29 December 2010

Dance with Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa by Ramya Sarma

Everything you always wanted to know about …
This book is about Bollywood dance in general, and specifically for aspirants of the TV show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa – or for anyone who wants to learn this form of popular dance.
In the first section, Understanding The Basics, topics covered include how to handle stage fright, how to choose the right song, how to hide one’s flaws – and other matters that might worry you if you want to start and don’t quite know how. The second section, Put On Your Dancing Shoes, provides neat summaries of various international dance forms which have influenced Bollywood dance.
I found the presentation easy to follow and the photographs – there are a large number – very captivating and representative of the fun and glamour of Bollywood dance.
What I liked best about this book is the language. It’s easy to read and idiomatically flawless. Many who will read it would have had very little previous exposure to simple, direct and high-quality writing like this. Most of us in this country have no clue how to use prepositions or articles – for some odd reason most of us sit ON tables rather than AT them – so I believe that this book is very likely to teach more than just dance.
One thing that I found slightly jarring was the introduction by Saroj Khan. Actually the intro itself is a charming view of the celebrated choreographer’s career. What I found amiss was words like “thereafter” and “essentially” used in it, which I thought unlikely – but when I checked with Ramya Sarma, she assured me that Saroj Khan had indeed used these words herself.

Incidentally, Ramya herself is a Bharatnatyam dancer with endless years of practice and performance until she turned to writing.

The Case of The Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall

Vish Puri does it again
This is the second book featuring the Punjabi detective Vish Puri and, like the first, is great fun and a decent detective story. Vish Puri runs Most Private Investigators Ltd., and his operatives have nicknames like Tubelight and Facecream. The agency handles cases from matrimonial investigations and financial fraud to murder, and Puri’s high success rate ensures that his services are always in demand.
Vish Puri (like any good Punjabi) loves to eat, is free with the use of colourful language, and is a loving husband and father. He’s also a dedicated professional and a good citizen who even tries to get his driver to follow the traffic rules.
Like the first Vish Puri book, The Case of The Missing Servant, this one also has its roots in contemporary Indian life and culture, affectionately indulging its most ridiculous aspects. Primary background here are those classic urban Indian institutions of the laughter club and the corporate godman. And the setting incorporates the National Capital Region reality of beauty parlours, kitty parties, unstable power supply, preoccupation with the stock market, professional “Lizers” who one can hire to get things done, high court judges who own palatial mansions, and more. A prominent anti-superstition activist is murdered. Did that slimy, all-powerful Godman do it? Read on.

27 December 2010

Sahyadri Adventure by Deepak Dalal

Excellent children’s books based in India
I’ve been a great fan of Deepak Dalal ever since I read his first book about fifteen years ago.
Deepak writes books for children in the age range ten to fifteen years and that was the interval my children were in when I first came across Lakshwadeep Adventure.
Over the years, we got to know his characters, Vikram, Aditya and Chitra as they raced through their school holidays – much as the dear old Enid Blyton characters did – experiencing one adventure after the other.
Deepak’s books are well written and he has a knack for keeping you on the edge of your seat. Just when you think the trouble has subsided – all of a sudden something happens again. It’s like a sine curve of excitement – irresistible to a young reader.
These books are also set in interesting and remote parts of India and Deepak himself being a trekker and wildlife enthusiast works the rugged environment and ecology factor in very well. So we have been with Vikram and the gang – all agog most of the time – not just in Lakshwadeep but also Ranthambore, Ladakh and the Andamans.

This new set of two books, Koleshwar’s Secret and Anirudh’s Dream, is set in Bombay, Pune, Mahableshwar and the areas around them.

What I liked most about them was that Deepak has used a device to take us into a Bombay that none of us who love the city know – one that existed so many years ago that the Fort that was a central landmark has vanished without a single trace - except for the large area in the city that still goes by the name "Fort".
Sahyadri adventure has high-quality historical detail, including legendary characters from the time. These two books would win my vote for the best reads of the year.

26 December 2010

Once upon a time in Scandinavistan by Zac O'Yeah

Superpower India II
This a crime novel based in Gothenburg, Sweden.
But Gothenburg is now known as Gautampuri, because Europe has been colonized by India. India is now a great world superpower – much as it is in We Can Pull It Off by Suresh Taneja – but with a rather different slant.

Our hero is Herman Barsk – overweight, untidy and generally unlovable in all kinds of ways. He lives down an alley named Saar Vidia Naipaul Mohalla. His Eskimo dog, Bobby, is tragically no more, leaving poor Barsk all alone in this cruel world: his mum was dead; his father a random customer whose dick had proved too big for the second-hand condom that Barsk’s stingy mum kept recycling. And the crime now confronting him is a death – or several deaths – which involve a tandoor and suspected marination (in yoghurt sauce?) beforehand.

