25 May 2014

The King's Harvest by Chetan Raj Shrestha

Sheer brilliance

There is a sheer brilliance to the fabric of this book that goes beyond its obvious function of being the best ever companion volume for a visit to Sikkim.
This brilliance shines through its skillful use of language, the details of description of landscape and incident (precise but unobtrusive); the insights into the lives and minds of the characters; the turns of engrossing plot, and so on. I think I enjoyed The King’s Harvest even more than I’d enjoy an actual trip to Sikkim (set like a ruby on a knuckle between Nepal and Bhutan).
This book consists of two novellas: An Open-and Shut Case, and The King’s Harvest. Between the two, we experience urban and rural Sikkim and, by virtue of the essential nature of travel on its winding roads, also come in close contact with all that lies in between. Along the way we observe great natural beauty, denuded forests and remote wilderness. We witness lives of abject rural poverty as well as the abundance of the land, the joys and rigours of monastic life, and the clutter of haphazard civic development in areas where people play tambola and aspire to upward mobility. We learn that cleansing is forbidden when attacked by leeches, for a wiped-out leech is bound to be replaced by a hungry one. We understand that the ephemeral nature of reality is not just intrinsic to this terrain but also that its people are steeped in the consciousness of this reality.
And this book is strewn with humour and irony. In fact, our first major event in this Shangri-La is a most gruesome murder, and every aspect of that open-and-shut case is strewn with humour and irony. This is equally true of The King’s Harvest, from its basic premise, all through the journey it takes us on, and right down to the children’s names.
One of the things I admired most about this book is that, set as it is in a small, landlocked region, it is inhabited by a wide spectrum of humanity. In fact, two of the central characters determinedly represent opposite ends of this spectrum. Dechen OC may be a small-town policewoman, but she has sophistication embedded in her mindset, language and even lifestyle. Tontem, on the other hand, is an exaggerated parody of rusticism and gullibility.
I can’t wait to read what Chetan Raj Shrestha turns out next.

20 May 2014

Healer: the biography of Dr Prathap Chandra Reddy by Pranay Gupte

The foolish reviewer

A friend sent me this message a short while ago, something she saw on facebook:
Does anyone know who Saaz Aggarwal is? Well, let me tell you: She's a Pune-based writer who "reviewed" my biography, Healer: Dr Prathap Chandra Reddy and the Transformation of India (Penguin) for Hindustan Times. In my opinion, I wonder if she actually read the 600-page book. For example, she says I did not deal with health insurance! Whaaa? There's an entire chapter on health insurance. And so on. Ordinarily, I ignore foolish reviewers on the grounds that they are, well, foolish, and that they have some sort of agenda. But this so-called review is egregiously misinformed. It misrepresents my book. The next time that Manjula Narayan, books editor of Hindustan Times, makes assignments, she should at least insist that reviewers read a book before "reviewing" it.
My ‘review’ of this book actually appeared in Hindustan Times on 5 April 2014, and if you like you can read it here: http://www.hindustantimes.com/books/booksreviews/book-review-healer-a-biography-of-dr-prathap-c-reddy/article1-1204417.aspx
I logged on to facebook and was bemused to find that the author of Healer, Pranay Gupte, had posted this comment along with a photograph of me.
It’s not nice to spit and scratch in public, no? So I did ‘like’ on the comment. Then I noticed that this was a 'sponsored' link. This meant that Pranay Gupte had paid money to facebook so that my photo and the defamatory comment would be seen by more people!
Here is a transcript of my response, and the next two comments:
Saaz: Uh oh Pranay Gupte ... this SPONSORED link misses a few other things I said in my review:
Presented as the author’s year-long journey in writing it, Healer includes irrelevant description of each interview: the interiors of Sheila Dikshit’s ‘lovely bungalow in the Lutyens Zone in New Delhi’; the CV of the architect of Apollo and information about his leisure pursuits; lyrics of a song New York financier Richard Cashin sang at a Chennai cocktail party; and more. The interviews are weighted with banal hallelujahs: “Dr Reddy possesses great strength of character”; “it is rare to find a leader with such infectious enthusiasm and high principles as Dr Reddy”; “a handsome man with exquisitely polite manners”; “the so-called learning curve happens faster at Apollo than anywhere else I have seen”; and dozens more. Pruning these and the rather excessive repetition (that Dr Reddy’s granddaughter married ‘superstar’ Chiranjeevi’s son appears four times) would have made Healer easier on the wrist.And a whole lot of other stuff I LIKED about your book too :-)
Pranay Gupte: Well, I appreciate your response, Saaz. Cheers from Delhi, and I hope we meet in more pleasant circumstances.
Saaz: What I wrote was a measured, balanced review AFTER reading, making notes and mulling on every page in your book. What you've done here is post a slanderous comment along with my photograph. Nice, eh! (Incidentally, I never said that you "did not deal with health insurance". What I said was, "Controversial topics such as vaccinations, the impact of health insurance and tort, and the basic concerns of access and affordability to best-quality medical care for the majority of Indians are not delved.")
I've been away from this blog for far too long. Thank you, Pranay Gupte, for getting me back to it.

Postscript: The morning after I wrote this post and shared it on my facebook wall, tagging Pranay Gupte, I find that he seems to have 'unfriended' or perhaps 'blocked' me. I wonder why!

Pranay Gupte is a high-profile journalist, sufficiently well-connected to get the President of India to launch his book for him. He responds to a genuine critique by making malicious and ill-founded comments about the reviewer.
Does this mean that book reviewers must always praise books by well-known people, even when they are full of holes, for fear of vindictive reprisal?
Perhaps this is the reason that responsible books editors like Manjula Narayan of Hindustan Times (also maligned in Pranay Gupte's sponsored facebook post) try, whenever possible, to give books for review to writers with a track record of understanding and analyzing books, in addition to having a respected body of their own work.