguard”. The Hindi “Kaala mou
Kurwani: “kur” in Sindhi means “a lie”; which Sindhi would like to be called a liar even if is one in real life.
Dingowani: dingo has the same connotation as “tera” in Hindi, not straight.
Loliwani: “loli” is a Sindhi paratha; a glutton
Budhwani: “buddhu;” there a bonafide Sindhi name : “Budhrani.” Which an opposite meaning, someone with “buddhi
Gawlani: “gaw”in Sindhi means grass; a man of straw.
Fatwani: comes “phatako” (the Hindi “fataka” or firecracker;) sound and fury signifying nothing.
Bujowani: “bujo” is the Sindhi term for a goad; some people have to be whipped to move their limbs.
Thaparwani: same as the Hindi “thappar”; same type as the last one above
Varyowani: “viaro” is Sindhi for “spaced out”
Charyowano: “charyo” is Sindhi for “mad” 

About a month after the review appeared, I visited Santa Clara, California, to attend the 25th International Sindhi Sammelan and was was able to meet him and his wife Mona, as they live nearby. The book in this photo of Murli and Mona is a collection of the stories which are based in India and it is the first copy the publisher sent to Murli. The dedication reads
My wife Mona
My “lucky charm”
and of course Mona was delighted with the tribute.

24 February 2018

Paiso by Maya Bathija

Well told, but only a small part of the picture

This book is well-structured and engaging, and provides an insight into five Sindhi family businesses. The Harilelas set out in retail and built their fortune in custom tailoring for American soldiers on R&R, turning Hong Kong into a popular global destination for mail-order suits. Merrimac Ventures, real estate giants and urban developers in the US, came about through the sheer bravery and brilliance of the indomitable Romila Motwani. Jet-setting Harish Fabiani grew to extraordinary wealth and fame using his native brilliance, and hobnobs with the likes of Donald Trump. The Lakhi Group is a diamond empire so professionally run and a family life so admirably simple and equal-opportunity that it shines forth in this narrative like a dazzling solitaire. And Jitendra ‘Jitu’ Virwani built his real-estate dominion brick by brick, racing ahead with giant leaps and battling all the way.
Each of these extraordinary stories has elements of some of the characteristic Sindhi ways of doing business: difficult times bravely faced; fearless risk-taking and the ability to move with great swiftness when opportunity is sighted; intensely close and devoted family relationships; the role of women defined by family background (Sindhis are remarkably heterogeneous in this and a range of other important matters); the talent for shoring up against business cycles with real estate; and an impressively large commitment to philanthropy, sometimes vulgarly demanding attention, but often (in fact in more cases than can ever be known) completely anonymous.  However, the book also has disturbingly anachronistic statements like “the Fabiani family has its roots in Pakistan.” (Roots, really? But Pakistan only came into existence in 1947 and that was when the Sindhis were rudely evicted!) 
Sindh has an ancient tradition of trade and mobility and its own range of rich products. Marco Polo wrote of the curiosities of Chin and Machin, and ‘the beautiful products of Hind and Sindh, laden on large ships which sail like mountains with the wings of the wind on the surface of the water.’ In the 1860s, a group of young men set out on the British steamship routes and ventured into trade in ports around the world. The retail chains of these early capitalists, M Dialdas, JT Chanrai, KAJ Chotirmal and others, formed the first Sindhi multinational companies. Inland, the money lenders of Shikarpur had extended their services into a phenomenally secure and sophisticated banking system with bases in South India and a network of agents on the trade routes extending from Central Asia into Russia, China and Japan. 
After Partition, many of the Sindhis forced out of their ancestral homeland with nothing, took to trading as a dignified means of earning an honest living in the places where they settled. Working on low margins, selling the packaging for an extra buck, they interfered with the profits of long-established trade cartels, for which they were resented and bitterly derided as ‘cheats’. 
Most of them had not been to Harvard Business School but they understood that the key to business success is to directly address the customers’ need, and they rebuilt their fortunes by doing precisely that: in garments, construction, education, and in time in every other industry. Partition also swelled the global outposts into communities and there are Sindhi shopkeepers in ports around the world. Many of the 'shopkeepers' grew their businesses with enterprise (and real estate) and are billionaires just as much as the five profiled in Paiso. Many of them retain links with each other, the remarkable phenomenon of a community which lost its roots when evicted from its homeland by Partition – but retains its connection in strong links which encircle the globe.
 There are Sindhi shops across the length and breadth of India too: Coonoor market, so remote in geography and culture, had a Quetta Stores when I was a child. So the phenomenon of Sindhi business is by no means restricted to glamorous billionaires.
Similarly, it is true that traditional Sindhi business families considered education “a waste of time” and that this is by no means the case today. What is less known is that a huge population of Sindhis did hold education to be extremely important. These include the entrepreneurs coming from three and four generations of education who established the Indian multinational companies Onida (Mirchandanis) and Blue Star (Advanis); the global retail giant Landmark Group (Jagtianis); and in the case of Inlaks (Shivdasanis), three generations of Oxbridge education. The Ador Group, another multinational conglomerate, continues with the third and fourth generation of university educated partners who started their business in Sindh 110 years ago. As for Dr NP Tolani of the highly reputed Tolani Shipping, he earned his PhD in 22 months – still a record at Cornell – and returned to Bombay in 1964, intent on taking up a business in which there was as little corruption as possible in India.
There are many more and most, despite strong bonds to their community and their families, and linked by the complex unspoken trauma of Partition, prefer to remain low profile and never flaunt their Sindhiness, perhaps to avoid being tarred with that ‘loud and vulgar’ brush that haunts the Sindhis, doomed as they seem to be to be represented by their flamboyant, attention-seeking brethren. Perhaps this book will help bring them out of the closet.
I wrote the above review for Hindustan Times and it was carried today. You can read it in the newspaper online here but without the line highlighted above which I have just added. It is interesting to see that HT illustrated this review with a photo of Harish Fabiani, one of the billionaires featured in this book, and his wife – who, according to Paiso, he doesn't 'allow' to call him by his name.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 24 Feb 2018. 

