24 June 2011

Murder in the Ashram by Kathleen McCaul

Dirty, murdering, holy river
I wouldn’t call this book an enormous success as a murder mystery.

There were no parts of it that had me glued to the pages, turning faster and faster in a tizzy to find out what happens next. To be honest, the fact that there was so little suspense is not the only reason why I’m not sure whether this can be called a murder mystery at all.
But while I wouldn’t call Kathleen McCaul a genius thriller writer, I did feel that this was a brilliant travel book, exploring such matters as the quaint food superstitions of northern India (you’re not really supposed to eat chikki in summer … and it's very, very dangerous to eat yoghurt at night) and local notions of hospitality, portraying them in a very natural way without appearing to poke fun:
“… er … my wife is out of station now you see. She’s not at home so I couldn’t offer you anything good to eat.”
He didn’t sound suspicious, just slightly uncomfortable. He wasn’t the kind of man to revel in having a girl come alone to his home.
“It’s a shame I can’t meet your wife. I would have loved to. But I don’t want anything to eat at all, honestly.”

He paused to think. “Ah. Why not. Please come. I’ll send the boy out for crisps and juice at least.”
The scenery is spectacular too:
It wasn’t so hard to find the paan wallah’s house, even without his name. We walked along the lanes into the heart of the slum, picking on a benign-looking man, sitting smoking a bidi cigarette. Shruti asked him if he knew the guy who made paan outside the Hanuman Temple. He thought for a moment, took a drag on his bidi and shouted into a nearby house. A woman ducked out of the door with a ladle in her hand. She thought for a minute before pointing towards a small store, squeezed between two houses, just a counter made from bits of wood. Her husband got up off his haunches and padded over to the shop where he had a chat and bought a pack of biscuits. His wife brought a steel plate out of the house and he placed the biscuits out carefully before sharing them between us all. He told Shruti the shopkeeper knew the guy we wanted, bought paans from him for festival. He lived a few streets down. A small boy scurrying past was hoodwinked into taking us directly to the paanwallah’s home.
I particularly liked the two stereotype Indian journalists that feature in this book. One is a young Delhi wannabe star reporter with a New York accent (she got her degree at Columbia) and the other has neither talent, aptitude nor curiosity but plenty of money to buy expensive high-tech equipment (his father is “in steel”).
This book is a work of fiction, so I was surprised that it featured a few real people and institutions – for example the erstwhile Rajneesh Ashram in Pune, and darling of the Delhi press, Mayor Sheila Dikshit.
The scene I admired most was when the heroine of this book, a journalist herself, is asking what happened to the money she was offered for the article commissioned by Guy Black on the foreign desk at Telegraph, and Guy Black’s slimy responses – so typical of the way freelance writers are treated in every country.
I thought I might mail Kathleen McCaul and ask her if she’d really had something like that happen to her but decided not to because, what the hell, there’s hardly a freelancer I know who hasn’t.

19 June 2011

Theodore Boone - The Abduction by John Grisham

The Disappointment
I’m a sucker for John Grisham and was waiting eagerly for this one. When a complimentary copy arrived from the publisher yesterday, well in advance of the one I had “pre-ordered” online the day I saw it advertised, it was a moment of great happiness and I threw everything else aside to enjoy it.
Theo is as cute as ever and his best friend, April, has gone missing. The first half of this book is gripping and plausible and the hunt for April fraught with tension and poignancy.
Other characters you might also remember from the first one, Young Lawyer, make their appearance – notably Theo’s Uncle Ike. And our young lawyer makes a very effective appearance in Animal Court - yes, a place we’ve enjoyed visiting before.
The judges of the Stratten County Courthouse still have endearing nicknames, and Theo’s parents are still as warm, wise, career-focussed, careful to remind him that he's still just a kid and has got to school every day, and generally as appropriate role models as before. Sadly, though, the plot runs thin and though I think this book is meant for kids ten years old and up, I doubt if even a six-year-old, even one who was dropped on its head as a baby, would be engaged with what we have here.
Even Grisham’s adult books can be enjoyed by younger readers. I know that the kids I gave Young Lawyer to read went right on, hooked, to read the older Grisham classics and loved them. They are going to leap at this book and fall away sadly disappointed and disillusioned.

