31 December 2011

The books I enjoyed most in 2011

2011 was a year that brought me a number of intense events with a ‘Seize the Day’ message. In April, a close family friend, Raghu Pillai, suddenly had a heart attack and died. He was only 52. In May I found myself stricken with an alarming affliction – a 400ml haematoma, a pool of blood, lazing silently in my abdomen (it shrank and exited gracefully after a 3-month tenure). And in June, an experience with a client made me realise that if I wanted to write a book that met my own standards, the best way would be to do it just for myself.
So I published The Songbird on my Shoulder. I suppose I'm obliged to say that that was my best book of 2011. It’s in the shops Jan 2012 onwards – flipkart has it listed already. So in case you don’t have it already – go get it! You can preview it here if you like. And if you can possibly read the teeny-meeny lettering on the back cover, with blurbs from some remarkably important people, you will know that this is a 'takin'-the-piss' book rather than in the more prevalent 'wannabe' genre.

Now for other people's books which I read and enjoyed most...

The best literary fiction I read this year was
Serious Men by Manu Joseph
The Folded Earth by Anuradha Rao
The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran
Tales in Colour by Kunzang Choden
and the best literary nonfiction
The Convert by Deborah Baker
Road Runner by Dilip D’Souza
A Free Man by Aman Sethi.
In terms of ripping, carefree enjoyment – and with the bonus of a strong anthropological slant – my best books were
On Two Feet and Wings by Abbas Kazerooni
The Weddingwallah by Farahad Zama
The Fatwa Girl by Akbar Agha
Bangalore Calling by Brinda S Narayan
I hope you will enjoy them too!

29 December 2011

Fate, Fraud And A Friday Wedding by Bhavna Rai

Neel and Anand
I didn’t like the title of this book but Bhavna Rai emailed me a link to a teaser on her website and it promised a lot of action. So I decided to go ahead, and must say I was very impressed. It wasn’t just the fast-packed action and the well-thought-out and carefully-built-up plot. It was the authentic detail of setting, and its unusually perceptive application of everyday situations, that I felt made this book really stand out.
At one point I worried a little about one of the main characters who has studied at New York University – but is totally disconnected from the letters of credit and purchase orders at her father’s import-export business where she works. Until I realised that the whole point of being an import-export heiress is that you can go abroad to study and get a good education without ever caring a bit about tedious necessities like LCs and POs.
Other people and situations in this book are equally genuine. We get to watch a client presentation by an IT outsourcing firm, see how the team thinks and reacts, and how the client team behaves. And to observe the eccentricities of a call centre floor – but also the dynamics at an ‘exclusive’ golf club in Delhi, and a havan conducted in the hope of resuscitating a failing business. There are possessive and emotionally castrating parentsand I loved the instructions their son gives his long suffering American girlfriend before taking her to meet them.
Bhavna Rai showcases the social changes catalysed by the fast-opening Indian economy well. And her focus on the many different man-woman relationship formats in this book does a really good job of exposing human needs and points of vulnerability.
I enjoyed this book so much that I almost didn’t get irritated by its numerous clichés and clumsy proofreading. I asked Bhavna Rai what she’s working on now and was very disappointed not to hear that there’s another blockbuster on the way soon – instead, she said:
Some ideas have been taking shape, but I haven’t committed to any of them, yet
Hurry, will you, girl!

When I told her I found this title annoying she replied,

My manuscript was initially entitled "What time is it in Delhi?" but then it was suggested to me that I need a more descriptive title which is when I changed it to the alliterative title it now has.
And when I asked her which authors' books hers should be displayed alongside in a store, she said:
I'm part of the new breed of India's contemporary writers, so probably alongside Chetan Bhagat, Karan Bajaj and Advaita Kala.
Well – this I definitely do not agree with.
If it was my store, this book would be next to Jeffrey Archer’s, not Chetan Bhagat’s.

Now … rereading what I just wrote, I suppose I should clarify, for the record: Bhavna Rai didn’t pay me. And I don’t know her at all – in fact, we aren’t even facebook friends (yet). And I’m wondering whether I should be embarrassed about all my lavish praise. But perhaps not – because I know I’m unlikely to be so very effusive while writing about a well-publicised book by a well-known author.

27 December 2011

Roadrunner by Dilip D'Souza

Bikes, oysters, jazz, and much more
Some years ago, Dilip D’Souza took time off and drove across America. This book is about his travels – how and where he went, what he did there, and who he met. But it is also about his thoughts while he was travelling, and Dilip is not an ordinary travel writer. He is much better informed than many; his views and opinions are generally more profound. I enjoyed this book and learnt a lot from it too. Each chapter is of a different length and tells of an experience on the journey. Some themes are repeated. The book also compares attitudes and ways of living in India and America. Check this, on the very first page:
An effort to raise captive bison in Kentucky gets me thinking about the audacious things men do, and then about Alang in India’s Gujarat, where wiry workers break apart ships with bicep power and little else. And some members of a family died years before they were born. So say their gravestones in a tiny North Carolina cemetry, I swear.
We in India tend to have a certain stereotyped exposure to American life and culture, and this book gives a wider and more realistic view, showing that country to be much more culturally diverse than the movies and talk shows portray.
I read Roadrunner aloud to Gladys who is friends with Dilip’s parents and knew him as a child. And this is not really a book to be read aloud: it had too many words I had never heard said aloud before so had no idea how they were pronounced. There were too many concepts (names of cars and musicians for instance) that neither Gladys nor I had heard of. And the large number of parenthetical asides made for clumsy reading. So when (for example) Dilip visits the Casey Jones museum in Jackson, Tennessee, I found myself stuttering and lisping over
Tucked behind, yes, is another dreary American landscape: the recreated ‘Older Towne’ style village. You know: ‘Old Country Store’ with attendants in ‘authentic period costumes’, store selling Elvis knick-knacks, ‘Southern Magnolia Dolls’, ‘Gifts Etc’, and all their signs painted in the heavily serif font that practically screams ‘Wild West’. Above it all, ‘1978 Old Town’, thankfully minus the ‘e’s. Just decades old, this place, and it even admits to being so. Why does it pretend it is so much older?
Besides, why is this museum to a brave hero part of this faux-historical tromp l’œil kitsch anyway?
I ask that question because in India I sometimes ask its opposite. Why do we remember so many heroes from our history – so much of our history itself – mournfully?
Casey Jones, incidentally, was that legendary locomotive engineer who ordered his fireman to jump and save himself but gave his own life as he tried – unsuccessfully – to prevent a collision.
Dilip’s memories of his own long-ago culture shock when he first went to America as a student years before he made this trip are poignant but written in a way to make you smile. Like this writer, I came to love Route 66. The story I marvelled at most was Fifth Wife, in which Dilip wanders along a deserted North Carolina beach with Pete, whose last four wives were Filipinas:
About now, I’m wondering if the years add up: seventeen here, fourteen there, ‘a few’ with that other woman, one and half for Susie’s papers. I’m also a little dizzy with the wives, the drama, the wives, the two-timing, the trips to the Philippines that result in wives. Like a bizarre fairy tale.
I thoroughly enjoyed every session until the book got over, and was glad to have the opportunity to savour each chapter. This is not a book to rush through but one to return to repeatedly, over time. And as a travel book – it’s not really meant for tourists. If you do happen to take it along with you to read on a visit to the USA, definitely allocate special reading time too.

26 December 2011

Mumbai Roller Coaster by Rajorshi Chakraborti

Love, education, and saving the world
Mumbai is different things to different people. As I read this book I didn’t really get the sense of the Mumbai I know, which is, in essence, about staying afloat and doing your own thing in the midst of, and despite, overwhelming crowds of others doing their own thing. It was more the kind of Mumbai experienced by people who live in hygienic, isolated homes and spend time mostly with others from similar spaces, interacting with the city primarily through the safely-closed windows of their air-conditioned cars. A very small minority. But it’s this minority that Rahul and Zeenat belong to – and very likely to which readers of this book will also belong.