24 December 2017

Reaching for the Sky by Urvashi Sahni

The best book I read in 2017

The most important thing I learnt from this book is that women’s education is essential not so much to make India a great country, but to empower a girl to live a fulfilling life, experiencing herself as an autonomous person deserving respect and equal rights.
Reaching for the Sky is the documented history of Prerna, a school in Lucknow, written by its founder. Established in 2003, Prerna’s students are underprivileged girls and part of the book is their story, with their photos and in their voices, and it shows how a school can change a girl’s life. These six girls were among the first to join Prerna, and have articulated their experiences objectively. They are girls who come from homes so poor that some were cleaning others’ homes along with their mothers at age seven. One had a brother who drowned in a pond at the construction site where their mother was working. Some had been forced into sexual intercourse by their own fathers. These and other Prerna girls belong to that enormous population of Indian women whose fathers and husbands exercise almost absolute control over their minds and bodies. So Prerna’s educational goals, Urvashi Sahni writes, in addition to imparting the government-mandated syllabus, include guiding a girl to recognize herself as an equal person and emerge with a sense of control over her life and aspirations for her future, with the confidence and skills to realize them.
One of the instruments described is critical dialogue, a conversation in which a girl describes her life situations and begins the process of understanding the social and political structures that restrict her, empowering herself to deal with them. Another is the use of drama through which a girl may immerse herself in role-model characters learning, for example, to speak loudly, walk tall and hold a steady gaze – things her real-life contexts have taught her not to do.
It turns out that Dr Sahni is an entrepreneur like her father, SP Malhotra of Weikfield, with a group of entities, one funding the other. Her first school, Study Hall Educational Foundation (1986), supported Prerna for its first four years. In 2008 she established DiDi’s, a social enterprise to provide livelihood to mothers, its profits diverted to support the education of their daughters in Prerna.
The part of the book that moved me most was Urvashi’s own story: a brave and gracious exposé of her own gradual liberation from strongly patriarchal, if privileged, situations.  A family tragedy propelled her into social work, and her higher education at Berkeley University imbibed in her the value that the teacher-student relationship must be one of mutual respect, response, acceptance, empathetic understanding and care.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 23 Dec 2017. It can be viewed online about halfway down the page on this link and with this image! 

01 December 2017

Behind Bars by Sunetra Choudhury

Criminal justice in India: perversion, sleaze and corruption

In jail, if you have money you can be comfortable. You can wear expensive clothes, eat whatever you want, and keep personal servants. If you don’t have money, you can still buy favours using your body. And if even that is not possible, prison life will be an unimaginable hell. 
As Indians, we may have been dimly aware of these simple truths, and this book puts them on the table. Sunetra Choudhury got the idea for it when a high-profile prisoner, Anca Verma, contacted her to tell her story. What she learnt was fascinating, and she decided to look for more people like Anca: people so extraordinarily influential that they knew they were never going to get into trouble for telling the truth about what happens inside an Indian jail. While some of the stories are anonymous, most are well known. We are also treated to snippets of information about jail legends such as Charles Sobhraj (apparently he quietly killed off a cellmate to get more jail space for himself.) In clean and engaging language, rich with detail and well-chosen adjectives, the book presents interesting facts about jail food, extraordinarily sincere jail employees as well as corrupt and perverted ones, rituals such as mulakat – and more. Says an un-named prisoner whose imprisonment suddenly and unexpectedly turned his life into a nightmare: “The toilet was full of goo, so much so that when I was lifting my feet off the ground, the black peanut butter lifted off my feet.” Some stories extraordinary, with a fable-like quality: Rajesh Ranjan, alias Pappu Yadav, was apprehended at a young age and found protection through a member of his caste. Over a period of nearly thirty years, he completed his entire education in jail, fell in love and got married. All this while he was building institutions in jail such as the ‘VIP’ ward and gym at Tihar. These days he is a Member of Parliament and his primary occupation is philanthropy.
Prison, this books also shows, can be an opportunity for spiritual cleansing. The Tandoor Murderer has turned to piety. For Peter Mukerjea, it’s like being in a spa: “What can I say? No alcohol, no cigarettes, early to bed, early to rise, exercise for a couple of hours, lots of reading, plenty of time to think, no junk food – all very healthy.” Arushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, were reasonably comfortable in jail because, as doctors, they provided their services to the jail staff and their families. 
Many, like the Talwars, are incarcerated by the scheming of an incompetent force trying to make themselves look good. This is most poignantly portrayed in the case of Wahid Sheikh, a teacher, who quietly reported to the police station every single time he was summoned to prove that he wasn’t a terrorist. Despite all the atrocities committed against him, he continued to obey the law and persist in firmly stating his innocence. He was acquitted after years; many who confessed just to stop the torture were put away for good. One young man confessed after his father was brought in, stripped naked and harassed. Torture in Indian prisons is routinely committed by well-known police officers who have been awarded medals for bravery.
In the Indian justice system, if an official doesn’t like an inmate or hasn’t been paid off by them, they would see that the release papers were not signed or simply disappeared. When someone in the court hurled a shoe, the judge ruled that no prisoner would be brought inside the courtroom with shoes on. Worst of all is that every inmate knows who is innocent and who is guilty of the crime they are accused of.
This book kept me up at night. It made me feel so terrible that I wondered whether life was worth living at all. It made me remember that, less than eighty years ago, Indian prisons were filled with people protesting against British rule. Prison authorities were harsh and dictatorial but never stooped to the ghastly perversions of cruelty this book documents. Prisoners knew their rights and were placidly confident that the law would prevail. What happened, how did things go so badly wrong?
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 1 Dec 2017. It can be viewed online here