This book is a spoof in other ways too.

Sweden is now a tropical haven – the greenhouse effect has relocated the Sahara desert northwards; the Mediterranean dried up completely and Europe covered in sand dunes as high as the Eiffel Tower all the way up to central Denmark. Palm trees took root in central Gothenburg and by the time this story takes places, have begun to give lovely nuts and people have cancelled their holiday trips down south.
As for the Danes – they have accepted their fate without complaining, lit up a few joints, and become Bedouins. With the exception of a small group of nudists who refused to dress in caftans.
And Finns litter the streets of Masthugget. They constitute, technically speaking, a lower caste, their status far below that of native Swedes. Statistically, a significant number of them suffer from a Molotov cocktail of venereal disease, tuberculosis and grave brain damage.
Caste, in fact, is so crucially important that people change their names for social acceptability. One character, Rex von Spearman, was (according to his wife) actually born Sven Swenson. Oh and yes he now happens to be impotent ... from excessive mobile phone usage.

And Sweden is a country in crisis, financial as well as spiritual.
The roots of the new administration are to be found in the Indian Administrative Service – the Nehruvian steel frame installed in decolonized India, by which thousands of lifetime administrators handled the welfare of billions. After they took over, there had been neither financial crashes nor any other large-scale problems in Europe.

Once you’ve stopped using your vomit bag – one of Barsk’s favourite hobbies actually – and controlled the guffawing, you might notice that this book is not just a crime novel, not just a spoof. It’s also a rather sharp anthropological analysis of cultural elements.
There are, for instance, certain things about India that are sure to live on and on: K.C. Das and Ambedkar, for example; the Dalai Lama, Jadhavpur University, green rabbit USE ME bins, Femina, Tehelka, matrimonial advertisements, and cheap restaurants serving Asian food. And yoga. And deep, abiding faith in karma.
And language has been colonized too: we have a BC (bad character) Committing Nuisance in a Public Place and more.
And there are certain things about Swedish lifestyle and culture that could not possibly last, barring a few faded beauties from old Bergman films. Even the old and solid doors are gone, to be replaced by doors of Bhutanese board. Swedish people now live in a broken-down native quarter, unhealthy from too few baths, eating too much meat, and boozing it up all day long.

Though I was charmed by the thinking that went into this book, I found it tedious for my taste – it just went on and on and I never found myself so engrossed in the plot that I longed to know what happened next. And a few tiny points niggled: “innerwear” is hilarious for sure – but why not “chaddis”, which, after all, has Oxford English Dictionary status? And what on earth had happened to Ikea?
Finally, with so many characters driving around in Volvos, it seemed that Zac O'Yeah had picked Volvo to represent the last remaining outpost of Swedish civilization. However, this book was actually first published in 2006, in Swedish.
And, aha, in May 2010 the Volvo car company was quite prophetically taken over by the Chinese – so there you go.

We Can Pull It Off by Suresh Taneja

Superpower India
This is the story of how India got rid of all its problems.
A group of youngsters rooted out corruption – and that changed everything. Starting with a small movement, and with a mixture of shrewd thinking and luck, it spun out to cover the country. A new energy pervaded the land, education became widespread, and in 2030, India was the ruling superpower in the world. Indians from our time looked back, feeling choked with emotion and bursting with pride in country.
The best thing I liked about this book was the strategy described here to achieve this miracle. It’s plausible and, within the parameters of our lives in India today, could even work.
I also liked the very strong positive values it portrays.
Deep and enduring friendship, and love and tolerance for family members are universally considered to be admirable qualities.

Patriotism, however, is not rated so easily. The feeling of high emotion associated with thoughts of country is generally restricted to exiled patriots. For us Indians, the tendency to be emotional about our nationhood and value it as a precious asset arises from the feeling passed on by the thousands who gave their lives for our freedom from British rule.
Sadly, such virtues are considered unsophisticated in the modern materialistic world. They tend to get lumped with other habits such as rising early, working with even-tempered discipline, abstaining from substance abuse and preferring sex only within marriage. Or in other words, maturity is often mistaken for lack of sophistication.
It’s perhaps for this reason that I found the presentation of this book rather rustic, and more suited to the vernacular than English. Or perhaps it was just the language it was presented in. Because, as a work of literary fiction, it has far too many grammatical and idiomatic errors.
This book is not likely to attain mainstream readership – but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t make an excellent plot for a superhit Bollywood film which might well turn out – who knows – to be the starting point for the change it describes.

