24 December 2017

Reaching for the Sky by Urvashi Sahni

The best book I read in 2017

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

01 December 2017

Behind Bars by Sunetra Choudhury

Criminal justice in India: perversion, sleaze and corruption

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

16 May 2017

Perhaps Tomorrow by Pooranam Elayathamby with Richard Anderson

A hug for the kaamwali bai

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

20 February 2017

The Silliest Autobiography in the World by PG Bhaskar

The Silliest Review in the World

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

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