What annoyed me most of all was that the words on the inside of the pages were so close to the binding that to read them you have to make an extra effort to stretch the pages out, and I wondered whether every edition would plague readers thus - or only this one, which is only for sale in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

18 June 2011

1/7 Bondel Road by Gautam Benegal

Tutul’s stories
Gautam Benegal added me on facebook, we had many friends in common, and when I saw his paintings, particularly his Mumbai Irani café ones, I was impressed indeed. Last week I saw this book on his wall and ordered it online for just Rs145. It turned out to be good value for money.
1/7 Bondel Road is a collection of short stories set in Calcutta in the 1970s. The cover design, the layout and the paper quality are all excellent. Best of all, this book is well written and I found most of the stories to be of a very high quality. They give a vivid experience of a region of this world in a particular section of time.
In the 1970s, the impressive industrial base developed by the British in and around Calcutta was on its last legs and factories were closing. The city is full of ditches and other depredations of the CMDA, the Calcutta Merry Diggers’ Association, and even the street cleaners have heard about Venice.
To cut the cellotape holding a box closed, a smart kid would run and bring a blade, unscrewing his father’s razor to get it out. Keshto is opening a fish plate shop and his clients will be the Bengali taxi drivers who generally stopped to answer “Nature’s call” near the corner of the park in Ballygunge Phari. To install a black-and-white television in your home is a profound ceremony that involves confusion, much passion, and involvement from all in the neighbourhood. Sit and watch and you will see a new Baul (till then just a fake because he was only a Sharma and not a Das) take birth on stage. And also a cyclist who will not stop for three days (food, bath, big job, small job, all on the cycle itself) to raise money to buy medicines for his six-month-old son.

These stories are told by a child, and when I asked Gautam Benegal on facebook chat how much of it came from his own childhood, he replied, “Quite a bit, actually...”
So you might as well know that Tutul’s father is a well-known artist and he has an extremely annoying elder brother who reads the Communist Manifesto at the dinner table and writes “Enjoyed the Cubist undercurrent in your work” in a visitors’ book at of their father’s friend's exhibition.

Two of the stories made me laugh like anything. In one, Tutul is travelling by train and speaks English in a fake accent, pretending to be from Marlinspike Hall in Somerset (his parents are settled there; they sell coal to Newcastle). His copassengers' responses are brilliant.

In the other, Tutul, despairing at ever getting an objective critique of his artistic output, invites a pair of children street singers in to look at his work. “Hahah…,” said Gautam Benegal, “Yeah...that one is 100 per cent genuine...”

17 June 2011

Bangalore calling by Brinda S Narayan

Call Centre Tapestry
I picked this book up without much enthusiasm, finding the title and cover unappealing, and the thought, “Yawn, could there be something here that Chetan Bhagat might have missed?”
Even after reading a few pages I was still thinking pompously, “Hm, yes, while that one could be called Great Fun – we’d have to use adjectives like ‘pleasurable’, ‘enjoyable’ or ‘delightful’ for this.”
As I read, a more appropriate comparison struck me: if One Night in a Call Centre was a McDonald’s burger, then Bangalore Calling was a wedding feast by the best caterer in town.

The book opens with Yvette leaning on the trainer’s desk in Room #3 and appraising the agents as they stream in after a tea break.
Yvette is an interesting person – intelligent, self-contained, and with all the attributes of a good narrator. In the next chapter, however, the focus changes and our new protagonist is Panduranga, a driver of one of the call centre’s pick-up cabs - and we get to learn something about his family, his aspirations, and what he thinks about as he drives.
It wasn’t until I had read another two chapters, one giving us a view of the life of Natalie, an American woman who works with the American client of the Bangalore call centre and whom we had met briefly through the eyes of both Yvette and Panduranga; and the other showing us how another young woman, Bitty, copes with her life and her job as an agent at the call centre, that I understood how this book worked. Through a number of very different characters it takes us into different homes and minds and through them gives a good look at different Indian cultures and lifestyles and how each of the people representing it has reacted to the American influence and aspirations introduced by their association with the call centre.

