30 November 2011

Lucknow Boy by Vinod Mehta

Life story of an editor
Why would anyone be interested in reading about the life of the editor of Outlook group of magazines? I wasn’t. But when I got home from a trip and found my husband, who had lived a few formative years in Lucknow deeply immersed in it and regaling us with snippets at the dinner table, I knew I had to.
Vinod Mehta’s memoirs are easy to read, spicy, and worthwhile. Being a skilled and experienced journalist, he paints a clear, comprehensive picture of his life and times, and gives a good perspective of the social and political events that shaped world and Indian history in that period. His childhood in Lucknow laid the foundation for his celebrated ‘pseudo-secularism’ and we get a few glimpses of Lucknow humour too.
Eight years in England followed, during which Vinod Mehta got little glimpses of different European cultures through a string of girlfriends. Reading English newspapers helped shape his view of the world – and influenced him to become the writer he became. Back in India, his decades as a journalist had dramatic highs and lows. This book contains his descriptions of various events and how he approached and covered them in the different publications he edited, providing a wide-ranging lesson in contemporary Indian history.
His own life had enough drama to be compelling too. Most poignant of all is the time he fell into a manhole while walking to save a few rupees – “for a few moments in the heart of darkness I touched the depths of despair,” he writes.

Right through the highs and lows, the hype and straight talk, I found it impossible to forget that Vinod Mehta’s success and glory would never have taken its present shape if, at 21, he had married the young Swiss woman who became pregnant in the course of their affair. She chose to have the child; the father was adamant that he did not want anything to do with her. What happened to his daughter? Vinod Mehta does not know.
We may turn resolutely away from that sin – inexcusable, surely? – but the rest of the book, too, shows Vinod Mehta as a man of clear priorities and simple needs. He is good humoured, relaxed – and (one who revels in poking fun at himself) a closet egotist. He never learnt to drive a car. Till the age of forty he owned only one pair of shoes (on the impeccable logic that you can only wear one pair at a time); when they broke irretrievably he would buy another. But as the powerful editor of the burgeoning Sunday Observer, his "social and party status went up a few notches" and, shrugging on the solitary suit in his wardrobe, could he continue to get away with those red loafers?
I noticed that while Vinod Mehta writes affectionately if patronisingly about his mother, his father is just a remote and sketchy character with constipation who does not even feature in the index of this book.
That particular omission, however, could well be because the index is a careless and unprofessional job which leaves out other stuff too, and even repeats entries.

This book has many lessons for journalists. In addition to the example of his own career, Vinod Mehta has also listed FAQs towards the end of the book and aired views on them, including practical observations such as:
Editors and back-of-the book writers may be unaware, but those who take handouts are held in contempt by the providers.
I’m not sure whether the aesthetics of that sentence appealed to me. Any number of abrupt and faintly ungrammatical phrases in this book troubled me. One I noted said,"all his life he had never worked." I was also confused by the many sudden transitions, with subject changes crashing into each other leaving no breathing space for the reader. Vinod Mehta has thanked his editor effusively in the acknowledgements - but really ... I'm not sure.

In this book, Vinod Mehta makes peace with a number of people. He has also indulged himself gloriously by taking digs at many more, from JRD Tata and Balasaheb Thackeray to Shobha‘a’ De and William Dalrymple. Of course the latter exercise is much more fun for the reader.
“Never have I seen such a collection of pompous, self-important, Fortune 500 bores and busybodies pretending to set the economic and political agenda for the world,” he describes Davos, calling it “a charmless rich man’s playground.” I particularly enjoyed his scathing description of the bossy American ambassador Robert D. Blackwill’s overbearing dinner parties at which a post 9/11 premise that America must always set the rules kicked in and had him insulting his guests if they tried to speak. And I loved reading about the design artist Moinuddin and Vinod Mehta’s repeated appreciation of his brilliance, particularly because, many years ago, I had the privilege of working with Moinuddin too.

