29 December 2010

Dance with Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa by Ramya Sarma

Everything you always wanted to know about …
This book is about Bollywood dance in general, and specifically for aspirants of the TV show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa – or for anyone who wants to learn this form of popular dance.
In the first section, Understanding The Basics, topics covered include how to handle stage fright, how to choose the right song, how to hide one’s flaws – and other matters that might worry you if you want to start and don’t quite know how. The second section, Put On Your Dancing Shoes, provides neat summaries of various international dance forms which have influenced Bollywood dance.
I found the presentation easy to follow and the photographs – there are a large number – very captivating and representative of the fun and glamour of Bollywood dance.
What I liked best about this book is the language. It’s easy to read and idiomatically flawless. Many who will read it would have had very little previous exposure to simple, direct and high-quality writing like this. Most of us in this country have no clue how to use prepositions or articles – for some odd reason most of us sit ON tables rather than AT them – so I believe that this book is very likely to teach more than just dance.
One thing that I found slightly jarring was the introduction by Saroj Khan. Actually the intro itself is a charming view of the celebrated choreographer’s career. What I found amiss was words like “thereafter” and “essentially” used in it, which I thought unlikely – but when I checked with Ramya Sarma, she assured me that Saroj Khan had indeed used these words herself.

Incidentally, Ramya herself is a Bharatnatyam dancer with endless years of practice and performance until she turned to writing.

The Case of The Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall

Vish Puri does it again
This is the second book featuring the Punjabi detective Vish Puri and, like the first, is great fun and a decent detective story. Vish Puri runs Most Private Investigators Ltd., and his operatives have nicknames like Tubelight and Facecream. The agency handles cases from matrimonial investigations and financial fraud to murder, and Puri’s high success rate ensures that his services are always in demand.
Vish Puri (like any good Punjabi) loves to eat, is free with the use of colourful language, and is a loving husband and father. He’s also a dedicated professional and a good citizen who even tries to get his driver to follow the traffic rules.
Like the first Vish Puri book, The Case of The Missing Servant, this one also has its roots in contemporary Indian life and culture, affectionately indulging its most ridiculous aspects. Primary background here are those classic urban Indian institutions of the laughter club and the corporate godman. And the setting incorporates the National Capital Region reality of beauty parlours, kitty parties, unstable power supply, preoccupation with the stock market, professional “Lizers” who one can hire to get things done, high court judges who own palatial mansions, and more. A prominent anti-superstition activist is murdered. Did that slimy, all-powerful Godman do it? Read on.

27 December 2010

Sahyadri Adventure by Deepak Dalal

Excellent children’s books based in India
I’ve been a great fan of Deepak Dalal ever since I read his first book about fifteen years ago.
Deepak writes books for children in the age range ten to fifteen years and that was the interval my children were in when I first came across Lakshwadeep Adventure.
Over the years, we got to know his characters, Vikram, Aditya and Chitra as they raced through their school holidays – much as the dear old Enid Blyton characters did – experiencing one adventure after the other.
Deepak’s books are well written and he has a knack for keeping you on the edge of your seat. Just when you think the trouble has subsided – all of a sudden something happens again. It’s like a sine curve of excitement – irresistible to a young reader.
These books are also set in interesting and remote parts of India and Deepak himself being a trekker and wildlife enthusiast works the rugged environment and ecology factor in very well. So we have been with Vikram and the gang – all agog most of the time – not just in Lakshwadeep but also Ranthambore, Ladakh and the Andamans.

This new set of two books, Koleshwar’s Secret and Anirudh’s Dream, is set in Bombay, Pune, Mahableshwar and the areas around them.

What I liked most about them was that Deepak has used a device to take us into a Bombay that none of us who love the city know – one that existed so many years ago that the Fort that was a central landmark has vanished without a single trace - except for the large area in the city that still goes by the name "Fort".
Sahyadri adventure has high-quality historical detail, including legendary characters from the time. These two books would win my vote for the best reads of the year.

26 December 2010

Once upon a time in Scandinavistan by Zac O'Yeah

Superpower India II
This a crime novel based in Gothenburg, Sweden.
But Gothenburg is now known as Gautampuri, because Europe has been colonized by India. India is now a great world superpower – much as it is in We Can Pull It Off by Suresh Taneja – but with a rather different slant.

Our hero is Herman Barsk – overweight, untidy and generally unlovable in all kinds of ways. He lives down an alley named Saar Vidia Naipaul Mohalla. His Eskimo dog, Bobby, is tragically no more, leaving poor Barsk all alone in this cruel world: his mum was dead; his father a random customer whose dick had proved too big for the second-hand condom that Barsk’s stingy mum kept recycling. And the crime now confronting him is a death – or several deaths – which involve a tandoor and suspected marination (in yoghurt sauce?) beforehand.

This book is a spoof in other ways too.

Sweden is now a tropical haven – the greenhouse effect has relocated the Sahara desert northwards; the Mediterranean dried up completely and Europe covered in sand dunes as high as the Eiffel Tower all the way up to central Denmark. Palm trees took root in central Gothenburg and by the time this story takes places, have begun to give lovely nuts and people have cancelled their holiday trips down south.
As for the Danes – they have accepted their fate without complaining, lit up a few joints, and become Bedouins. With the exception of a small group of nudists who refused to dress in caftans.
And Finns litter the streets of Masthugget. They constitute, technically speaking, a lower caste, their status far below that of native Swedes. Statistically, a significant number of them suffer from a Molotov cocktail of venereal disease, tuberculosis and grave brain damage.
Caste, in fact, is so crucially important that people change their names for social acceptability. One character, Rex von Spearman, was (according to his wife) actually born Sven Swenson. Oh and yes he now happens to be impotent ... from excessive mobile phone usage.

And Sweden is a country in crisis, financial as well as spiritual.
The roots of the new administration are to be found in the Indian Administrative Service – the Nehruvian steel frame installed in decolonized India, by which thousands of lifetime administrators handled the welfare of billions. After they took over, there had been neither financial crashes nor any other large-scale problems in Europe.

Once you’ve stopped using your vomit bag – one of Barsk’s favourite hobbies actually – and controlled the guffawing, you might notice that this book is not just a crime novel, not just a spoof. It’s also a rather sharp anthropological analysis of cultural elements.
There are, for instance, certain things about India that are sure to live on and on: K.C. Das and Ambedkar, for example; the Dalai Lama, Jadhavpur University, green rabbit USE ME bins, Femina, Tehelka, matrimonial advertisements, and cheap restaurants serving Asian food. And yoga. And deep, abiding faith in karma.
And language has been colonized too: we have a BC (bad character) Committing Nuisance in a Public Place and more.
And there are certain things about Swedish lifestyle and culture that could not possibly last, barring a few faded beauties from old Bergman films. Even the old and solid doors are gone, to be replaced by doors of Bhutanese board. Swedish people now live in a broken-down native quarter, unhealthy from too few baths, eating too much meat, and boozing it up all day long.