I liked the fast-paced action in Mumbai Roller Coaster. It starts with a dead body – slowly dripping blood on our hero. Capture and escape follow, a number of times, in quick succession. The plot has intriguing twists and at one point I wondered whether this was science fiction. It wasn’t. Mumbai Roller Coaster is about bourgeois kids and is a fun book that might get bourgeois kids to understand the dangers of a world ruled by giant corporations with brainwashing strategies of the nature of:
Thus in a topsy-turvy world, those who wish to pursue the path of common sense must sometimes resort to such drastic underground measures.
Rahul and Zeenat are at different schools and carry on their romance in an abandoned construction at Khar. Like other parents of kids like them, Zeenat’s
were very strict with her. They had warned her numerous times that her ‘career’ should be the only priority in her life right now, with all the exams and other challenges coming up over the next few yeas, and lost no opportunity to remind her of the sacrifices they were making to be able to afford her various private tuitions, as well as her violin, modern dance, and tennis lesson, so that she would be as well-rounded a candidate as possible for one of the insanely competitive full scholarships she’d be applying for the following year at several top American colleges.
I liked Zeenat’s dad – he watches Simpson’s reruns and honestly does not know which channel MTV is on. But I did worry a little about whether he (and Zeenat’s energetic Ammi) would be ok with a book where the characters are quite so free with the use of f**ker, ch**t, and, er, ‘dickhead’.

One of the things that worried me about this book is the strong class divide.
When they get off to change buses, the stop is
on a narrow, ill-lit sloping side street, which didn’t look like it was served by any major bus routes. On both sides were gates to large blocks of flats: tall buildings hulked above them, making the now-evening sky appear even further away. No one else had got off here: it was the kind of stop that only the domestic help or drivers who worked in these flats would probably ever use.
I tried to remind myself how prevalent it was in the Victorian novels where only the upper class consisted of real people. But in an India, and especially a Bombay, where education is available to most kids and everyone knows its value, where everyone is up and coming and pretty much equal, I didn’t care for the way Rahul and Zeenat patronise Ganesh, the shadow hero of their book, even though this is very likely the way a real Rahul and Zeenat might. I still don't think an author should endorse it.

One of my favourite bits in this book is when Rahul is riding home victorious and notices, while talking animatedly to his father, that everyone at his end of the compartment was openly eavesdropping and staring. He hangs up, and then his copassengers start chatting with him, demanding to know what was going on. I loved the lies Rahul made up – they were really funny. And I enjoyed the descriptions of the other passengers and the different groups and thought processes they constituted.
But Bombay commuters don’t get into conversations like this. Nobody listens; nobody engages. People get off where they are going without noticing anyone in the compartment.
So I went online to check out Rajorshi Chakraborti and found here that he had lived in Bombay as a child, leaving at age 11 for Calcutta, and that explained a lot.

23 December 2011

When Bill Bryson came to Mumbai

Happy Belated Birthday Dear Bill Bryson
I read somewhere that Bill Bryson was going to be 60 on December 8 this year. I had meant to put this post up on that day but for various reasons couldn't. It's something I wrote years ago when I had a column parodying humour writers and got people like Woody Allen, Dave Barry, Bridget Jones and others to do their act in my favourite city. I don't think any of them ever has actually come yet. Anyway - here's me being Bill Bryson:

I landed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and stood at the entrance to Mumbai in that state of mild indecisiveness that comes with the sudden arrival in a strange country when you’re pounced upon by hundreds of swarthy young men clamouring to take you home. I breathed in the warm, humid air that carried whiffs of petroleum fumes, drying fish and the impact of water shortage on several million bodies, and bravely resisted twenty-seven taxi drivers urgently tugging at me until I spotted with relief the hotel welcome board with my name on it.

The first time I came to Bombay was twenty-five years ago, with a high-school acquaintance named Steve Gatz, which I soon realized was a mistake. The best thing that could be said about travelling abroad with Gatz was that it spared the rest of America from having to spend the summer with him.
We stayed in a guesthouse near the Gateway, sharing a room with two Germans who knew where to get good dope and we would have featured in Shantaram if it’d been two decades later. One evening we decided to get some native colour and walked down to Churchgate Station to experience the death-defying sport of catching a commuter train into the suburbs. A filthily ragged woman in a headscarf squeezed into the carriage loudly orating the tale of her troubled life and asking for money. The baby on her hip was so startlingly ugly that it was all I could do to keep from putting hands to ears and screaming, “Baap re!” (for by now my Marathi was coming on a treat). I quickly gave her twenty rupees before Junior loosed a string of dribble onto me, but soon discovered that my wallet had been lifted. The woman of course was nowhere to be seen – she was probably at this moment sitting down to a feast of truffles and Armagnac with seventy-four relatives on a secluded railway siding near Dombivili with $1500 worth of traveller’s cheques, not bad for five seconds’ work.
But this was only memory, and the entire workforce of my hotel now glowed with joy at my arrival and the bellboy all but touched his forehead to the ground near my feet, a welcome change from last time when I would don my rucksack each morning, staggering around in the manner of one who has been hit on the head with a mallet.
The TV in my room showed a local soap, alive with beauty, agony, and malice, and I watched with appreciation. Here was progress: before, Indian television was only good for the sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience. About every fifth word was in English, but the strain of putting it together became wearying and I decided to go for a walk.
Mumbai is not a good city for walking. The humidity makes biscuits soggy, preying insects plentiful, people sweaty and exhausted. There’s also the constant danger that you will fall into open pits, and even when you stumble out limping, it’s all you can do to dodge the rush of dilapidated taxis and occasional Mercedes Benz that come sweeping down. It’s not that Mumbai drivers intentionally want to kill you as they do in New Delhi – they’re just too busy blaring horns, cutting off other vehicles, talking on cellphones, indulging their lap-held progeny with a chance at the wheel. You can’t help but admire the free spirit of this great democratic nation.
I wandered around, looking for The Ideal, which Gatz and I had frequented. I hate asking directions. I am always afraid that the person I approach will step back and say, “You want to go where? Mohammed Ali Road? Boy, are you lost. This is Andheri you dumb clot,” then stop other passers-by and say, “you wanna hear something classic? Buddy tell these people where you think you are.”
So I trudged on. Rats the size of young swine scuttled alongside. Lounging at intervals were some of the most astonishingly unattractive prostitutes I’d ever seen – fifty-year-old women with crooked lipstick and body parts reminiscent of flowing lava. They stood side by side in a seemingly endless row of doorways. I couldn’t believe that there could be that many people in Mumbai – that many people in the world – requiring this sort of assistance just to ejaculate. Whatever happened to personal initiative?
Just as I began thinking about phoning my wife and asking her to come find me, I turned the corner and there it was.
By now I was so hungry that I would have eaten anything, even a plate of my grandmother’s famous creamed ham and diced carrots, the only dish in history to have been inspired by vomit.
The Ideal used to be one of those places that had marble-topped tables, bentwood chairs, a surly owner, and a list of stern instructions regarding Outside Food and Hand Washing. They served chai in glasses but Gatz and I would be honoured with white china cups. It now had formica tables, muted lighting, and a menu that included paneer dosa, Manchurian pizza, and even Mexican and Lebanese food. I tried to think what my jaljeera put me in mind of and finally decided that it was a very large urine sample, possibly from a circus animal with hepatitis. The kheema pau at the Ideal (short, I now realized, for “Ideally you should stay home for dinner”) had been our staple for weeks but it was absent. The intriguingly named Vegetable 65 I now ordered was so bad that to say it was crappy would be to malign faeces. I returned to the hotel and retired with Philip Ziegler’s classic account of the Black Death, imaginatively entitled The Black Death – just the thing for lonely nights when travelling.
I walked down Marine Drive next morning, revelling in the beautiful sweep of bay and energetic morning walkers, but stayed clear of Chowpatty. I remember Gatz’s enthusiasm as we climbed down Walkeshwar after an early morning excursion to Ban Ganga, sighting the flock of exotic migratory birds that appeared to be roosting there – and his horror when we found it was just some squatters engaged in alfresco excretion.
When I was twenty I liked Bombay for its laid back attitude but it was oddly wearisome now. Indians have been congratulating themselves on their tolerance for centuries, and it’s now impossible for them not to be nobly accommodating to graffiti and queue jumpers and excrement and litter. I may be misreading the situation. They may like excrement and litter. I hope so, because they’ve certainly got a lot of it.
Later, I headed for Dharavi, pausing briefly to admire Mumbai’s Gothic railway station that had once been named for Queen Victoria but now, like many other city spots, revered the mountain hero Shivaji who with his band of guerrilla warriors successfully stayed Moghul penetration to southern India.
Dharavi seemed agreeable enough in a thank-you-god-for-not-making-me-live-here kind of way. I walked through narrow lanes, stepping over gutters oozing slimy, ill-defined fluid, when two vaguely thuggish-looking men walked purposefully towards me. Uh-oh, I thought, causally sliding my hand into my pocket and fingering my Swiss Army Knife, but knowing that even in ideal circumstances it takes me twenty minutes to identify a blade and prise it out and I’d end up defending myself with a toothpick and tweezers. But all they wanted was a friendly chat to practice their Conversational English – where I was from, my wife’s maiden name, how much I made last year – that kind of thing.
Back at the hotel, I wandered the maze of shops selling pashmina, jewellery, carved elephants, silken garments and leatherware. Tourists from every continent beamed, dazed and laden with shopping bags. I heard an American trying to knock the price of a jade figurine below two hundred rupees, less than $5. There was no pharmacy here – strange for a city that has several on every stretch of road – more medical shops than litter bins. Gatz had once bought a bagful of dangerous and addictive medication at one of these without the word ‘prescription’ mentioned once in the transaction. This must make it fun for people who live here. Still, if you wake up with a bubo on your groin, better see a doctor all the same.

