25 December 2009

A Journey within the Self by Deepa Kodikal

A journey that started twenty-six years ago today
This book was written by Deepa Kodikal, a middle-aged woman who lived the ordinary life of a traditional housewife, taking care of her home and husband and bringing up their four daughters.
At 11.30 p.m. on the 24th of December 1983, she had sat up with her third daughter Akshata, a teenager then, listening to Beniamino Gigli on the record player to see in Christmas day. After midnight they went upstairs to their rooms. Deepa suddenly felt impelled by the urge to sit in meditation. It had been fifteen years since she had had last had the experience of deep meditation, but she slipped into it naturally and describes being overcome by a peaceful vibrating buzz. It was the first step in a journey that led her deeper and deeper towards a state of ultimate awareness or spiritual enlightenment, with the primal force awakening and manifesting in her.
In the early hours of Christmas day she suddenly began having strange experiences which she came to recognize as being of a spiritual nature. Years later she would describe them as, “an inseparable mixture of discomfort and helplessness combined with indescribable ecstasy and bliss.”

Is it strange that a woman who had never read scriptures or philosophical treatises or undertaken any rituals or penances or yogic disciples should be blessed thus? Or is it usually such people who quietly have these experiences and carry them, unspoken, on to the hereafter?
Deepa was different, because she kept a diary. This described in detail all that she went through physically and the thoughts that accompanied the sensations. It also helped that her husband Raja had read a great deal about such matters and was able to help Deepa with a context and some understanding of the tremendous experiences she was going through.
She writes, “I was delirious with intoxication, every cell of my body melting into an unbearable though totally joyous ecstasy, when the deep rumbling and by now familiar inner voice again intoned: “This is ‘turyavastha’. You are in ‘turyavastha’. You have merged with the divine! You have become one with the Lord. This is the highest state of exaltation and this will be your permanent state from now…”
And later, “The word ‘turyavastha’ had a sobering effect on Raja as he had read a lot about such matters. He told me to come downstairs and give him breakfast and to be very careful near the cooking gas. He also gave me a few tips on what was to be done if I was totally overcome by the exalted mood. I laughed at him; by that, I mean the divine in me laughed as I was still in that exaltation. I told him he had not yet grasped the extent of my avastha (state) which was very rare as it was accompanied by full control of body and mind.”
Still later: “The path to Godhood is through bliss. To be blissful at every moment and to enjoy bliss without being aware of it and without making an effort, leads one to the eternal bliss. To begin with, one needs to cultivate the habit of being in bliss. Then it becomes totally natural. Without being aware of this minute bliss, the eternal bliss eludes you. Because this minute bliss and the eternal bliss are one and the same. One originates from the other, and one leads to the other. Just as by knowing the alphabet, one knows all the words, so also, only by comprehending this minute bliss, can one comprehend the eternal bliss.”
The book also gives a theoretical context to Deepa’s experiences with explanations of various concepts such as five divine qualities, the different states of consciousness, Nirvikalpa, Vishwarupa, Avatar, layers of the mind, Ananda and so on.
She writes, quoting her own experience, “I am the ‘nirvana’. ‘Nirvana’ is not an object one picks up nor a place one reaches. It is only the Real Self shining forth in its glory in a state of total uncover. The natural state of Self in ‘nirvana’, in ‘moksha’, ‘freedom, liberation! The original state of man is ‘nirvana’ till he covers it with the binding and harrowing mind, complete with ego, emotions, and thoughts. An individual should endeavour towards this recognition and this experience.”
A Journey within the Self also says clearly that in her experience, there is no end to this evolution and it continues endlessly.
She was not keen on having her diary published, but Raja, himself a seeker and convinced that it would make an invaluable reference guide to others on the path, was able to persuade her.

I received the book for review soon after it was published in 1992 and was fascinated by what I read.

Burning with curiosity, I made an appointment to see Deepa. I don’t know what I expected – some kind of wild-eyed mystic perhaps – and was surprised to find a relaxed, smiling and completely normal person. She had cooked lunch and it was delicious. We became friends.

Many years later when Deepa asked me to edit her new book for her, her personal experience of the nature of existence, I said yes immediately without realizing how lucky I was. I read the manuscript over and over and it changed my life.
But more about that another time.

24 December 2009

Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala

Part personal diary, part research thesis
Minal Hajratwala spent seven years travelling around the world researching this book, and interviewed 75 members of her extended family. Through their story we learn about the different paths traced by the Indian diaspora. Visiting different continents during different time periods, she shares insights not just of the immigrant experience but also of the different social and economic situations they faced.
I found this book easy to read, enjoyable, and filled with interesting information about Indians in many countries around the world. I reviewed this book for Open Magazine and you can read what I wrote here.
This is a book I’ll be sure to recommend to my many friends with strong Indian roots thought their ancestors migrated generations ago.

07 December 2009

Burma to Japan with Azad Hind by Ramesh S. Benegal

A familiar face in an unexpected place
I had a very interesting experience while reading this book.
I’d received it some weeks ago and, flipping through it felt it deserved a wider readership. It hadn’t come to me through one of my regular channels (Sunday Mid-day, various publishers or my regular book-shopping sprees) but had been sent by Joseph Thomas to whom I’m connected through an old-school tie. We’ve never met but are good friends. He’d served under Air Commodore Ramesh S. Benegal, MVC, AVSM whom he described as “one of my heroes. Outstanding flier, thorough gentleman.” I suggested to my editor at Sunday Mid-day that I would write about this book for the 6 December issue and she agreed, and I did … you can read more about the contents of the book in what I wrote here.

The odd experience I had was that, right on page 6, I unexpectedly recognized someone who happened to be a main character in the first section of the book! Naturally that made it much more interesting to me.
This was the author’s uncle, Tirkannad Sunder Rao, and his two sons, one of whom had been married to my father’s sister.
When I knew Mr. Rao senior he was elderly and bedridden. I don’t remember ever hearing him speak. But I do remember being, as a child, always impressed with the kindness and devotion with which my aunt nursed and tended him.
Reading about the adventures of his young days and the bravery and generosity he had faced them with, I wished I had paid him more attention - perhaps had a conversation, or in some way shown affection or respect.
So for me, the book was not just a few hours of vicarious adventure to enjoy but also something of a lesson in how to live.

04 December 2009

Five Queen's Road by Sorayya Khan

The Englishman, the Hindoo and the Mohammedan
I tend to leap eagerly on books like this, hoping to learn from them something about the land of my ancestors which the Partition of India and Pakistan lost my family forever.
It did give some information, and I did enjoy parts but ...
More about the story and what I thought in my Sunday Mid-day review on 22 November

30 November 2009

To the last bullet by Vinita Kamte & Vinita Deshmukh

Tragic end of a real-life hero
Ashok Kamte was one of the many who were shot down and killed during the terror attacks in Bombay last year.
But his is an extraordinary story. An exceptionally gifted child from a privileged and cultured family, his decision to join the Indian Police Services arose from a true vocation and a straightforward dedication to a safe and disciplined nation. When he died in the prime of his life, India lost a rare and precious person.