16 May 2017

Perhaps Tomorrow by Pooranam Elayathamby with Richard Anderson

A hug for the kaamwali bai

A blurb on the back of this book attempts to lure readers seeking greedy shudders at the horrors of domestic servitude in a barbaric country. There is an underlying promise that we might be gratified to find that we treat our own ‘servants’ in a generous and praiseworthy manner.
Despite the titillating invitation, this book is not merely about how badly Pooranam’s employers treated her. Like the best kind of memoir, it presents more than just a few aspects of a person’s life. The authors of this book weave different narrative strands together, skilfully introducing social, historical and political context, and evocative pictures emerge.
Kommathurai, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, is a Hindu town that follows the social segregation of traditional Hindu casteism. Pooranam herself is of the ‘laundry people’, the middle daughter of five. Life is sweet and beautiful. Then tragedy strikes and her father dies under his bullock-cart, leaving her mother with five little girls and no source of income. A strong and enterprising woman, Kanagamma starts her own business. Part of this is taking eight-year-old Pooranam and seven-year-old Sodi out of school and putting them to work, carrying thirty-kilo sacks of rice from the wholesaler’s village, cooking, drying, re-packing and selling the processed rice from door to door. Neighbours whisper that farm animals get better treatment.
When Pooranam is privileged to capture the attention of the town’s most eligible bachelor and he marries her, the book gives insights into traditional or cultural male entitlement where helping yourself to your wife’s belongings, violence against her, and sexual relationships with other women are considered acceptable. In counterpoint are the quality of dependence and attachment a strong and intelligent woman can experience despite these ignominies.
Set in the jungles of northern Sri Lanka at the height of the LTTE insurgency, this book presents the Tamil side of the story: the marginalization and persecution of a people historically perceived as subordinate. In the jungle camp, we observe how ordinary people suffer in a political battle. Kommathurai is abandoned, then ravaged; Pooranam is left a widow with three children before she turns thirty.
Meanwhile, the housemaid market in the Arabian Gulf, initially restricted to non-idol worshipping monotheists had expanded so much that it was giving ‘religious’ fussing a miss. Pooranam took employment contracts, aiming to convert, as many did, domestic drudgery into cement homes, proper furniture and a future for her children – though this would entail sad years separated from them.
After many adventures, much intense hard work, getting renamed Sandy, learning about different aspects of life in the desert as well as all kinds of new recipes – this beautiful, intelligent, determined, enterprising and hardworking woman has her happily-ever-after. Pooranam marries Dick, an American professor of architecture at Kuwait University. She enters a phase of stability and comfort; he helps her lead her children to a better life, and in time they write this book together. It turns out to be well written and engaging, and Pooranam’s warmth and depth of character shine through. While the contextualisation and odd literary reference appear to be in the voice of the architecture professor, it is surprising that the book is littered with racial stereotyping: Arabs are lazy; Egyptians are stingy; the British are not expected to be arrogant and mean-spirited.
Besides all this, this book could serve as a useful handbook for the Indian Madam. It could inspire us to consider that the wretch who stands between us and the jhadu/pocha/bartan might have left terrible times behind at home her family from starvation. She misses her children terribly. So when she throws the food out because she misunderstood what you said, don’t scream at her in rage. Laugh, give her a hug, and gently explain what you actually meant so that she’s motivated to get it right next time. This is what Pooranam’s Indian employers, the Khans, actually did.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 13 May 2017. It can be viewed online here

20 February 2017

The Silliest Autobiography in the World by PG Bhaskar

The Silliest Review in the World

Finally, a book that really does deserve to go into a time capsule, carefully placed in a steel cylinder and buried deep into the earth to await eager historians from future generations or from outer space. Before this, Bhaskar wrote two books which mysteriously turned out to be both modestly-successful as well as best-selling. Somehow, he remained unknown to billions.  Now he has written a silly autobiography but structured it meticulously. Bhaskar, the son of an LIC ‘odditor’ and himself a fully-qualified chartered accountant, opens with a chapter called 1963, by a fascinating coincidence, the very year in which he was born! The next chapter is 1964, then 1965, then 1966, and all the way up to 2015. Through the life experiences of the unknown Bhaskar, the eager historian of the future will learn how people lived between 1963 and 2015, especially those who lived in Madras, Udupi, Delhi, Bombay, Coimbatore and, erm, Dubai. They will also obtain some mildly useful information about movies, cricket, politics and entertainment. From an anthropological perspective, Bhaskar gives an insight into transitions in his world. To begin with, people would hang onto their toothbrushes, discarding them only after the bristles began to resemble a strip of savannah grassland that had been viciously trampled upon by a herd of stampeding elephants. They would stealthily pocket cutlery from aeroplanes. Then, as the socio-economic environment advanced, they began buying whole sets of crockery which sadly did not last as long as the stolen cutlery. They developed quaint professional rites of passage called ‘mini-offsites’ at which overpaid bank officials engaged with ‘escorts’ and later, exposed on Facebook, bought expensive presents to placate their enraged spouses.
At a personal level, Bhaskar reveals himself as one who, to the great merriment of his friends and classmates, faints. He faints quite often! Let us hope he is not going to faint when he reads this review. Or, perhaps the friends could get together and sell tickets in anticipation.
While this book could emerge winner in a time-capsule competition, it could also gain esteem as entertainment to the present-day reader. I was laughing very loudly, and my husband, lying in bed next to me and waiting for his turn, became increasingly agitated, muttering to himself, “Who is this Bhaskar! Wait till I get my hands on him,” etc.
To be honest, I started cackling away right from the dedication which is really very funny. Towards the end of the book, there is an explanation which I was glad to read, because without it the dedication would have remained a mystery to the future historian unless Bhaskar’s publishers had contrived to also squeeze a few c1980s telephone directories into the capsule to provide context. It occurred to me that the enterprising publishers might also want to introduce footnotes for the puzzled historians wondering why the trend of women taking to the study of economics in droves should be called The ‘Rajan’ Effect. And how come, when the family driver in Udupi was Bhavani Shankar, in Delhi too the family had a driver with the same name! And the ‘household help’ in Chennai was also called Bhavani! Could this be coincidence? Or was Bhavani a generic of Bhaskar’s time? So – footnotes, please, dear publishers.
There are also long passages where the humour lags and verses which strike a wrong note. So, to end, a minor stricture for the author from an almost-fan of somewhat similar vintage and demography:

Bhaskar: your poems are not short or too long
But they’re neither doggerel nor ditty nor song.
Your ‘limericks’ rhyme
And the jokes are just fine
But the metre, dear chap, is all wrong. 
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 18 February 2017. It can be viewed online here.

26 April 2016

With a little help from my friends by Dev Lahiri

Energetic mud-fest

This is the depressing story of a brilliant man who faced many struggles. Though he writes with affection and gratitude of certain people and events, the persecution he describes at different points of his career appears to have dominated his life. His heart condition resulted in numerous dramatic collapses and hospital internments. It is also unfortunate that Dev Lahiri, a Rhodes Scholar and member of the heyday staff of Oxford University Press, has his memoirs strewn with proofreading and design disasters.
This book has 222 pages, of which 66 are devoted to the horrors he faced while trying to bring reforms to The Lawrence School, Lovedale, between 1991 and 2000. Later, at Welham Boys’ School, Dehradun, things went bad for him again. Lahiri describes his victimisation in detail, blithely naming perpetrators and valiantly trying to clear his reputation with an energetic mud-fest.
This review is not concerned with what actually happened, but cannot help observing that the inaccuracy and exaggeration in the book reduces its credibility. Lahiri sneers at a career in marketing, mocking the enthusiastic selling of soap. However, his book exposes him as a master of the glib half-truth. A few examples follow.
He says he gave up his job as a tea planter in a few weeks because: “I just felt uncomfortable dealing with plants. I realized I needed to do something with people.” Hmm! A tea planter’s job requires sound fundamentals of agriculture, but it is in fact through the management of labour in the field and factory that the job gets done and it is actually more about people than plants.
He also claims to have been the first headmaster of Lawrence “to have actually allowed” a girl student to lead the Founders Day Parade. Not true. Rohini Gopalan, a girl student, led the parade in May 1977.
Lahiri writes, “My daughter was followed into the town, her photos taken and morphed. Matters got worse. Anonymous letters started arriving addressed to the student body, accusing me, among other things, of sleeping with the lady teachers and Indrani of sleeping with the men.” But in the 1990s, morphing photos was still only science fiction! Even if we allow that a headmaster might have inadvertently used an anachronism and his daughter had actually felt disgraced by misuse of her photo, by what standard could anonymous letters, however scurrilous, make matters worse?
Lahiri also quotes a report which states that it was he who made Lawrence “one of the most famous schools of the country”. Well: Lawrence School, Lovedale, was founded in 1858. When I joined, in 1971, it had long been recognized as one of the best schools in India.
Every institution has its ups and downs, consequent on the people who lead and manage it. Evaluation and improvement may vary in consistency but they are continuous processes, never the work of just one person.
This memoir is neither a work of literature nor a source of inspiration to coming generations. When slotted as a ‘tell-all exposé ’, it could provoke a careful reader to question whether the author (even if his intentions were blameless) had the emotional strength and stability required to implement reforms effectively.