22 December 2011

A pack of lies by Urmilla Deshpande

Victim kicking below belt is ok, then?
Some months ago my friend Asha asked me to get her this book. I ordered it online and happened to peep in when it arrived. But this is the kind of book that has you turning pages faster and faster, so I barely looked up once or twice before it was all gone.
A Pack of Lies is written in the first person and the heroine, Ginny, has a problem with her mother who happens to be a writer.
I enjoyed the racy style and the descriptions of Bombay in the 1970s, which took me back to a time and place I don’t miss at all. But I did not enjoy the desperation, loneliness and the kind of defiance-inspired craziness it was suffused with - they made me nervous. Whether it was the description of food to a love-starved child, her arrogance towards her mother’s lovers, her grand plans to get rich by selling dope, Ginny’s modelling career, her unexpected inheritance, or the many other twists in her tortured life – I felt repulsed, but also pitying of a human being who was painted as steeped in bitterness.
It was only after I started reading the book aloud to Asha, who had been actually looking forward to a literary treat – having known the author’s mother, herself a well-known writer – that I realised the story was using Urmilla Deshpande’s own life as its peg and that there are any number of other characteristics and historical features Ginny shares with her creator. Even Sahitya Akademi award winner and Padma Shri Shashi Deshpande says, on the book cover, “A rare coming-of-age novel, frighteningly honest and exceptionally mature." Right!
Reading the book out to Asha, we kept digressing – bits from the book would set her off reminiscing; other bits would make her angry with the implicit libel they held. When Urmilla Deshpande’s alter ego is sexually abused by her mother’s husband, were we supposed to feel horrified and sorry for her – or admire her subtlety in naming her novel A Pack of Lies? Either way, both Asha and I found it revolting.
Urmilla Deshpande has impeccable grammar and it matches well with her impeccable lineage: her mother Gauri Deshpande and grandmother Irawati Karve were well-known writers, and her great-grandfather Dr Dhondo Keshav Karve was the great social reformer and educationist who came to be known as Maharshi Karve. Is it the grammar or the lineage or the hot parts that got her book attention? I wonder.

21 December 2011

The Litigators by John Grisham

Finally, on page 92, after a long, tense stretch with hope rising warily, my heart began to sing.

After all these years – a real, super-duper John Grisham! Since The Street Lawyer in 1998, he turned out more than a dozen duds. It seemed as if the steam had run out. Eager readers leapt on each new title with anticipation – only to fall away, disillusioned. Had he lost it? Was he holing up (in the Caymans, perhaps), sated, exhausted, and having outsourced his brand and pretty straightforward formula to a team of lesser writers without the ability to cast the spell of the master? One damp squib followed another, managing a slight spike with The Last Juror.
Now, finally, the real Grisham is back. David Zinc, hero of The Litigators, is an overworked lawyer at a plush Chicago law firm. His hourly billing is $500 and, like others of the tribe so familiar to Grisham readers, he’s so overworked that, as his financial assets multiply, his health and family remain neglected.
In another – faraway – section of the city, Oscar Finley and Wally Figg run a ‘boutique’ firm and practice a variety of law best classified by the name of their dog AC – short for Ambulance Chaser.
John Grisham was responsible, long before Ally McBeal, for bringing phrases like ‘ambulance chaser’, ‘probate’, ‘file a motion’, ‘deposition’ and even ‘DUI’ – driving under the influence – into the mainstream consciousness of readers in faraway India. Through his stories, we’ve become familiar with any number of situations which engender hatred, arrogance, greed, revenge and the other emotions that underlay the territory that lawyers deal with. Grisham’s books have introduced us to a range of situations in civil and criminal law, product litigation, the homeless, those awaiting the conclusion of a death sentence, dramatic verdicts overturned by appeals, and many more. The dip in his readability followed his move from the fast-paced legal thrillers he excelled at writing, to books which continued to be based in law but began to focus more on other issues in which he was personally interested, such as baseball, a lifelong passion, and the rural south where he grew up, the second of five children of a construction worker and a homemaker.
Even in his most ‘blockbuster’ book, Grisham was always a bit of a social activist. There’s invariably an underdog – or more than one – whose moments in the sun the reader experiences vicariously. Important characters often present a major real-life-type flaw such as a loved one in prison, a one-night-stand, or some other example of human frailty we need to forgive and live with. Bonds within families, and in particular between couples, are strong and satisfying.
Through the peaks of plot, Grisham’s language is laidback and unselfconscious, with a liberal sprinkling of cute phrases. It may not be high literature – but you won’t find smut or graphic violence either. There’s not much in a Grisham book that you might want to protect your children from. And in 2010, in a superb Marketing move, John Grisham wrote his first book specifically for children, introducing the child lawyer Theodore Boone. Theo is a 13-year-old schoolboy and he knows more about the law than most lawyers in his city. Young Lawyer was great fun and, under guise of a racy plot, covered the basics of court procedure and etiquette as well as some common USA laws and their application. Reading it, more than one Indian pre-teen I know dived straight into the adult Grisham books, devouring them stealthily under the bedcovers instead of preparing for their Unit Tests, having placated their proud parents with the thrilling news that they had decided to study law and become lawyers when they grew up.
Sadly, the next Theodore Boone book, The Abduction, released earlier this year, did not live up to its predecessor. It was good to meet the old familiar characters – but the plot just did not have teeth – a situation Grisham fans had no choice but to resign themselves to while they waited stoically for his next. Classic Grishams, the Theodore Boone books also incorporate human weakness and emotion through different family formats.
David Zinc too is a typical Grisham hero – young, brilliant, handsome, likable. Remember Mitch McDeere in The Firm? Like him, David is also a graduate of Harvard Law School; he’s also married to a warm, supportive, intelligent (and beautiful) woman with whom he shares a loving, passionate relationship. Like Rudy Baylor in The Rainmaker, David has no trial experience whatever – but his performance in court showcases his hard work, ingenuity, and fine legal brain as he takes on a veteran with an impeccable track record who has tried and won the biggest cases of all. Like Clay Carter in The King of Torts, there are moments in his career when you will tremble for him, fearing that all is lost.
David, by a strange turn of events, has joined Finley & Figg just as Wally is preparing to file a suit against Varrick, a pharmaceutical giant. Varrick has survived a $400 million settlement for a denture cream that caused zinc poisoning; a $450 million settlement for a stool softener that backfired and clogged things up; a $700 million settlement for a blood thinner that cooked a bunch of livers; a $1.2 billion settlement for a migraine remedy that allegedly caused high blood pressure. Finley & Figg, on the other hand, is a law firm that a clerk, describing it to the incredulous judge to whom Wally’s case has been assigned, writes, “A 2 man ham and egg operation; advertises for quickie divorces, DUIs, the usual criminal domestic, injury practice; no record of any filings in federal court in the past 10 years; no record of jury trials in state court in past 10 years, no bar association activity; they do occasionally go to court – Figg has either 2 or 3 DUIs in past 12 years; firm was once sued for sexual harassment, settled.”
The Litigators is a story about how the ‘mass tort’ business works. A bad drug is identified. The plaintiffs’ lawyers go into a frenzy rounding up cases. Lawsuits are filed. The big defense firms respond with an endless supply of expensive legal talent. Both sides ‘slug it out’ until the drugmaker gets tired of writing ‘fat checks’ to its lawyers. As things get settled, the plaintiffs’ lawyers ‘rake in huge fees’, and their clients get far less than they expected. When the dust settles, the lawyers on both sides are richer; the company cleans up its balance sheet and develops a replacement drug. ‘Mammoth’ corporations know when to fight, when to settle, how to settle cheap, and how to appeal to the lawyers’ greed while saving their company ‘tons of money’.
The Litigators is pervaded right through with the soothing tones of the underdog singing hallelujah. David rescues himself from the rat race; he somehow resurrects the dubious Finley & Figg; he finds suitable alternative sources of income; he achieves justice for illegal immigrants being exploited by their employers; he wins a handsome settlement for the immigrant parents of a young victim of lead poisoning. He even earns solidarity from a former colleague which enables him to stand up against a hacker who has insulted his wife.
Some Grisham books end abruptly, leaving things to the reader’s imagination – but not this one; all ends are neatly tied up, with realistic and fulfilling outcomes for all
(In case all this sounded awfully familiar to you ... yes ... you read it before ...in the Open magazine issue of 12 December 2011 ...)