My friend the journalist-activist Vinita Deshmukh was writing the book for Mrs. Kamte, and I was privileged to hear this story in person from the two of them.
When Vinita Kamte spoke, soft, calm and objective, I often felt myself close to tears. You may get an idea of how I felt if you watch here what this brave and lovely woman said at the launch of the book.
Her objective in writing the book was not just as a tribute to her dead husband but also particularly to remove the misconceptions and mystery surrounding his death. Along with the shock and tragedy of losing her husband, she also had to cope with the gossip and conjecture of one billion people who were jabbering away, “Why on earth were three senior police officers travelling together in a jeep that day? What on earth was Ashok Kamte doing out of his jurisdiction? How on earth could they have been so ill-prepared?” and so on.
Anyone who knew Ashok Kamte would know that he never did anything without a perfectly good reason. He was a man of order and discipline, and with the highest standards. He would always, always be prepared for any and every contingency!
So Vinita, with the help of her twin sister Revati, started looking for the answers to these questions. To their great surprise, they did not receive answers. Instead, obstructions were put in their way. They had to file dozens of RTI applications for the simplest information. They even had to file 3 RTIs just to get the post-mortem report of Ashok Kamte, surely the prerogative of any widow whose husband is killed on duty?
This book is the story of Ashok Kamte’s life and of the circumstances behind its death. It does no credit to the Bombay police force but Mrs. Kamte is firm that she in no way means to demean it. The force was her husband’s life; he knew and understood all that was good and bad about it. In the end he gave his life in the line of duty.
The stereotypical Indian policeman is lazy, corrupt and invariably a pervert too. But Ashok Kamte was well known for being spotlessly clean, brave, incorruptible and contemptuous of those in power, no matter how powerful, who exploited and contaminated the system. When I casually asked friends on the force, I heard nothing but the most respectful praise for the man, and deep regret that he was no more.

This book is bound to give rise to controversy. But if it also leads to more transparency and reform, Ashok Kamte would not have died in vain.

29 November 2009

A Dead Hand by Paul Theroux

An Old Hand
Much to my disgrace, I had never read a book by Paul Theroux before this one. I had bought a copy of Riding the Iron Rooster (by train through China) years ago and when I received this one from Sunday Mid-day, it stared down at me from the bookshelf, even more reproachful than before. I read bits but it was far too interesting (and thick) to read in a hurry.

I found the style of the books very different from each other – not surprising since they were written more than twenty years apart. Besides, Rooster is a straightforward travel book whereas Dead Hand is a travel book in disguise – rather a sad disguise actually – as a crime novel.

Rooster was full of fun and I liked what Theroux said about Paris: “The centre is a masterpiece of preservation, but the suburbs such as this one are simple and awful. The brutal pavements and high windows of St. Jacques seemed designed to encourage suicide.” Of course this is true of most cities – even of Bombay if you remove the word “masterpiece”.
In Rooster, Theroux was travelling in a tour group and wrote, “It was extremely hard for me to appear to be a quiet, modest, incurious person. These people seemed to be illiterate, which was a virtue, because they didn’t know me.”
I was overwhelmed by the vanity of the statement till I it struck me that it’s probably better to be frank and honest than falsely modest. (Is that a poem? Ah, so there, perhaps I have more talent than is generally suspected.) My Sunday Mid-day review of A Dead Hand appeared today, and here's what it said:

I jumped into this book with eager anticipation, having just enjoyed Bishwanath Ghosh’s Chai Chai, in which he mentions that he values his copy of The Great Railway Bazar signed by Theroux about as much as he would a copy of the Bible signed by God.
So I was horribly disappointed to find this book – though a brilliant travelogue strewn with precise but poetic descriptions – a complete disaster as a crime novel. It’s only the language, and to some extent the flow of narrative, that holds attention. The actual events are limp and though the characters are vivid, the relationships between them are awkward and the plot hangs clumsy.
This is a book that shows how easy it is to commit crimes and get away with them in India. It has two dead hands, one belonging to the unfortunate writer who tells us his story. He has not been able to write anything for ages until one day, listless in his hotel in Calcutta (the perfect place to feel like a failure; a place where the air reminded him of the times he’d emptied a vacuum cleaner bag), he receives a letter from a Mrs. Unger which draws him into the events which result in this novel.
Mrs. Unger is a matronly American do-gooder with a put-on British accent. Our hero claims to have wooed enough women in the past to know that only a woman’s trust – and hope – led to sex, but he’s soon madly in love with her. Tantric massage happens (this is India, after all) and, to cut a rather tedious story short, this book is presently pitted against Philip Roth’s The Humbling for the annual Bad Sex Awards. Unless Roth came up with something better than “the sacred spot on her lotus flower” and “my wand of light”, it gets my vote.
It’s only half way through the book that we learn that the narrator is not Theroux himself, when Theroux suddenly appears as a character and is cleverly sneered at as “the sort of writer who smiled and encouraged you to chatter and afterwards wrote a pitiless account of the conversation, playing up his knowingness. He was not cruel but he was unsparing.”
What I did enjoy about the book were the un-cruel and unsparing descriptions of India.
Unmarried women are like schoolgirls, in their good humour and with their restrictions; certain of the men, no matter how accomplished and successful, remain like big hairy boys, ungrateful and tantrum-prone and spoiled; a hijra is a fierce she-man. 
The mission in our blame-shifting society is to win at any cost and to be blameless, and the simplest way is to rubbish the underlings. 
All of India is a work in progress. (Do I mean progress? Never mind).
The ability to provide baksheesh is the principal determiner of a person’s worth in India.
What upset me was the slipping idiom. A privileged Indian might certainly say something like, “We are so materialistical”. However, a less-educated one would never ask, “Have you breakfasted?” (It’s “Have you taken break-fast?”) Or, for that matter, “I am having a brace of complaints about you – giving a nuisance in the night”: almost there, but “brace”? No!

Theroux knows India so well – surely he has friends who could help with stuff like this.

27 November 2009

The girl who kicked the hornets' nest by Stieg Larsson

The girl who didn't get what she should have
How lucky I am to have received this wonderful book just before I left for Sweden! Besides enjoying it immensely, I also learned something from it about social activism and Swedish life and culture while I was there. Better still, I had people there mighty impressed with me for knowing something about this local book. (And, characteristic of the Swedes, they did not swell up in pride or ask boastfully whether I had also enjoyed Henning Mankell, the other ultra-famous crime writer their nation has produced).
Now I tend to be a bit of a Swedophile, so it did surprise and rather alarm me to learn that Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s partner of 30 years (or was that 20?) was not going to inherit anything of the £20 million and more worth royalties the books would bring in. Larsson had been largely unknown – except locally for his exposé journalism – before he died. By Swedish inheritance law, the booty all goes to the author’s father and brother, and guess who isn’t sharing.
You can read about the Let’s Give Eva Something cause
If you'd like to read my Sunday Mid-day review of 15 November, it's here.

