28 September 2009

Breathing in Colour by Clare Jay

All the world's a stage, especially India
I saw a large review of this book in a mainstream paper in my city recently and couldn’t help thinking, “Hah, another sucker”.
I’d bought it because the cover is pretty and the contents looked intriguing. The author has a PhD in creative writing and I did find that she’d done a reasonable job.
A review I read on-line said, “Clare Jay's stunning debut novel explores the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship.” Now there’s something about those words “stunning debut novel” that makes me shudder – remember that sound of chalk screeching on the blackboard?
Anyway, what did actually stun me about the book was something no one else seemed to have noticed, not even the large review in the Indian newspaper last week. India was described as dirty and dangerous. That’s fair enough, I suppose. But to talk about it as some kind of zoo which only really brave, desperado-type people would visit; and to relegate Indian characters and situations to the status of props – and then try to sell the book in India – well, I’m sorry I really don’t understand that. In short, the story is good, its components are strong, some parts are silly, and the book made me angry and a bit disgusted.
For the long version, read the review I wrote for the 21 Jun 2009 issue of Sunday Mid-day:
This book has an appealing cover and an intriguing blurb. Alida Slater suddenly receives a phone call from a police station in Madurai. Her daughter, who had gone backpacking in India from the UK, is reported missing. She flies there immediately to try and find her. With this promising premise, we are now led into a story that entertains but does not impress. Clare Jay has a PhD in Creative Writing. Her knowledge of the fascinating sensory condition known as synaesthesia, as well as her work with the interpretation of dreams, form an attractive backdrop to the book. She is also an artist, and her central character Mia who we never actually meet in person has created interesting collages which add to the texture of the story.
To have disappeared in India – something that apparently happens to a significant number of tourists who come to this country – is a theme that would certainly hold interest. The tracking down of a missing child adds its own emotional allure. The author is skilled at developing characters and sustaining interest. There has been tragedy in Alida’s life before. Gentle hints and veiled references to it, and the impact it had on the various family members, continue through the book. We guess and imagine what exactly it might be, until it is finally described towards the end. Of course it is closely connected with what actually happened to Mia, the daughter.
The mystery and the clues that are followed, a romantic interest with its own little captivating story, the way the past is described and woven into the story are all quite gripping.
Unfortunately, however, the plot hinges on a premise that is weak and implausible. How could anyone believe that such a thing was possible? It made me question the author’s connection to reality, and even suspect that the culture she represents was far too emotionally self-indulgent. It reminded me of something I recently overheard at a museum in her country.
A little boy asked his mother, in connection with one of the exhibits, what a mistress was and she replied, “Oh it’s when a man has another … another girl friend … when he … when he’s already married … because … because he is a man.” Most of us turn out unprepared for such questions, but surely to say “because he is a man” rather than “because he is dishonest” or “because he is undisciplined” to a child, or even not give any reason, would only consolidate a culture in which it’s acceptable or even necessary for a man to have a mistress.
Thinking about my anger and feeling of scorn towards this author, I suppose it arose as a reaction to the way I felt India is portrayed in this book. It is described as a place which is not just dirty and dangerous but not even real. Instead, India appears to be some kind of zoo to which real people – daring people, not ordinary ones – could make visits and have real experiences while the characters and systems in it were simply props to which no real connection was possible.

24 September 2009

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

A day I don’t regret
So – the book reads exactly like his previous ones.
Well, we already knew it was part of a SERIES, didn’t we!
So – his language is careless and clichéd.
Well, sack the editor!
Doubleday (doubtless dizzy with delight) reports that more than two million copies of this book sold in the United States, Canada and Britain in its first week, making it the fastest selling adult novel in history. 55,000 copies sold in the first week in India alone, not bad for a book priced at Rs. 699!
The book launched on Tuesday last week. I took the day off work (where they're quite oblivious of this little secret life of mine; don't breathe a word, will you), stayed in bed all day Wednesday reading it, and wrote Predictable but Gripping for Sunday Mid-day. A day I don’t regret!