One of the things I admired in this book was the description of the Editorial Charter of Vinod Mehta’s erstwhile company New Frontier Publishing Ltd (it never actually went into business). This charter dedicated the company to journalism of the highest possible standard, and to creating publications that would owe allegiance to no political party, politician, business house, caste, community, government or interest group. It pledged to frequently challenge the established order and be critical of powerful political, commercial and social institutions and individuals when necessary; to accurately inform members of the community about the way in which their society operates.
There’s not a single Indian media house which comes anywhere near these standards. If only there was.

23 November 2011

Lonely gods by Shivani Singh

Desi Barbara Cartland
One of the things I liked about this book was the great detail about the relationship between Physics and spirituality. Since I know very little about such esoteric matters, it was hard to decide whether to admire the depth of research or the extent of imagination. Either way, there is enormous information here about a range of subjects from the scriptures and other fields such as astro-palmistry, ‘saints’ and their partners, healing energies, karmic pegs, the universe being in ‘cahoots’, the Cosmic Egg, and even an academic discipline called ‘Quanti Mytho’.
One of the things that made me uneasy about Lonely Gods was the language, rife with phrases like ‘rocksure Punjabi confidence’ which I found jarring, and a tone which I felt more suited to a giddyheaded adolescent:
After the ceremony, the group sat gratefully under a spring sun that warmed them and lit them up in just the way they wanted. Chomping on VNP’s ubiquitous samosas, a formal introduction of the team members finally took place.
We will only find out what VNP stands for at the end of the book, but there are six team members. The genders are ‘evenly spaced’, with three males and three females. A spectrum of ages is represented, and a token from another race too. They are, of course, going to save the world.
The hero and heroine of this book are Twin Flames. Hot, magic energy flies between them! Sadly, circumstances have contrived to keep them apart:
They would wake in the middle of the night to the sensation of lips against their skin, of hands clutching their hair, of hip against hip. The sensation would be followed by extreme physical pain, as if their bodies were stretching to be with the other. Soon after, it would start raining. As if the sky and the clouds and the private parts of Nature were conspiring and participating in the wetness of their thighs, their nights, precipitating their union almost like the grand partner in a ménage a trois.
Some of the lusty scenes are even more ludicrous:
She became aware of a slow trickle wetting her thighs and his body started to ache from the strain of staying away from her.
A slow trickle wetting her thighs? Hm - sounds more like a bladder accident than someone getting horny. In general, I did find that this book painted a rather unrealistic world, one in which hospital staff are concerned about a patient in a way I don’t think ever actually happens. But I liked the frequent spikes of casual humour:
The doctor squeaked, “There are too many toxins in his system coming from too many avenues.”
Stop making my uncle sound like Park Street during rush hour, Uma thought, but held her tongue.
I can’t say I enjoyed this book, but tried hard to think that there must be many who would. The Secret of Sirikot by the same author was also a highly romantic thriller set in a palace but I found that better written and more absorbing.

19 November 2011

I too had a dream by Verghese Kurien

Good things can happen
I picked this book up to flip through but could not put it down. Published in 2005, it is the story of Verghese Kurien and how he set up the Gujarat milk cooperatives. Written in the first person, it is easy to read and, though written for Kurien by a journalist, Gouri Salvi, gives a clear sense of hearing him speak in his own voice – crisp, blunt, and authoritarian.

The book starts with Kurien’s childhood and education in the 1940s, and the series of events which led to him being sent by the nascent Government of India, soon after Independence, to work in the Anand Dairy. Kurien hated the place, hated his job, and felt disliked and unwelcome. What was it that led this man to bring the milk farmers of the region together in a cooperative which began supplying good-quality milk to the cities and soon brought economic and social change to the region? What kept him there year after year, decade after decade?
The historical events this book documents are well told and engaging. Besides streamlining milk supply and giving ownership to the farmers, we also learn how Kurien took on the might of the advanced dairy-farming nations and multinational organizations which, fearing the loss of an enormous milk-consuming market, did all they could to throttle dairy farming in India. And we learn his simple, common-sense economics and techniques of marketing which contributed to this success.
The Indian bureaucracy was another battle Kurien fought, frequently brought to the edge of disaster when he vented his hot temper and scathing tongue on lazy, self-serving officials, only to be pulled back into the fold by those in power who admired his sincere efforts and immense contribution to the development of the country.