Though I was charmed by the thinking that went into this book, I found it tedious for my taste – it just went on and on and I never found myself so engrossed in the plot that I longed to know what happened next. And a few tiny points niggled: “innerwear” is hilarious for sure – but why not “chaddis”, which, after all, has Oxford English Dictionary status? And what on earth had happened to Ikea?
Finally, with so many characters driving around in Volvos, it seemed that Zac O'Yeah had picked Volvo to represent the last remaining outpost of Swedish civilization. However, this book was actually first published in 2006, in Swedish.
And, aha, in May 2010 the Volvo car company was quite prophetically taken over by the Chinese – so there you go.

We Can Pull It Off by Suresh Taneja

Superpower India
This is the story of how India got rid of all its problems.
A group of youngsters rooted out corruption – and that changed everything. Starting with a small movement, and with a mixture of shrewd thinking and luck, it spun out to cover the country. A new energy pervaded the land, education became widespread, and in 2030, India was the ruling superpower in the world. Indians from our time looked back, feeling choked with emotion and bursting with pride in country.
The best thing I liked about this book was the strategy described here to achieve this miracle. It’s plausible and, within the parameters of our lives in India today, could even work.
I also liked the very strong positive values it portrays.
Deep and enduring friendship, and love and tolerance for family members are universally considered to be admirable qualities.

Patriotism, however, is not rated so easily. The feeling of high emotion associated with thoughts of country is generally restricted to exiled patriots. For us Indians, the tendency to be emotional about our nationhood and value it as a precious asset arises from the feeling passed on by the thousands who gave their lives for our freedom from British rule.
Sadly, such virtues are considered unsophisticated in the modern materialistic world. They tend to get lumped with other habits such as rising early, working with even-tempered discipline, abstaining from substance abuse and preferring sex only within marriage. Or in other words, maturity is often mistaken for lack of sophistication.
It’s perhaps for this reason that I found the presentation of this book rather rustic, and more suited to the vernacular than English. Or perhaps it was just the language it was presented in. Because, as a work of literary fiction, it has far too many grammatical and idiomatic errors.
This book is not likely to attain mainstream readership – but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t make an excellent plot for a superhit Bollywood film which might well turn out – who knows – to be the starting point for the change it describes.

25 December 2010

Plain Truths by Arun Kumar

Plain truths by Arun Kumar

If you’re in Bombay on Tuesday 4 January 2011, don’t miss the launch of this book at Crossword Kemps Corner at 7 pm.
Here are three poems from the book to give you an idea what to expect:

Generational Journeys
Driving before daybreak to San Francisco airport,
I am reminded of childhood journeys in Kerala.
The taxi would arrive in pitch darkness from all of a mile away
To take us to the railway station just two miles away.

Panicker’s Taxi Service is always punctual,
My father would say. On the dot, he will arrive at 5 am.
The driver, a wisp of a man, still half asleep,
Would sit seemingly stuck to the steering wheel.

On this scenic highway, I hear my father’s words,
Recall the trips I made with him
To the railway station, and then on the train,
Slow journeys, a hundred miles in eight hours.

Then, I settle into a plane to New York city,
Just five hours across a continent, to see my son.
I am offered a chilled bellini and a plate of cheese
But I think of tender coconut water

And the slow train, and my father’s sweat-cooled arm.

When you leave
(For Vikram)
The porch light will no longer fight the darkness,
The night latch will, once again,
Secure the door,
And the house
Will shrink
A little
When you leave.

At work he was aloof.
An automaton of an executive,
A reputation for ice cold veins.
Then, I saw him at the funeral.
They had been high school sweethearts
Playing footsie in the library.
The panels of pictures at the entry traced the arc
Of a lifetime from rural Pano to Palo Alto.
Boyish farm lad and smiling girl friend,
Wedding, children, holiday journeys.
As he stood beside the black coffin,
Chin up, gray hair resisting the cold breeze,
A slight mist formed by his deep exhalations,
For a moment, that arc moved backwards.

The author, Arun Kumar, holds a management degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.
When he’s not writing poetry, Arun Kumar works as partner and member of the board of directors of KPMG, one of the ‘Big Four' accounting, tax and advisory firms in the world, where he leads the United States (U.S.)-India practice for the organization and heads its business performance services division for western U.S.

22 December 2010

It can't be you by Prem Rao

A book that will keep you up at night

This story starts with a corpse and a handful of suspects.

Colonel Belliappa, Maha Vir Chakra, had retired from the Indian Army.
Making use of his connections in the armed forces, he had set up a company that traded in arms. He lived in Coorg, where he managed his ancestral plantations, until he suddenly dropped dead one evening.
His partner in the armaments’ venture was the German beauty Elena, 33 years old and determinedly risen to the swanky diplomatic life from her humble origin as a plumber’s daughter in Berlin.
Elena, now Belli’s second wife, is not the only one with much to gain from his death – his daughter Shefali is 29 and could only marry her long-time boyfriend Rashid under threat of being cut out of her father’s will. And Pritam, 24, dopehead, is a wimpy understudy in a Mumbai architect’s firm; a sad disappointment to his father who would have much preferred a boy in his own mould. Their mother Dinaz is a silent but significant character and pervades each page though she had died tragically by falling off a cliff when the children were little.

Who killed Belli? Or was it suicide?

Now this is not one of your overworked whodunits in which some kind of eccentric character comes along, unravels various mysteries, applies cunning psychology, and apprehends the murderer with a flourish in the presence of all. In this book, each of the characters tells their own story and we learn who they are, what they do, and how their minds work, so we don't have to wonder what the great detective is thinking but can make our own judgement about motive, opportunity and guilt before the truth unfolds.

Telling separate stories in the first person works well to create a more intimate acquaintance with each one. However, a greater literary skill would have differentiated each voice and tuned it better to each one’s character. I found the narrative rather too homogeneous for this format. It Can’t Be You could also have done with better editing to sort out occasional awry sequencing and loose ends. And I found its sex scenes
slickly inserted and all rather the stuff of big-boob-oriented adolescent fantasy.

What I did enjoy very much about this book is the insights it presents into recent Indian history and our armed forces. For instance, to learn what many in the know believe about why India was so badly beaten by the Chinese in 1962 – read this book! There is a lot of interesting information here which has faded from public memory and I felt happy that it was being revived. It was also a pleasure to read, in Belli’s story, the noble IMA credo: “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.” Ah – what values to live by!

As each character’s narrative progresses, the tension builds and though there’s no tremendous surprise climax ending, Prem Rao has been successful in creating good goose-flesh inducing prose.

Sadly, this captivating story is presented in a shabby, old-fashioned format – with font, margins, paper quality and other design parameters unlikely to have any but the most determined reader reach out and pick it off a shelf.