23 September 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

WIN Club Book Discussion
I’ve always felt privileged to be part of this book discussion group, where you have people who grew up reading Irish books, or American books, or books in French, German, Russian and other languages, and this often throws a completely unexpected light on something you read. Yesterday we met at Armity’s to talk about The White Tiger, the outsider that won the 2008 Booker Prize.
This book is written in the form of letters to the “Chinese Premier” just before he visits India. The writer is Balram, a boy from a poor family in a village in north India, in what he calls “the Darkness”. Through the letters we learn about his life, dreams, lack of education, what it means to get out of “the Darkness”, the class and caste divides in India, and the two most important and publicized differences between China and India (the two great emerging nations of the world!) democracy and entrepreneurship, their true meaning and how they really work.
It’s very well written and easy to read, and the dark satire is enjoyable but also creates a pall of gloom.
Of the 22 at the meeting, about 8 or 9 had read the book and though most said they admired its style, concept and unique presentation, only 2 said they had actually enjoyed it.
One of the questions discussed was whether people believed the premise of the story and most, even those who were new to India, said that yes, it made them very depressed and all but
they did believe it.
Erika then mentioned that she’d had a mail from a German friend that Adiga had been quoted in a German publication saying that he was really irritated that people were taking the book so literally when he had actually meant it to be a kind of allegory!
We talked about whether we would give our drivers the book to read and I had to confess that I’d lent my copy to Satoor who is an amazing person – a philosopher and orator if there ever was one, and really more of a friend since he’s not an employee and only drives me sometimes; we spend all our journeys together trying hard to educate each other – but he’d given it back saying thank you very much but he could make no sense of it.
Then Sunita pointed out that we have a club but our drivers have a club too! Everyone agreed that they’re sitting out there and may well be talking about what they heard us artlessly revealing as we chattered away reclining grandly in the back seat imagining ourselves alone!

Gladys said she thought it was a good book and pointed out the way in which the characters had been developed, slowly transforming in a very believable way as we turned the pages.
Nicole, who is Dutch, then endeared herself to me forever by saying how she herself had changed so much since coming to India and just couldn’t believe that she was now quite capable of screaming in anger at some poor woman and thinking herself justified (“she can’t even CLEAN properly!!”) And I think I’d have liked this book even if it hadn’t won the Booker, because it made me think a little about how I treat my own domestic employees.

20 September 2009

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

World-class fictional Indian detective
I suppose it’s indicative of The New India that we now have a truly world-class fictional detective.
And that his creator is British, has lived in Delhi for more than ten years, and has an Indian-American wife. The Case of the Missing Servant is funny and clever, but it’s also a fast-moving, gripping detective story. It’s set in a very believable India and the detective Vish Puri (being Punjabi and all) loves to boast about his achievements, lives on deep-fried food despite the despite the despairing entreaties of doctor and wife, has nicknames for his staff and family members (more Bombay tapori nicknames than Punjabi ones, actually), and is also very modern and “today”, being unusually socially conscious. Some of the dialogue is in Indian English but some unmistakably Brit and when I asked Tarquin Hall why, he replied, “The book is for a non-Indian audience so I didn't want to make it too dense, just give readers a feel for how people cut back and forth between languages and often add Hindi words to their English and vice versa. The only exception is Mummy who always has the same patter.”
The book jacket and style reminded me of Mma Ramotswe and the Botswana ladies detective series, and Tarquin Hall said, “I don't mind being compared to McCall Smith, but a couple of things. I had not read No. 1 Ladies books before I wrote this; it was only afterwards that my agent recommended the series. Secondly, I think they're similar in the sense that they have a certain light touch - neither are dark thrillers or typical Christie whodunnits. But India is a far more varied, complicated culture than Botswana and there's a lot more going on in my book. Lastly, I think it's a bit of a lazy comparison because detective 'cozies' are nothing new. British and American writers in the 1920s and 30s churned them out by the dozen. Many were sold in paperback on train stations in the same way they are in India today.”
When I mentioned how charmed I was with his name he replied, “My father named me Tarquin after reading Etruscan Places by DH Lawrence, about his travels in Etruria. It was the 60s and you could get away with naming your children with odd/unlikely names!”
I wrote about this book for Sunday Mid-day along with another enjoyable book A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint, solved by one Inspector Singh. Imagine – two world-class Indian detectives, each promising a trail of suspense to come – arrived on this world almost in the same instant.
Here’s a general Q&A from Tarquin Hall about this book - focussed more, I'm afraid, towards the international readers this book was actually written for:

What inspired you to begin a mystery series featuring a Delhi-based, Punjabi private investigator?
I was sitting in Delhi with one of my wife’s cousins whose parents were trying to find her a suitable partner for an arranged marriage and she started telling me about how she’d been investigated by a private detective. He had made enquiries about her at work. Was she a good girl? Did she have a boyfriend, smoke, drink? He even went so far as to ask one of her colleagues to bring her out into the street in front of the office on a pretence so that some prospective in-laws could drive past and get a look at her. Apparently, they weren’t impressed and her parents had to keep looking.
But I decided to find some Delhi detectives and interview them. Some of the city’s more colourful and accomplished private investigators readily talked to me. I was amazed by the diversity of their cases and their methodology, which often requires undercover work. One of them told me how he had once infiltrated a nudist colony in Goa. During another case he had to take on the alias of a Xerox toner smuggler. I wrote a piece for The Sunday Times (UK) and afterwards decided to write a novel. My wife is Punjabi and I have come to know her family well, plus I have a lot of Punjabi friends in Delhi, so my character had to be Punjabi. They’re boisterous, daring, funny people. They’re often described as the Texans of India.
Vish Puri’s name can have a secondary meaning—what is it?

His first name is Vishwas, which he shortens because Vish rhymes with ‘wish’. Together Vish and Puri can be taken to mean ‘granter of wishes’. Puri is also known as ‘Chubby’ to his family and friends. It’s very typical in Punjabi families for everyone to have nicknames. I know one family where the three grown brothers are known as ‘Happy’, ‘Lucky’ and ‘Lovely’.
What qualities would you say set Vish Puri apart from the countless other fictional detectives in the genre?

Unlike most detectives, Puri recognizes that he cannot work alone. This is because in India it is usually impossible to get a straight answer to virtually any question. So, although Puri masterminds his own investigations (and is not shy of boasting about his abilities), he often uses undercover operatives to get the information he needs. Facecream is one. A beautiful, feisty Nepali, she has many faces: one day she might be working as a household maid, the next as a sexy party girl. Flush is another. So-named because he was the first to have a flush toilet in his village, he is a whizz with electronics and computers. Another quality that adds to Puri’s originality is that he is religious, a practicing Hindu. After he is shot at in the first book, he goes to the temple to give thanks for his narrow escape. He is obviously discerning and a great believer in logic and deduction, but he does not dismiss the power of the Almighty and of Fate.
Puri dismisses Sherlock Holmes as a veritable upstart, claiming he stole many of his methods from an Indian named Chanakya. Who was Chanakya?

