19 April 2010

Blowback by Mukul Deva

In which Mukul does it again
Mukul Deva's books are set in the background of this country’s military environment. The descriptions are vivid, the plot racy and the detail very convincingly developed. I was particularly struck by the depth of realistic portrayal. How does terrorism emerge? What is the thought process of the ones who mastermind, and on what weaknesses do they prey to seduce vulnerable youngsters to their cause? The religious and emotional background, the essentials of recruitment, training and indoctrination, the logistics of transportation, and the chemistry and physics of a bomb as described here are all very convincing and impressive.
Most spectacular of all, Blowback, which has Pune as a key location, was released literally days before the Pune German Bakery bomb blast.
Before I wrote about this book for Sunday Mid-day (you can see the page with my article on it here), I mailed Mukul Deva to ask him why he’d picked Pune for this book and he replied, “Several reasons. Having spent some of the best years of my life there, I love it. With the large concentration of high (psychological and propaganda) value targets and foreigners, it was just the right target for the terrorists. Things became logically synchronised (from the Pak-LeT point of view) when certain divisive and short-sighted politicians started playing regional politics. What better conditions can we give them on a platter? As things panned out I was not too far from reality – unfortunately.
“If you look back all the way to 1988 you will see that every single tumultuous political, communal and economic incident has been exploited by the ISI to add to the troubles India faces. Am I being simplistic? I leave it to you to look back and judge.”
He also mentioned that he is committed to writing a book a year and each one would be differently formatted, even visually, and that the stories would eventually cover every different aspect of terrorism.
I did find the two books I read to be different from each other, though some characters reappear, adding to the attraction. Terrorism is a background reality that has come to reduce our quality of life in some areas and we might as well make the most of it by enjoying Mukul Deva’s annual releases on the theme.
What did upset me a little was the language: these books have more clichés and old-fashioned and sometimes incongruous expressions than I would use. So I spent a little time explaining patiently to myself that it did quite accurately mirror the spoken and written language used by officers of the Indian Army, and that a lot of well-educated people in the corporate world too would find themselves comfortable in this, um, “milieu”, and that if the English language could be tolerant and accepting of different cultures and usage by different communities, I could too.

17 April 2010

Brothers at War by Alex Rutherford

Book launch at Crossword, Mumbai
Their flight had been cancelled and they weren’t leaving the next day as they had expected to. After three and a half weeks in India, a successful book tour around the country and some days research for the next book on Akbar, they were ready to head home. But the ash from the volcano in Iceland lingered over Europe and the earliest booking to be had was ten days later. That meant appointments to be cancelled, messages sent to the milkman and other vendors, and various important engagements missed. On top of all this, Michael Preston wasn’t too well, and Diana had to manage the Bombay launch of their book on her own.
In the cab on the way to Crossword she heaved a sigh of relief that she’d remembered to carry her spectacles and we giggled about what she’d have done if she’d hadn’t. You surely know all this by heart? I asked her primly, pointing at the thick book, and then we giggled some more and began reciting The Owl and the Pussy Cat and Young Lochinvar and even quoting from Fawlty Towers, and were a bit giddy headed when we arrived.

Diana and Michael Preston have been travelling and writing together since they got married in the early 1970s. Serious academics with degrees from Oxford, they converted their love for research and travelling into books that bring history alive in the form of stories. They assumed the pseudonym Alex Rutherford for their Empire of the Moghul series. Brothers at War is the second in the series and tells the life of Humayun. Raiders from the North, the first, was about the life of Babur.
Both books are rich in detail of the daily life of the times. They use simple, contemporary language to describe historical events, which they piece together using documents that have survived from the times.
The parts that have emerged from the authors’ imagination rely on travelling to the places in the stories, and looking for those features of nature unchanged since then or relics that have survived. Often the food of the region is similar to what it used to be in historical times – the trees, fruit and vegetables usually are.
Writing the books together means travelling and researching together, but writing separate parts separately and then discussing, editing and aligning them together.
Talking to the small gathering at the launch of the book, Diane confessed that she and Michael would hesitate to kill Alex off after he’d finished writing the Moghul series, and they would soon be thinking about what he was going to write next.

14 April 2010

It rained all night by Buddhadeb Bose

More emotion than erotica
I enjoyed this book and here's what I wrote about it in the current issue of Marie Claire.
In December 1970, a case was filed against this book and the author was convicted for obscenity. In 2008, he was hailed as a literary genius at his 100th birth anniversary and a postage stamp honouring him issued. But phrases like “bold, explicit and shockingly candid” are still used by crafty marketers to lure dirty-minded people to buy this book.