19 December 2010

Lost and Found by CP Surendran

Sometimes life can be just so absurd
This is a book that combines literary quality with engrossing plot, an inimitable, wacky and rather
courageous wit, and fluid narrative which hints, as you go along, that the author was probably enjoying himself writing just about as much as you are, reading.
The story takes us right into the “twenty-six-eleven” terror attacks on Bombay and profiles a young terrorist, Salim, his family back home in Pakistan, and a group of people (and a cow) with whom he becomes inextricably involved. If the larger plot is a hilarious spoof of one of Bollywood’s most clichéd themes, every smaller subplot also showcases the farcical inner realities of the complex and alluring city that CP Surendran once lived in.
This, of course, is the real Bombay, not the fictional Bombay Times, of which esteemed publication CP, as editor for many years, once did his bit perpetrating the vanities of. So here all you read has been stripped down to its most ridiculous, even the really holy unmentionables, like rape. And Islam.

The cow is a holy animal for Hindus but for reasons Shinde (the heroic autorickshaw driver who once drove blindfolded through the streets of Bandra) can never figure out, not the goat or the hen, though both come across as equally ancient, useful creatures.
Nirmal is an orphan and has led a rough life. He knows that begging is a kind of blackmail. You just had to make it sound like an appeal so that egos were not hurt.
Aseem is an artist who transforms his clients – very few of whom understand his own professional philosophy “The paint will take you only this far. What will get you ahead is discipline.” Says Aseem to Nirmal: “My love for Chanda is pure. One hundred percent pure – like bottled water.”

And Our Lady of Dolours steps in for a tiny cameo – displayed in her true form: Our Lady of Dollars.
Rajgopal is a minor porn-viewing character – but important in his own way for through him we learn that crucial truth well known to all Indian men – their wives’ friends are mental.

“If I knew where I lost it, I would have found it,” says the sultry newspaper Number Two Mrs. Kulkarni – sharply, but conscious that she was breaking her vow to be gentle and kind to menials.

I asked CP how much his hero, Placid, was him. After all, Placid was also a Bombay journo and one who, like CP, "hailed" from Kerala (that cartoon land of Communism).
He replied, “Quite a lot. Especially the insensitive bits about the man.”

Of course journalists are mad – everyone knows that, and here’s a headline that proves it beyond doubt: HINDU ORPHAN RAPED, MURDERED IN ORISSA: MOB MISTOOK VICTIM FOR CHRISTIAN.
And terror can be crazy too. Don’t be afraid, Salim wants to tell them. All of us were dead before we were born, remember?
Fear freezes Placid’s heart. Just the previous week he had read in the newspapers of a doctor who, tired of her lover’s demands, had chopped him in bits and put them in a suitcase. Placid foresees sharing a similar fate. Rest in Pieces. Wonderful. Very wonderful.

Best of all, this book reminds you several times as you fall into its lyrical passages that CP Surendran is a poet:
Placid clambered into the Kanyakumari Express, packed like sand in a bag with people, hens, mangoes, fish pickle, and the metal smell of urine in the aisle- a damp, yellowing, amoebic pool, collecting here and there on the floor, from which toxic fumes rose and spread in the steady heat of the incredibly high-resolution Indian sun.
And he rode the train like a rodeo for fifty-one hours, a detour in universal chaos: sped by stations limned by lanterns; past the phantasmagoria of stark backlit landscapes; round a barren river bed where an old man put his hand between the legs of a young girl squatting to pee; raced with cratered ravines lowered directly from the loft of Mars; past the mirage of one-horse towns suspended in dust and sunlight; shot by carcasses of cows hanging upside down from windows; past giant, bald trees clutching at the air as the train sped by; through emerald paddy fields kissing the straw feet of crucified scarecrows; skirted mustard fields that flamed as if out of Van Gogh’s brush; trundled past a procession of naked ascetics over a bridge in the gloaming. Visibly aged, Placid got off the time-travelling machine at the massive obduracy in stone, Victoria Terminus, which the British had built with that false sense of permanency so typical of urbane conquerors.
My most dominant feeling reading this book was one of pride – I’ve known and admired CP for about twenty years. And I must admit I was also quite relieved that I liked it so much and there was nothing stopping me from saying what I really felt.

Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: One and half years. The rewriting was the tough part.
Q: What was the germ of idea you started with … where did it come from?
A: At a Café Coffee Day in Borivili, Bombay. I saw a single middle aged woman sucking at her coffee like a lifeline and thought about her: Lakshmi.
Q: I mean besides “26-11” of course. But I was wondering how “26-11” affected you – can you tell?

A: 26/11 affected me like a horror movie. It was both real and unreal, and still is. Terrorsim is not politics. It is a personality neurosis of a few individuals. If they are lucky, in time, they are branded as patriots. I have nothing to do with either.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Working on how to survive moronic critics who can't read a book straight.

19 November 2010

Many Lives Many Masters by Brian L. Weiss MD

The best that a "man" can hope for
Three months ago today, my father died. It was the first time that I had lost anyone I knew well and cared for deeply. I went through a series of intense and unexpected experiences that reminded me of this book. So it was at the back of my mind, and I happened to recommend it to my friend Anitha who is a doctor in Ireland.