Chanakya lived in 300 BC and helped found the Mauryan Empire, India’s first centralized power. He was the world’s first spymaster and founded the art of espionage and intelligence gathering. In his great treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra, Chanakya outlines how spies should go about their business and even recommends a range of disguises for various different situations: brothel keepers, storytellers, acrobats, cooks, shampooers, cowherds, monks, elephant handlers, thieves, snake catchers, hunchbacks, dwarfs and eunuchs to name but a few.
Why does Puri give all his staff such colorful nicknames: Facecream, Tubelight, Handbrake?
Puri likes to give everyone nicknames; it’s a very Punjabi habit. He calls his wife ‘Rumpi’ and the tea boy ‘Door Stop’. When it comes to his undercover operatives, like Facecream, he finds it prudent not to use their real names. They often find themselves in dangerous situations and their real identities are well kept secrets.
In a relatively short time, Puri’s hometown of Delhi has grown from a relatively small city to a sprawling urban monster with 16 million people. What caused this explosion?
Two things. One, the Indian economy has been growing rapidly in the past ten years and enormous new industrial, commercial and residential areas have been built mostly to the east and to the south of what’s been known for the past 60 years as South Delhi. We’re talking call centers, malls, enormous luxury apartment blocks. This in turn has attracted hundreds of thousands of labourers, servants, etc. Delhi is surrounded by farmland so conceivably it could go on growing in all directions. The figures are not accurate, but India’s National Capital Region is believed to be the second largest human conurbation on earth. Two, with so much investment going towards infrastructure in the cities, rural India has been falling further behind. States like Uttar Pradesh (the largest) are getting worse in terms of crime, poverty, education and health. Every day bring news of more farmer suicides. So many more Indians are heading for the cities in search of work.
You do a wonderful job in portraying the subtleties of the Indian society’s class system. Is that system buckling under the demands of modernism?
It’s a complicated situation. In some ways it’s changing, in other ways it’s not. It is now possible for a Dalit, an untouchable, to rise to the pinnacle of political power in India. But such politicians generally do so by using caste politics to their advantage. Essentially India remains an extremely hierarchical society. You get a real sense of it in most households. In most, the servants are not allowed to eat off the same plates. Recently I was talking to a very sweet and hard working maid who was telling me about how she works in a house where she is not allowed to use the toilet, eat without permission or talk to the other servants.
Reading The Case of the Missing Servant, one is struck by the juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient. Characters use cell phones, but still cling to superstitions about djinn. Would you say this is true about most modern Indians?
Yes because the same fundamental difference between East and West holds true. We believe (with few exceptions) that the intellect governs everything, that we are rulers of our own lives and destinies. Whereas in India, everyone bar the odd atheist believes that something higher, more powerful, greater perhaps, is running the show. It makes for a very different society. It’s also a difficult concept for Westerners – myself included – to get their heads around this seeming contradiction, precisely because of the way we think.
You are British, not Indian. How did you manage to obtain “insider knowledge” about so many different classes of Indians and the different ways in which they live?

I would never describe myself as an insider. As a white guy, I’m always going to stand out and be treated differently. As an outsider I tend to ask all the obvious questions. I also get teased a lot. But I’ve spent more than a decade in India and have a lot of friends. Getting to know my wife’s Indian family, whom I am very close to, has certainly helped see a side to life most outsiders never witness.
Many western readers “know” India from the novels of Paul Scott, E.M Forster, and other British observers from the waning years of the Empire. As a British writer yourself, do you think of yourself as a similar kind of outside observer, albeit of a different era?
m pleased to be writing about today’s India, without the rose-tinted glasses. I think we need to temper our impressions of the ‘Indi-aaaaaaah’ of Gandhi, ashrams and palaces with a more realistic view. I hope my books will help bring the complexity, humour, warmth and brutality of modern India to readers around the world. It’s a fascinating place, home to nearly a fifth of humanity and holds lessons for all of us.

How much time have you spent in India?

I lived in India full-time in the late 1990s for more than three years (and before that in Pakistan for the best part of two years). Since then, I have spent extended periods in India – five months in 2008. We’re planning to move back there again in 2010.

Why do you think there has been a recent explosion of interest in America over books about India or by Indian writers?
My wife is an Indian-American and I think the reason is that unlike Britain, which has so many historic links with the country, Americans are only just discovering India. The hundreds of thousands of Indian families who emigrated to the US in the 60s and 70s are now well-integrated into American society and I think there’s a much greater familiarity with the culture they brought with them, which fuels a greater curiosity. Plus, India’s booming economy is bringing all stripes of Americans into contact with Indians and India, and I think that also stokes the appetite to read more about the place and its people.
Throughout this debut novel you refer to some of Puri’s earlier investigative triumphs, but what can readers expect from him in the future?
The next book is called The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. We see Puri on the trail of a Godman, a big Guru, who is suspected of committing a murder. After that, I’m planning to write a collection of short mysteries starring both Puri and his Mummy-ji who is a budding detective and likes to stick her nose into his investigations. I’d like to go back into Puri’s past as well. In the first book I’ve mentioned The Case of the Missing Polo Elephant. It would be great fun to think up the story. How does a polo elephant go missing?