17 November 2009

Excerpts from the memoirs of N.M. Kamte, Bombay state's first Indian Inspector General of Police

A hero in his time
N.M. Kamte was Bombay (now Maharashtra) State’s first Indian Inspector General of Police, and a few days short of being the first in the country.
His memoirs are written in a wry, humorous style, reflecting the language and values of the time. They show him as fiercely proud, intolerant of nonsense (no matter who it comes from), fearless, of exceptional intellectual and operational ability and keenly conscious of detail.
I found it a fascinating account of life for a policeman during the last 25 years of British rule in India, outlining the very different law-and-order situations of the time as well as the particular emotional dilemma of an Indian working for the British government during the struggle for Independence.
Rather than writing a review of this exceptional book, I am giving here a summary of some of its important points, and reproducing certain particularly fascinating paragraphs which I felt were best told in his own voice.
N.M. Kamte joined the Indian Police in 1923 when he was 23. Under the then British regime he served as ASP and DSP in all Divisions of the old Bombay Presidency (except Sindh); as Deputy Commissioner in most branches of the Bombay City Police, and as DIG, Northern Range and CID. He was deputed to the Government of India as Deputy Controller-General of Civil Supplies, and undertook study tours to the U.K., USA and Europe. After retirement at 55, he enjoyed a successful career in business. Through all this, he continued to uphold not just his personal quest for excellence in all that he did but also family rituals, beliefs and traditions, remaining devoted to Lord Pandurang at Pandharpur. Life for officers like him who were duty-conscious, disciplinarian, hard task-masters and long reared in British service tradition, was grim. Indians working in government faced racial disdain from some but they learnt discipline and even-handedness from others. In spite of the discrimination, they remained loyal and dutiful.
As a student, N.M. Kamte managed to create the record of being confirmed just two and a half months after graduating from the Police Training School and scarcely a year after first reporting on duty though confirmation normally occurred after two years.
Of his days in the PTS he writes: In the early 1920s, the Civil Services in India recruited a number of British ex-Officers who had been demobilized after the recently concluded Great War; these were relatively senior in age. Of those recruited at the normal age, the 1923 batch consisted of four Indians and four Britons.
As in the Indian Civil Service, so in the Indian Police, Indians still formed a small minority, and we could not help feeling ourselves to be to some extent “on trial”; indeed, two or three Indian officers had recently been removed from service, presumably as “unsatisfactory” or “unreliable.” There was moreover a clear discrimination against us as in the matter of the daily P.T.; British ex-Army trainees were automatically exempted from this whereas I, who had acquired considerable experience of P.T. during my military training, to say nothing of the Honorary Commission I had held in the Indian Territorial Force, was refused exemption.
Our day at the P.T.S. began at 6.30 with a three-mile run, followed by a course of hurdles, and then some strenuous P.T. The physical strain tired some of my colleagues so much that they could not even keep step while marching. For my part, I was determined to go through to the end without a murmur; I was ready to fall dead on the parade ground rather than utter a complaint. The policy, obviously, was to toughen us; and I approved of it.

He then writes of his reputation as a bit of a prig who had come from College with some high-flown ideas of “temperance,” and how he changed his ways: Tuesday were Guest Nights, when the cost of drinks was shared by all equally, and the proceedings used to be further enlivened by boxing bouts. Some of my colleagues felt that I, who had no experience of the manly art, should be taught to box. The result was that at the Wednesday morning parades of swollen noses and black eyes before the Civil Surgeon, no nose was more swollen, nor eye more black, than mine. This sort of thing, I decided, must be stopped. And at last I hit on a plan for stopping it.

“Since you’ve been so kind as to teach me boxing,” I told my instructor on the next Guest Night, “I would like to repay it by teaching you our Indian wrestling.” I was not adept at this sport, but I knew something of it, and felt confident of being able to teach my “persecutors” a lesson in more ways than one. I picked on Bert Caffin for a start, and he agreed to wrestle with me. The chap knew nothing about the game, and I quickly threw him and sat on him, whereupon I began to hammer him fairly hard. Bert’s fellow Britons started to object to this, but I told them not to interfere. “This is the only way to learn wrestling,” I assured them. “Nobody interfered when you were teaching me boxing so painfully, so now you just keep away.” My scheme worked, and from that time there were no more boxing lessons for me. Any strain that might have crept into our mutual relations was relaxed when I began to take drinks with the others.

Working in the Bombay Presidency required skill in many languages. On graduating from the academy, Kamte was posted to Kaira in Gujarat. He says: I went to Ahmedabad without having passed the Gujarati Language examination, but I quickly learned to speak and follow Gujarati well as a result of attending dramas at night with Mr. Dhirubhai Desai, Deputy Superintendent of Police, who used to tell me the meaning of any word in the drama that I couldn’t understand. While attending these dramas, it was quite natural for me also to do night rounds, and this recommended me to my Superintendent as a keen and energetic young officer. The ability to interrogate suspects and witnesses in their own tongue greatly helped me in my investigations.

Along with native languages, it was also important to be well versed in all that the British understood by the expression “etiquette”!
The District Superintendent at Kaira was Mr. W.L. K. Herapath, a fine gentleman and a bachelor, whose sister kept house for him. He at once took me to the Ahmedabad Gymkhana, introduced me to the members present, and proposed my name for membership.
Miss Herapath was very kind to my wife, initiated her into all the mysteries of social etiquette (British style) and taught her all that a Service wife was supposed to know. (This included, of course, the oft-ridiculed little “Not at Home” box for receiving calling cards, which was put up at the outer gate). As a newly-married couple, my wife and I were expected to receive calls from those already in residence at the Station, after which we should return them.

In Ahmedabad Kamte also learned what it meant to belong to a Covenanted Service: I happened to write a Personal letter to the Inspector-General of Police, Sir Francis Griffith, whom I had known since before my father’s death. I received a reply, but Sir Francis evidently wrote separately to my DSP, because Mr. Herapath sent for me and asked me whether I had written to the IG. When I said Yes, he asked how I had begun and ended the letter. I told him, “Dear Sir” and “Yours obediently”.
Then the lecture began. “Look here, Kamte, I’ve received a letter from the IG saying that I’m not training my young ASP. Just remember you belong to one of the Secretary of State’s Services, and when you write to any other officer of those Services, you start “Dear Mr.-“ or if he’s a Knight, “Dear Sir-“ using his Christian name. And you end with “Yours sincerely” or at the most “Yours faithfully.” Understand?”
On another occasion Kamte was reprimanded, You seem to have forgotten that you belong to a great Service in which we are all socially equal!

Rural crime in the 1920s meant fighting gangs of dacoits. Some of these were tribes classified as criminal, and every boy who reached the age of eighteen was required to report to the police for daily “hajeri“ at 10 p.m. The man could not leave the village at night without the Police Patel’s written permission. Kamte writes of the reforms he observed by the SP Ziauddin Ahmed who succeeded an Irish SP, to correct this highly unfair and discriminatory practice.
Transferred to Sholapur District as ASP in charge of the Pandharpur sub-division in 1927, he found himself in a hotbed of potential labour and communal trouble, with a large population of the minority community, a railway headquarters and four big cotton mills. Moreover, the District bordered, and was partly surrounded by, the dominions of HED the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Able to worship at the shrine of Lord Vithoba unlike the other police officers, who were British, he was soon able to break the nexus of greedy priests who kept the local police force happy with their “hapta” and had been extorting money from the poor pilgrim for years.

Faced with an extremely dangerous criminal who had been captured and escaped and tracked down after much effort and stealth, his instructions were, “Shoot to kill; and afterwards plead Self Defence.” As soon as my party came face to face with Tatya Padalkar, they faithfully carried out my orders. Thus ended the career of a notorious dacoit who had spread violence, robbery, death and the fear of death all around him, wherever he went.