20 December 2011

A lovesong for India by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

A lovesong for Ruth
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is 84 years old and her new collection of short stories has the same calm, crystal-clear aesthetic as her previous work. It felt to my mind the way fresh, sunlit mountain air of mid-morning feels to my skin. The images it inspired were infused with the leisure, clarity, detail, and other values of the old Merchant Ivory films that she was once closely associated with. The sentences, stark and simple, frequently caused me to stop and spend a little extra time savouring them:
She ate in a very nice way, the English way, and she had taught him to do the same.
Brigitte still had male friends – she needed them to tell her what to read
After her retirement from the civil service, Mrs Lord had moved to a town famous for an ancient battle, about two hours from London.
All spoke in the same loud voices, guttural with good breeding and unchallenged opinions.
But Shoki leaped to his feet, in deference to an older man. He appeared flustered, not emotionally but socially, like a hostess with an extra guest.
The eleven stories in this book are divided under three sections; four stories in India; four in Mostly Arts and Entertainment; and three in The Last Decades. While the stories in the first section are indeed set in India, the others also have cameos of India and a few Indian characters. These are sharp caricatures and some have Indian names – Kris is Krishna instead of Christopher – or perhaps a remote Indian parent, but very little else that is recognizably Indian, quite appropriate in our global age. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was always a writer who understood India inside out and wrote with a global perspective, without bias, and without needing to revel in the exotic to make her stories attractive. And from these stories it's clear that she has kept pace with changing society: there are people here from different eras and cultures – both in India and out.
I found her characters unique and often a bit frightening, whether from the world of seedy Delhi landlords, Bollywood palaces or Hollywood starlets, scholars of oriental studies or fake ‘Oriental’ gurus, or New York clubmen living on trust funds. I found them unfamiliar
and this surprised me because in most books you can relate to at least some of the characters. As fictional characters they were satisfying in that they betrayed each other unexpectedly or otherwise suddenly showed new facets of behaviour. And they were real alright – they struggled for power in relationships, and felt stifled, and longed for privacy. Most of them suffered like anything.

19 December 2011

Where the Bulbul Sings by Serena Fairfax

Daughter of Far Pavilions
This is an ambitious book, embracing a broad swathe of history, from the time of the Second World War to the present.
I enjoyed the narrative, strewn as it is with exciting events which build up, amidst suspense of all kinds, into a well-orchestrated and fulfilling climax that quivers to a specific end in the time-honoured tradition of the quintessential romantic novel. The characters are well developed and convincing. There are even bits of hilarious comedy casually woven in. And, though there is a certain amount of contextualisation, it is naturally done and more for purposes of clarity than to posture for readers of other cultures. Serena Fairfax even uses Indian words naturally, picking for instance 'shamiana' in favour of 'marquee', surely not an easy choice for someone who lives in London where people are more familiar with marquee than shamiana.

Hermione, the heroine of this book, is beautiful, vain and self-centred. Through her, the specific marginalization of the Anglo Indian community is sensitively documented. This is the main theme of Where the Bulbul Sings. Other key characters represent equally romantic and fascinating groups: the Germans sequestered in India during the Second World War; Indian royalty; highly-paid courtesans; Raj relics who stayed on.
So I felt really sorry that with so much potential, a number of things prevent this book from being the whopping, bestselling blockbuster that it really should have been.
The first is its production values. My copy had bubbles under the laminate of the cover. I felt the margins were suffocatingly narrow. Careless proof reading has resulted in shabby copy. And a good editor might have got Serena Fairfax thinking about using a less gushy style; about dividing the book not just into chapters but sections too; and perhaps managing the transitions from one historical timeframe to another with more patience.
The book also makes copious use of capital letters, italics and bold lettering on almost every page:
Greetings and welcome Miss Müller. Welcome!’
He pronounced it like mullah and Edith gave a little giggle.
‘Hush a moment.’ Hartley’s voice was sharp for him. ‘What’s that now?’
He stopped as Prime Minister Nehru came on the air, his voice solemn and emotional. The light has gone out of our lives…
‘Nothing will be the same again,’ Hermie said quietly, her eyes brimming with tears not so much for the dead Patriot as out of disappointment that the bright prospect of home had gone out of hers.
I tried my best to convince myself that the author was an artist who must surely be allowed the liberty of presenting her text in any way she thought best. However, I found it just too tiring to eye and mind and, despite every effort, concluded that I would have much preferred to be allowed to select emphasis instinctively as most writers are content to let their readers do. And I ploughed on because I really did want to know what happens in the end.

The second reason this book falls short of utterly fab is not as straightforward.
“Historical events /incidents have been slightly re-jigged. Any errors are all mine,” reads the author’s disclaimer at the start of the book. Where the Bulbul Sings revels in a wealth of historical fact: not just its setting but all kinds of fascinating detail and trivia, including long-forgotten earth-shattering events.
I enjoyed learning that women made crotchet squares to scrub pots clean with. And being reminded (by an English character)
You know, Mr Gandhi once said that the seven great sins are wealth without work, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, pleasure without conscience, politics without principle, and worship without sacrifice.
I admired all this and felt disappointed with the minor anachronisms. Would someone have spoken of a “daily caffeine fix” in the 1940s? I don’t think so.