17 September 2009

Vinegar Sunday and Cappucino Dusk by Kankana Basu

Full of life and colourful imagery – a sort of native Jhumpa Lahiri running on high voltage
Vinegar Sunday
is a collection of short stories based around the inhabitants of a certain building that stands across a busy main road in front of the Sacred Heart Church.
Situated half-way between the railway station and the fresh-fish market, and “with residents a bunch of near-lunatics”, a postman with a poetic bent of mind names it Halfway House. The name sticks.
It was only after I read Capuccino Dusk, Kankana Basu’s novel which was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2007, and found Halfway House just down the street, did I realize that it stood in a suburb of Bombay. (How silly – I should have known – where else in the world but Bandra would you find a postman with such a poetic bent of mind?)
The lives of the families of Halfway House intertwine. The stories are short and crisp, each with a pointed theme. The language, though of a uniformly high descriptive quality, tends to occasionally peak in random absurdities. The stories are centred on a community of families but are not restricted just to family realities such as the harsh oppressiveness of adults to sensitive children; what happens when assertive wives of interpersonally-gifted husbands remain lonely for too long or middle-aged women who (now that the children can manage on their own) take to writing. Here we also have a crime writer who gets kidnapped by criminals to mastermind their plots; an orphan child who discovers the properties of the foxglove, to the detriment of her unloving grandmother; an exceptionally-told story of the tension of an imminent communal riot, and the escape from it.
I was impressed by the quality of these stories, though occasionally irritated by a sudden incongruous statement or abrupt ending. I also found the back-cover blurb “With Basu around, you don’t really need Jhumpa Lahiri” annoying, but it made me think that yes, I would compare Kankana Basu favourably with the world-famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author. These stories take you where Jhumpa Lahiri cannot – her characters are “yesterday” Indians (Bengalis, to be more specific), the only kind she knows. Brilliant though they once were, they have faded into insignificance alongside the far more vibrant, confident, relaxed world citizens who continue to live in India (Bombay, that is) and that Kankana Basu is writing about. There’s a cultural identity emerging here that I don’t think anyone has done before.
Having read and felt this, I was excited to have another book by the same author in store, but it turned out that I was disappointed by Capuccino Dusk.
It’s not a bad book, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of Vinegar Sunday. I did feel that the short story is more Kankana Basu’s medium, and also that this book could have done with an editor of higher skill and focus. Like Vinegar Sunday, Capuccino Dusk is about the rituals and routines of middle-class Bombay and creates a clear impression of the life of the neighbourhood, integrating some into a tight interactive group, while others who are in fact crowding around in overpopulated Bombay, simply do not exist. In this authentic setting, the book deals with many issues, local and global. Both books are about Bengali families, their lifestyle and culture, and the way they have adapted to Bombay. Both are constructed with the same energetic and enjoyable – flawless – prose. Some of the issues Cappuccino Dusk are Hindu-Muslim prejudice, politics and power that nurture mediocrity in educational establishments, various relationship permutations possible in large families, and the tortures of a creative person with no emotional outlet. Some of the (faintly incongruous) events include a terror attack, a kidnapping, the stirrings of romance in every possible quarter, and an unlikely reunion. I felt that they could have been integrated together better and that the transitions could have been gentler.
When I told Kankana Basu this, she said she agreed and that others had given her the same feedback.
“People have told me that I went overboard using every ingredient in the kitchen to make one dish!” she said.
At the same time, I found many of Kankana Basu’s stray comments to be funny or insightful. The book starts with a family moving from Calcutta to Bombay, looking at the filthy hutments that sport television antennae and the trappings of modern life, and thinking disapprovingly, “This is faux poverty. In West Bengal, the poor are really poor.”
I found that her characters come across as very real and when I asked her, she laughed, saying, “I go into hiding every time I have a book published to avoid the furious phone calls from cantankerous uncles! My friends complain that I decorate my books with their habits and foibles! But I’m careful to stick to superficial eccentricities and never reveal real secrets.”
I also enjoyed the offbeat, wacky translations of Hindi, Bengali and Urdu poetry that the book is strewn with.
Yeh mahalon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon ki duniya