This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 24 April 2016. It can be viewed online here.

15 April 2016

Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai by Hari Govind Narayan Dubey

A precious but forgotten world

One evening a few days ago, sitting on the warm parapet to enjoy the unique charms of Marine Drive, Mumbai, we noticed two buildings across the road: Firdaus and Ganga Vihar. 
Why would anyone name a Marine Drive art deco building facing the Arabian Sea “Ganga Vihar”? As soon as the thought entered my mind, I realised with a pleasant jolt of surprise that I did know who must have done so. It had to have been Lal Singh and Man Singh, the Rajput brothers who had come to Bombay from Mainpuri District in the erstwhile United Provinces in 1910 or thereabouts, to earn their living.
I heard about Lal Singh and Man Singh from Hari Govind Narayan Dubey in the course of working with him to produce his book Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai.
The book tells the story of his father’s life and work in and around the Mainpuri District in the decades leading up to Independence. Dubey is a skilled storyteller and his book is more than just the life of Pandit Ram Narayan Azad. It is a tribute to the many brave men and women who sacrificed everything they had to their vision of an India where every citizen would lead a life of dignity and personal choices. Their stories have long faded away, and replaced by simplistic icons such as ‘Mahatma' Gandhi and ‘Chacha' Nehru. Revived here, they offer charming tableaux of life in an Indian village and involvement in various aspects of India’s freedom struggle.

Lal Singh and Man Singh found employment with a wealthy Parsi gentleman who owned one of the prominent jewellery stores in Bombay. Dubey told me that the Parsi gentleman lived in a building of his own, Firdaus, on Marine Drive. However, he hesitated in mentioning the name in the book since he, ninety-two years old, felt it was a risk to put into print any information which he could not verify. What was relevant to the story was that it was through them that Pandit Ram Narayan Azad got the opportunity to meet Jinnah. How this was possible forms one of the many charming stories in the book. 
Lal Singh and Man Singh had arrived in Bombay and in course of time, one of them became the cook of the Parsi gentleman and the other his security guard. The gentleman was old and had no heir. He fell ill and came to the end of his days. The registrar was sent for, to ascertain his wishes regarding the disposition of his assets. When the registrar entered his bedroom, the gentleman stared at him intently, raised his arm and pointed at the ceiling. He then collapsed and was found to be dead.
The registrar sent the subordinates who had accompanied him to the higher floor. There, Lal Singh was in the kitchen. They called him down and informed him that his employee was no more – and that he had inherited his entire estate.
When Lal Singh and Man Singh next came to visit their village, they came as wealthy men. Over the years, they contributed considerably to the development of Mainpuri, starting a training school for trade skills as well as separate intermediate colleges for boys and girls. They also constructed a ten-mile road connecting their village, Bhawant, to Mainpuri town – something that the Government of India had neglected to do. These facts are known to Hari Govind Narayan Dubey. However, was it really Lal Singh and Man Singh who named their home Ganga Vihar?

11 April 2016

The Living by Anjali Joseph

Illuminating the beauty of all our lives 

One can usually tell that a book is bad in just a few pages but to tell that a book is good, you do have to read right through to the end. I held my breath as I read this one. Its first few pages held the kind of promise that an eager reader prays will last. 
I enjoyed the book very much, and enjoyed interviewing Anjali Joseph for Hindustan Times. In the course of the interview, which I’ve pasted below, I realised, with growing horror, that I was the longsuffering mother of the person with whom Ms Joseph was accosting young men outside a bakery in the evening, to find out more about ‘haathbhatti’. A coincidence, I promise, but in the interest of full disclosure and all.

Why footwear, why these particular cities?
For me, the impetus to write a novel comes in two forms. The primary one is an image; the secondary is an idea or a question. For Saraswati Park I had an image of a man at a secondhand book stall in Flora Fountain in Mumbai, looking for books with marginal notations just before evening rush hour. And I knew I wanted to write about the daydreaming, book-reading, middle-class Bombay where I’d spent my early years and where my parents and grandparents had lived. For this book I had the image of a man making a pair of chappals. I’ve been wearing Kolhapuris since I was a child. The first pair I had was brought for me by my grandfather from a work trip to Kolhapur when I was three or four. I still wear Kolhapuris all the time, and find them both beautiful and practical, and I knew I wanted to write about the idea of daily work, of craft, and of some of the parts of life with which fiction deals less frequently: routine, habit, and ruptures in both. I also had an image of a woman in Norwich, originally in a place called Lion Wood, which appears in the novel. I realized she worked in a shoe factory, a profession that’s now anachronistic but which used to be one of the main trades in Norwich, where I was living when I started writing this novel.

Could you describe the reader you were writing for?
I don’t really know, but I did want to write a book that plausibly might carry the voices of these two people – the kind of working class people who don’t consider themselves especially interesting and wouldn’t see their lives as the stuff of fiction. I am more interested in those lives than in the apparently exceptional or heroic, and I suppose my larger project is to illuminate the beauty of all of our lives, even (especially?) in their humdrum moments: everyday magic.

Then you’re not writing for a particular reader as some writers say they do?
I don't think about anything other than the writing while I am writing. The reader-writer connection does matter to me – as a reader to begin with, and also as a writer. It's a small miraculous thing, the possibility of connecting with someone you may never meet. It's a real connection.

I enjoyed your poetic translation of Akashvani, any examples I may have missed because I didn’t have the context?
I did use a few bits of Norwich speech, though Claire, the first narrator doesn’t talk in full Norfolk dialect, since she’s grown up in the city. ‘There was weather’, for example, means ‘The weather was bad’. I was also inspired by some of the things I’d seen when growing up in England in the mid and late 1980s: canned Alphabetti Spaghetti, for example, or corner shops. Those things are part of the furniture of the novel.