12 December 2011

Death in Mumbai by Meenal Baghel

Telling commentary
This is not a book I would normally be drawn to. I don’t care a bit about the unravelling of a murder investigation, no matter how thrilling or disgusting. I can live without knowing whether the body had really been cut into three hundred pieces. But I leapt at this book because it was written by Meenal Baghel. I suspect that any number of readers will do the same. In a country where mainstream media has very little credibility, Meenal is known – and slightly feared – as a ferocious professional. I’ve only met her once, briefly (and relieved to find her a laughing, friendly person) – but have known her for years by reputation through the Mumbai Mirror and the various Mirror images around the country she spawned. “She knows exactly what she wants” is what people who have worked with her tend to say. I do know that she’s very good – unlike many others in her position – at returning phone calls, answering emails, and following up on reader feedback.
Still, this is the story of a crime that I was not interested in – so it was a surprise that, when I put this book down after about fifty pages to try and get back to work, I couldn’t concentrate because the lifelike characters Meenal Baghel described were pulling me back into their story.
In May 2008, Neeraj Grover, a twenty-five-year-old television executive from Kanpur was killed. The prime suspect was Maria Susairaj, a Kannada starlet and aspiring TV actress. Her ‘fiancé’ Emile Jerome, a naval officer based in Kochi at the time, was almost certainly implicated in the crime.
If you read the Cast of Characters and Preface at the beginning of this book, it is no longer a murder mystery. But if you follow the sequence of events and the side-by-side analysis and description, as I did, the end comes as a satisfying resolution of plot with everything falling neatly in place.
After a chapter laying the background and describing the killing, subsequent chapters tell the separate stories of Maria and Emile. In the next section which describes various attempts to make a film of this gruesome incident, the chapters tell of Ekta Kapoor, Moon Das and Ram Gopal Varma. The final section is Neeraj’s story and winds up with details of the interrogation, the confession, the court case, and the verdict.
Although most of the book is high-quality fact-filled descriptive reporting, the bits I enjoyed most were gossip, conjecture, and Meenal Baghel’s editorial voice-over of historic footnotes and her occasional flight of poetic fancy. “In the pre-L’Oreal generation, an academic duffer’s best bet was to study home science,” she writes, “and an ad extolling her homely-comely charms in the matrimonial section of a newspaper. But the collective fetishizing of Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra as beauty queens opened up a whole world of possibilities for middle class girls who otherwise failed at the Great Indian Crucible: Studies. Now, everyone was worth it, deserving of a stab at the good life. Beauty pageants became the new UPSC.”
I felt a bit disappointed in places when I felt Meenal Baghel was being judgemental and opinionated – though I’ll admit enjoying her sudden insight that all the vamps in Ekta Kapoor’s shows (for some reason I got the feeling that Meenal Baghel is not a great admirer of Ekta Kapoor), from their clothes down to their intricate bindis, looked remarkably like her mother Shobha.
I loved the descriptions of the new age Oshiwara:
Just as Soho has its sex shops, Charminar its bangles, Castro its gay community, and Ginza its boutiques, Oshiwara has its clairvoyants, astrologers, vastu consultants, gemologists, tarot card readers, rune readers, aura diviners, and numerologists
The descriptions of police chowkies were fascinating too:
The Oshiwara police station resembled Lego blocks assembled by a disinterested child. Wadala TT was situated in the middle – yes, smack in the middle – of busy railway tracks. Go complain at your own peril. Likewise Yellow Gate near the docks lay at the end of a deserted lane with no lights. At the Antop Hill police station the only drinking water available was from a filthy sink plumbed right at the door of an even filthier loo. When the promised land for their building failed to materialise, the cops at the Maharashtra Housing Board police station in Borivali (like their counterparts in various other suburbs of Mumbai) were instructed to set up the police station within their own living quarters.
But I was happy to learn that the Maharashtra police force has intelligent, sensitive, well-read and highly-skilled officers like Inspector Raorane – though I’ll admit feeling diffident about ever meeting the man; if I did he would notice the dark rings around my eyes right away and oh my god, what will he ever think.
Now. Is this book, as its blurb boasts, ‘a fascinating insight into a new type of crime affecting the Indian city’? I suppose so. However, if we must have a trite summing up, I'd offer ‘not just the report of a murder investigation but also a telling commentary on Indian tabloid journalism, neuroses that afflict the entertainment industry, and police investigative techniques’ as more appropriate.

07 December 2011

The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran

Disco-dandiya, batata-wada-burger
I somehow found myself with two copies of this book and realised that here was a Sign that I must read it (despite all my wannabe aspirations) even though it was more than five years old.
I found the cover attractive and a good representation of ‘modern’ India though the text on the back was clichéd and a bit blah. But the first story charmed me and I couldn’t stop till I’d read right through. In fact, by the time I finished the book, the first story turned out to be the one I liked least.
Lavanya Sankaran writes well, develops her characters beautifully, and I found myself engaged with her relevant detail and smart turns of phrase. And, though the stories are separate from each other, characters sometimes randomly reappear. I liked the feeling of meeting familiar people in new situations.
These stories are based in Bangalore and expose the ironies of clashing cultures.

Four friends work in the city, with lifestyles inspired by separate streams: modern and western versus traditional values of family and upbringing. There are solutions, and there are traps. When Ramu, an ‘unmonk’, captive of his desires, finally decides that it's time for him to marry, his mother’s “lifetime membership to that hidden, systemic device, specially designed for men in his position: the matrimonial industry, a sinister social syndicate redolent with its own brokers and goons and gossip” comes in handy.
Several stories later, Ramu shows up again in a cameo – yes, he is a ruthless bastard, this we already knew; his lonely fate is well deserved. The Sita may be meek and traumatised – but she is brilliant too.
The new department stores in their city market western lifestyles to Indian homes that were previously starved of wineglasses and Aromatherapy candles and Provencal-inspired dishes. And, for god’s sake, people can’t tell the difference between Eminem and Billy Joel! (Well, you know those Americans, Sita tells her American client. They all sound alike.)

My favourite incongruity is the one in which Sita sits in an American coffee joint watching a warring couple scream loud obscenities at each other. When the woman leaves for a bit to go to the loo, the man spits angrily into her coffee cup. And Sita’s client, her friend, leans forward and tells her softly, I hope you don’t mind saying this but in America it’s considered rude to stare.
In another story we get to know the privileged child growing up with staunch Enid Blyton values, a self-absorbed, neglectful mother, and horrifying traumas of her own. Attending a ‘convent’ school has its own subtle quirks:
Be proud of your country, they said. Democratic. Republic. Independent. And be proud of the English traditions of your school. Remember the greatness of Indians dead, they said: Mahatma Gandhi, Akbar-Ashoka-Chandragupta, and use your fork, not your fingers. No, my girl, we don’t call it the Sepoy Mutiny; for us, it was the First War of Independence, and if the Queen of England were to see you slouching like that, would she be pleased?
(When the Queen of England finally recognized her efforts on behalf of English Culture and invited her to tea, Mrs Rafter would have nothing to be ashamed of)
The New India is well represented by a ‘May-dum’ who, to the surprise of her driver, cares for his welfare and treats him like a human being, and, most astonishing of all, expects him to scrupulously follow traffic rules. And yet, grounded in traditional roles for women, he is confused by and disapproving of her revealing clothes, smoking habit, and the occasions on which she goes out with women friends and comes home swaying and clearly inebriated.

Priya, daughter of Indian immigrants to the US is a stereotypical brat. Her parents are patient and supportive, hiding their concern as she freely makes efforts to find herself using methods that range from sexual experimentation to a trip to India – though her mother’s reluctance to embrace a higher quality of life means she resists Priya’s attempts to convert her from a vegetarian to veganism; she will not run with wolves, free her inner child, live in integrity with her spirit, or even indulge in some straightforward vaginal mirror-gazing, meeting all such requests with a simple, “What nonsense!”