Yeh insaan ke dushman samaajon ki duniya

Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?

apparently means:

”This world of casinos, derbies and dodgy portfolios

This world of perverts, slime and sleaze
Bloody hell!
Even if I did get this screwball life
I’d kick it in the butt
And so I bid you goodbye!”

Kankana Basu may not have the spellbinding storytelling abilities of R.K. Laxman, the many-layered complex plots of Anita Desai or Amitav Ghosh; the single-spark genius of Arundhati Roy; the slick style of Amit Varma or the whiz marketing skill of Chetan Bhagat. However, I did find that her books have some literary merit, and are comfortably positioned in a large and expanding market of readers of Indian fiction.

14 September 2009

The Blue Note Book by James A. Levine

Well told, but almost all unreal
This book is set in Mumbai, but I felt myself in a foreign country. It wasn’t only because the sad cages of the child prostitutes of Foras Road and the impoverished villages of Madhya Pradesh are as far away from me as, say, Burundi or Timor-Leste. One reason was the strange names used: the very first line introduces a character called “Mamaki Briila”.
Confused, I turned the book around and read the publisher’s rave: “James A. Levine is a Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, a world-renowned scientist, doctor, and researcher. For his scientific work, Dr. Levine has regularly appeared on CNN, the BBC, the CBC, and the Discovery Channel. He lives in Oronoco, Minnesota.”
Appeased by these credentials, it struck me that since I didn’t personally know each of India’s billion people, perhaps a few of them did actually have such a name. Then, when I encountered Nir, Yazak, Master Gahil, Oojan Tandor Mr. Vas, Purah Singh, Mr. Ghundra Chapur, Chief Repaul and Bandu the barrow boy, I wondered whether the world-renowned researcher James A. Levine had deliberately distorted Indian names to avoid legal action. But no – there were a tiny handful of real people there too, like Puneet, Iftikhar, Mr. Mitra and Bhim.

Batuk is fifteen years old. The Blue Notebook is her diary and in it she writes that her father brought her from their village in Madhya Pradesh to Mumbai when she was nine and sold her.
Batuk had learnt to read and write at “the missionary’s medical clinic, where I was sent when I was seven.”
The first word she learnt, from a book which had a rabbit and a wheelbarrow on the cover, was apparently “shashak”. How strange! Everyone I know says “kharghosh” for rabbit, and considers “shashak” archaic - but that's the very first word a seven-year-old is taught to write!
Then James A. Levine proudly inscribes “bandhura” in Devnagari and explains that it has a double meaning – crane and prostitute. Not one of the Hindi-Visharadh people I asked, not Aunty Google herself, could tell me a single meaning of “bandhura”.
Perplexed, I tried repeatedly to find out what sources James A. Levine had used but the publishers kept resolutely silent.
Batuk stayed at “the missionary’s medical clinic” (a full day’s ride away, in Bhopal) for twelve weeks and had reading lessons three times a week. After a total of not more than 36 reading lessons, she was apparently able to read aloud from “the great poets, stories of boys who went to the army, and even translations of some English books.” (At age seven! Amazing!)

More amazing still is that after another two years in the village and then six in the cages, where she is exposed only to sexual exploitation, a non-stop procession of hurried customers and ill-treatment from her owner, she is capable of expressing her inmost feelings, situation and personal philosophy of life, writing with a grace, self-awareness and fluency, far better than most of the women I know could, despite all their IQ, reading, affluence and exposure.