Now it’s true that Maloti has sex with another man, and falls asleep with her clothes dishevelled and when her husband comes home, has to pretend nothing’s happened. But hot stuff? No!
Maloti and Nayonangshu tell their stories in alternate chapters. Through their simple monologues we understand their priorities, their domestic arrangements, values, pressures, employment opportunities, the weather and more.
We learn from Maloti how a woman feels about her husband, and what kind of man she actually needs. And we smile when Nayonangshu describes the unruly animal that lives inside him.
Are these the last great Indian hero and heroine? It’s only in marriage that Nayonangshu can reconcile love and sex. And Maloti wants to be accepted as part of their joint family, to be oppressed at first and grow gradually in power – as is the true order of things. But Nayonangshu, who lives only inside his head, wishes to appear modern and westernised, and arranges them a separate home. So influenced is he by those bossy dead white males from the west that he encourages his wife to think her own thoughts and follow the dictates of her heart.
I mean, what did he expect?

06 April 2010

Delhi Durbar by Krishan Partap Singh

It's not all throwing chairs about in Parliament, you know
This is the first of a trilogy. It's a crisp, no-nonsense and intelligently-plotted story with the Indian government as a setting. I enjoyed it. here's what I wrote for last Sunday's issue of the Sunday Mid-day:
This book is a political thriller and is based in New Delhi. In common with the author, the hero is a Jat Sikh, and also a banker who gave up banking to do something else.

His father had been a power broker and he, like so many others in the Indian government, clambered easily into a hereditary seat that had been lavishly feathered for his comfort. But now his father has died (in a mysterious helicopter crash) and the Prime Minister has special plans for him, an unofficial but critical portfolio, quite different from his father’s old job because “the second generation needn’t dirty their hands, you must concentrate on larger matters that require vision and energy”.
But, and unlike pretty much everyone he deals with while he’s there – our hero is not one of your slimy politicians, just a regular guy you can relate to because he speaks well, considers himself different from them, isn’t as completely unscrupulous as they are, and would rather not describe his sex life to you because it’s private.
Now we all know we live in a country where government officials and bureaucrats are so busy filling their pockets with ill-gotten gains that they really have no time to do their jobs. We all know that they steal from public funds and horde more money than they could ever, ever actually use. And we all know that every aspect of India, if we’re honest with ourselves, is administrated by what can only be described as an extortion racket. So, when we read a story in this familiar setting with a certain amount of accurate circumstantial detail (such as cocky reporters twisting words to unsettle their subjects and gain themselves sensational stories), all the caricatures start looking like real people and even the far-fetched scenes, such as the one of torture, start looking believable.
In that sense I was reminded of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Though presented by very different narrators, both books show, in an entertaining way, what a farce Indian democracy is when inspected at certain angles and from certain quarters. They also show how close we are to the brink and how careless we’re being about taking our freedom and privilege for granted.
Now before I get carried away and start awarding the Booker Prize here, let me not forget how many times this book’s turn of phrase annoyed me. His passport was going to be his “umbilical” partner “till death do us part” – two mixed metaphors in one sentence, and that too on page one! And do people ever really speak like this, “You’re being overly suspicious, Papa” or “this kind of frontal assault does not fit his personality”?
However, there is excitement in this story, and romance and suspense and also a completely unselfconscious and uniform usage of language – if you’ll pardon the fair number of clichés – and in that sense it’s a book with an unperturbed international quality to it. And yet, when I ask myself how eagerly I’m waiting for the next two in this trilogy, there’s no great enthusiasm in my response. Worst of all, I can’t for the life of me remember the hero’s name. I know I came across it once or twice when I read the book a few weeks ago. And I’ve now spent several minutes flipping through it back and forth but – alas, will have to live with never knowing.

02 April 2010

Dance O' Peacock by Aruna Jethwani

To be a woman, you just need to be a person
I was present when this book was released at the Poona Club on Tuesday. It was a very sweet ceremony, with the author’s friends and well-wishers packed into a hall at the club. The dancer Yogini Gandhi was the chief guest and some of us spoke on the theme of Women’s Identity. The reason we had been asked to speak on this topic was that this is the central theme of the book. Neelam, the heroine, is born to a well-off family in Rajasthan, and thereby doomed to a life of oppression. The birth of a woman is a big tragedy, and in her case in particular, her female parameters are faulty. Her puberty is delayed, her breasts are small, her husband doesn’t much fancy her and she seems unable to bear a child. Her life in her in-laws’ home is circumscribed by fear.
Neelam, however, cuts out of this narrow existence and runs off, educates herself, remarries, inherits a fortune – and more. When I read this I found it a little far-fetched – and Aruna Jethwani surprised me by saying, as she released the book that evening, that Neelam had been inspired by a real woman she once met several years ago.