Did you find your characters changing as you wrote, or did they stay true to your early conception of them?
Arun was initially more sarcastic, less tender, less nagging; Claire’s relationship with her son is something that became much warmer than I’d initially predicated. The process of writing a novel involves getting to know characters: their facades and what’s inside.

Any interesting stories about the research you did to get all this together?
I spent a week in a shoe factory in Norwich, in January a few years ago. The people who worked there were generous with their time and attention and let me watch them work, and chat to them as they did; I found out the things I would rather not make up, like what it feels like when the bells go for breaks, or how the light falls at different times of day; how the shop floor, as it’s called, smells when the roughing machines come on in the morning. I also visited Kolhapur and nearby Miraj twice. Once I met chappal makers, thanks to the kindness of Vinayak Kadam of Adarsh Charmodyog Centre in Kolhapur. Most of the chappal makers work at home so I went around their houses with him and watched them work a little, and talked to them. The second time I visited, I wanted particularly to do two things. One was visit a country liquor bar in the area where the chappal makers live and work, because I knew Arun, the second narrator, had been an alcoholic for many years. The other was to find a small temple in a field that I’d dreamt of his visiting as a child. It was good that I went to Kolhapur because I realized that unlike Bombay it doesn’t have that many country liquor bars; government authorized country liquor is sold by certain people in certain areas, and then illegal, much cheaper and stronger ‘haathbhatti’ is sold as homebrew. A kind young man, a non-drinker himself, helped me find some haathbhatti when I accosted him outside a bakery one evening and asked where the country liquor bars were. He was worried my friend and I would get into trouble so he chivalrously escorted us to buy haathbhatti, then pleaded with me not to make a regular habit of drinking it. And the next day, while we were aimlessly driving around in the morning, we found the temple in the fields, basically as a gift.

I was going to say, ‘hmm why so much sexual activity!’ but also wanted to note my appreciation of your female interpretations of the sexual act.
Sex is a big part of life, isn’t it? For Claire I think it represents a new opening out of her life after a long period of essentially mourning the teenage relationship that resulted in and ended with the birth of her son. For Arun I think it represents one of the few unregimented parts of his life. Everything else – work, marriage, eating, sleeping – is somehow inevitable. He loves his wife; he loves his family. But the randomness of unplanned extra-marital sex creates a rupture in that, and brings both a sense of freedom and sadness and guilt. I’m not sure what to say about a female experience of sex in general. I think for Claire there’s an experimental quality to the relationships she has. In her youth love was simple, but it ended. In her thirties, it’s not so simple for a while, but she also has a few transgresive encounters with a much younger man, her son’s friend, and there are no repercussions from that. That idea, which somehow seems normal for a male character, is something I found interesting. Part of the matter of factness of these characters and the lives they lead, in which time is parceled out in units that they make, is expressed in this experience that at times sex is just sex. At other times, of course, it brings emotions: wonder, surprise, grief.

Sexual acts in the public domain invariably describe men as experiencing mindless enjoyment whereas Claire does seem capable of thought during the process, could that be a feminine statement?
I don't know. Now that you say it I seem to remember Molly Bloom doesn't stop chatting to herself during sex either. Perhaps it is a type of mind, not a gender-based difference?

Amit Chaudhuri gave The Living a rave review in The Guardian and a disgruntled reader wrote in to say that, as your former teacher and mentor, he must be biased?
I was glad and grateful to read the review – it was written by one of my favourite writers. I hadn't asked for it to be written, or tried to influence what it said. Huffington Post wrote about the incident and asked for my response, but I didn't see why I should engage with accusations levied in anonymous emails. In any case, it’s for a reader to flip through the book and decide if it seems to speak to him, or her.

A few years ago, I wrote about Anjali Joseph’s debut novel Saraswati Park in this blog after reading it aloud to my friend Gladys, once a librarian but no longer able to read. We both admired its literary skill, and did not feel the need for more action than it has. This is relevant because critical reviews at the time complained that the reviewer had read on, waiting, but nothing exciting had happened and therefore concluded that this was not a good book. We wondered what these people would have had to say about Jane Austen if they were reading her for the first time, before all the hype, and congratulated ourselves smugly when Saraswati Park went on to win the Betty Trask Prize, the Desmond Eliot Prize – and in time the Vodafone Crossword Prize too.
With The Living, Anjali Joseph has surpassed her skill of saying so very much with so very few words. I look forward to reading it to Gladys – and to hearing about the prizes that come its way!

25 November 2015

Mafia queens of Mumbai by S. Hussain Zaidi

Women leaders of a different kind

This book is a fascinating collection of true-life stories of women gangsters who lived and worked in Bombay. The author, S. Hussain Zaidi, was a crime reporter for decades and some of his books have been made into movies.
Not all the mafia queens in this book have blood on their hands. Jenabai, the elderly Muslim woman who somehow acquired the same name as a thirteenth century (Hindu) Marathi poet, made her biggest and most damaging impact because she was able to influence another powerful gangster with her strategic thinking. Then there was Gangubai, who was lured into prostitution by a young man with whom she eloped and who, instead of marrying her, sold her to a brothel. Gangubai rebelled by first developing a reputation for the highest skills of her trade, and later by rescuing other women from the trap she had fallen into, if she felt they were not cut out for life in the cages of Falkland Road.  She became a public figure, and campaigned for the need for a prostitution belt in all cities.
Some of these female gangsters were drawn to their profession by dire economic circumstances and some enticed into it by exploitative males. Some are symbols of glamour; some admirable for their courage and nimble thinking.
I was lent this book to read by a friend who is a police officer more than a year ago. That turned into a year in which I did not read many books at all. Eventually, I read it aloud to Gladys. It turned out to be a quick read and, though a teeny bit raunchy at times, we both enjoyed it. One problem with reading a book aloud, though, is that the proofing and editing flaws stand out. I may not have noticed the many colloquial expressions and common clichés of Indian newspaper crime-reporting that this book is strewn with if I had just been reading it to myself. Another thing I wondered about was the extent of detail in the book: was it fictionalised or was every setting recreated from what was told to the author in an interview? I tried to contact S. Hussani Zaidi to find out, but was unable to.