The last Batuk I encountered, the evil-comic Batuknath Lalanprasad Malpani in Chaalbaaz was more believable!

What I’ve been wondering is: if a "famous" Indian doctor was to write a deeply moving account of (say) the sad guys, abandoned by their families, victims of a cold, loveless, fragmented society, who live off roadkill in the U.K. and give them names like Orpington, Pronathan, Churchbottom or King Kong, would it even be considered worth a review?
Having said all this, why am I now not telling you that you must throw this book on the ground and “stomp” it in disgust for basing such an important representative story, which will be read by thousands around the world, on such a carelessly constructed premise?
Simply because, although it fails to capture the essence of the Mumbai streets and lacks a feel of their grime and overcrowding (Batuk bathes in a bathtub, if you please!), it does create a very strong sense of the imprisonment and despair of a trapped and abused child, and it keeps you turning the pages, agog.

08 September 2009

Empire of the Moghul by Alex Rutherford

The emperor who built that beautiful old mosque we tore down
This is a fictionalized account of the life and times of the first Moghul emperor, Babur, and starts in 1494 in the little kingdom of Ferghana in Central Asia, with the king feeding doves and telling his son, the 12-year-old Babur, stories of his great ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur.
Babur listens, fascinated, but does not share the king’s tender affection for his doves (Stupid little birds. The best place for them was plucked and poached in a sauce of pomegranates and crushed walnuts.) As they speak, a large chunk of the battlements where the dovecote had been collapses to the ground, taking the king with it and killing him.

