07 December 2014

Atisa and his time machine (Adventures with Hieun Tsang) by Anu Kumar

History as fun-filled adventure

I read about this book on facebook and immediately ordered a copy. I very much liked the idea of  encountering Hieun Tsang as a real person, even if only an imaginary version. Reading and revelling in the author’s imagery and racy plot, marvelling at Priya Kurian’s very stylish illustrations, wishing I’d had books like this to read as a child, I realised that this was one of a series and it did not tell me how old Atisa was, how and when his time machine was created and a few other things I wanted to know. I sent Anu Kumar a set of questions. I have left her replies just as she wrote them, so that anyone who reads this will get a sense of her writing style. Meanwhile, as I eagerly await the next Atisa book, I've been reading the previous ones and bought copies for younger readers too.

Please tell us about your concept of writing history for children in story form.
I guess it began from a short story in comic form I wrote first. This was about a time traveller, actually called Pedro, who ended up in Akbar's palace in Fatehpur Sikri and impressed him with a telescope that was originally Galileo's. 
When I was introduced to then editor at Puffin, Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, I redeveloped the idea in myriad ways, and thereon was born Atisa and the Seven Wonders.  
It was and remains a mix of fact and fiction and fantasy.  So in the first,  Atisa and the Seven Wonders, the "truths" about the seven ancient wonders are things essentially known about them and the story was built around these.  I used the story of Daedelus and Icarus, the old Greek story when Icarus flies too close to the sun, and the wax on his wings melts, and he drowns tragically.  But since I like happier endings like most people, in this story, Icarus doesn't actually die, his father Daedelus believes this and so he invents this wondrous flying machine.  The machine is stolen by the lonely keeper of the lighthouse at Alexandria (one of the seven ancient wonders) who lands up at Atisa's house somewhere close to us, i.e. Tawang in the northeast.   
It is on this machine that Atisa sets off on his adventure.  But in this book and in the second one, it is his archaeologist mother, Gaea (named after the Greek earth goddess) who usually spurs him to adventure. She is a historian, explorer and archaeologist all rolled up, and is always seeking to solve things left unresolved in the past.  Atisa's father, Gesar, named after a mythical Tibetan king, is on the other hand, an inventor and scientist. Some of the additions to the flying machine have been Gesar's contributions such as the sound catcher - a machine that picks up sounds even from the past; the weather lantern that changes color as an indicator, and then the decoder which is a kind of makeshift translator.  In every successive adventure, he comes up with intriguing inventions that add to the fun of the story. 
I got the idea for the second book, when Atisa goes in search of Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang, from a book that the latter himself wrote or is believed to have written and of which there is an English translation as well (see on Gutenberg). The Chinese monk wrote about constant attempts on his life and how jealous rivals tried often to throw him off track.  Atisa of course makes sure that all is well with Hiuen Tsang and that he returns safely to China.  But there are several hair-raising adventures in the process - in places like yes, Bamiyan, Mathura, Prayag, Nalanda and even Badami. 
The third and latest one is of course set in the time of Chandragupta II of the Guptas. He did wage war against the Sakas in the west but the bit about the Nine Gems is more story than fact, but nevertheless its fascinating story.  And I did want to bring in Lilavati, the astronomer Varahamihira's amazingly brilliant daughter,  and it is with her help, that Atisa gets to the end of this mystery, reveal the evil intentions of all those who'd wish Kalidasa and by extension,  the Gupta empire, harm.  

Who is Atisa?
He is a 14 year old time travelling detective.  I think he will grow up a bit in the next adventures. He loves to travel, knows several languages and always retains a sense of context, despite the many pasts he goes back to :)  He's really fun. In this adventure,  In search of Kalidasa, he is in that phase when he wants to wear his hair a bit longer, like in the manner of the old warriors and is a bit sad when it is over and he knows Lilavati belongs to the past, his past too. But I guess that's all part of it.  
The name actually comes from Atisa Dipankara Srijnana.  My editor and I tossed up various names and she liked this one and its stayed. Atisa Dipankara was a revered Buddhist teacher, from the Pala kingdom (Bengal), of the 11th century CE. Born into royalty, he travelled to Tibet and is responsible in a sense for restoring Buddhism there after its repression. 

Please tell us something about the names you use (Atisa, Bojax, Dos Tum, any others …) and your process of choosing them.
Actually its quite random and initially tough.  For some days before I fix upon a name that is ideal to the character in the story, I experiment with how they sound, how the name would look on a person, hoping for the right mix. With names for the different books set in different pasts, I try to make them fun and sort of local too.  In the Hiuen Tsang book, Bojax, and Dos Tum are essentially Central Asian names, people Hiuen Tsang may have encountered. There were more complex names too but I didn't want to make the reading cumbersome. A name can't be so hard that you can't unroll your tongue from around it. 