His next posting was as officiating SP, Sattara – with immediate effect. He wasn’t even given time to go home and pack. An uncle, following with his luggage, committed a traffic offence: Just inside the city limits, he halted the lorry opposite a restaurant and went in to take refreshments. This was on a busy thoroughfare, where parking was not allowed. The constable on traffic duty, unaware of whose luggage was involved, objected to the lorry’s presence. His questioning annoyed my uncle, who refused to answer, pushed the man in uniform aside, and drove on to my bungalow. The constable reported the affair at the Head-quarter Police Station, and an offence was registered.
When the ownership of the lorry’s contents was discovered, the Police came to me and apologized, assuring me that no further action would be taken. But to their surprise I refused the offer. “My uncle has committed an offence,” I said, “and you must prosecute him.” Much put out by my decision, my uncle requested me to drop the case, but without success. On returning to Poona, he persuaded his sister, my mother, to write to me and make me change my mind. In reply to her letter I explained my position. “As DSP I must not show any partiality or discrimination between one offender and another; however, do not worry about Mamaji, because it is not a serious case.” My uncle was accordingly prosecuted and sentenced to a fine of Rs. 25 (which I paid from my own pocket). This incident enhanced my prestige among my Police force, who now realized that I was a strict officer and would spare no offender, whoever he might be.

Another interesting incident occurred in Mahableshwar, where Kamte was put in charge of the traffic arrangements during the busy Summer Season.
Going for a walk one day, I met a car being driven considerably faster than was permitted. I stopped it and told the driver – a European – that he was going to fast. “Do you know who I am?” he asked me in some irritation. “I am Mr. Green, Secretary to Government, PWD.”
“Do you know who I am? I replied. “I am the DSP, Sattara. And I must warn you not to drive fast again; otherwise action will be taken against you for a traffic offence, and you may even lose your license for driving in Mahableshwar.” Highly annoyed at my “interference”, he drove away.
Appreciating that I had clashed with a very senior official, I sent him a polite personal letter about the incident. His response was, “Looking to our relative positions, your letter is rude and not in order.” Again I wrote, referring him to the Motor Vehicle Act and Rules, which, I pointed out, contained no mention of “relative positions”, and warned him that in case of a repetition of his offence, his license would be cancelled. Mr Green then wrote to my IG complaining of the whole affair; but nothing came of it.

Ego clashes with British officers were not uncommon, but being always uniformly correct and polite, Kamte was able to preserve the law and his own dignity. During the Summer Season mentioned above, he was even able to convert a white Police Sergeant who refrained from saluting him, the DSP, until he saluted not only me but my Deputy as well; moreover, he now stood to attention, as he had never done previously, before my Sub-Inspector Rao Saheb B.L. Khedkar, who was officially his senior.

In 1929, Kamte was posted to Belgaum, a hot-bed of crime. Murders and dacoities were everyday occurrences.
One such crime that I investigated originated in Bail-hongal, a village in which certain powerful persons competed with each other in the number of women they kept. For a woman to exchange one man’s protection for another’s, would set off a bloody fight which might even end in murder. In the case I followed up here, one of the kept women had died, and as her body was being burned, one man threw his rival on to the blazing pyre, so that he was burned alive.

With the launch of the Quit India movement in 1930, a new and particularly poignant struggle began: At this point, I would like to pause and invite the reader to reflect for a moment on the extremely difficult and embarrassing position in which Indian employees of a colonial government, from Ministers to humble orderlies and constables, found themselves in those days. Their natural patriotism as Indians, often aggravated by examples of white-skinned arrogance, was inevitably at war with their age-old traditions of loyalty to the authority which recruited and paid them, as well as with their sincere admiration for British efficiency and their realization of the many benefits accruing to India from the Pax Britannica. For a few individuals, patriotism proved too strong to be resisted; but by far the greater number of Indians who served the British Crown remained “true to their salt”, while at the same time exercising more gentleness, patience, tact and understanding than all save a few Britons would have shown in their place. It was men of this sort, who could honourably, faithfully and humanely reconcile their divided loyalties, who proved themselves the most reliable instruments in the hand of an India which at last achieved Independence.

On 4 May 1929, the Viceroy (“in his wisdom”) arrested Mahatma Gandhi, and within forty-eight hours the whole of India was aflame.
On 6 May, Kamte had been at Pandharpur dealing with the case of an old woman shopkeeper near the big temple who had obstinately refused to close her shop during a hartal which others had observed. A resentful crowd had looted her shop and run off. Visiting the place, Kamte had sent for the local Congress workers and asked them, “You fools! Is this what Mahatma Gandhi teaches you – to rob an innocent old woman?” They returned the amount the woman had lost and the matter was settled amicably. Meanwhile, riots had broken out in Sholapur. Two policemen were burned to death. Arriving back, he was astonished to find a white-capped Congressman directing the traffic! If that wasn’t enough, a “white-cap” was sitting in his chair, another in the DSP’s chair and one even holding a police rifle and guarding the Treasury.
Controlling this situation took enormous courage, and Kamte describes how he talked reasonably to the Congress leaders, defused inflammatory situations and brought the situation back to normalcy.
Hectic days followed. The eyes of all India were on our Sholapur. Cipher telegrams (whose purport was often known in the bazaar before they were laboriously deciphered by me) arrived for the DSP from all quarters, from the Viceroy downwards, and all these I acknowledged, answered or acted upon on my superior’s behalf.
Various stressful events took place, but Kamte’s ever-present sense of humour has him describe some amusing ones too: Another time, the military court prosecuted a man for “resisting and evading arrest.” I tried to explain to the President of the court that such a charge was faulty, since it was not possible for a man at the same time to “resist” and also “evade” arrest. The point was perhaps too subtle for the gallant Judge at first, and he showed his displeasure at my venturing to correct him. Later, however, he must have understood my criticism for he quietly reduced the charge to simply “evading arrest.”

Now taking charge of the Panch Mahals District during the Civil Disobedience Movement, Kamte often had to trace Congress “workers” whom the Government wished to arrest but had gone “underground”. Warrants would be “served” and if the person did not surrender within the stipulated period, the court was entitled to confiscate his property. One who they were trying vainly to trace was a certain Wamanrao Mukadam, but Kamte received a personal request from Col. Parab, who was Khazgi Karbhari to H.H. the Maharaja of Baroda, and a personal acquaintance, that Mr. Mukadam’s property should not be confiscated. Kamte promptly suggested that Mr. Mukadam should meet him to discuss the matter – and he did. Kamte promptly requested Mukadam not to create any trouble. Mukadam promised to honour the request and was even able to give him some assistance in a particularly interesting incident, a small indication of how little the press has changed from that day to this:
There came a day when Miss Hamida Tyabji, granddaughter of the grand old Mr. Badrudding Tyabji, announced in the Press that she intended to address a public meeting in one of the principal squares of Godhra (the Headquarter town of our District). I at once requested Mr. Mukadam confidentially to do me the favour of arranging that nobody should turn up at the announced meeting.
When Miss Tyabji arrived at the time fixed, she saw scarcely a soul there except me and my force of Police. Greatly surprised, she waited for half an hour, after which I approached her and suggested that since the planned meeting had fallen flat, she might as well return to Baroda whence she had come. She said she would not go, and asked to be arrested. I replied that I would escort her from the spot, which she might consider, if she liked, as equivalent to an arrest. “Oh, but you must handcuff me,” she insisted, but I said this would not be necessary and that I would see that she did not escape.
I took her to my bungalow and ordered tea for both of us. She showed considerable annoyance and vowed that she would not drink tea with me. So I assured her that it was not “Government” tea, but came from my own private store. “Surely,” I urged, “you won’t object to accepting my personal hospitality?” Then she consented to drink the tea.
“I’m sure Col Parab must have spoken to you about me,” she accused, “and that is why you are not arresting me. Will you deny it?”
“The Colonel has not spoken to me about you,” I answered, “and the reason why I have not arrested you is that you did not deliver a speech, and there was nothing we could prosecute you for.” In the evening I sent her back in the care of an old Muslim Sub-Inspector in plain clothes, who conducted her safely to Baroda and left her at her home.
Next morning’s local papers – soon to be copied by the Press of other parts of the Presidency – carried banner headlines describing how Miss Tyabji had been arrested and her audience forcibly dispersed by means of a lathi charge!