11 October 2015

Kharemaster by Vibhavari Shirurkar

A daughter’s view

I’m lucky to have history professors for friends, and one of them sent me this book as an example of what a biography could be. When I started reading, I was compelled by the simple, emotional narrative of an elderly woman writing her memories of her father’s life, an excellent translation from Marathi. By the end of the book, however, I realised that it was the content and the way it was presented that had most impressed me.
Kharemaster was an unusual person for his time because he made sure that all his children got educated. At a time when Hindu girls were ‘married off’ at the age of eight or even younger; a time when for even a boy to complete high school and be ‘matriculate’ was the privilege of very few, he was determined that his daughters would get a university education. When they were little, he worked with them himself, developing their awareness and giving them knowledge about the world. As they grew older, he went to great extents to find ways for them to get the best possible education.
Still, the book is not a hagiography. Kharemaster’s faults and weaknesses, and in one case a rather shocking incident, are presented with the same warmth and confidence as every other aspect the book covers.
Vibhavari Shirurkar was in her eighties when she wrote this book. All her life, she had written books about the women around her, and these naturally revealed the ways in which they were exploited and dehumanised by the norms of society. The books were admired but they were very controversial. Right from the first one, they were written under a pseudonym. Though she did reveal herself early on, perhaps retaining the pseudonym as her brand, this book goes further. It is not just the biography of Kharemaster but also a complete exposition of the identity of the well-known Marathi litterateur Vibhavari Shirurkar: Balutai, one of the daughters of Kharemaster, and the circumstances in which she grew up and became the person she became.
The story starts with Kharemaster’s own writing, notes from his diary given to Balutai by her mother after her father dies. Then, influenced by an old friend of her father, Balutai takes a decision to write the book by projecting her imagination into the events she remembers and trying to interpret them in her own way. This is a device that works very well, except (to my mind) in one place. Towards the end of his life, Balutai depicts her father as lonely and depressed, preoccupied with feelings of rejection. I did feel that this particular projection might have resulted from feelings of guilt and regret this sensitive woman felt for her parents and their needs, and the conflicting pressures of her own life which prevented her from giving them the attention and care they may have craved. Maybe Kharemaster wasn't all that lonely and depressed after all, maybe he spent his last years in the glow of silent achievement, knowing that all his children were well-off and well settled because he had made sure they got well educated.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is the skilled depiction of life in those days, and I learnt a lot: a deeper understanding of the way women were perceived and their own perceptions of themselves; the relevance of caste in society; the human angle of religious conversion, and much more. It was interesting to know that, during the First World War, young Indian men were kidnapped and sent by force to join the British army. It was also interesting to see how the emergence of women as individuals made marriage more difficult because it took an unusual man to accept that perception. Modern and educated young Indian men and women today are rejecting marriage, refusing to enter into a contract that forces them into traditional roles that they cannot and will not fulfil. It was a movement that began with the dedicated actions and sacrifices made by rare people like Kharemaster.

18 May 2015

Hadal by CP Surendran

Underwater exploration

As a piece of contemporary literature, there are many aspects to Hadal. First and most basic, it may be admired for its unwavering plot and its lifelike characters, presented in a manner which keeps the reader engaged. As such, it could easily find its feet in a burgeoning marketplace of newcomer readers whose tastes may be ready to move on from Ravinder Singh and Chetan Bhagat.
Second, as its author, CP Surendran, acknowledges, the book is not pleasingly exotic or prettily clever and correct. It is inspired by a true story: the story of an Indian rocket scientist falsely accused of selling secrets of the Indian space research programme. Also, one of its main characters is a confused, wishy-washy, inappropriate role-model, victim of a woman. For a publishing industry grappling with self-esteem issues since historic times (and one whose decision-makers today are mostly women), it marks a kind of coming-of-age to have let through an important book without a ‘wow!’ theme and with such a character.
Another aspect of Hadal is a fabric of fundamental common-sense backed by a weft of satire. Located in Kerala, it has coconuts, street and pet dogs and a wannabe tourist industry. There is an evil nuclear power plant with a foreign do-gooding activist, who tries but is unable to convince young people that basket-weaving and the idyllic village life is the way forward. Another of Hadal’s main characters is a rocket scientist – what could be sexier than someone who understands everything – and he turns out to be someone with a deep, fundamental instinct for what women want. Ironically, he will only learn, too late, that there are things fathers should never do so that their sons could be happy.
This book shows us that dreams are real – why else does your heart continue to pound at the mere hologram of a few mis-matched memories? Shadowy women characters determinedly express their individuality. Villainous men (men addicted to cough syrup) come undone by their deep love for and dependence on their mothers. A teenager feels complete, and with his well-lived life behind him, is all set to welcome death. An elephant recognizes his mistress eight years after she, having fallen on lean days, had sold him to a temple. While having a gentle dig at the self-righteous mental health professionals of a certain Nordic country where Indian parenting has been considered lacking, Hadal exposes how we, as a people, have yet to come to terms with adoption.
This vigorous and colourful context comes to the reader in short, powerful sentences that conjure up striking portraits and landscapes. Then, all of a sudden, unexpectedly, the territory transforms. Abyss, whirlpool, torrent … dramatic, self-indulgent, exquisitely beautiful … a dancing panorama of sentences unfolds. It turns out that the author of this novel is a poet. He is not just a poet, but an activist too. It turns out that the innermost thrust of this book is not just self-expression. The innermost thrust of this book is to hold Indian democracy – not just Indian democracy but Indian civilization itself – under a spotlight.
What is the fundamental problem we face as a people? With sixty percent of us defecating in the open, could it be, maybe, toilets? Or is it just that old thing we always knew, that the people in charge are irresponsible and crazed, career fascists? Is it that we ourselves are nothing but liars and cheats? Is it just our helplessness against our biology, and sometimes our geography, that makes us all so laughably weak and ridiculous? Are we as different from Pakistan and Nigeria as we would like to believe?
Every writer, as CP Surendran observes in this book, is at the mercy of others’ tastes, beholden to how a million others were brought up, the books they read, the schools they went to, the kind of parents they had. How many in that burgeoning marketplace of newcomer readers, browsing bookshelves or surfing top-ten lists, would connect Hadal with the Greek word Hades, the abode of the dead? How many would know, without consulting google, that Hadal also refers to the deepest trenches under the sea? In these trenches, pressure and density and opacity are extreme. Reading this book, it appears that CP Surendran chose this title with the intention of conveying that, though we tend to delude ourselves that we are a great, open people, maybe we are actually hadal.
first appeared in Outlook magazine issue of 18 May 2015

07 December 2014

Atisa and his time machine (Adventures with Hieun Tsang) by Anu Kumar

History as fun-filled adventure

I read about this book on facebook and immediately ordered a copy. I very much liked the idea of  encountering Hieun Tsang as a real person, even if only an imaginary version. Reading and revelling in the author’s imagery and racy plot, marvelling at Priya Kurian’s very stylish illustrations, wishing I’d had books like this to read as a child, I realised that this was one of a series and it did not tell me how old Atisa was, how and when his time machine was created and a few other things I wanted to know. I sent Anu Kumar a set of questions. I have left her replies just as she wrote them, so that anyone who reads this will get a sense of her writing style. Meanwhile, as I eagerly await the next Atisa book, I've been reading the previous ones and bought copies for younger readers too.