I too had a dream also tells how Kurien’s tremendous success in creating dairy cooperatives led to efforts to create similar structures for oil seed, and fruit and vegetable. He was also requested to help streamline dairy farming in Pakistan and Sri Lanka – but sadly was unable to break through the corruption and vested interests that continue to preserve imported milk powder as the main source of milk in these countries.
Unlike other memoirs, the cover of this book is not a flattering photograph of the author – but an artistic wallpaper montage of Indian cattle. Photographs inside the book show Kurien with his family, and with personalities at historical events.
“I am not an employee of the government, I am an employee of the farmers,” Kurien says repeatedly. His vision of a country owned and managed by the people is a compelling one. One of the most powerful messages of this book is how a real democracy can function – with things are run by real people rather than an officious bureaucracy.

13 November 2011

The Fatwa Girl by Akbar Agha

Engrossing, informative - and sad
One of the most insistent thoughts in my mind as I read and enjoyed The Fatwa Girl was that a book could actually be a good book even if it doesn’t have a strongly pervasive literary quality.

For the last several years, the books I’ve read coming out of Pakistan have been of a standard of English that easily matched up to the best writing anywhere in the world. Even Moni Mohsin, with her giddy-headed and ungrammatical character Butterfly, has a style that clearly arises from an orthodox, rather elite tradition of English literature. For the first time I was reading a Pakistani English book written in language drawn from a wider section of the bell curve; one that even used ‘flouted’ when it meant to say ‘flaunted’. And never once did it upset me.
I think the main reason for my easy acceptance was that I found the plot very interesting, and revelled in the wealth of detail about Pakistani history and the different aspects of its religion and culture which are easily woven in to it.
The story is told by Omar, a young man from an upper middle class family in Karachi. The Fatwa girl is his neighbour and we learn how, despite being from religious sects that detest each other, they become friends. Amina is a smart, carefree young woman. What is it that turns her into a suicide bomber? The suspense builds up as we find out. And, as Akbar Agha takes us to this final turn in the storyline, we journey through a variety of concepts and landscapes: historical information from the Arab world and the subcontinent which contributed to the fabric of modern-day Pakistan; the myths that arose because of the nature of its people; the contrast between traditional and modern lifestyles and ways of thinking; the economic conditions which have allowed corruption to flourish and created power blocks and an ever-widening rift between socio-economic classes. From Karachi to Lahore to the beautiful but desecrated Swat and even a cameo from the Pakistani effort to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan; from Kipling to Lear to Jung; from comparing the plight of oppressed women in Pakistan and the USA: the fabric of this book arises from this knowledgeable author’s perspective on his country and the world. Says Omar,
I recalled the moment we laid Grandpa into the grave and a strange thought entered my mind. It made me think differently about religion from that day on.
I thought, a billion people can’t be wrong. But a billion people would swear that Grandfather would go to Hell for saying Jesus is the Son of God. Another billion would swear he would go to Heaven for saying Jesus is the Son of God. Which billion would be right?