Dealing with royalty required another dimension of management:
On the occasion of one Viceregal visit to Baroda, I was present in uniform at the Railway Station along with the Maharaja, waiting for HE’s special train. HH enquired whether his guest would be wearing top hat and full ceremonial dress, only to learn that the Viceroy planned to detrain wearing an ordinary lounge suit. Sayaji Rao, who was more jealous of his due dignity and respect than were most of his brother Princes, then declared that he would exchange his ceremonial robes for ordinary clothes, and that although the Guard of Honour would still attend, the Baroda flag would not be lowered as the Viceroy alighted from his carriage. Intimation to this effect was hastily sent to HE’s staff, while his train still waited at the Outer Signal, and he then agreed to put on his ceremonial dress instead of a plain lounge suit.

Still at Panch Mahals, Kamte writes of another event in 1936 – where once again the villainous press has a role to play!
Communal riots broke out in Bombay (later, in Poona also) during the hot months, when brittle tempers are apt to reach breaking point. Bombay is only a few miles distant from my headquarter town of Thana. While passing a mosque, a Hindu procession had played loud music, which had angered the Muslims. Fighting ensured, causing casualties whose figures were published daily in the Times of India and other papers. The publication of these figures had the effect of touching off a fiendish rivalry, with each community determined to kill a larger number of “the others” than had been killed from its own members. The favourite weapons were, as usual, knives and daggers, and many of the victims were women, children, elderly men, and other such helpless persons whose only “crime” was that they belonged to the “wrong” community.
I was astounded at the way in which the Bombay Police allowed these provocative figures of dead and mutilated to be publicized, as well as at the inexplicable delay which was allowed to occur in taking preventive measures such as enforcing curfew or banning the carrying of deadly weapons. Such measures were taken, I noted, only after the carnage had raged for three or four days, by which time all sanity had vanished and the situation had gone completely out of hand. I vowed that if ever I should find myself responsible for keeping the peace in Bombay, I would nip the trouble in the very bud and save the lives of countless innocent citizens.

In April 1938, Kamte was sent to the UK to attend a short course at Scotland Yard in London but finding it too short to be of much practical use, applied for leave to stay on and learn more about the working of the Metropolitan Police.
In September he came back to India and was posted as DCP Motor Vehicles Department in Bombay, responsible for all the traffic control of the city.
In 1939, the first Congress Ministry had introduced prohibition in Bombay Province under the Bombay Akbari Act and in early 1940, Kamte was appointed DCP Prohibition. When he told the Commissioner WRG Smith, “Sir, I have no wish to be in charge of this business. I like my daily drink, and I don’t believe in Prohibition,” Smith replied patiently, “Look, Kamte, I know that Prohibition will not succeed. But one British officer has already failed at it, and if I appoint another British officer, Government will say that we Britons have no interest in enforcing Prohibition and are making it fail on purpose. So you please take charge of this Department. Even if – or when – you fail, Government will at least know that it was an Indian who failed. Government has a very high opinion of you, and won’t blame you, whatever happens.”

The race divide led to interesting situations, and Indian officers found many ways to deal with it. It often made them extra-sensitive, on occasion unnecessarily so, as in the situation Kamte describes here. At the end of May 1941 I was made DCP Divisions, and presently DCP Headquarters. In the latter capacity I served as a virtual Personal Assistant to the Commissioner, and was considered as the senior Deputy Commissioner. Mr W.R.G. Smith would ask me to bring him papers from the steel Confidential cupboard, which contained highly confidential and secret matters such as codes and records of senior officers.
At first this caused me some resentment, from a sense of being treated as a kind of clerk, but I put up with it. And the day arrived when I understood that my superior must have been purposely familiarizing me with all the confidential records and preparing me for the Commissionership. This I realized after becoming Inspector-General in my turn, when I read his note in my own confidential file: “He is doing well and perhaps may be tried as the first Indian Commissioner of Police.”

Next Kamte was posted to Dharwar as DSP and this meant that
I should now have to make a serious study of the local language, Kannada, which I had just begun to learn at Belgaum thirteen years earlier. I applied myself to such good effect that one day, when a subordinate of mine annoyed me, I was able to give him indecent abuse in Kannada. With his face registering as much surprise as repentance, the man exclaimed admiringly, “Sir! Now you’re really one of us!”
In Dharwar, Kamte soon had the opportunity to show his intention and ability of maintaining law and order without resorting to violence. In the case of a well-known freedom fighter who was evading arrest, he was able to trace him to Bombay (through letters written to his wife) and there have him arrested. But, bringing him back to Dharwar, he cleverly arranged for him to be taken off the train at a small flag stop a few miles outside the town and detained in utmost secrecy at the nearby Police Headquarters. He also handled the imminent riot at the town police station with bravery and tact. Trucks had been kept on standby to take the injured to the Civil Hopsital where doctors and nurses were standing by – but were not needed because no shot was fired and there was not a single casualty.
As the law situation got out of hand, Kamte decided to impose curfew on the area, much against the advice of the Collector, finally convincing him that he had to only pass the order and it would be Kamte’s responsibility to actually enforce it.
The way I had in mind for enforcing the curfew was this. I sent out very many small parties of armed men all over the taluka, by night. Each party would fire a few shots in the air, after which some of them would howl and scream in the dark, “Oh God! The Police have shot us! ‘We’re dying!” and so on. Vivid accounts of these “brutal Police firings” used to appear in the Samyukta Karnataka and other newspapers of the region, with the result that people were terrified of venturing out of doors during the prohibited hours.
Now these curfew orders had been passed when the Home Inspector was investigating a dacoity in Alnavar and he was unaware of the situation. On his way home one night, he was surprised to be confronted with a red light. Assuming this meant either dacoits or Congressmen, he continued without stopping, only to hear the crack of a rifle and feel the smack of a bullet striking his car. The situation was later explained and sorted out, but some time later the Collector turned down a dinner invitation to Kamte’s house, saying he did not care to leave his house after sunset and when pressed, said, “No, thank you, Kamte. If your men are capable of firing at their own Home Inspector, they will certainly fire at me!”

Another amusing incident was in the case of the district governor who had complained that, wherever he went, he saw nobody but policemen about – no members of the public – and he had thought it a pity that the Police did not allow the common people to come out and show themselves to the Governor.
I therefore made arrangements so that wherever H.E. went in Dharwar District, no policemen in uniform should be seen, while all such policemen as security demanded should be in plain clothes and squat by the roadside like ordinary villagers. During a rehearsal which we held beforehand, one or two of these “ordinary villagers” aroused my fury by jumping up and springing to attention as soon as I drew near. However, all went well on “the day”, and at the end of his tour the Governor congratulated me on my “very satisfactory arrangements.” Wherever he went, he said, the common people had been allowed to see him and be seen by him, without a single uniformed policeman anywhere.
Kamte continues:
The affection with which the public of Dharwar honoured me was exemplified in 1976, more than thirty years after I had left the District. I hope I may be forgiven for recalling the incident here.
I happened to have gone to Puttuparthy to attend some “miracle” performed by Bhagwan Sathya Sai Baba, and together with a friend of mine I was sitting next to a gentleman who was a Pleader from Dharwar. My friend asked this gentleman whether he remembered “Mr Kamte, a Police officer.” “Who in Dharwar does not remember Mr. Kamte?” was the response. “He was a most popular officer, and during the Quit India Movement he never harassed our citizens. Even a child knows his name.”
“Is that so?” asked my friend. “Well, you can meet Mr. Kamte again – right here!” The Pleader quickly rose to his feet, shook hands with me warmly, and apologized for this failure to recognize me on account of the great change which age had wrought in my appearance. He assured me that the public of Dharwar still cherished my memory as that of an “ideal” Police officer!