25 December 2010

Plain Truths by Arun Kumar

Plain truths by Arun Kumar

If you’re in Bombay on Tuesday 4 January 2011, don’t miss the launch of this book at Crossword Kemps Corner at 7 pm.
Here are three poems from the book to give you an idea what to expect:

Generational Journeys
Driving before daybreak to San Francisco airport,
I am reminded of childhood journeys in Kerala.
The taxi would arrive in pitch darkness from all of a mile away
To take us to the railway station just two miles away.

Panicker’s Taxi Service is always punctual,
My father would say. On the dot, he will arrive at 5 am.
The driver, a wisp of a man, still half asleep,
Would sit seemingly stuck to the steering wheel.

On this scenic highway, I hear my father’s words,
Recall the trips I made with him
To the railway station, and then on the train,
Slow journeys, a hundred miles in eight hours.

Then, I settle into a plane to New York city,
Just five hours across a continent, to see my son.
I am offered a chilled bellini and a plate of cheese
But I think of tender coconut water

And the slow train, and my father’s sweat-cooled arm.

When you leave
(For Vikram)
The porch light will no longer fight the darkness,
The night latch will, once again,
Secure the door,
And the house
Will shrink
A little
When you leave.

At work he was aloof.
An automaton of an executive,
A reputation for ice cold veins.
Then, I saw him at the funeral.
They had been high school sweethearts
Playing footsie in the library.
The panels of pictures at the entry traced the arc
Of a lifetime from rural Pano to Palo Alto.
Boyish farm lad and smiling girl friend,
Wedding, children, holiday journeys.
As he stood beside the black coffin,
Chin up, gray hair resisting the cold breeze,
A slight mist formed by his deep exhalations,
For a moment, that arc moved backwards.

The author, Arun Kumar, holds a management degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.
When he’s not writing poetry, Arun Kumar works as partner and member of the board of directors of KPMG, one of the ‘Big Four' accounting, tax and advisory firms in the world, where he leads the United States (U.S.)-India practice for the organization and heads its business performance services division for western U.S.

22 December 2010

It can't be you by Prem Rao

A book that will keep you up at night

This story starts with a corpse and a handful of suspects.

Colonel Belliappa, Maha Vir Chakra, had retired from the Indian Army.
Making use of his connections in the armed forces, he had set up a company that traded in arms. He lived in Coorg, where he managed his ancestral plantations, until he suddenly dropped dead one evening.
His partner in the armaments’ venture was the German beauty Elena, 33 years old and determinedly risen to the swanky diplomatic life from her humble origin as a plumber’s daughter in Berlin.
Elena, now Belli’s second wife, is not the only one with much to gain from his death – his daughter Shefali is 29 and could only marry her long-time boyfriend Rashid under threat of being cut out of her father’s will. And Pritam, 24, dopehead, is a wimpy understudy in a Mumbai architect’s firm; a sad disappointment to his father who would have much preferred a boy in his own mould. Their mother Dinaz is a silent but significant character and pervades each page though she had died tragically by falling off a cliff when the children were little.

Who killed Belli? Or was it suicide?

Now this is not one of your overworked whodunits in which some kind of eccentric character comes along, unravels various mysteries, applies cunning psychology, and apprehends the murderer with a flourish in the presence of all. In this book, each of the characters tells their own story and we learn who they are, what they do, and how their minds work, so we don't have to wonder what the great detective is thinking but can make our own judgement about motive, opportunity and guilt before the truth unfolds.

Telling separate stories in the first person works well to create a more intimate acquaintance with each one. However, a greater literary skill would have differentiated each voice and tuned it better to each one’s character. I found the narrative rather too homogeneous for this format. It Can’t Be You could also have done with better editing to sort out occasional awry sequencing and loose ends. And I found its sex scenes
slickly inserted and all rather the stuff of big-boob-oriented adolescent fantasy.

What I did enjoy very much about this book is the insights it presents into recent Indian history and our armed forces. For instance, to learn what many in the know believe about why India was so badly beaten by the Chinese in 1962 – read this book! There is a lot of interesting information here which has faded from public memory and I felt happy that it was being revived. It was also a pleasure to read, in Belli’s story, the noble IMA credo: “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.” Ah – what values to live by!

As each character’s narrative progresses, the tension builds and though there’s no tremendous surprise climax ending, Prem Rao has been successful in creating good goose-flesh inducing prose.

Sadly, this captivating story is presented in a shabby, old-fashioned format – with font, margins, paper quality and other design parameters unlikely to have any but the most determined reader reach out and pick it off a shelf.