I had read this bestselling book years ago and was curious about what Anitha, who is one of the smartest and most sensitive thinking people I know, would have to say. I was also a bit worried that I may have overrated it, so I read it again to see what I felt now, two or three hundred books later.
Many Lives, Many Masters is a case study written by a psychiatrist in the USA. He is having difficulty treating his patient, a lovely young woman named Catherine, and after eighteen months with no progress, he decides to try hypnotherapy, which he believes will work to help her remember long-forgotten incidents and bring her closer to resolution. During the course of several sessions of hypnosis, Catherine regresses into a series of past lives and this book is about her lives and about what happens between them.
I did enjoy the book this time round, and found it easy to read and inspiring. However, there were a few things that put me off slightly. For one, I believe that the concept of “Masters” should really transcend gender. But this book seemed to me rather male centric. I also didn’t care for the concept that there were beings who were “in charge” and who controlled things, and there was also a slight hint that they had it in them to distribute punishment if they felt inclined.
I prefer to think of the world as controlled by natural laws – and the phenomenon of natural cause and effect. Perhaps these are just different ways of looking at the same thing and perhaps truly evolved people could look at it like that.
I however suspected that the inflexion I objected to had been introduced – maybe not consciously – to make people from religions that preach retribution and male superiority feel more at home. After all, reincarnation is a distasteful concept to some, and it is the central theme of this book.
Another technical point: if one believes in Karma (or just that actions lead to consequences) then Catherine’s long string of lives as an oppressed person is illogical. We should have seen at least some lives in which she was the meanie. Hmm, yes, it is possible that those lives were there and didn’t come to the surface because her soul wasn’t ready to deal with them yet :-)
There’s more, but I think Anitha said it better than I could and, not surprisingly, she had spotted some finer points which I had missed. I’m pasting, verbatim, what she said:
I found it an easy read and quite fascinating. As a Hindu, I was taught to believe in reincarnation and that our present life sufferings are punishments for wrongs committed in past lives. However, I never truly believed in such things. So when I started reading this book, I found the story implausible. But as I kept reading, I began to believe what it said. As it is the case history of a patient written by a prominent psychiatrist, both of them non-Hindus and all hypnotic regression therapy sessions recorded by him, it appears legitimate. Also, I realized that I have no right to be sceptical about things I don't know about. As much as there is no scientific proof regarding reincarnation, there is no proof against it also. Perhaps, we have to realize that if things are unknown to us, it doesn't mean they don't exist. Since we cannot see what happens after death, we can only listen to such astonishing stories and believe in the good lessons they teach us. I'm still thinking about the book as I just finished reading it. I find the messages comforting and at the same time a little frightening in some ways. The philosophy about life, death, reincarnation, the different levels and so on are all quite comforting. Also, it is a consolation that we may meet our loved ones in future lives and that there is no need to fear death. On the contrary, I found it a little frightening that there will be future lives to pay debts, about masters and spirits around us, although they seemed to be kind souls who are only trying to help us. The case history is convincing enough especially as her description of past lives seem detailed and consistent, which gives it more credibility. Having said that, there are a few instances which I found a little far-fetched. For example, his description about Catherine going to the races with her father and winning all that money and donating it to the first street person she met; Catherine recalling the exact year in B.C.; the doctor's claim that his patient had no access to his family history regarding his father and son is not convincing as she works in the same hospital.
I wondered at times whether in his eagerness to prove his point, the author had lapsed into making these flimsy claims. Well I may be wrong about these, as I cannot be certain whether they are impossible or untrue. So maybe I should not dwell on such doubts.
On the whole it was stimulating to read this book and the explanation given by the masters about our purpose in life and I do think it will help people who read it take a positive and brighter outlook on life in general and on our fellow human beings in particular. I think Hindus and Buddhists will find it easier to relate to compared to people from some other religions. I am not aware if any other religion proposes reincarnation theory. But there will always be sceptics as there are people who always question anything and everything that can't be proven and it is a pity that the authenticity of Catherine's past lives cannot be verified from historical data. Whatever the case, I think on the whole, the underlying message of the book makes sense on a spiritual level and if we ponder over the messages from the Masters and take lessons from them, our lives may become simpler and happier.

To end, I wanted to also say that I went online looking for critical reviews of this book and found one which I enjoyed reading. I’ve reproduced the part I liked best:
I certainly do not impugn Dr. Weiss humanity, compassion, or his attempts to help his fellow humans. But by creating a quasi-religion based on clearly fallacious ‘recovered memories’, he destroys his own message by not providing any peer-review or replicable study of his outrageous claims.
Read like poetry, Many Lives, Many Masters is a brilliant modern parable of humanism—it clearly wants to guide people down a path that will help society gain understanding, peace and harmony. The problem is that it ...
click here to read the rest

18 November 2010

The Goat, the Sofa and Mr. Swami by R. Chandrasekar

Parliamentary Language
I read a review that called this book “a delightful page-turner” and had to rap myself on the knuckles for being the kind of person who takes offence too easily.

The thing is, GSMS is far more than that. It is very well written, the theme is one yet untapped in the Indian context, and the plot is inventive and engaging.
Joint Secretary Swami is the Prime Minister of India’s personal secretary (IAS Bihar cadre) and this is the story of the kind of life he leads, his daily routines and preoccupations, and how he stays afloat in the savage seas of political office.
The fictional Indian Prime Minister Motwani is eighty-two years old and has a weak heart and tender libido. His conversations with the Prime Minister of Pakistan are tricky mine dances that made me laugh. You will also read here what happens when the President of the USA telephones the Indian Prime Minister (at 2 am, of course – wonder why he can’t check with the CIA what the time is likely to be in India before he calls). And naturally the leader of the opposition is a great authority on the subject of that ambrosial delicacy, cow’s urine. Ministers and bureaucrats who fall out of favour are rudely transferred to Jhumritalaya (or Mogadishu) – except, of course, when the service rules make it impossible for that to happen.
And when Swami, in a desperate you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours manoeuvre sends his former schoolmate Jugal Kishore Hansraj off to a posting in Geneva, he has recurring nightmares that feature JKH (late of Bulandshahr) urinating against the sides of the Palais des Nations, depositing his chewed pan along the shores of Lake Geneva and travelling ticketless in the trams in Europe’s most cosmopolitan city.
Of course the whole farce has to end in a cricket match where everything hangs on one ball, and all this is woven into an ingenious plot that had me shaking my head in admiration.

When I tracked R. Chandrasekar down to ask him how he knew all this about the way governments work – perhaps he himself was once a member of the IAS or even (god forbid!) the IFS? he laughed before saying he lived in far away Madras and all he knew about any of these things was what he read in the daily papers. What he read in the daily papers, he went on, was in fact so hilarious and unlikely that quite a lot of it had worked its way into the book. “You know, they mention things like empowered group of ministers and standing committees of parliament, and they have all these well-structured devices in case you want to put things off and avoid making decisions. And as for the IAS/IFS divide – well one hears of all these antics in which people are constantly jockeying for positions, of ensuring that positions are reserved for people from a particular service, and the fact is that one of those has been particularly more successful than the other in looking after itself.”

So – not based on first-person research as I had suspected, but just a outsider’s take on the matter which turned out to be hilarious and, in fact, spot on: when he circulated an early draft of the manuscript to some friends, one of them passed it on to an IAS officer who came back with the comment that this was pretty much how things happened in her office. “I was appalled to hear that!” Chandrasekar told me. “I thought I was being funny! I guess I was closer to reality than I had imagined.”

When I asked him how much of Swami was in him he laughed again and said if he was anything like poor Swami his wife would have left him long ago.
Well – I have to admit I quite liked Swami. He was really smart, the way he was continuously able to bail himself out of impossible situations, sneaky and resourceful – and with one-liners of his own that made me laugh too.

The best news Chandrasekar gave me was that he has two more books on the way – both nearly done and currently getting their last rubs of polish. One is a murder mystery set in a boarding school in India and the other a lighthearted novel based in a Management institute in Tamil Nadu.

There’s only one thing that would please me more in this context: to hear that this slick and refreshing book is being converted into a TV serial for thousands more to enjoy and shake their head at the way this wonderful country of ours is run.

14 November 2010

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

Daily life with gentle style but no dramatics
This book is set in a Bombay I remember with fondness and nostalgia. Anjali writes about places that I left behind nearly twenty years ago but will always have a place in my heart – and she describes them with a skill that I enjoyed very much. I could quite well identify with Mohan, the middle-aged hero, a reflective person with a deep commitment to his family but equally the capacity to view them objectively.

I read this book a few months ago and I think I enjoyed it particularly because I read it aloud to my friend Gladys who knew Anjali Joseph as a child. We both admired the literary talent it represents, and didn’t feel the need for more action than it has. I mention this because I read a number of critical reviews at the time which complained that the reviewer had read on, waiting, but nothing exciting had happened and therefore concluded that this was not a good book. And I thought to myself – I wonder what these people would have had to say about Jane Austen if they were reading her for the first time, before all the hype.