In January 1945, Kamte was posted to Bombay as Deputy Controller-General. Here his principal efforts were directed against black-marketeers, a breed which The Great War (as The Second World War was then called) had encouraged to an extent never known before.
One week before Independence was finally granted to India, Kamte “had the crowning honour of being appointed as Bombay’s first Indian IGP.”
The years 1948-49 saw the smooth accomplishment of the tremendous task of merging half a thousand Princely States, of all sizes, with Independent India. One off-shoot of this was the far from inconsiderable job of reorganizing the Police force in all Districts affected by the merger, and of integrating the old State Police personnel with our own.

In October 1949, Kamte was sent on deputation to the USA and Europe to study the Prohibition experiments there. In the USA he was told by the head of the Narcotics Bureau that “you can say that Prohibition in America has been a total failure” and that the crime rate had gone up in the states which had Prohibition. In Holland he was intrigued to find that Prohibition applied only to those who neglected to order some eatables with their drinks; liquor was readily available provided you took something to eat along with it.
Submitting his report to Morarji Desai, Chief Minister of the state and strong proponent of Prohibition, he was faced with an angry reaction,
“Was it for this, that we spent all those thousands of rupees on your foreign tour? You are reporting that Prohibition won’t succeed, just because you like whiskey yourself!” “If you knew that I like whiskey, Sir,” I replied, “why did you send me on this deputation? In any case, I cannot possibly give you a false and dishonest report.”

Kamte’s biography tells many stories of his encounters with the Indian politicians of the time. Despite the Prohibition disagreement, he was apparently a great favourite of Morarji Desai.
On one occasion in the mid-1930s, he was responsible (at the behest of Sardar Patel) for retrieving the love letters of a young Gujarati girl who was being blackmailed.
Soon after Independence, Patel, the newly elected Home Minister visited Bombay and Kamte decided to pay him a courtesy call.
Going to his residence, I sought out his Secretary, Mr. V. Shankar ICS and enquired if I might see the Sardar. “Have you got an appointment with him?” I was asked. “No?” Then how can you see him? I am afraid it can’t be done.”
At that moment the great man’s daughter, Miss Maniben Patel, came into the room and asked what I had come for. On my telling her, she left the room. Returning a minute later, she said – to Mr. Shankar’s amazement – that the Sardar would see me at once.
When I entered his room, he was taking his morning tea, somewhat in the style of the old Moghal breakfast. Before him was a large thali containing milk mixed with saffron, besides halwa, almonds, pistachio nuts and other delicacies. He invited me to drink a cup of his saffron milk, but I declined, saying, “Thank you very much, Sir, but I have just taken my tea and don’t want anything now.”
“I see,” he growled with irritation, “You want toast and eggs like the British officers, I suppose?” To pacify him I accepted a cup of milk and a sweet or two, and after a brief conversation, I took my leave.

Another interesting event occurred in 1950 when the Congress Session was held at Nasik, in an open plot opposite the Railway Police Lines. The Prime Minister was known to be allergic to the close proximity of policemen, even of those whose presence was considered necessary for his protection. I therefore put all my security men into plain clothes; they occupied the first three rows in the pandal, but could not be identified as policemen.
Mr. Morarji Desai asked me to invite Pandit Nehru to dine at the Police Mess. I called on the Prime Minister and said that we should feel honoured if he would visit our Mess and give us the pleasure of his company for dinner. The reply I received – “I have not come here for dinners” – was as rude as it was curt. I saluted without a word and departed.
The Home Minister, however, was keen for the Prime Minister to attend a Mess dinner and convinced him to do so, informing Kamte that the PM would visit the Training School at 9 pm, address the cadets and then have dinner. Kamte objected, saying that 9 pm was the time for Lights Out, after which no cadet could move outside or keep a light burning in his room and it would not be possible for any cadet to attend any address held after 9 pm.
Eventually, the PM did arrive at the PTS at a reasonable hour, an address was held, dinner enjoyed, a good joke made by Kamte at the PM’s expense – and a photograph taken “which shows Pandit Nehru laughing and Morarji Desai nervously wondering what on earth would happen”.

In 1951 when Pandit Nehru visited Ahmedabad, a huge crowd had assembled and Kamte instructed the DSP to throw a police cordon around the PM’s immediate vicinity. Nehru angrily demanded that the cordon be removed. Kamte refused. Then Morarji Desai ordered him, as Home Minister and his superior, to do so, at which he did.
The crowd surged forward, threatening literally to submerge Mr. Nehru in the exuberance of their affection.
In his habitual fashion, the PM charged back at the crowd, punching, slapping, kicking, and shouting furiously at them for their utter lack of discipline. All I could do was to keep close behind him and do whatever was possible to shield him from his adorers. Unknown to me, our Chief Minister and Home Minister themselves took shelter close behind me; and as I wielded my cane baton upon those pressing too closely on Mr. Nehru, it was inevitable that I should occasionally strike them also. (Afterwards, Mr. Kher humorously accused me of having “beaten him up”, and showed the marks of my baton on his body.) In the general scrimmage, both Ministers had their shirts torn and lost their caps and chappals – for which, of course I had to offer my apologies.
That evening, Mr Desai wanted me to call upon Pandit Nehru in his special train that was waiting to convey him to his next stop, and converse with him for a few minutes. As a result of the day’s unfortunate incident, I was extremely reluctant to do this, but my Minister insisted, and I had to go. And now our PM showed his true greatness of heart. “Kamte,” he said at once, “I’m sorry for making a fool of myself, getting your cordon removed. Will you have a glass of sherry with me?”
At my polite refusal, he went on, “Oh, I forgot, you belong to a Puritan State! But see, I order you to have a drink, this time!” Then I put down a couple of quick sherries and returned to Mr. Desai to report what had happened between Mr. Nehru and me. On learning that his IGP had accepted an alcoholic drink, even though offered by the Prime Minster, our austere Home Minister was “not amused.”

The book also mentions Kamte’s contributions in various areas such as recruiting women officers to the force, setting up battalions of a Special Reserve Police, new traffic regulations in Bombay, Silent Zone and various Welfare schemes, and initiating a system of tatkas or Information Boards which gave an immediate indication of the current position regarding all serious crime in the State – murder, dacoity, house-breaking and so on.
He also describes a fascinating personal interview he had with Nathuram Godse during which he obtained information from him using gentle tact rather than crude violence. One of the things Nathuram Godse told Kamte in that interview was, “Gandhiji was a great man, one of the greatest this world has ever seen. But he began to sympathize too much with Pakistan, who was our enemy. The last straw was when Gandhiji went on a fast to compel the Government of India to release fifty-five crores of rupees to Pakistan. Then I decided that Gandhiji must be done away with, whatever the cost.”
When Kamte asked him, “What if your own father had done what Gandhiji did?” Godse replied, “I would have murdered him without hesitation.”