Please tell us about your concept of writing history for children in story form.
I guess it began from a short story in comic form I wrote first. This was about a time traveller, actually called Pedro, who ended up in Akbar's palace in Fatehpur Sikri and impressed him with a telescope that was originally Galileo's. 
When I was introduced to then editor at Puffin, Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, I redeveloped the idea in myriad ways, and thereon was born Atisa and the Seven Wonders.  
It was and remains a mix of fact and fiction and fantasy.  So in the first,  Atisa and the Seven Wonders, the "truths" about the seven ancient wonders are things essentially known about them and the story was built around these.  I used the story of Daedelus and Icarus, the old Greek story when Icarus flies too close to the sun, and the wax on his wings melts, and he drowns tragically.  But since I like happier endings like most people, in this story, Icarus doesn't actually die, his father Daedelus believes this and so he invents this wondrous flying machine.  The machine is stolen by the lonely keeper of the lighthouse at Alexandria (one of the seven ancient wonders) who lands up at Atisa's house somewhere close to us, i.e. Tawang in the northeast.   
It is on this machine that Atisa sets off on his adventure.  But in this book and in the second one, it is his archaeologist mother, Gaea (named after the Greek earth goddess) who usually spurs him to adventure. She is a historian, explorer and archaeologist all rolled up, and is always seeking to solve things left unresolved in the past.  Atisa's father, Gesar, named after a mythical Tibetan king, is on the other hand, an inventor and scientist. Some of the additions to the flying machine have been Gesar's contributions such as the sound catcher - a machine that picks up sounds even from the past; the weather lantern that changes color as an indicator, and then the decoder which is a kind of makeshift translator.  In every successive adventure, he comes up with intriguing inventions that add to the fun of the story. 
I got the idea for the second book, when Atisa goes in search of Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang, from a book that the latter himself wrote or is believed to have written and of which there is an English translation as well (see on Gutenberg). The Chinese monk wrote about constant attempts on his life and how jealous rivals tried often to throw him off track.  Atisa of course makes sure that all is well with Hiuen Tsang and that he returns safely to China.  But there are several hair-raising adventures in the process - in places like yes, Bamiyan, Mathura, Prayag, Nalanda and even Badami. 
The third and latest one is of course set in the time of Chandragupta II of the Guptas. He did wage war against the Sakas in the west but the bit about the Nine Gems is more story than fact, but nevertheless its fascinating story.  And I did want to bring in Lilavati, the astronomer Varahamihira's amazingly brilliant daughter,  and it is with her help, that Atisa gets to the end of this mystery, reveal the evil intentions of all those who'd wish Kalidasa and by extension,  the Gupta empire, harm.  

Who is Atisa?
He is a 14 year old time travelling detective.  I think he will grow up a bit in the next adventures. He loves to travel, knows several languages and always retains a sense of context, despite the many pasts he goes back to :)  He's really fun. In this adventure,  In search of Kalidasa, he is in that phase when he wants to wear his hair a bit longer, like in the manner of the old warriors and is a bit sad when it is over and he knows Lilavati belongs to the past, his past too. But I guess that's all part of it.  
The name actually comes from Atisa Dipankara Srijnana.  My editor and I tossed up various names and she liked this one and its stayed. Atisa Dipankara was a revered Buddhist teacher, from the Pala kingdom (Bengal), of the 11th century CE. Born into royalty, he travelled to Tibet and is responsible in a sense for restoring Buddhism there after its repression. 

Please tell us something about the names you use (Atisa, Bojax, Dos Tum, any others …) and your process of choosing them.
Actually its quite random and initially tough.  For some days before I fix upon a name that is ideal to the character in the story, I experiment with how they sound, how the name would look on a person, hoping for the right mix. With names for the different books set in different pasts, I try to make them fun and sort of local too.  In the Hiuen Tsang book, Bojax, and Dos Tum are essentially Central Asian names, people Hiuen Tsang may have encountered. There were more complex names too but I didn't want to make the reading cumbersome. A name can't be so hard that you can't unroll your tongue from around it. 

How did you get this idea, and what are the main historical themes in the three books you’ve written so far?
I didn't begin with the dream of a series, quite honestly.  With the first book, as I researched about the Seven Wonders, it was real fun, and having an adventure around it was doubly so. It came to me, with all modesty, that it's something that really hasn't been tried before, and even that thought was hard to accept.  
But once Atisa and the Seven Wonders got a few good reviews (in an age when Facebook wasn't the entity it is today) and I had the confidence that I could write, that I was indeed a writer, I realized it could go on, that Atisa could have more adventures. And indeed, for Atisa, its only just begun. 

What are we going to get next?
In the next one, I use an old story related to Marco Polo, the Venetian in Kublai Khan's court.  The Great Khan's daughter is betrothed to the Persian king and it is Marco who is chosen to escort her across the seas - all the way from the South China Sea, down the Sumatra Strait, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea to Persia. But it is in Malabar, where the pearl thieves are a menace that something happens.  You must read to find that out.  

How do you balance fact with fiction in these stories?
I think that varies. In the first two, I did bring in a lot of facts that you find in history books - the Seven Wonders, Hiuen Tsang's travels and the places he visited. In the Kalidasa one, you could say there's more of the fiction element but its true to facts relating to the menace of the Sakas, I also use the story narrated in the 'Devichandragupta', but the rare eclipse, Varahamihira's lost scrolls and Lilavati's telescope - yes, that's all fiction and it was really fun.