While all the stories rang strong notes of the familiar, these parents in particular put me in mind of my own long suffering silence in the face of know-it-all children who have lived a sheltered life of privilege. (Ours was a harsher reality.)
I also enjoyed Lavanya Sankaran’s lavish and elaborately festooned descriptions.
The room became warmer, with the blazing sacred fire and the collective heat of all the people crowded into that shrinking room. Women developed heat-delineated arcs under their armpits; wisps of hair escaped the fastening of braids and topknots, flowers and oil, to curl and frizz around their faces. The chanting seemed to get louder as the air thickened about Priya. The heat slipped under her skin: she felt the warmth rushing to her head, and descending down her brow to rest on the bridge of her nose in drops of water, thick and heavy. The cumbersome silk sari embraced her body like clingwrap.
And, in another place:
See the software lads morphy their inner walter mitty into alfred doolittle (I swear, da, it was just a little bit of blooming luck.
How old would someone be who knew Walter Mitty so intimately, a character I had encountered at age 11 in my grandfather’s Thurber collection? (Wiki tells me that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was written in 1939 by James Thurber).
Someone who could look into the secret souls of a 51-year-old mother who longs to share a close relationship with a darling daughter whose education and career has turned her into a stranger?
Someone who knew that darling daughter too, inside out, searingly aware of how she juggles her aspirations and her frustrations with her inescapable dutiful-daughter DNA?

Someone who understood how precious knowledge of the Gayatri Mantra was once to a woman?

I looked online for Lavanya Sankaran and found a number of flattering reviews of this book (all kindly telling me that I was more than five years too late) but no website. Surely a star like her should have her own website – so many lesser writers do! I finally found her on facebook, and my first thought was that she looked too young to know all this. And I messaged her with a few questions but haven’t had a response yet.

04 December 2011

The Wedding Wallah by Farahad Zama

So many different kinds of love
This lovely book waited patiently for months, repeatedly superseded, until I inspected the shelf for ’plane-reading on a day-trip to Hyderabad – the closest I’ve ever been to Vizag, where the story is set. It’s the third of a series about a marriage bureau run by Mr and Mrs Ali who make perfect traditional matches for (Hindu) brides and grooms. Other main characters are their son Rehman, their widowed niece Pari and her adopted son Vasu, their employee Aruna and her doctor husband Ramanujam.

I had read, enjoyed, and written a slightly patronising review of the second book, The Many Conditions of Love, for my Sunday Mid-day column in October last year. I liked The Wedding Wallah much more than that one (though I found both titles more marketing-driven than true to plot). If I was to compare, I’d say the new book had a better, easier-flowing story, and far better editing. Both books are rooted in the culture of the region where they are set and practically every sentence, while contributing to an engrossing story, also reveals insights into the way people here think and behave, and gives information about rituals, mores, and historical information.
The government had sanctioned a new exchange as previously the waiting list had been twelve years. She knew men who had died disappointed and phoneless, and whose children had fallen out with one another over who would inherit the father’s position on the waiting list.
Mani turned in a sudden fury, grabbed the album from her father and threw it on the ground. Pari stared in horror, first at the fallen book and then at the sullen girl.
“How dare you?” said her father and half raised his hand to strike her, before dropping it. His shoulders drooped and he bent to the floor to pick the book up. His hand touched his daughter’s feet and she automatically jerked her legs away. She pointed her hands down and then touched them to her forehead.
So the girl has not totally lost her manners, thought Pari. She still hasn’t forgotten than an older person touching a younger person’s feet is disrespectful and a sin.
I liked the fact that most touches of Indian English have been smoothed over or artfully enhanced to create atmosphere. But I found it odd that ‘tortilla’ was used to describe 'roti' to an English readership , where surely the chappati was invented long before the tortilla.

What I liked best about this book was that it was a very good story, and well told, and I was sorry it got over a good half hour before we landed back in Pune. Mulling over what I’d read, I particularly admired the author’s craft in creating high-quality entertainment, and high-quality positive propaganda too, helping readers to share his eminently sensible perspective on complicated issues of the subcontinent: not just the Naxalite movement, not just the intense struggles of homosexuals, but also care of the infirm, insights into love, long-term relationships and infidelity, and different parenting formats. Best of all, it creates a much-needed positive feeling about Islamic traditions and lifestyle.

30 November 2011

Lucknow Boy by Vinod Mehta

Life story of an editor
Why would anyone be interested in reading about the life of the editor of Outlook group of magazines? I wasn’t. But when I got home from a trip and found my husband, who had lived a few formative years in Lucknow deeply immersed in it and regaling us with snippets at the dinner table, I knew I had to.
Vinod Mehta’s memoirs are easy to read, spicy, and worthwhile. Being a skilled and experienced journalist, he paints a clear, comprehensive picture of his life and times, and gives a good perspective of the social and political events that shaped world and Indian history in that period. His childhood in Lucknow laid the foundation for his celebrated ‘pseudo-secularism’ and we get a few glimpses of Lucknow humour too.
Eight years in England followed, during which Vinod Mehta got little glimpses of different European cultures through a string of girlfriends. Reading English newspapers helped shape his view of the world – and influenced him to become the writer he became. Back in India, his decades as a journalist had dramatic highs and lows. This book contains his descriptions of various events and how he approached and covered them in the different publications he edited, providing a wide-ranging lesson in contemporary Indian history.
His own life had enough drama to be compelling too. Most poignant of all is the time he fell into a manhole while walking to save a few rupees – “for a few moments in the heart of darkness I touched the depths of despair,” he writes.

Right through the highs and lows, the hype and straight talk, I found it impossible to forget that Vinod Mehta’s success and glory would never have taken its present shape if, at 21, he had married the young Swiss woman who became pregnant in the course of their affair. She chose to have the child; the father was adamant that he did not want anything to do with her. What happened to his daughter? Vinod Mehta does not know.
We may turn resolutely away from that sin – inexcusable, surely? – but the rest of the book, too, shows Vinod Mehta as a man of clear priorities and simple needs. He is good humoured, relaxed – and (one who revels in poking fun at himself) a closet egotist. He never learnt to drive a car. Till the age of forty he owned only one pair of shoes (on the impeccable logic that you can only wear one pair at a time); when they broke irretrievably he would buy another. But as the powerful editor of the burgeoning Sunday Observer, his "social and party status went up a few notches" and, shrugging on the solitary suit in his wardrobe, could he continue to get away with those red loafers?
I noticed that while Vinod Mehta writes affectionately if patronisingly about his mother, his father is just a remote and sketchy character with constipation who does not even feature in the index of this book.
That particular omission, however, could well be because the index is a careless and unprofessional job which leaves out other stuff too, and even repeats entries.

This book has many lessons for journalists. In addition to the example of his own career, Vinod Mehta has also listed FAQs towards the end of the book and aired views on them, including practical observations such as:
Editors and back-of-the book writers may be unaware, but those who take handouts are held in contempt by the providers.
I’m not sure whether the aesthetics of that sentence appealed to me. Any number of abrupt and faintly ungrammatical phrases in this book troubled me. One I noted said,"all his life he had never worked." I was also confused by the many sudden transitions, with subject changes crashing into each other leaving no breathing space for the reader. Vinod Mehta has thanked his editor effusively in the acknowledgements - but really ... I'm not sure.

In this book, Vinod Mehta makes peace with a number of people. He has also indulged himself gloriously by taking digs at many more, from JRD Tata and Balasaheb Thackeray to Shobha‘a’ De and William Dalrymple. Of course the latter exercise is much more fun for the reader.
“Never have I seen such a collection of pompous, self-important, Fortune 500 bores and busybodies pretending to set the economic and political agenda for the world,” he describes Davos, calling it “a charmless rich man’s playground.” I particularly enjoyed his scathing description of the bossy American ambassador Robert D. Blackwill’s overbearing dinner parties at which a post 9/11 premise that America must always set the rules kicked in and had him insulting his guests if they tried to speak. And I loved reading about the design artist Moinuddin and Vinod Mehta’s repeated appreciation of his brilliance, particularly because, many years ago, I had the privilege of working with Moinuddin too.