After retirement, N.M. Kamte went into business and did exceedingly well. His first initiative was a unit producing containers for pharmaceutical products. Bharat Containers prospered, but Kamte did not enjoy running it, and he sold it for Rs. 75,000 – an enormous sum of money for the time. “Needless to add, those who had once disapproved of my starting the venture, were now no less critical of my relinquishing it!”
One of his greatest pleasures was golf, and during his career he won many trophies. After retirement he also served on the UPSC Selection Board. People were puzzled at the frequency with which the Chairman called me for work, but the explanation was quite simple. Wherever the Board went – Poona, Nagpur, Bangalore, Calcutta, Hyderabad – it just happened that there was a golf-course, to which Mr. Hejmadi and I devoted some careful attention every morning!

After running another business concern briefly before handing it over to other members of the family, he then set up the Expert Services Bureau which offered Security services to Industry and Private Detective services to the Public. Unlike the earlier ventures, this was something for which his previous life and training had prepared him well and the company continues to run with great success, having been inherited by his son Col Marutirao Kamte after retirement from the Indian Army, and which would have been inherited in turn by the valiant Ashok Kamte, his grandson, if he had not been shot down and killed during the terror attacks on Bombay on 26 November 2008.

09 November 2009

The Life You Want by Emily Barr

Getting it right in India
I found this book to be a good, thought-provoking read that gets under the skin of the way things work in India. It’s always interesting to read about travellers coming to one’s homeland and seeing what they make of it. The story was compelling and well told, and covered a range of characters and themes. Here's the review I wrote for Sunday Mid-day.

04 November 2009

The Englishman’s Cameo by Madhulika Liddle

Once upon a time, long, long ago …
I had expected something light and frothy, so when I started reading and found that the detailed descriptions and somewhat unfamiliar names needed concentration, I wished for a while that I was watching the movie version instead.
This book is a murder mystery set in Delhi in 1656. Madhulika Liddle’s descriptions of the city during Shah Jehan’s reign are lifelike and convincing. I felt (though I don’t have the knowledge to verify) that the wonderful detail in the book has been painstakingly researched. The food, architecture, customs, eccentricities – all are described in simple, effective language and skilfully woven into the circumstances of the story.
Muzaffar Jung is the lightweight hero of this book. He’s an aristocrat, but not pompous; literature and poetry impress him but he’s not particularly an intellectual; he’s an orphan with a loving family. In addition, he’s extremely brave, tolerant to pain, with noble inclinations – and fabulous to look at, too.

This murder mystery acquaints us with a range of characters of the Mughal court: courtesans, jewellers, eunuchs, boatmen and more.

I enjoyed the book but found that the setting overwhelms the plot. I feel even more now than before that this book would make a fabulous movie, and hope that a skillful director takes it up soon.

02 November 2009

One Life to Ride by Ajit Harisinghani

A friend for life
Here is a man who once said “sorry” to his Royal Enfield.
And the Enfield forgave him.

When I first saw his book One Life to Ride, it was amidst a pile of other books sent to me by Sunday Mid-day and I had to pick the ones I would write reviews of. This one seemed, quite unusually, to be by an unknown author and a non-mainstream publisher. Wondering why Sunday Mid-day’s very smart editor would bother to send something like this, I picked it up and started reading – and soon discovered why.
It was the story of a middle-aged professional who took a month off work, hopped on his bike and zoomed off from Pune to Leh and on to Jammu. It wasn’t just a travel book but a simple ode to the joy of living. It was easy to read and, though full of editing lapses, also full of fun. You can read my review here.

Since Ajit and I live in the same city, it was inevitable that we would one day bump into each other, and we did, at the Amit Varma reading last week.
He has now presented me a copy of the brand-new second edition, assuring me that he’d fixed the problem with the tenses that I’d complained about in the last one.
I was delighted to see it had photos of some of the characters he met on the road – and whom I remember fondly though I last encountered them one year and about a hundred books ago.
He’d also included my comment (along with excerpts from other reviews) that, "
By the time you finish, you feel you’ve made a friend. Harisinghani’s writing comes from the heart and reading his book you get a clear sense of an uncomplicated, sincere guy with easy priorities and no hang ups."

30 October 2009

The Great Indian Love Story by Ira Trivedi

A glimpse into Delhi's low life
Sometimes Pune station is genteel and welcoming. But 2 weeks ago when I visited to drop someone off, it was so teeming with travellers, and with such a long platform-ticket queue (the machine had vanished – stolen, perhaps?) that I entered without one. But when I went again a few days ago to receive her, assuming I’d have to push and shove again, it was saintly calm and I was way too early.
Staring at the book cart near the entrance, I saw this one and couldn’t resist buying it. What a promising, if ambitious, title! Eager to get started, I decided to find a good seat and start reading.

Pune station has as many indicators as clouds in a monsoon sky, but none of them work. Nobody I asked seemed to know when my train was due or on which platform it would arrive. Calculating the average of various guesses, I hiked up and down and found to my pleasant surprise that platform 2/3 had several rows of comfortable-looking empty seats. I sat down and started reading but that distinct and rather fruity railway-toilet smell began to haunt me. I moved to various seats up and down the platform but the smell followed me everywhere. It was a familiar feeling from the long and tedious train journeys of my childhood on wooden-slat berths and one-rupee chaya-coffee and the hot Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharshtra winds blasting through the compartments and occasionally aiding in sunstroke. So instead of making me vomit, I started feeling nostalgic. It was a bit like having an old and sweet but very annoying friend (or cousin) sitting behind you, trying to read over your shoulder.
However, that was not the reason I wasn’t very impressed with this book. I read more than half of it while waiting for a train (which mysteriously crept in and emptied itself out, unannounced, on a dark platform, while other trains’ arrivals and departures were being heralded in loud, continuous klaxon wails).
When I got home, I made sure I read to the end before I went to sleep because this is just not the kind of book I would give a second chance to. It is well written and paints a vivid picture of a certain section of Delhi society. These people are very wealthy, and they spend their money on large, ostentatious homes, and nightly parties where part of the entertainment is the abuse of expensive and mind-altering substances. However, bringing this alive briefly in your mind is the book’s only success. Otherwise, I could only see flaws. The plot is weak. Some of its links are entirely unconvincing. The narrator starts out as a character of the book – but then suddenly disappears, and ends up as a voice that abruptly winds up the story at the end.
I'm not complaining because this book is not great literature
– after all, it did help me pass a pleasant hour on the stinky railway platform – but because it does not even do justice to the simple and popular genre to which it belongs.
Ira Trivedi has used the device of getting various of her characters to tell the story, but this doesn’t make any of them more real to us and in fact opens the way for far too many loose ends.
Before I wrote this, I came across an internet article (inappropriately titled "Writer Ira Trivedi takes a look at Delhi’s high life") in which Ira Trivedi claims that her book is about “India trying to come to terms with western values”.
I feel sorry to admit that I don’t even agree with that. The book is about people who are simply following a lifestyle and a tradition that they have always done.
Over centuries they have been cruel and exploitative, whether as landlords or as administrators. Over centuries they have ill-treated and objectified their women, forcing them into subservience of every kind, and brutalizing and killing them when they pleased. They have always favoured intoxication over sobriety.
To me, many of the characters in the book were like pigs in a pen – snuffling and grunting and eating their own faeces. A book whose characters disgust you is not always a bad book – many wonderful books have completely disgusting characters who add colour and charm to the tale. But not this one.