But I was also reminded of Mohsin Hamid and his sparse, laidback style which uses few well-chosen words to bring a whole region and culture alive. It struck me that one of the central characters of Sarawati Park could even, in all facetiousness, be described as The Reluctant Homosexual. I will also say that I wouldn’t like to call this “a coming of age novel” even though it does focus on a brief period in this young man’s life when he suffers, as young people do, while struggling to find themselves.

Finally, as Gladys pointed out, this is one of those rare books about an India which is not dramatically dirty and corrupt, desperately poor and wretched, or exotic, or disgusting in other ways and therefore may not be of great interest to gaping audiences in other countries and perhaps will not win the acclaim of The White Tiger or God of Small Things (though perhaps it should). It’s just about normal, decent, reasonably comfortable people like you and me; and that is why she, for one, liked it a lot and would recommend it to everyone she can who doesn’t know India, as representative of the life many of us are familiar with.

11 November 2010

The Singapore School of Villainy by Shamini Flint

Poirot in a turban
This is a book in the tradition of Murder on the Orient Express: a corpse, a small group of improbable suspects, and a caricatured but lovable detective.
Inspector Singh is now in his third book and just as roly-poly, cynical, scornful of authority and X-ray eyed about human nature as before. And yes: he’s still soft hearted and crusty-exteriored too.
I love relaxing with books like these – especially when as well written as this one. It’s not just the tight, precise, almost formal and aesthetically appealing language it uses that I admire but also the liberal sprinkling of offbeat expressions and creative metaphors that it frequently surprises readers with.
As crime fiction per se I must admit I wasn’t very impressed with the plot because almost all the whammies were visible way before they were executed. What I did like was the use of Singapore as setting and the glimpses of this unlikely tourist, education and career destination as police state, multicultural and multiracial paradise, haven for expatriates (where life is a carefully arranged dream) – and even little treats such as a visit to the legendary Raffles Hotel, that famed Meeting Place of the World’s Travellers.
At one level the book even serves as an incisive exposé of oppressive Indian society and the hidebound traditions and deep rooted prejudice which have the power to cripple and destroy its very brightest and most precious people, even as India claims its place as a user and supplier of high technology and a greedy market for the developed world.
I also liked the interpretation of life in a traditional Indian arranged marriage, as seen through the eyes of Mrs. Singh. There’s underlying warmth, of course, but the two are basically from different planets. Here, for instance, is a little of what Mrs. Singh is about:
When she had married Singh, he had been a junior policeman with a bright future. He had been smart, fit and ambitious. She had imagined him as the commissioner of police, attending functions at the Istana, the palace residence of the President – wife by his side, of course. Instead, Singh had been assigned to his first murder case and never looked back. He had abandoned his bright future to devote his life to the business of hunting down killers. It was all so sordid. People didn’t get killed without good reason. She, Mrs. Singh, didn’t condone murder, of course. But there was no doubt in her mind that the victims were at least partly to blame.

10 November 2010

Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha

Unnatural nation, unlikely democracy
Would there be any possible reason why I might want to raise yet another bleating voice to sing the praises of this book?
Well – there nearly wasn’t, but a few days ago I saw something that I felt I would like to contrast it with: another book, A Better India, A Better World by N. R. Narayana Murthy.

Makers of Modern India is a collection of essays. In five chronological parts, this book profiles nineteen Indians whose ideas, Ramachandra Guha suggests, have come together to define modern India. Partly commentary on their thoughts, and partly original and well-chosen writings by these nineteen people, this book gives us a chance to experience first hand the giant thinkers that shaped our nation and also understand them through the analysis and insights of a rare genius historian of our times. Ram Guha’s perspective, his attention to detail and his clear thinking is impressive and very fulfilling too.
He writes, “This is a book aimed in the first instance at those interested in Indian history, who might wish to acquire a fuller understanding of how this unnatural nation and unlikely democracy was argued into existence.”
There’s nothing more I can say except – go get the book and read it, or at least keep it on your bookshelf and dip into it every now and again for a fresh look and deeper understanding of why India is the way it is.

A Better India, A Better World, on the other hand, is a collection of speeches by N. R. Narayana Murthy, ("who pioneered, designed and executed the Global Delivery Model that has become the cornerstone of India’s success in information technology services outsourcing"). These speeches were made in various countries Mr. Murthy travelled to, and the collection is pegged by its publishers as extraordinarily inspiring. I did not feel inspired by it one bit and I sat down to try and understand what was missing.

Both books use different approaches and different perspectives to look at the strange entity that is modern India.
Both books are intelligent and written in simple, easy to read language.
Both authors are so highly regarded that interviewers and reviewers tend to get overwhelmed and frequently sycophantic.
But while Ramachandra Guha has written an objective treatise, I felt that Narayana Murthy’s book is a rather pompous collection of opinions with the author and his ego firmly at the centre of them, and that’s what put me off.

01 October 2010

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

Strong men, beautiful women, invisible natives
If you enjoy romantic, somewhat historical novels – go for it, particularly if you have a thing for Raj nostalgia. The plot is dubious but the pace of the story is engaging and made me want to keep reading – even when I got to bits pertaining to Bombay, Pune and Ooty, all places I’ve lived in, that felt out of tune with my knowledge of them. Even some of the Hindi and Marathi phrases sounded made up – or perhaps poor Julia Gregson and her publishers were duped by the Indian experts who they surely hired to vet them for her.
Rose and Victoria are sailing to India where Rose is to marry Jack Chandler, an officer with an Indian Cavalry regiment. Victoria is not just Rose’s best friend but a hopeful contender of the infamous Fishing Fleet. (Will she return home disappointed? Or be so overeager that she only manages to attract blackguards who will exploit her? Indeed, will she find true love at last?)
The heroine is Viva who was born in India but dogged by tragedy since childhood. She is chaperone to the two young women – and also to a strange young man, Guy Glover, whose is never satisfactorily explained in the course of the book. Viva is on her way to Simla where a trunk awaits her.
From Rose’s trousseau shopping (The next time she wore this, she’d be in Jack Chandler’s bed) to the long sea voyage, descriptions of cantonment life, socialising in Bombay, and hill retreats for the “hot weather”, there’s hardly anything here that will stop this from becoming a cult book to which future generations might refer while drawing on sources to learn about British India!

22 September 2010

The Temple-goers by Aatish Taseer

Oh no - not another one
DSC Limited, an Indian infrastructure-development company also promotes literature as one of its "key initiatives". DSC has been one of the principal sponsors of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival in the five years over which the event has grown to become the largest and most spectacular literary event of its kind. The company has now instituted the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, with a prize money of USD 50,000 and the winner will be announced in Jaipur, at the annual festival, in January. A longlist of 16 books has been announced and I was quite astonished to see this one on it!
The Temple Goers just happens to be the only book I've ever reviewed for two different publications: Sunday Mid-day on 4 April 2010 and also the May 2010 issue of Marie Claire. Both times I did not like it. Though it's well written, the story is tedious and pointless.
I've pasted here what I said in Sunday Mid-day:
This is Aatish Taseer’s first novel. A year ago he wrote Stranger to History, an autobiographical account of his travels “through Islamic lands”. It was also a quest to find his father, a Pakistani businessman and politician he has never known and who, despite all his efforts, has never really acknowledged him. It was a well-written book, filled with vivid descriptions and keen insights; I enjoyed and recommended it, and was looking forward to this new one which was supposed to be different, and very funny.