Reading The Fatwa Girl, I wondered whether the story, too, was drawn from something Akbar Agha had experienced himself, and I emailed him with a few questions. He replied:
Perhaps the only thing I share in common with my protagonist Omar, who eventually, like me, joins the Foreign Service, is the feeling that the sorrow of parting is never sweet. I was a bachelor for many years in the Service and just when you got to really know someone you’d receive orders for transfer to another country. I guess the sadness of parting from someone you’ve become intimate with is reflected in Omar’s story.
If the Shia-Sunni divide is at the core of my story it’s because I’ve felt its presence even as a schoolboy. My best friend at school was someone I’d hang out with most of the day, go to movies and parties and dances together and do all the fun things teenagers do – except during the month of Muharram when we couldn’t meet at all because he was busy attending religious meetings or participating in self-flagellation which as a Sunni I couldn’t understand, and during this entire month my best buddy would become an alien to me. I’ve always felt the divide between the two sects should have been repaired a thousand years, but it’s no better now than when it started and will eventually raise its head even among the best of friends.
I asked Akbar Agha about what he is writing now and he said he has just completed a novel entitled The Moon Belongs to Everyone. Its main character is Alvi, a young Pakistani in America, a barista at a Seattle Starbucks, but his grandmother thinks he’s a barrister, and this results in a comical situation. He described the book in some detail, and it struck me that it would also very likely be filled with interesting information and perceptions, and include an element of rising suspense, both features which I had enjoyed very much in this book too.

08 November 2011

Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat

A seamy, distasteful world
Ever since Chetan Bhagat’s first book Five Point Someone appeared seven years ago, he has been the most successful Indian novelist ever and his popularity has grown steadily.
I found Five Point Someone unreadable, but quite enjoyed his next three books, and believed – while naively looking forward to the next one – that although he would never be accepted by anyone who expects a certain basic literary quality, his readability was improving.
Gladys laughed aloud many times when I read 2 States to her and naturally that enhanced my enjoyment - and improved my opinion - of it.
Revolution 2020 has an impressive theme: the alternative system of higher education in India. This is a system which, tragically, has far less to do with real education than with anxious students desperately seeking a means to escape their economic deprivation, and the nexus of politician-crooks who exploit this distressing but very real anxiety. Chetan Bhagat has done an excellent job of describing how the racket works. There are details of the sordid coaching classes which aim to prepare mediocre students for an education for which they have no aptitude.
The book also exposes the sordid methods used in setting up large and glossy but fundamentally hollow ‘universities’ or institutes of technology, with the primary motive of profit.
Maybe it will help to protect the many young people who read this book from being duped; maybe it will help them to try and understand their own needs, abilities and aspirations and follow paths of education and career accordingly.
However, some of the situations it contains are ghastly and distasteful. No matter how ‘not ok’ the education system is, surely one’s personal values and behaviour are based only on one’s own choices. The heroine of the book, for instance, has two childhood friends and romances both alternately, but also sometimes at the same time. It appears as if she is swinging between them depending on whose material prospects are better at the moment. And when the hero of the book, in an attempt to nobly exit her life and leave her to the other, more decent and capable man – he does not honestly explain his thoughts and feelings to her. Instead, he fabricates a ludicrous and revolting tableau with the purpose of shocking her away from him forever. If it was an erotic scene Chetan Bhagat felt it necessary to introduce - surely he could have invented a more imaginative and wholesome one.
Chetan Bhagat says he writes primarily to entertain but also to create awareness. I did like the expose of the crooked education system, and, instead of wanting him to improve his language - we're actually quite lucky it isn't even worse - can’t help wishing that he would create better role models.

06 November 2011

1888 dial India by Anuvab Pal

Tandoori Tycoon
This book is not just a novel. As the memoir of Arun Gupta, Indian entrepreneur, it’s a complete postgraduate course in Business Management. Arun has launched his latest and most brilliant entrepreneurial idea – a suicide helpline call centre for victims of America’s economic crisis. And in the course of the book, along with his mad and thrilling story, we pick up invaluable snippets of business wisdom:

People ask me, “Do you have no morals?” In business, never directly answer yes.
The main thing in business is the main thing everywhere – keeping costs down. There are some ladies in Florida that run this thing – Suicide Watch. It is America’s main suicide hotline but these ladies are fools – no MBAs, just three chicks called Anne, Jane, and Margaret. All above 60. Not even in suits. They have some psychology degree or some shit and are running this for charity like an NGO. Unbelievable. This must be the same as when the Europeans discovered that the new world had no system of land ownership. How can someone not own land? How can you not monetize suicide? Same thing.
These Florida ladies near this golf ball place are costing this suicide hotline thirty thousand dollars a year to operate. Plus phone bills. Plus absentees. Plus old. Plus benefits, coffee machine, chit chat about grandchildren crap. I am doing this at five thousand. The word is arbitrage. That’s real business. It’s like making the iPhone for three dollars and selling it for four hundred. Another word – China. And in the context of Chinese manufacturing, a third word – respect. They are so dedicated at keeping manufacturing costs down that they refuse to learn English. English would mean wasting time talking to each other. They understand that in international business, silence = productivity. That’s why respect.
Arun, a typical Indian businessman, was once arrested at JFK:
In my interrogation, they asked me if I knew a lot of people. They asked me if I knew Osama. I told them, I have no contact with Al Qaeda but that I only deal in C-level executives (CEO, CFO), so, yes, if Al Qaeeda got in touch with 1-888 about potential business collaborations, then I would meet Osama to sign the deal. I should clarify, we would be open to only phone and technology related Al Qaeda work, not terror attacks; we are not into bricks and mortar or blowing up bricks and mortar. Material costs are too high – the chemicals, explosives – besides being illegal. Even though they keep the same hours and work at night like us.
And, a typical Indian businessman, he makes enormous efforts to develop and train his employees. Through this praiseworthy mission we get a glimpse of the lifestyle of the great Indian middle class:
“What do you do Saturday nights? Sit at home and eat chips?”
“We sit as a family and watch the Baba Ramdev programme on Janmat channel and do the yoga exercises.”
“Lame. So un-American.”
“We may not go out Saturday nights sir but we are not traditional. I want to clear up that misunderstanding. We have gone to Dirty Splash Water Park in Bhandup, Inorbit Mall, we shop in Hyper-Fresh Goregaon and order from Pizza Hut every night. Plus PVR movies on Sunday .Good fun. I’m a member of Raghav’s Gym and I’ve taken my father and sister bowling in Pleasure Lanes at Andheri. I like gelato, it is Italian. Also TGI Friday mocktails we’ve had. As a family, we watch BBC, not K-serials. We are new to discos only.”
Several times while reading this book, I wondered whether it would have readers who did not understand its sarcastic overtones, and might take it all literally. How likely will digs at Chetan Bhagat be successful in a world where Chetan Bhagat’s readers and fans sadly outnumber Anuvab Pal’s by a large margin? What would people who don’t know the truth about Arindam Chaundhary make of a sentence like this:
In my thirty years as a business leader and India Inc. ambassador, I have never seen such a tense fundraising effort. Except once, while watching the great guru Arindam Chaudhary asking people in Indore to fund a business school he wants to start exclusively for Indians in Las Vegas...
And how many would find the following para perplexing rather than responding by rolling on the floor laughing:
My work with Mhatre, however was neither with Mhatre nor Karnik. It was with Ms Devine, a Christian lady from South Goa. In this case, Mhatre changed his name and his sex. Some businesses you can do as a man, some as a woman. Ms Devine bought smuggled goods from customs officers and sold them to other smugglers. Commission-based business. He already had two police records as Girish Mhatre and Anthony Karnik, so he thought it best to diversify into this third business as a woman. That’s an important business lesson – don’t let your sex get in the way of your business idea. Women say that when it comes to rising to the level of CEO of a company, they face a glass ceiling. I look at this as a similar scenario but with a critical difference. For reference, see Coke and Pepsi. I call this a genital ceiling.
What I admired most about this book is, even more than it’s crazy humour (or even its radical business truths) is the very strong voice of Anuvab Pal’s character Arun Gupta. It is full of confidence and authoritative opinions.
I knew chettinad is from Chennai (in fact, it’s Chennai’s Tamil name)
Even the language is consistent, with just minor misuse of preposition or article for that extra-natural touch of Indian English.