One of the things I admired in this book was the description of the Editorial Charter of Vinod Mehta’s erstwhile company New Frontier Publishing Ltd (it never actually went into business). This charter dedicated the company to journalism of the highest possible standard, and to creating publications that would owe allegiance to no political party, politician, business house, caste, community, government or interest group. It pledged to frequently challenge the established order and be critical of powerful political, commercial and social institutions and individuals when necessary; to accurately inform members of the community about the way in which their society operates.
There’s not a single Indian media house which comes anywhere near these standards. If only there was.

23 November 2011

Lonely gods by Shivani Singh

Desi Barbara Cartland
One of the things I liked about this book was the great detail about the relationship between Physics and spirituality. Since I know very little about such esoteric matters, it was hard to decide whether to admire the depth of research or the extent of imagination. Either way, there is enormous information here about a range of subjects from the scriptures and other fields such as astro-palmistry, ‘saints’ and their partners, healing energies, karmic pegs, the universe being in ‘cahoots’, the Cosmic Egg, and even an academic discipline called ‘Quanti Mytho’.
One of the things that made me uneasy about Lonely Gods was the language, rife with phrases like ‘rocksure Punjabi confidence’ which I found jarring, and a tone which I felt more suited to a giddyheaded adolescent:
After the ceremony, the group sat gratefully under a spring sun that warmed them and lit them up in just the way they wanted. Chomping on VNP’s ubiquitous samosas, a formal introduction of the team members finally took place.
We will only find out what VNP stands for at the end of the book, but there are six team members. The genders are ‘evenly spaced’, with three males and three females. A spectrum of ages is represented, and a token from another race too. They are, of course, going to save the world.
The hero and heroine of this book are Twin Flames. Hot, magic energy flies between them! Sadly, circumstances have contrived to keep them apart:
They would wake in the middle of the night to the sensation of lips against their skin, of hands clutching their hair, of hip against hip. The sensation would be followed by extreme physical pain, as if their bodies were stretching to be with the other. Soon after, it would start raining. As if the sky and the clouds and the private parts of Nature were conspiring and participating in the wetness of their thighs, their nights, precipitating their union almost like the grand partner in a ménage a trois.
Some of the lusty scenes are even more ludicrous:
She became aware of a slow trickle wetting her thighs and his body started to ache from the strain of staying away from her.
A slow trickle wetting her thighs? Hm - sounds more like a bladder accident than someone getting horny. In general, I did find that this book painted a rather unrealistic world, one in which hospital staff are concerned about a patient in a way I don’t think ever actually happens. But I liked the frequent spikes of casual humour:
The doctor squeaked, “There are too many toxins in his system coming from too many avenues.”
Stop making my uncle sound like Park Street during rush hour, Uma thought, but held her tongue.
I can’t say I enjoyed this book, but tried hard to think that there must be many who would. The Secret of Sirikot by the same author was also a highly romantic thriller set in a palace but I found that better written and more absorbing.

19 November 2011

I too had a dream by Verghese Kurien

Good things can happen
I picked this book up to flip through but could not put it down. Published in 2005, it is the story of Verghese Kurien and how he set up the Gujarat milk cooperatives. Written in the first person, it is easy to read and, though written for Kurien by a journalist, Gouri Salvi, gives a clear sense of hearing him speak in his own voice – crisp, blunt, and authoritarian.

The book starts with Kurien’s childhood and education in the 1940s, and the series of events which led to him being sent by the nascent Government of India, soon after Independence, to work in the Anand Dairy. Kurien hated the place, hated his job, and felt disliked and unwelcome. What was it that led this man to bring the milk farmers of the region together in a cooperative which began supplying good-quality milk to the cities and soon brought economic and social change to the region? What kept him there year after year, decade after decade?
The historical events this book documents are well told and engaging. Besides streamlining milk supply and giving ownership to the farmers, we also learn how Kurien took on the might of the advanced dairy-farming nations and multinational organizations which, fearing the loss of an enormous milk-consuming market, did all they could to throttle dairy farming in India. And we learn his simple, common-sense economics and techniques of marketing which contributed to this success.
The Indian bureaucracy was another battle Kurien fought, frequently brought to the edge of disaster when he vented his hot temper and scathing tongue on lazy, self-serving officials, only to be pulled back into the fold by those in power who admired his sincere efforts and immense contribution to the development of the country.

I too had a dream also tells how Kurien’s tremendous success in creating dairy cooperatives led to efforts to create similar structures for oil seed, and fruit and vegetable. He was also requested to help streamline dairy farming in Pakistan and Sri Lanka – but sadly was unable to break through the corruption and vested interests that continue to preserve imported milk powder as the main source of milk in these countries.
Unlike other memoirs, the cover of this book is not a flattering photograph of the author – but an artistic wallpaper montage of Indian cattle. Photographs inside the book show Kurien with his family, and with personalities at historical events.
“I am not an employee of the government, I am an employee of the farmers,” Kurien says repeatedly. His vision of a country owned and managed by the people is a compelling one. One of the most powerful messages of this book is how a real democracy can function – with things are run by real people rather than an officious bureaucracy.

13 November 2011

The Fatwa Girl by Akbar Agha

Engrossing, informative - and sad
One of the most insistent thoughts in my mind as I read and enjoyed The Fatwa Girl was that a book could actually be a good book even if it doesn’t have a strongly pervasive literary quality.

For the last several years, the books I’ve read coming out of Pakistan have been of a standard of English that easily matched up to the best writing anywhere in the world. Even Moni Mohsin, with her giddy-headed and ungrammatical character Butterfly, has a style that clearly arises from an orthodox, rather elite tradition of English literature. For the first time I was reading a Pakistani English book written in language drawn from a wider section of the bell curve; one that even used ‘flouted’ when it meant to say ‘flaunted’. And never once did it upset me.
I think the main reason for my easy acceptance was that I found the plot very interesting, and revelled in the wealth of detail about Pakistani history and the different aspects of its religion and culture which are easily woven in to it.
The story is told by Omar, a young man from an upper middle class family in Karachi. The Fatwa girl is his neighbour and we learn how, despite being from religious sects that detest each other, they become friends. Amina is a smart, carefree young woman. What is it that turns her into a suicide bomber? The suspense builds up as we find out. And, as Akbar Agha takes us to this final turn in the storyline, we journey through a variety of concepts and landscapes: historical information from the Arab world and the subcontinent which contributed to the fabric of modern-day Pakistan; the myths that arose because of the nature of its people; the contrast between traditional and modern lifestyles and ways of thinking; the economic conditions which have allowed corruption to flourish and created power blocks and an ever-widening rift between socio-economic classes. From Karachi to Lahore to the beautiful but desecrated Swat and even a cameo from the Pakistani effort to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan; from Kipling to Lear to Jung; from comparing the plight of oppressed women in Pakistan and the USA: the fabric of this book arises from this knowledgeable author’s perspective on his country and the world. Says Omar,
I recalled the moment we laid Grandpa into the grave and a strange thought entered my mind. It made me think differently about religion from that day on.
I thought, a billion people can’t be wrong. But a billion people would swear that Grandfather would go to Hell for saying Jesus is the Son of God. Another billion would swear he would go to Heaven for saying Jesus is the Son of God. Which billion would be right?

Reading The Fatwa Girl, I wondered whether the story, too, was drawn from something Akbar Agha had experienced himself, and I emailed him with a few questions. He replied:
Perhaps the only thing I share in common with my protagonist Omar, who eventually, like me, joins the Foreign Service, is the feeling that the sorrow of parting is never sweet. I was a bachelor for many years in the Service and just when you got to really know someone you’d receive orders for transfer to another country. I guess the sadness of parting from someone you’ve become intimate with is reflected in Omar’s story.
If the Shia-Sunni divide is at the core of my story it’s because I’ve felt its presence even as a schoolboy. My best friend at school was someone I’d hang out with most of the day, go to movies and parties and dances together and do all the fun things teenagers do – except during the month of Muharram when we couldn’t meet at all because he was busy attending religious meetings or participating in self-flagellation which as a Sunni I couldn’t understand, and during this entire month my best buddy would become an alien to me. I’ve always felt the divide between the two sects should have been repaired a thousand years, but it’s no better now than when it started and will eventually raise its head even among the best of friends.
I asked Akbar Agha about what he is writing now and he said he has just completed a novel entitled The Moon Belongs to Everyone. Its main character is Alvi, a young Pakistani in America, a barista at a Seattle Starbucks, but his grandmother thinks he’s a barrister, and this results in a comical situation. He described the book in some detail, and it struck me that it would also very likely be filled with interesting information and perceptions, and include an element of rising suspense, both features which I had enjoyed very much in this book too.

