15 August 2010

British-Indian campaigns in Britain for Indian reforms, justice & freedom 1831-1947 by Kusoom Vadagama

Happy Independence Day, India
Kusoom Vadagama is an optometrist and author of books which document the fascinating relationship between India and Britain. She has lived in London since 1953 “except for a spell in Chicago and New York in the early sixties”. This book was published three years ago, in the golden jubilee year of Indian Independence.
There is an enduring awareness of the fact that India’s industrial development was inhibited by British rule and that the British used India as a resource base and then as a captive market for its finished goods. Also that it was the British that brought infrastructure such as the railways and postal services, and administration and law to India – though really only for their own purposes.
It’s not often considered, however, that the Indian freedom struggle actually originated in Britain. It was the British liberal thinkers who supported it. After all, so many of our leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru, were actually educated in Britain!
This book is a thoroughly researched collection of documents and facts which trace this history. After an introduction which outlines the association between the two countries from the early Eighteenth Century, the book has nine chapters: Parliamentary debates and the public campaigns; Organizations and their activities; Journals and other publications; Student activities; Correspondence in the press; The Round Table Conference; Support in other countries; Eyes and ears of the Raj: Indian political intelligence; The changing of the guard: from British to Indian hands.
I’m afraid I don’t know enough to comment on the authenticity of facts presented in this book. However, taking a cue from the extent of detail, the care taken with presentation, and the superb illustrations, I would certainly use it as a reference book if I ever needed one on this subject.

12 August 2010

Excess: The Tehelka Book of Stories

Bhelpuri for the aesthetic facilities
Here’s an excellent collection of 12 short stories – put together, oddly enough, by an organization better known for delivering hard-hitting facts and getting into trouble for exposing wrongdoing, inequity and sleaze.
Writes Tehelka’s Tarun J. Tejpal in the introduction to the book: I once asked the great writer OJ Vijayan what was it that literature did that gave it a showcase place in civilization. He thought for a bit, and said, ‘It refines us. And that is a very big thing.’
In these times of being bombarded by information and facts, of crude posturing and increasing battle-lines, this collection of original fictions is then about that – that amorphous ‘refining’ thing.
I liked this reassurance of literature’s role in civilization. However, I did feel that some editing care would have changed what was it to what it was, as it should be, and perhaps also found a smoother and more contemporary way of saying is then about that. The stories themselves are very well written – but sadly strewn with proofing errors.
One of the things that struck me most about this book is its unselfconsciously global tone. It has nothing whatever to do with a specifically Indian way of life, or of interpreting India for global readers in English. Some of the stories are set in India but India is not specifically a character in them. You can just enjoy it as a collection of well-written, absorbing stories with no political hankering. After all, human situations aren’t really restricted by culture or geography. Not many Indian authors or collections achieve this flavour … at this moment the only one that comes to mind is Anita Desai.
The story I enjoyed most in this collection was Siddhartha by Altaf Tyrewala. The language is intricate but sparse, and builds suspense which gets you giggling when you finally understand what the author is getting at. Is he describing the relentless passion of trekkers? Or drug addicts? Or groupies of a particular guru? (Read for yourself to find out, but there’s a hint in the title!)
I personally find it distasteful (though of course this doesn't reduce any possible literary value) when writers invent characters and then poke fun at them as plainly as Ambarish Satwik does in his story Paraphilia. Kedar Deshpande, head of Unit IV, Department of Surgical Disciplines, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital fancies himself as a Bellovain hero, a man of complements Oftentimes, he thinks at length about his place in the scheme of things. About the arabesque pose he assumes on the boards of Academia. He is occasionally onanistic and very grateful for the largesse granted by his broadband Internet connection His (sic) likes videos of anal sex and facials. Sovereign in his fetish is not the anal ramming but the fair, bleached anus Otherwise, he is faithful to his wife. His wife, Anagha, has been abidingly non-orgasmic. Their sexual activity, which was largely androcentric, had ceased in the last decade. Of course it requires a much higher degree of craft – and perhaps also more space – for the writer to create these images in the reader's mind using devices other than forthright description.
Rosie by Vivek Narayan, about a pukka Tam-Brahm family in Southern Africa is filled with insights into the Tam-Brahm immigrant experience. Ravi, who is seven, says, Appa, Appa, I want a big doggy that bites! There have been a new wave of burglaries and when his father asks, What Ravi, why do you want to get animals and such things?
Ravi replies, So that it can bite the Africans and kill them!
At which, The father swirled the last of the coffee in his tumbler. ‘You should not talk like that, Ravi. Robbers, not Africans, okay? Robbers.’
As it turns out, Rosie is vegetarian, never bites, and may even be a manifestation of Mahatma Gandhi.
The story that gave me the most trouble was Feast by Manjula Padmanabhan. I’d just watched all three Twilight movies in the space of a few days, and read it under the spell of Edward Cullen, the smouldering romantic vampire! Still, I have to say I enjoyed and admired it very much. It’s a hilarious take on the real Bombay that we all experience in real life but which our media manages to completely avoid acknowledging.

It took me an effort of will to read this story. I only plunged in because it’s the first story in this collection. I stopped reading anything written by this skilled and reputed writer some years ago, a kind of moral boycott, when I read an appallingly arrogant and cruel book review she wrote. It’s a murder mystery and in the review she reveals who the murder is! Take a look: appallingly arrogant and cruel book review by Manjula Padmanabhan.

10 August 2010

King of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema by Anupama Chopra

Glamour struck
I just read this 2007 book and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s well written and engrossing, and along with a basic timeline of Shah Rukh Khan’s life, also gives a clear overview of many aspects of the Hindi film industry. I’d keep it for use as a reference book because it lists important events and puts them in perspective in an elegant and unpretentious way.
One complaint I have is that, for a book about the extremely emotional Shah Rukh Khan, it was too dry and intellectual.
However, for a few hours after I finished reading and put it down, I missed it the way you miss a work of fiction that has engrossed you, and hanker mildly to get back to the characters and their stories, until you finally leave them behind after immersing yourself in the next one.
Thinking about this, it struck me that it wasn’t the emotional pull of the book but rather the very strong glamour appeal of Shah Rukh Khan and the other stars it talks about that had got to me. So though I like to snootily believe that I’d never be bothered to exert myself to shake hands with the Queen or the Pope or anyone, Bollywood obviously has a massive influence even over a cynical and I-have-my-priorities-right-even-if-thou-doesn’t person like me.