Then, this book calls itself a love story.
Surely love means more than just a feeling you carry within yourself? Surely it’s inclusive of the other person or thing and involves your care, nurture, understanding and giving of focussed attention to the loved person or thing? So to me, The Great Indian Love Story was not about love.
It’s also not about India – only a tiny and horrid part of it.
And, sadly, there is absolutely nothing great about it at all.

29 October 2009

Happy 50th Birthday, Asterix!

Obelix in Mumbai
One morning, Getafix was out in the woods cutting mistletoe for his magic spells when a little sprite by the name of Inbox came to him with a message from a faraway land. It was an invitation from an indomitable fishing village across the seven seas.
Our doings had reached their ears and they had sent Inbox with the offer of an exchange of friendship. They had chosen us, of all the little fishing villages in the world, as their sister village and had invited me, Obelix, on an exchange visit. I would be the recipient of their warmest hospitality, and one of their inhabitants would later come back with me to Gaul to visit us.

Excited by the prospect of this new adventure, I packed a few little boars for the journey and a menhir or two as a souvenir for my hosts, and set off, Dogmatix tucked comfortably on my shoulder. Cacafonix tried to sing a farewell lament in my honour but Unhygenix the fishmonger sat on his head. I tried to wheedle a little pouch of magic potion out of Getafix to protect me on the way, but he refused. As you may know, I fell into the potion when I was a baby and its effects have been permanent. So I climbed aboard the Phoenician trading galley that had brought a supply of silks and spices to our village, and set off for Mumbai.
My host Outforasix and his family were very friendly and showed me around. Asterix and Vitalstatistix had warned me that the inhabitants of the indomitable fishing village of Mumbai were accustomed to strange forms of transport and cautioned me to be careful not to fall off any of their wagons. I assured them that I was quite safe since I’d been on the wagon ever since
the morning after our last banquet when I’d woken up with such a bad headache that I could only eat 6 boars for breakfast.
On the first morning, Outforasix said he would show me his office and we squeezed on to the 84 Ltd. Some of the other passengers called me “Jadiya” which, Outforasix told me, means “Handsome Prince”. I knew at once that I was going to enjoy my stay in this indomitable fishing village. These Mumbai people were jolly good fellows.
Outforasix introduced me to his friends Allergictovix, Chinesepunjabimix and Diplomainmechanix who travelled with him to Glasgow every day. I was a little confused by this because I seem to remember Getafix mentioning once that Glasgow was an old Caledonian town but I suppose this is an extension of the expression All Roads Lead To Home. Getafix always says that travel broadens the horizon, and I now saw for myself how right he was.

At one point I looked out of the window and saw some wild boar sniffing around a garbage skip. Naturally I tried to leap off the bus to get them, but a young man by the name of Broadspectrumantibiotix clutched tight to my overalls and since I hadn’t packed any clothes, and Outforasix’s daughters had promised to take me to a Dandiya Nite, I decided I’d better not climb off.
I wandered around on my own when Outforasix went to work and who do you think I met but our old friends the Pirates!
These guys, as you know, do get around a lot but I was really surprised to see big signs celebrating the Pirates of the Caribbean. I tried to push my way in to get them, and was really surprised that the ferocious Mumbai crowds simply pushed me right out again. I wish I’d brought a few Romans along, I would have loved to share them with these guys.
That evening I went to the Dandiya Nite with Outforasix’s daughters Veni, Vidhi, and Vissy. Their names made me feel strangely homesick because they reminded me of something, I’m not sure exactly what. We had a wonderful time dancing and a lot of people called me Jadiya here too. What nice hospitable people Mumbai has. Veni and her boyfriend Teachersbumlix even won a prize for the best dressed couple. Oops! I promised not to say anything about the boyfriend – don’t mention this to Outforasix, will you.

Dogmatix, meanwhile, was getting along famously with the neighbourhood dogs. He loitered around street corners with them and they sang loud songs till late at night, living the good Mumbai life.

It was now getting time for me to set out on the long journey home. I had made good friends with a dabbawalla, Palamburwillfix, who lived right near us. The first time we met I had tried to snatch away his dabbas and get at what was inside but he defended them brilliantly. When I later heard that the Mumbai dabbawallas are certified as six sigma, I wasn’t surprised at all. Anyway, he invited me to his home and we feasted on bheja fry and kulfi. When I got back home, the whole village was crowded round, waiting to hear my stories. They refused to believe some of what I told them, even when I gave them the recipes for the bheja fry and kulfi. Perhaps you find it difficult to believe me too but I promise it is the truth, Qasam É Dastaan – or, as we usually put it, QED.

28 October 2009

The Dog Who Came In From The Cold by Alexander McCall Smith

Coming in a little late, but …
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than sixty books on many different subjects. To have read just one is to have become a fan forever. I love the Ladies’ Detective series and rely on them completely for non-fattening comfort.
In the first Corduroy Mansions online novel series, the author wrote a chapter a day, starting in September 2008, and the series ran for 20 weeks in The Telegraph.
The second novel, The Dog Who Came In From The Cold, started on 21 September 2009 and you can read or download the audio or listen to it free here.
The project is apparently a collaboration between the Telegraph Media Group, Little Brown Group and Polygon, the fiction imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

As Corduroy Mansions is released online, readers have the opportunity to interact with each other and the author himself through online discussion boards, edited by the Daily Telegraph staff.
The concept for Corduroy Mansions is based on Charles Dickens’ episodic writing – Dickens apparently serialized his novels through journals in weekly or monthly installments in the 1800s. The first time Alexander McCall Smith used this model was in 2004 for his novel 44 Scotland Street in the newspaper The Scotsman.
Unfortunately the podcast for session one is no longer available but you can read a summary of book one here.

27 October 2009

Tinker.Solder.Tap by Amitabh Kumar and Bhagwati Prasad

Media affects our lives in many ways
Tinker.Solder.Tap is a graphic novel with graphics by Amitabh Kumar and text by Bhagwati Prasad. The book was funded by Sarai, and you can download it free here. Like most of the other graphic novels I’ve read, this one gives an accurate impression of a particular culture, and to me this was its most striking feature. I also found the graphics superb.
Since I’m a traditional and rather manic reader, I tend to rush ahead and concentrate more on the text than images but do realize that in a graphic novel the illustrations are often works of art and deserve focused attention, such as this one which depicts Mother India holding her arm up – balancing a video cassette on it.
Another clever one was the conceptualisation of a map transforming from blurry to integrated-circuit designry as the internal relationship of the character to these places changes. In a graphic novel, the language should be secondary and perform the function of sign posts.
Though there was a certain amount of economy applied here which I appreciate, it upset me that there was careless use of grammar, something which shows a lack of production standards and which I consider unforgivable.
Sarai says that the protagonists of Tinker.Solder.Tap bring alive the ways in which the relationship between life and the media has been re-scripted in the various neighbourhoods of our cities (here).
However, to me this book was more about how our struggles for survival in this country bring out the entrepreneur in us and give us the ability to nimbly adapt to new technology and put it promptly to commercial use.
When I started reading, I imagined the story to be based in a small town. Only after I had read two-thirds did I realize that the location was actually New Delhi! This brought the insight that our cities’ suburbs are identical in outlook and culture to our towns and villages. One of the most attractive things about this book is that it portrays life in these towns and suburbs, with their rituals and customs, very well.