08 November 2011

Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat

A seamy, distasteful world
Ever since Chetan Bhagat’s first book Five Point Someone appeared seven years ago, he has been the most successful Indian novelist ever and his popularity has grown steadily.
I found Five Point Someone unreadable, but quite enjoyed his next three books, and believed – while naively looking forward to the next one – that although he would never be accepted by anyone who expects a certain basic literary quality, his readability was improving.
Gladys laughed aloud many times when I read 2 States to her and naturally that enhanced my enjoyment - and improved my opinion - of it.
Revolution 2020 has an impressive theme: the alternative system of higher education in India. This is a system which, tragically, has far less to do with real education than with anxious students desperately seeking a means to escape their economic deprivation, and the nexus of politician-crooks who exploit this distressing but very real anxiety. Chetan Bhagat has done an excellent job of describing how the racket works. There are details of the sordid coaching classes which aim to prepare mediocre students for an education for which they have no aptitude.
The book also exposes the sordid methods used in setting up large and glossy but fundamentally hollow ‘universities’ or institutes of technology, with the primary motive of profit.
Maybe it will help to protect the many young people who read this book from being duped; maybe it will help them to try and understand their own needs, abilities and aspirations and follow paths of education and career accordingly.
However, some of the situations it contains are ghastly and distasteful. No matter how ‘not ok’ the education system is, surely one’s personal values and behaviour are based only on one’s own choices. The heroine of the book, for instance, has two childhood friends and romances both alternately, but also sometimes at the same time. It appears as if she is swinging between them depending on whose material prospects are better at the moment. And when the hero of the book, in an attempt to nobly exit her life and leave her to the other, more decent and capable man – he does not honestly explain his thoughts and feelings to her. Instead, he fabricates a ludicrous and revolting tableau with the purpose of shocking her away from him forever. If it was an erotic scene Chetan Bhagat felt it necessary to introduce - surely he could have invented a more imaginative and wholesome one.
Chetan Bhagat says he writes primarily to entertain but also to create awareness. I did like the expose of the crooked education system, and, instead of wanting him to improve his language - we're actually quite lucky it isn't even worse - can’t help wishing that he would create better role models.

06 November 2011

1888 dial India by Anuvab Pal

Tandoori Tycoon
This book is not just a novel. As the memoir of Arun Gupta, Indian entrepreneur, it’s a complete postgraduate course in Business Management. Arun has launched his latest and most brilliant entrepreneurial idea – a suicide helpline call centre for victims of America’s economic crisis. And in the course of the book, along with his mad and thrilling story, we pick up invaluable snippets of business wisdom:

People ask me, “Do you have no morals?” In business, never directly answer yes.
The main thing in business is the main thing everywhere – keeping costs down. There are some ladies in Florida that run this thing – Suicide Watch. It is America’s main suicide hotline but these ladies are fools – no MBAs, just three chicks called Anne, Jane, and Margaret. All above 60. Not even in suits. They have some psychology degree or some shit and are running this for charity like an NGO. Unbelievable. This must be the same as when the Europeans discovered that the new world had no system of land ownership. How can someone not own land? How can you not monetize suicide? Same thing.
These Florida ladies near this golf ball place are costing this suicide hotline thirty thousand dollars a year to operate. Plus phone bills. Plus absentees. Plus old. Plus benefits, coffee machine, chit chat about grandchildren crap. I am doing this at five thousand. The word is arbitrage. That’s real business. It’s like making the iPhone for three dollars and selling it for four hundred. Another word – China. And in the context of Chinese manufacturing, a third word – respect. They are so dedicated at keeping manufacturing costs down that they refuse to learn English. English would mean wasting time talking to each other. They understand that in international business, silence = productivity. That’s why respect.
Arun, a typical Indian businessman, was once arrested at JFK:
In my interrogation, they asked me if I knew a lot of people. They asked me if I knew Osama. I told them, I have no contact with Al Qaeda but that I only deal in C-level executives (CEO, CFO), so, yes, if Al Qaeeda got in touch with 1-888 about potential business collaborations, then I would meet Osama to sign the deal. I should clarify, we would be open to only phone and technology related Al Qaeda work, not terror attacks; we are not into bricks and mortar or blowing up bricks and mortar. Material costs are too high – the chemicals, explosives – besides being illegal. Even though they keep the same hours and work at night like us.
And, a typical Indian businessman, he makes enormous efforts to develop and train his employees. Through this praiseworthy mission we get a glimpse of the lifestyle of the great Indian middle class:
“What do you do Saturday nights? Sit at home and eat chips?”
“We sit as a family and watch the Baba Ramdev programme on Janmat channel and do the yoga exercises.”
“Lame. So un-American.”
“We may not go out Saturday nights sir but we are not traditional. I want to clear up that misunderstanding. We have gone to Dirty Splash Water Park in Bhandup, Inorbit Mall, we shop in Hyper-Fresh Goregaon and order from Pizza Hut every night. Plus PVR movies on Sunday .Good fun. I’m a member of Raghav’s Gym and I’ve taken my father and sister bowling in Pleasure Lanes at Andheri. I like gelato, it is Italian. Also TGI Friday mocktails we’ve had. As a family, we watch BBC, not K-serials. We are new to discos only.”
Several times while reading this book, I wondered whether it would have readers who did not understand its sarcastic overtones, and might take it all literally. How likely will digs at Chetan Bhagat be successful in a world where Chetan Bhagat’s readers and fans sadly outnumber Anuvab Pal’s by a large margin? What would people who don’t know the truth about Arindam Chaundhary make of a sentence like this:
In my thirty years as a business leader and India Inc. ambassador, I have never seen such a tense fundraising effort. Except once, while watching the great guru Arindam Chaudhary asking people in Indore to fund a business school he wants to start exclusively for Indians in Las Vegas...
And how many would find the following para perplexing rather than responding by rolling on the floor laughing:
My work with Mhatre, however was neither with Mhatre nor Karnik. It was with Ms Devine, a Christian lady from South Goa. In this case, Mhatre changed his name and his sex. Some businesses you can do as a man, some as a woman. Ms Devine bought smuggled goods from customs officers and sold them to other smugglers. Commission-based business. He already had two police records as Girish Mhatre and Anthony Karnik, so he thought it best to diversify into this third business as a woman. That’s an important business lesson – don’t let your sex get in the way of your business idea. Women say that when it comes to rising to the level of CEO of a company, they face a glass ceiling. I look at this as a similar scenario but with a critical difference. For reference, see Coke and Pepsi. I call this a genital ceiling.
What I admired most about this book is, even more than it’s crazy humour (or even its radical business truths) is the very strong voice of Anuvab Pal’s character Arun Gupta. It is full of confidence and authoritative opinions.
I knew chettinad is from Chennai (in fact, it’s Chennai’s Tamil name)
Even the language is consistent, with just minor misuse of preposition or article for that extra-natural touch of Indian English.

A few days after I finished reading this book, I bought a roll of adhesive tape. India is a great global software and manufacturing superpower but our adhesive tape is horrible. Not only that, but the back of the box read:

  • Appears invisible after sticking.
  • Lasts long without yellowing.
  • Ideal for permanent applications like mending, splicing, sealing etc.
  • Prevents tampering of amount on cheque/DD
  • Easily tearable; can be written on.
It was not easily tearable; I did not try writing on it. And I couldn’t help but think fondly back to Arun Gupta.