19 December 2010

Lost and Found by CP Surendran

Sometimes life can be just so absurd
This is a book that combines literary quality with engrossing plot, an inimitable, wacky and rather
courageous wit, and fluid narrative which hints, as you go along, that the author was probably enjoying himself writing just about as much as you are, reading.
The story takes us right into the “twenty-six-eleven” terror attacks on Bombay and profiles a young terrorist, Salim, his family back home in Pakistan, and a group of people (and a cow) with whom he becomes inextricably involved. If the larger plot is a hilarious spoof of one of Bollywood’s most clichéd themes, every smaller subplot also showcases the farcical inner realities of the complex and alluring city that CP Surendran once lived in.
This, of course, is the real Bombay, not the fictional Bombay Times, of which esteemed publication CP, as editor for many years, once did his bit perpetrating the vanities of. So here all you read has been stripped down to its most ridiculous, even the really holy unmentionables, like rape. And Islam.

The cow is a holy animal for Hindus but for reasons Shinde (the heroic autorickshaw driver who once drove blindfolded through the streets of Bandra) can never figure out, not the goat or the hen, though both come across as equally ancient, useful creatures.
Nirmal is an orphan and has led a rough life. He knows that begging is a kind of blackmail. You just had to make it sound like an appeal so that egos were not hurt.
Aseem is an artist who transforms his clients – very few of whom understand his own professional philosophy “The paint will take you only this far. What will get you ahead is discipline.” Says Aseem to Nirmal: “My love for Chanda is pure. One hundred percent pure – like bottled water.”

And Our Lady of Dolours steps in for a tiny cameo – displayed in her true form: Our Lady of Dollars.
Rajgopal is a minor porn-viewing character – but important in his own way for through him we learn that crucial truth well known to all Indian men – their wives’ friends are mental.

“If I knew where I lost it, I would have found it,” says the sultry newspaper Number Two Mrs. Kulkarni – sharply, but conscious that she was breaking her vow to be gentle and kind to menials.

I asked CP how much his hero, Placid, was him. After all, Placid was also a Bombay journo and one who, like CP, "hailed" from Kerala (that cartoon land of Communism).
He replied, “Quite a lot. Especially the insensitive bits about the man.”

Of course journalists are mad – everyone knows that, and here’s a headline that proves it beyond doubt: HINDU ORPHAN RAPED, MURDERED IN ORISSA: MOB MISTOOK VICTIM FOR CHRISTIAN.
And terror can be crazy too. Don’t be afraid, Salim wants to tell them. All of us were dead before we were born, remember?
Fear freezes Placid’s heart. Just the previous week he had read in the newspapers of a doctor who, tired of her lover’s demands, had chopped him in bits and put them in a suitcase. Placid foresees sharing a similar fate. Rest in Pieces. Wonderful. Very wonderful.

Best of all, this book reminds you several times as you fall into its lyrical passages that CP Surendran is a poet:
Placid clambered into the Kanyakumari Express, packed like sand in a bag with people, hens, mangoes, fish pickle, and the metal smell of urine in the aisle- a damp, yellowing, amoebic pool, collecting here and there on the floor, from which toxic fumes rose and spread in the steady heat of the incredibly high-resolution Indian sun.
And he rode the train like a rodeo for fifty-one hours, a detour in universal chaos: sped by stations limned by lanterns; past the phantasmagoria of stark backlit landscapes; round a barren river bed where an old man put his hand between the legs of a young girl squatting to pee; raced with cratered ravines lowered directly from the loft of Mars; past the mirage of one-horse towns suspended in dust and sunlight; shot by carcasses of cows hanging upside down from windows; past giant, bald trees clutching at the air as the train sped by; through emerald paddy fields kissing the straw feet of crucified scarecrows; skirted mustard fields that flamed as if out of Van Gogh’s brush; trundled past a procession of naked ascetics over a bridge in the gloaming. Visibly aged, Placid got off the time-travelling machine at the massive obduracy in stone, Victoria Terminus, which the British had built with that false sense of permanency so typical of urbane conquerors.
My most dominant feeling reading this book was one of pride – I’ve known and admired CP for about twenty years. And I must admit I was also quite relieved that I liked it so much and there was nothing stopping me from saying what I really felt.

Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: One and half years. The rewriting was the tough part.
Q: What was the germ of idea you started with … where did it come from?
A: At a Café Coffee Day in Borivili, Bombay. I saw a single middle aged woman sucking at her coffee like a lifeline and thought about her: Lakshmi.
Q: I mean besides “26-11” of course. But I was wondering how “26-11” affected you – can you tell?

A: 26/11 affected me like a horror movie. It was both real and unreal, and still is. Terrorsim is not politics. It is a personality neurosis of a few individuals. If they are lucky, in time, they are branded as patriots. I have nothing to do with either.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Working on how to survive moronic critics who can't read a book straight.