Bangalore Calling is very well written and the story compelling. I wondered why it had not received more fanfare and felt curious to know more about the writer so I mailed her to ask from where the idea to write this book came from. She replied,
I was working as a quality consultant with a global call centre, and like Yvette, the trainer in Bangalore Calling, I was intrigued and disturbed by the identity changes I was witnessing. By then, I had worked for nearly fifteen years in various corporate jobs and I had a gnawing sense that I should be doing something else. So I took a sabbatical and conducted research at three centres. Bangalore Calling is the outcome of my study.
The publishers of this book tell us that its author “has worked for fifteen years in the corporate sector. She holds a BA in Economics from Wellesley College and an MA in Communication from Stanford University. She currently lives in Bangalore.”
After looking into the souls of Brinda S Narayan’s characters, I felt this was just a bit too tame and complained that readers of a book so strewn with anthropology deserved a less clinical description of its author. She said:

I've always been a wide reader and I'm curious about how larger forces act on families and individuals. Having been a working mother for several years, I've also been fascinated by the interactions between life and work. Besides reading, I dabble with paints at a very amateur level. I'm married and have two kids.
I was now curious to hear about Brinda S Narayan’s next book, which I look forward to reading, but all she would tell me was
I'm currently working on a novel, and though it's too early to talk about the theme, I can tell you this: it's not set at a workplace.

12 June 2011

Khallas by J Dey

Goodbye, Dey
Jyotirmoy Dey, Editor-Investigations of Mid-Day, had worked in crime reporting and investigation for nearly twenty years when he was shot dead in broad daylight in a crowded Mumbai locality yesterday by four unidentified men on two motorbikes. The newspapers this morning are filled with the shock and horror of the journalistic fraternity, “shock waves” in Bollywood, and calls for the resignation of Maharashtra home minister RR Patil and Mumbai police commissioner Aroop Patnaik.
Dey had received death threats in the past, and the Mid-Day editor Sachin Kalbaug is reported to have said that there had been instances when Dey’s story ideas were considered too dangerous for his own safety and abandoned.
Nobody knows yet who killed J Dey, or why exactly.
I was associated with Sunday Mid-day as a columnist off and on since 1995, but had never met Dey and only knew him through reputation as a rather tall, quiet and popular person, and a meticulous and sincere journalist.
When I read this book three years ago, I had vivid images flashing before my eyes. Through the placid and descriptive but drama-filled text, I could clearly visualise characters who looked and spoke like clichéd Bollywood characters Loin Ajit, bald-headed Shetty, and Inspector Arun Bhosle from Page Three. Amidst loud ha-ha-ha’s, guns rang out in the distance and even Vivek Oberoi reared his cute little head from Shoot Out at Lokhandwala. It struck me that for most of us, images of Mumbai’s underworld of crime come primarily from Bollywood. J Dey, however, was deeply and starkly immersed in its reality. I felt, as I read, that it was a world that did not just provide him material for his reports but was one that fascinated him as a privileged viewer.
Khallas documents some of its unique and peculiar facets. Its alphabetically-listed entries cover all kinds of gangland trivia, slang, and historical information.
To take bus number eleven means to walk. Telling someone to bring their camera means you’re asking them to carry a gun. And don’t forget the capsules – the bullets, that is. Applying cricket code, a four is to scare while a six is to kill. Chabbis (26) refers to a young promiscuous girl, whereas Atthais (28) is an alcoholic.
“Daddy-Mummy” are the dreaded gangster Arun Gawli and his wife Asha. The Arthur Road jail is affectionately termed “Guesthouse”, and we learn here which of the gang lords and their henchmen, while inside, lie on their bunks reading James Hadley Chase only to replicate crimes described in the books when they’re out. The way to the underworld don’s heart is surely through his stomach, claims this book – adding that it’s actually the use of dabba as conduit for messages and contraband that makes the dabbawala so popular.
“Shopping kar le beta” is the crafty technique of paying out little sums of pocket money to lure innocent recruits into the gang. It could get a college boy doing a look-out or passing weapons, and unwittingly becoming trapped into this lifestyle forever.
We also learn from this book that Mumbai don Chhota Rajan’s gang believes they are true patriots and greet one another with “Jai Hind!” Of other gangs, we meet the Golden Gang (all members wore gold ornaments), the Diamond Gang (who presumably wanted to be considered better than their Golden rivals), the Pathan Gang (their stunts would make you smile if there wasn’t murder involved as well), and others. Interestingly, the rolls, besides the stereotype Shettys, Shakeels and Gawdes, include the more white-collar (and upper caste) surnames of Kulkarni, Joshi and Joglekar.
Along with the horror and sorrow at the loss of Dey I feel sad that Khallas is an unfortunate word because it means “finished” and is used as callous slang to indicate that someone is no more.