03 December 2014

A strange kind of paradise: India through foreign eyes by Sam Miller

Planet India, perhaps

I read this book aloud to my friend Gladys, a little at a time, once a week every Tuesday. We both enjoyed it immensely. It had so much information that it made us feel terribly ignorant, but we forgave Sam Miller because he has a friendly writing style and also made us laugh frequently. 
A strange kind of paradise: India through foreign eyes tells us about India as described by visitors from other countries. Starting with the ancient Greeks, it goes on to St Thomas, Tripitaka (Hiuen Tsang in Indian school textbooks), Alberuni, Ibn Battuta, Babur, John Dryden, William Jones, Hegel, Rudyard Kipling, Madame Blavatsky, Mark Twain, Katherine Mayo, VS Naipaul, Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, and more. In between are interpretations of India from a very large number of lesser-known writers on India, many considered authorities in their time and responsible for creating images in their readers’ minds that would go to consolidate Brand India. Sam Miller quotes many interesting books and offers his own balanced, contemporary interpretations. 
Each chapter is alternated by an ‘intermission’ in which Sam Miller offers his own colourful experiences and observations. Starting out as someone who was not particularly interested in India, Sam Miller marries an Indian, works in India, makes India his home, unexpectedly finds old family ties to India and even hopes to eventually die in India.
Smudgy and often droll images illustrate the book. Another unorthodox feature is the excessive footnotes. They are so many, so detailed and so interesting, that this could be considered two separate books – or at least one book which needs two readings, one for the narrative and another for the footnotes.
I found this book layered with meaning, and strewn with insights: insights into historical events based on the enormous range of sources the author consulted, as well as insights derived from his own personal experiences, mundane to exotic, in India. I learnt here a lot that my school history books never even hinted at, doubtless did not even know. Also, since Sam Miller’s descriptions of others’ descriptions of India alternate with his own personal experiences in India, we learn a lot about him too. 
There were many things I liked about this book: the new things I learnt, the author’s self-deprecating style, his commitment to rejecting any sort of stereotyping about India, and more. What I found most endearing, however, was Sam Miller’s unquestioning patriotic love for India.

19 August 2014

The Legend of Ramulamma by Vithal Rajan

The mid-wife’s tale

My biggest incentive in writing this blog is the opportunity to tell people about low-profile books I come across, that have turned out to be brilliant. With the explosion of new titles and the never-ending escalation of mediocrity, every stack of books offers an element of treasure hunt. I loved this one, and you can click on THIS LINK to read my review of it in Hindustan Times.
I was away when it appeared last week, and found out that it was in print when Vithal Rajan added me on facebook to say “Thank You”. He also mentioned two other books he'd had published this year: Sharmaji Padamshree and The Baiga Princess.
I’m now in the process of reading The Legend of Ramulamma to my friend Gladys. Gladys was a librarian for many years, and before I became one of her readers, it was books that had brought us together. I’ve been happy to find my opinion of this lovely book endorsed by Gladys. There are times when a gentle snore tells me that a book is not holding her attention. With this one, she is on the edge of her seat, listening eagerly as the simple but vivid descriptions transport us to another world; occasionally disappointed when the plot lapses a little, but always appreciative of the grip of the stories and the way they are told.

22 July 2014

Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar

Walls and stories

This review is nearly a year old, and appeared in The Hindu at a time when this blog was being neglected. I enjoyed the book and its lifelike characters. One of the things I could relate to most was that the city in which it is set is sometimes Pune and sometimes Bombay. Neither is named, and the transitions are seamless. The original review appeared here, and the unedited version is below.
This book has two sections. Its narrators, Tanay and Anuja, are brother and sister, and here they present their thoughts and experiences about the events that occurred in their family over a certain period. One day a paying guest arrives. He is different to anyone they have known before and through him they observe new ways of behaving and interacting. Each one establishes, unknown to others in the family, a separate and very intense relationship with him. In the sense of navigating the inner world of an adolescent in the first person, Cobalt Blue may be considered a high-quality ‘coming-of-age’ novel. It also explores the discovery, resulting confusion, and risk-taking activities of homosexual orientation in a hostile environment.
Set in modern times, this book shows us a traditional family and the impact on it of a changing world. People are reading management books, studying information technology, wanting to settle in the United States. Their city is the cultural capital of the state, it has great colleges. To use the word ‘poli’ instead of ‘chapatti’ tells people something about who your ancestors were. The municipal ward’s commissioner is a bigamist; heterosexual live-in relationships are permitted, and if people aren’t precisely proud of these things, at least they know about them.
One of the most striking aspects of this book is the way the family is presented. Despite being a single, tightly-knit and fairly loving unit, each of its members has a life as separate and removed from the others as if there are walls around them. The eldest sibling, Aseem, is a peripheral character. Despite easy compliance with family norms, he is detached and has his own life plans. The two who tell the story are different from each other in interesting ways. Tanay has learned what men do not do: they don’t use face powder, they don’t need mirrors in the rooms where they might change their clothes, on trips they can go behind a tree. The paying guest has made him aware of the mediocrity, the ordinariness of his secure and comfortable life. He is the kind of guy who tells us, “I dropped the towel. I took a long, clear-eyed look at myself. That I was different was nowhere apparent.”Anuja, on the other hand, reminisces, “When I was young, I did not have a doll’s house or any long-legged foreign dolls. I knew vaguely that my friends had dolls and that they dressed them up and played house for hours on end without getting bored.” She rides a motorcycle with her boyfriend sitting behind. Her idea of fun is a strenuous trek to a fort. In a relationship, she is the one who to ‘propose’, she is the one to betray.
The flow of this book is seamless. When the narrative switches, the two voices are impressively distinct. Tanay rambles back and forth, while Anuja’s diary is crisp and ready for publication. He calls the paying guest’s quarters the ‘tower room’ while to her it is the ‘upstairs room’.  It is difficult to evaluate how well the book has been translated, however, without comparing the two versions. We have an Irani ‘hotel’ and soon after that, an Udipi ‘restaurant’. While ‘hotel’ is a usage accepted in Marathi, it’s debatable whether either word is an adequate idiomatic representation in English. Words like ‘kunku’ and ‘shepu bhaji’ have been left un-translated (and placidly, self-assuredly un-italicised). And yet, the word ‘Aho’ with which a traditional Maharashtrian wife would address her husband, or ‘Aika’ with which she might call his attention, are absent. Perhaps “if you’d care to listen” can be considered adequate to convey the respectful, possessive, bashful nuances inherent in these words carry. 
This book could be read in one sitting, over the course of one enjoyable day. However, the impact of its characters and what we learn from them would last quite a while longer.

20 July 2014

Mrs Ali's Road to Happiness by Farahad Zama

Good, better, best

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is here again. The fourth book in this beautiful, gentle series takes us back to the unhurried streets of Vizag, where we meet our old friends from the previous books, and lose ourselves in the enjoyment of observing the complexities of their lives resolving and spinning out new patterns.
Of the four books, this one develops the motif of the cultural diversity of India, and the way in which Indian politicians work to divide the Hindu and Muslim communities, the most. I admired its realistic situations, boldly described.
I’m thinking about what I enjoyed most about this book and not very sure whether it was the straightforward language, the intrinsic theme of approaching life's problems with common sense, or the evocative descriptions of the beliefs and lifestyles of peaceful, mainstream Islam. Farahad Zama’s formula is getting better and better, and I find myself wishing that more and more people will read this book and be influenced by it.