When I started reading The Temple-Goers, however, I felt confused and after a few pages decided that I must have misunderstood and here was another memoir. It’s written in the first person; its hero is identical in tone and manner to the hero of the first one – and it was surely not a coincidence that even his name was Aatish Taseer! Could there possibly be two Aatish Taseers, both of whom have studied abroad, have high-profile single mothers and appear to be struggling endlessly with identical identity crises?
The first indication that yes, there possibly were, were the names of the places in this book. This New Delhi has suburbs called Sectorpur and Phasenagar and a nearby state called Jhatekebal. Hilarious? Hmmm. Later, there’s a bomb blast and the group that claims to have done it calls itself the Indian Musthavbin.
Even more lame, along comes a famous writer whose name coyly rhymes with a certain brilliant but unpopular Nobel laureate who apparently said about Stranger to History, “A subtle and poignant work by a young writer to watch.”
The looking-glass Aatish has a girlfriend, Sanyogita, privileged, talented, vulnerable, patient and forgiving, who calls him Baby (“Baby’s hard,” she said with laughter and surprise). Other characters are Aakash, a gym trainer, Megha, a businessman’s “healthy” daughter, and Chamunda, the Chief Minister of Jhaatkebaal who happens to be Sanyogita’s aunt and Aatish’s mother’s best friend. Half way through, I decided to stop wasting my time and not read any more. The book was meandering and I found it tedious. Did I really need to read a book written by a talented but self-indulgent young man who has travelled the world and commented on it with discernment and wit – but wants to do a “Welcome to the zoo and please don’t feed the animals” number on the country he grew up in? This book had been written for a specific reader, one who would enjoy from the outside, and in a supercilious way, a view of the community it was set within, and that reader was not me. But duty called and I soldiered on to the end and can now step back and comment wisely that this book does a good job of describing certain middle-class Indian values, in particular certain primitive attitudes towards the female body – but without acknowledging that they are the same primitive attitudes that prevail globally. It also touches on how Indian politics is steeped in crime – and shows clearly that the system is held securely in place by a conniving class to preserve its own advantage and position, all the while preening as superior and virtuous – sadly enough, the class to which you and I belong.

And now please read the Marie Claire thing, if only to see how hard I tried to make them both responsible, accurate reviews which did not plagiarize each other in any way ...
Aatish Taseer is still trying to get his father’s attention.
In his first book, Stranger to History, he wrote about his travels “through Islamic lands”, and about his search for his father, a Pakistani businessman and politician, who had abandoned him and his mother when he was a baby. Aatish tried to make out that he was an “Indian-Pakistani” though those who read the fine print found out that he was in fact only British.
In The Temple-Goers, the locale shifts but the quest continues. Though this is supposed to be a work of fiction, some characters are familiar from before. The hero himself is one Aatish Taseer, who by an amazing coincidence has a brave, longsuffering, high-profile mother. In a moment of mock annoyance, she makes a joke about the “fictional” Aatish, shaking her head and withholding a smile: “It’s the bad Pakistani blood. It’s from the father. I’ve done what I can to improve it, but still it remains.”
The temple-goers themselves are a crude lot – noisy, greedy, superstitious and none too clean. Aatish mingles with them and watches, judging through eyes that must please Papa. They are people in the grip of rapid change and their new opportunities bring them a new affluence and new choices. And the choices they make often show them as shallow and cunning. There’s also a streak of fanaticism in them that simmers below the surface and could – and later does – prove troublesome to one main character, not a temple-goer, who provides a counterpoint, representing grace, dignity and culture. He does not ask “prying Indian questions” about how much money Aatish earns or spends. On one occasion he foolishly dresses in his best, which clearly marks him out as different. This is a big mistake as it leads the temple-goers to make mincemeat of him. Even the leaders of the land are slimy, corrupt temple-goers.
It’s only by ignoring the wailing “Papa, please Papa, look at me Papa” undertone in this book that one can appreciate its literary merit. It is well written and strewn with insights into thought processes and relationships. Writes Aatish: “Because my mother had brought me up alone and our closeness was almost embarrassing since I was now technically a man, we played at being offhand with each other.” And so even after not seeing him for months, she gives him a brief hug, says he’s looking skinny, and falls into the arms of his girlfriend instead, doing what many of us might if we shared a similar pain because we have not the awareness to notice, or the skill to describe it so well.

The other books on the DSC longlist do look promising though:

Upamanyu Chatterjee: Way to Go (Penguin)
Amit Chaudhuri: The Immortals (Picador India)
Chandrahas Choudhury: Arzee the Dwarf (HarperCollins)
Musharraf Ali Farooqui: The Story of a Widow (Picador India)
Ru Freeman: A Disobedient Girl (Penguin/ Viking)
Anjum Hassan: Neti Neti (IndiaInk/Roli Books)
Tania James: Atlas of Unknowns (Pocket Books)
Manju Kapur: The Immigrant (Faber & Faber)
HM Naqvi: Home Boy (HarperCollins)
Salma: The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
Sankar: The Middleman (Penguin, translated by Arunava Sinha)
Ali Sethi: The Wish Maker (Penguin)
Jaspreet Singh: Chef (Bloomsbury)
Daniyal Mueenuddin: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Bloomsbury)
Neel Mukherjee: A Life Apart (Constable & Robinson)

Day Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury

Growing up on Indian campus
As I leapt into Shokeen Niwas, the first thing I saw was a large pair of buttocks (one “that even Asha Parekh would be proud of”) and some associated revelry which only served to dull my enthusiasm.
Wearily anticipating endless pages of crude and raunchy (though doubtless very, ahem, hip stuff), I plodded on, my patience unexpectedly rewarded with prose of the highest quality. Sidhharth Chowdhury writes well, and this book was an absolute pleasure to read.
Now Day Scholar is not a story with a specific plot. Avoiding overworked labels like “coming-of-age novel”, let me just say that it ambles along and its pages of sharp, evocative description vividly bring alive Indian college and hostel life in the 1990s.
As I read, I thought, “This sounds familiar! Where have I read it before?” and racked my brains for a long while till I realised that it wasn’t something I’d read before.
No, I hadn’t read it in a book – I’d been there.
This was pretty much what Indian college and hostel life had been in the 1980s and even 1970s. The rooms were as grimy, the professors as villainously egoistical, the gangsters as ruthless and squalid, their molls as innocent, the young men as horny, the young women as sassy and adventurous, their parents as patiently mature – and each one as sweetly, heartrendingly ambitious as you could possibly bear. Listen to this:

For Jishnu da, like many other Bihari students in Delhi, whether in DU, Jamia or JNU, the white government Ambassador car with the red beacon light on top and all sirens blaring, was the ultimate achievement. To have that kind of power, which they perceived as invincible, the leisurely feudal ambience with five or six servants attending to all their demands and the unimaginable riches which came with the job, not to mention the dowry which would automatically catapult them into the 10-15 lakh category. It would in a single stroke change the “profiles” of many. Their family back home in Patna, Gaya, Ranchi, Bhagalpur, Darbhanga and other small towns in Bihar made great sacrifices for them while they studied sometimes fifteen hours a day to change their “profiles”.
Siddharth Chowdhury himself apparently studied at Delhi University from 1993 to 1998 so perhaps this book is a bit about what he saw and did there. Shokeen Niwas, incidentally, was once a private home and now a hostel for young men located near the University North Campus, and Hriday Thakur, who tells the story, is an aspiring writer.
Like English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Day Scholar is a work of high literary quality which represents the seamy, un-exotic side of Indian life that some prefer to ignore and even disbelieve, dismissing these books as attention-getting exaggerations which just as many of us know they aren't.

16 September 2010

My Friend the Fanatic by Sadanand Dhume

I met Sadanand Dhume at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year and wondered vaguely why his name was so familiar. When I got home I found out – he was the author of one of the books I’d kept aside to read as soon as I got back.
Sadanand had struck me as an intelligent, thoughtful and courteous person, and his book echoed these attributes. Since then I've read some of his columns and found them relevant, stylish, and keenly perceptive of incongruity. Here's one. And here’s the review I wrote for the Sunday Mid-day issue of 31 Jan 2010.

Sadanand Dhume quit his job as foreign correspondent in Indonesia to write this book. In it, he seeks to find out how Indonesia, a society famous for its tolerance and where Islam was traditionally shot through with Hinduism, Buddhism, Animism and other pre-Islamic concepts, could begin to accept and adapt to Islamic fundamentalism.

“As a reporter, I was asking questions about the banking crisis, political devolution, separatist movements in Papua. These are important issues but to me the elephant in the room was a much larger one: what is the nature of Indonesian society going to be in the next ten or twenty years? I knew that in this country where 88 percent of the population is Muslim, it depended on the course that Indonesian Islam took. If indeed this was changing to a more fundamentalist view, the consequences to the country and the region would be immense.”
To find answers, Sadanand Dhume, an outsider and a non-Muslim, would need help to gain access and he was lucky to be introduced to Herry Nurdi, the editor of the Indonesian magazine Sabili, a fundamentalist mouthpiece with a circulation of about 500,000 copies per week.
Together they travelled across Indonesia and the book records what they saw – new regulation that demanded that women wear headscarves, Koran reading and memorising made compulsory, the sale of alcohol reduced, music and football frowned upon – but tolerated for practical reasons.
The book describes Indonesia well, and gives a sense of the incongruities thrown up during this period of transition of a country that wants Microsoft but not Madonna, and other preoccupations of the people and their sometimes confused but unrelenting conversion to the belief that the ideal society was the one in Medina during the Prophet Mohammed’s time. It is well written and full of information. While it’s partly a reporting of history and events and partly a memoir of the travels of two young men, the approach is entirely objective and impersonal and rather stylish. The title indicates a friendship, but the only emotions in this book are those that are clinically described.
And, though Sadanand Dhume claims that he is an atheist, he is still capable of sentiments that would do justice to the philosophy of any of the world’s religions. When his friend Herry asks what he will do after he finishes the book, he replies, “I’m not sure. I hope I can make a living from writing, but if I can’t I’ll work something out. Money’s not the most important thing to me. Something will work itself out. It always does.”

14 September 2010

Bala takes the plunge by Melvin Durai

Who says Indians have no sense of humour!
The last time I laughed aloud so many times while reading a book was about 15 years ago, with Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island.

Bala’s ambition was to direct Tamil movies. When he became famous, he would be awarded an OBE by the Queen. This would make him better than all his friends who were ordinary BEs, having mastered great literature of the nature of Thermodynamics Made Easy, Engineering Graphics Made Easy, Calculus Made Easy – and so on.

And Bala wondered why Appa had become a civil engineer. There was nothing remotely civil about him. If he made a film about Appa (who had once evocatively expounded: “I’m telling you, da, happiness can’t buy money”), he would have to call it The Uncivil Engineer.
But of course Bala became an engineer himself and then went off to America with an H1 – for Happy One – visa, following a path carved out by many before him, and this book is about his life there and the adventures he had while trying to find a suitable bride.
So it’s not just Indian families and aspirations that this book puts under a humorous spotlight, but also American lifestyle, culture and world-awareness, and usually all of these at the same time:

“Got any of his movies, Bala?” John asked. “I’d love to see one.”

“I’m sure Sanjay’s Rice and Spice Shop has about five hundred, John. I have a few Tamil movies, that’s all.”
“Tamil? What country is that?”
Linda shook her head. “You’re so clueless about the world, aren’t you, John? Tamil isn’t a country. It’s a religion. Just like Hindi.”
“Whom do Tamils worship?”
“We worship Rajnikanth. He’s an actor.”
“Really?” Linda asked. “Is he as cute as Share Rook Can?”

And Bala, trying to learn new ways and meet the right young women decided to join the Harrisburg Area Bikers Club. He shopped around for a good bike and got lucky on his fifth stop, finding one for only $60 at a yard sale. Bargaining the price down to $45 he realised that, though he hadn’t bought any tall buildings or casinos, he possessed the type of negotiating skills Donald Trump would envy.
At the Sociable Fun Ride, Bala managed to race out a pregnant woman but comes out behind a middle aged man who, he later realised, is wearing not just a knee brace – but an artificial leg coming out of it.
He looked at the man’s bike to make sure it didn’t have a motor of some sort. Perhaps it was jet-propelled. But everything looked normal, even the pedals. He felt like screaming at the man: “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know that you’re supposed to be disabled? It was crazy what many disabled people were doing these days – accomplishing so much in their lives and making able-bodied people look like total bums. Some were simply amazing. Bala had heard of a blind woman who had learned to play golf, a paraplegic woman who had learned to skydive, and a New York cabdriver with no hands who had learned to show other drivers his middle toe.

Then, hearing that President George W. Bush had a cat named India, Bala decided to name his dog America. It was a good way to honour his new country and confuse people all at the same time. When his neighbour Mr. Cherian complained about the dog’s incessant barking, Bala said, “What do you expect? This is America, not India.” When his neighbour on the other side, Mrs. Bunch, complained that a ripe tomato was missing from her garden and wondered where it had gone, Bala shook his head and said, “Only in America. Only in America.”

Flipping through this book looking for more funny bits, I can see that it’s carpeted with them and it’s hard to pick. Get the book and read it, and meanwhile, here is one of Melvin Durai's "humor" columns to keep you going.
There was one thing I did not care for about the book, though, and that was the cover design, which I found confusing. I got even more confused when I saw the other designs Kedarnath Gupta had offered which I thought were much better.