04 June 2011

Priya by Namita Gokhale

Been there, done that
I’d never read anything by Namita Gokhale before, but had always viewed her with respect as a founding director of the wonderful Jaipur Literature Festival. So when I received this book, I was disconcerted to see that the publishers had placed it inside a cover that screamed “Yaah! Chick-lit! So there!”
Still, this did not prepare me for the mediocre idiom that populates this book. I read intently, waiting for it to improve.
Priya is a married woman in her mid- or perhaps late-fifties. Her husband has risen in his profession as a lawyer and is presently a Minister of State for Food Processing, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Canneries. This makes him a mighty important person – and also tells us that the book is supposed to be a spoof. They lead a comfortable and privileged life in Delhi, which, Priya occasionally reminds us, sometimes leaves her out of her depth since she grew up a simple middle class girl in a “one BHK” apartment in what was then still Bombay. On the surface she copes well and there’s no doubt that Priya has her moments of wit and intelligence. However, her language is largely uninspired, and my eyebrows rose in cynical disbelief to see it described as “elegant prose” in this review.
The world Priya depicts, of people with an enormous sense of self-importance but skewed priorities, has been done before – most famously (as I thought then) by Shobhaa De. Any number of equally pointless books of dubious entertainment value have done the same.
One of the things I did like about this one were the descriptions of Priya’s interactions with her twin sons, which showed her to be sensitive, self-aware and a very “today” thinker. It’s also quite hilarious in parts. Still – why does anyone have to pretend that this is a good book, and worth reading? Priya made me feel a bit derailed – somewhat like its Mumbai local trains, which the author tries to route from Churchgate to VT.

And it made me rush to read Paro, a book Namita Gokhale wrote in 1984 and to which Priya is linked by having the same characters, 25 years later.
Here lurked another big surprise. Priya is the narrator of this book too, and, 25 years younger, has a much more substantial literary style! Not only that, Paro is a completely unselfconsciously Indian book. I was impressed to see that there was no exoticising or contextualising whatever – in fact, even less than in Priya (which explains "one BHK" but does not bother to clarify "hall".) Commonly-used Indian words were left un-italicised. Even expressions like “kitty party” remained unexplained. And this was 1984 – when Salman Rushdie was the first “Indian” writer to have won a Booker. When every Indian who wrote in Engish was writing for a western audience. And several years before Shobhaa De (then still Shobha; one of the issues this book takes a piss at is the trend of changing the spelling of your name on the advice of a high-profile “numerologist” – possibly a roguish dig at Shobhaa De herself) was somehow awarded the IPR for the subject of chalu lifestyles!
With renewed respect, I picked up Priya again to see whether I had misjudged it. Despite every effort, I still found it rather coarse, and embedded with just a few rare-jewel moments. Priya’s life experience and her perspective had changed, and - rather sadly - so had the way she expressed herself.
And I thought about Philip Roth who, as a young man, wrote about horny young Jewish men and their love problems, and as he aged wrote about cantankerous old Jewish men and their trysts with prostate enlargement. What remained constant were the texture of his prose and the grip of his story-telling prowess.