A few days after I finished reading this book, I bought a roll of adhesive tape. India is a great global software and manufacturing superpower but our adhesive tape is horrible. Not only that, but the back of the box read:

  • Appears invisible after sticking.
  • Lasts long without yellowing.
  • Ideal for permanent applications like mending, splicing, sealing etc.
  • Prevents tampering of amount on cheque/DD
  • Easily tearable; can be written on.
It was not easily tearable; I did not try writing on it. And I couldn’t help but think fondly back to Arun Gupta.

02 November 2011

Our lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif

The wrath of god's henchmen
Mohammed Hanif writes beautifully. His sentences are spare and clean, and evoke strong imagery and caricatures. He is cynical, and deeply witty, and he paints a vivid picture of Pakistan and all its beauty, savagery, and incongruity.
Alice Bhatti is a trained nurse in the Sacred Heart Hospital in Karachi, a place where grand old ladies in luxurious private rooms defy death and wear two-toned shatoosh shawls which cost as much as a two-bedroom house, something sweet, spunky Alice could probably never aspire to. Her best friend is the boy Noor – he's not just a little boy, but a respected ward boy. His name is not on the employees’ list but he has more responsibilities than any paramedic with a full-time, pensionable job – and he puts food on the table even though there is no table. (He hasn’t read Gray’s Anatomy, but there is nothing in that fat book that he hasn’t seen strewn on the floor of A&E.)
At the Sacred, religion is as pervasive as elsewhere in the country. Some of the 'Musla' girls petition against anatomical charts in classrooms, describing them as pornographic and against the decent behaviour prescribed not only by Islam but by every other faith as well. When their petition is denied, reproductive organs from the charts began to disappear: ovaries are ripped out, black ink thrown on mammary glands and penile depictions mutilated.
Somehow Alice finds herself in the eye of a miracle. The Catholic Church has adopted a number of borderline pagan habits and fallen into the local custom of burning incense at the mention of anything holy and covering every slab of marble that carried a saint’s name with garlands of marigold. However, it had never allowed a female member of its congregation any role that didn’t involve carrying a bowl of holy water, washing the dead, or preparing the native cuisine for visiting clergy (Goan prawn curries for foreign bishops and aloo gosht for common priests from Punjab). You will have to read this book to find out who Alice marries and why, and what happens to her in the end.
Like Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohammed Hanif’s last book, A case of exploding mangoes, was also one of those dark satires which, even more than this one, could be confusing to someone who didn’t realise that it was supposed to be funny. After reading and enjoying it, I interviewed Mohammed Hanif for my Sunday Mid-day column. In answer to my question
You’ve managed to write a book that’s Pakistani only because the story and characters are Pakistani, but is truly international in style, language and plot in a relaxed and friendly way. How about some advice for the thousands of writers from the subcontinent who are trying to achieve something similar?
He mailed me this lovely reply:
Are there really so many of them? I think the only advice I can give is that they should read, they should read a lot. And if they are lucky enough to get the inspiration and actually write something then they should print it out, and read it and see if it’s as good as it sounded in their head.
I had an amusing experience while reading Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. I happened to be reading Serious Men by Manu Joseph aloud to my friend Gladys at the same time. I had read, enjoyed and admired it very much a few months before and was getting a chance to do so again, and was very happy to see Gladys listening with rapt attention, admiring the turn of phrase and bone-accurate descriptions of Bombay life, and completely absorbed in the plot from one week to the next.
Manu Joseph is also a journalist, very expressive, and extremely funny; these basic features are common to both writers. However, reading Mohammed Hanif’s book and observing Gladys’s reaction as I read her Manu Joseph’s, I felt a bit as if I was watching an Indo-Pak cricket match and thinking, “Yay! We’re winning! We’re winning!”
One of the little things I enjoyed in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is the use of the expression Charya Ward. The Charya Ward is a forgotten loony bin (no easing-in time, no guided tours, no orientation course). I recognized ‘Charya’: it’s a Sindhi word, and I knew what it meant, along with all its implications and baggage, and felt happy to see it written down in a book that would be read by many people all around the world.