Finally I must say that I leaped into the story, as always, without reading any blurbs or supplementary text on the cover or about the author so it was only later that I realized that Melvin Durai, though he’s done India, Indians and Indian Americans perfectly in this book, actually grew up in Zambia, studied and worked in the USA and now lives, alas, in Canada.
Go ahead and make them laugh in Canada, Melvin – but do try and send us some scraps now and again …

15 August 2010

British-Indian campaigns in Britain for Indian reforms, justice & freedom 1831-1947 by Kusoom Vadagama

Happy Independence Day, India
Kusoom Vadagama is an optometrist and author of books which document the fascinating relationship between India and Britain. She has lived in London since 1953 “except for a spell in Chicago and New York in the early sixties”. This book was published three years ago, in the golden jubilee year of Indian Independence.
There is an enduring awareness of the fact that India’s industrial development was inhibited by British rule and that the British used India as a resource base and then as a captive market for its finished goods. Also that it was the British that brought infrastructure such as the railways and postal services, and administration and law to India – though really only for their own purposes.
It’s not often considered, however, that the Indian freedom struggle actually originated in Britain. It was the British liberal thinkers who supported it. After all, so many of our leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru, were actually educated in Britain!
This book is a thoroughly researched collection of documents and facts which trace this history. After an introduction which outlines the association between the two countries from the early Eighteenth Century, the book has nine chapters: Parliamentary debates and the public campaigns; Organizations and their activities; Journals and other publications; Student activities; Correspondence in the press; The Round Table Conference; Support in other countries; Eyes and ears of the Raj: Indian political intelligence; The changing of the guard: from British to Indian hands.
I’m afraid I don’t know enough to comment on the authenticity of facts presented in this book. However, taking a cue from the extent of detail, the care taken with presentation, and the superb illustrations, I would certainly use it as a reference book if I ever needed one on this subject.

12 August 2010

Excess: The Tehelka Book of Stories

Bhelpuri for the aesthetic facilities
Here’s an excellent collection of 12 short stories – put together, oddly enough, by an organization better known for delivering hard-hitting facts and getting into trouble for exposing wrongdoing, inequity and sleaze.
Writes Tehelka’s Tarun J. Tejpal in the introduction to the book: I once asked the great writer OJ Vijayan what was it that literature did that gave it a showcase place in civilization. He thought for a bit, and said, ‘It refines us. And that is a very big thing.’
In these times of being bombarded by information and facts, of crude posturing and increasing battle-lines, this collection of original fictions is then about that – that amorphous ‘refining’ thing.
I liked this reassurance of literature’s role in civilization. However, I did feel that some editing care would have changed what was it to what it was, as it should be, and perhaps also found a smoother and more contemporary way of saying is then about that. The stories themselves are very well written – but sadly strewn with proofing errors.
One of the things that struck me most about this book is its unselfconsciously global tone. It has nothing whatever to do with a specifically Indian way of life, or of interpreting India for global readers in English. Some of the stories are set in India but India is not specifically a character in them. You can just enjoy it as a collection of well-written, absorbing stories with no political hankering. After all, human situations aren’t really restricted by culture or geography. Not many Indian authors or collections achieve this flavour … at this moment the only one that comes to mind is Anita Desai.
The story I enjoyed most in this collection was Siddhartha by Altaf Tyrewala. The language is intricate but sparse, and builds suspense which gets you giggling when you finally understand what the author is getting at. Is he describing the relentless passion of trekkers? Or drug addicts? Or groupies of a particular guru? (Read for yourself to find out, but there’s a hint in the title!)
I personally find it distasteful (though of course this doesn't reduce any possible literary value) when writers invent characters and then poke fun at them as plainly as Ambarish Satwik does in his story Paraphilia. Kedar Deshpande, head of Unit IV, Department of Surgical Disciplines, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital fancies himself as a Bellovain hero, a man of complements Oftentimes, he thinks at length about his place in the scheme of things. About the arabesque pose he assumes on the boards of Academia. He is occasionally onanistic and very grateful for the largesse granted by his broadband Internet connection His (sic) likes videos of anal sex and facials. Sovereign in his fetish is not the anal ramming but the fair, bleached anus Otherwise, he is faithful to his wife. His wife, Anagha, has been abidingly non-orgasmic. Their sexual activity, which was largely androcentric, had ceased in the last decade. Of course it requires a much higher degree of craft – and perhaps also more space – for the writer to create these images in the reader's mind using devices other than forthright description.
Rosie by Vivek Narayan, about a pukka Tam-Brahm family in Southern Africa is filled with insights into the Tam-Brahm immigrant experience. Ravi, who is seven, says, Appa, Appa, I want a big doggy that bites! There have been a new wave of burglaries and when his father asks, What Ravi, why do you want to get animals and such things?
Ravi replies, So that it can bite the Africans and kill them!
At which, The father swirled the last of the coffee in his tumbler. ‘You should not talk like that, Ravi. Robbers, not Africans, okay? Robbers.’
As it turns out, Rosie is vegetarian, never bites, and may even be a manifestation of Mahatma Gandhi.
The story that gave me the most trouble was Feast by Manjula Padmanabhan. I’d just watched all three Twilight movies in the space of a few days, and read it under the spell of Edward Cullen, the smouldering romantic vampire! Still, I have to say I enjoyed and admired it very much. It’s a hilarious take on the real Bombay that we all experience in real life but which our media manages to completely avoid acknowledging.

It took me an effort of will to read this story. I only plunged in because it’s the first story in this collection. I stopped reading anything written by this skilled and reputed writer some years ago, a kind of moral boycott, when I read an appallingly arrogant and cruel book review she wrote. It’s a murder mystery and in the review she reveals who the murder is! Take a look: appallingly arrogant and cruel book review by Manjula Padmanabhan.

10 August 2010

King of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema by Anupama Chopra

Glamour struck
I just read this 2007 book and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s well written and engrossing, and along with a basic timeline of Shah Rukh Khan’s life, also gives a clear overview of many aspects of the Hindi film industry. I’d keep it for use as a reference book because it lists important events and puts them in perspective in an elegant and unpretentious way.
One complaint I have is that, for a book about the extremely emotional Shah Rukh Khan, it was too dry and intellectual.
However, for a few hours after I finished reading and put it down, I missed it the way you miss a work of fiction that has engrossed you, and hanker mildly to get back to the characters and their stories, until you finally leave them behind after immersing yourself in the next one.
Thinking about this, it struck me that it wasn’t the emotional pull of the book but rather the very strong glamour appeal of Shah Rukh Khan and the other stars it talks about that had got to me. So though I like to snootily believe that I’d never be bothered to exert myself to shake hands with the Queen or the Pope or anyone, Bollywood obviously has a massive influence even over a cynical and I-have-my-priorities-right-even-if-thou-doesn’t person like me.