The court is full of ambitious nobles who quickly begin to negotiate with neighbouring kings, striking alliances that will bring them personal power and the kingdom of Ferghana.
Babur may be only a child, but he establishes himself as the rightful king once and for all when he strikes off the head of his scheming tortoise-faced vazir ("vizier") Qambar Ali with one blow of his trusty sword of justice, the symbol of Ferghana, Alamgir.
The assembled courtiers have watched the confrontation in silence and now little Babur roars out, “I may be young but
am of the blood of Timur and your rightful king! Does any man present challenge my right to rule?” In awe, they take up the chant “Babur Mirza, Babur Mirza …”
We now share the dramatic travails of Babur’s life and follow him to Samarkand, Kabul and Delhi.
We in India have many legends and grow up with stories of our historical and mythological figures, and they have entrenched themselves as stereotypes in our lives. But Babur is a vague,
ill-defined figure and this book brings him alive for us.
There are four more books planned in this series. Interestingly, Alex Rutherford is not a man but a husband and wife! I got an interview with the two-headed creature that wrote this book, but unfortunately no photograph so am picking some Baburnama-type stuff to make this section look pretty …
What are your names?
We are husband and wife team Diana and Michael Preston. Amongst our previous books is the non-fiction history of the Taj Mahal, A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time.
How did you come up with the team name of Alex Rutherford?
Above all we wanted a name we both liked and that had the right ring to it. Trying to find one was fun - but also far more time consuming than we'd guessed. After testing various combinations on long suffering friends, we chose Alex because it could be the name of either a man or a woman and Rutherford because it felt right - it has a Scottish ring and we both have Scottish ancestors.
Why did you keep your identities secret until now?
We wanted 'Alex
Rutherford' to become established as the personality behind the Empire of the Moghul quintet before revealing who we were. That's why we kept in the background. We also kept in the background because we want people to enjoy the story of the Moghuls and their magnificent lifestyle, rather than to focus on the authors. The Moghuls are much more exciting and glamorous than us!
Why did you choose Babur as your subject?
The idea of writing about
Babur - and in fact the inspiration for the entire quintet - grew out of researching our Taj Mahal book. To help us understand the place of the Taj in India's history, we started reading all about the Moghul emperors, including, of course, Babur the first emperor. We were bowled over by the richness and vividness of the material, especially Babur's own account of his life, the Baburnama, the earliest autobiography in Islamic literature.
Babur reveals in frank, often disarming, detail
everything from his thoughts on his shrewish first wife, to his ambitions as an aspiring robber prince bent on grabbing an empire, to how the sweet, dewy taste of a melon, brought to him down through the Khyber Pass from his homelands, made his eyes prick with tears, to how he cemented the heads of his enemies into towers to his dreams of founding an empire greater even that of his great ancestor Timur and of how, in India, after much heartbreak and danger he finally succeeded.
What are the other four novels in the quintet about?
Babur's reign was, of course, just the start of an epic period of Indian history. We didn't want to stop there but to recreate the drama of what happened next - to show how, for all their outward brilliance, the Moghul dynasty founded by Babur was tainted by the poison of jealousy seeping corrosively down through the generations. The story of the Moghuls is a vicious circle of sons plotting against fathers, brothers murdering brothers and half-brothers and of empresses and would-be empresses plotting, scheming and seducing. Re-creating this in a series of novels was irresistible to us as story-tellers.
The second novel in the quintet 'Brothers at War', to be published next year, is about Babur's son
Humayun, warrior and dreamer and second Moghul emperor.
The third novel covers the brilliant reign of the
charismatic and liberal Akbar, truly the greatest of the 'Great Moghuls'.
The fourth novel about Akbar's son Jahangir will show how the
cycle of distrust and rivalry that will ultimately doom the Moghuls is in full motion.
The fifth and last novel of the quintet will be about
the final flowering of the Moghuls under the last great emperor, the jewel-loving Shah Jahan, devoted husband of Mumtaz Mahal and builder of the Taj Mahal, with whose passing the once magnificent Moghul empire began to fade into anarchy and decline.
Besides the Baburnama, what other reference sources did you use?
We were fortunate there's so much good material. We have been able to draw the major events - battles, coups, deaths, executions - and the principal characters from the immense treasure trove of original sources that have survived. As well as the Baburnama we have, for example, the Akbarnama written by Abul Fazl, Akbar's chronicler, which covers Babur, Humayun and the Moghuls' early days as well as Akbar. We also have the Humayunnama written by Babur's daughter Gulbadan. The physical and emotional detail of the Moghul period is superbly captured in these chronicles and also, for the later Moghul emperors, in other surviving letters and diaries that convey the sheer excitement of events as they unfold. They burst with compelling, exuberant stories not only about great battles and the passions of family politics but more intimate things like the number of an emperor's concubines and the frequency of his couplings, the name of his favourite war elephant, the cost of his bed linen and the way the empire was ruled.
For the later emperors beginning with Akbar, we also have the accounts and letters of European visitors - merchants, mercenaries and missionaries - to the Moghul court. These reveal the visitors' open-mouthed wonder at the spectacle of Moghul wealth and sophistication beyond anything the European courts could offer. To Europeans, the magnificent Moghuls were like characters from an exotic legend. They fastened on every fantastical aspect of Moghul life - gems the size of duck eggs, the gold-leaf decorated food and rose-scented wine prepared for the imperial table, the number of wives and concubines the emperors enjoyed and the other sensual aspects of Moghul life. A French doctor, exceptionally invited into the imperial harem to treat a woman there, wrote in amazement that he could not locate her pulse because so many ropes of pearls were wound around her arms. The first English ambassador to the Moghul court, Sir Thomas Roe, gives a nice snap shot when, in Jahangir's reign, he describes the Moghul court in terms which could fit the cast of a Shakespearean tragedy: 'a noble prince, an excellent wife, a faithful councillor, a crafty stepmother, an ambitious son, a cunning favourite .'
How did you divide up the research between you?
The quick answer is that we didn't! We went everywhere together. We both love travel and one of the great pleasures and privileges of writing this series is the places it is taking us to, both in India (where we've spent over a year of our lives in total) and in Central Asia, the Moghuls' ancestral homelands. We feel very lucky to be able to work as a team. It's nice to have someone to compare thoughts and impressions with - and memories.