How did you get this idea, and what are the main historical themes in the three books you’ve written so far?
I didn't begin with the dream of a series, quite honestly.  With the first book, as I researched about the Seven Wonders, it was real fun, and having an adventure around it was doubly so. It came to me, with all modesty, that it's something that really hasn't been tried before, and even that thought was hard to accept.  
But once Atisa and the Seven Wonders got a few good reviews (in an age when Facebook wasn't the entity it is today) and I had the confidence that I could write, that I was indeed a writer, I realized it could go on, that Atisa could have more adventures. And indeed, for Atisa, its only just begun. 

What are we going to get next?
In the next one, I use an old story related to Marco Polo, the Venetian in Kublai Khan's court.  The Great Khan's daughter is betrothed to the Persian king and it is Marco who is chosen to escort her across the seas - all the way from the South China Sea, down the Sumatra Strait, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea to Persia. But it is in Malabar, where the pearl thieves are a menace that something happens.  You must read to find that out.  

How do you balance fact with fiction in these stories?
I think that varies. In the first two, I did bring in a lot of facts that you find in history books - the Seven Wonders, Hiuen Tsang's travels and the places he visited. In the Kalidasa one, you could say there's more of the fiction element but its true to facts relating to the menace of the Sakas, I also use the story narrated in the 'Devichandragupta', but the rare eclipse, Varahamihira's lost scrolls and Lilavati's telescope - yes, that's all fiction and it was really fun.

03 December 2014

A strange kind of paradise: India through foreign eyes by Sam Miller

Planet India, perhaps

I read this book aloud to my friend Gladys, a little at a time, once a week every Tuesday. We both enjoyed it immensely. It had so much information that it made us feel terribly ignorant, but we forgave Sam Miller because he has a friendly writing style and also made us laugh frequently. 
A strange kind of paradise: India through foreign eyes tells us about India as described by visitors from other countries. Starting with the ancient Greeks, it goes on to St Thomas, Tripitaka (Hiuen Tsang in Indian school textbooks), Alberuni, Ibn Battuta, Babur, John Dryden, William Jones, Hegel, Rudyard Kipling, Madame Blavatsky, Mark Twain, Katherine Mayo, VS Naipaul, Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles, and more. In between are interpretations of India from a very large number of lesser-known writers on India, many considered authorities in their time and responsible for creating images in their readers’ minds that would go to consolidate Brand India. Sam Miller quotes many interesting books and offers his own balanced, contemporary interpretations. 
Each chapter is alternated by an ‘intermission’ in which Sam Miller offers his own colourful experiences and observations. Starting out as someone who was not particularly interested in India, Sam Miller marries an Indian, works in India, makes India his home, unexpectedly finds old family ties to India and even hopes to eventually die in India.
Smudgy and often droll images illustrate the book. Another unorthodox feature is the excessive footnotes. They are so many, so detailed and so interesting, that this could be considered two separate books – or at least one book which needs two readings, one for the narrative and another for the footnotes.
I found this book layered with meaning, and strewn with insights: insights into historical events based on the enormous range of sources the author consulted, as well as insights derived from his own personal experiences, mundane to exotic, in India. I learnt here a lot that my school history books never even hinted at, doubtless did not even know. Also, since Sam Miller’s descriptions of others’ descriptions of India alternate with his own personal experiences in India, we learn a lot about him too. 
There were many things I liked about this book: the new things I learnt, the author’s self-deprecating style, his commitment to rejecting any sort of stereotyping about India, and more. What I found most endearing, however, was Sam Miller’s unquestioning patriotic love for India.

19 August 2014

The Legend of Ramulamma by Vithal Rajan

The mid-wife’s tale

My biggest incentive in writing this blog is the opportunity to tell people about low-profile books I come across, that have turned out to be brilliant. With the explosion of new titles and the never-ending escalation of mediocrity, every stack of books offers an element of treasure hunt. I loved this one, and you can click on THIS LINK to read my review of it in Hindustan Times.
I was away when it appeared last week, and found out that it was in print when Vithal Rajan added me on facebook to say “Thank You”. He also mentioned two other books he'd had published this year: Sharmaji Padamshree and The Baiga Princess.
I’m now in the process of reading The Legend of Ramulamma to my friend Gladys. Gladys was a librarian for many years, and before I became one of her readers, it was books that had brought us together. I’ve been happy to find my opinion of this lovely book endorsed by Gladys. There are times when a gentle snore tells me that a book is not holding her attention. With this one, she is on the edge of her seat, listening eagerly as the simple but vivid descriptions transport us to another world; occasionally disappointed when the plot lapses a little, but always appreciative of the grip of the stories and the way they are told.

22 July 2014

Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar

Walls and stories

This review is nearly a year old, and appeared in The Hindu at a time when this blog was being neglected. I enjoyed the book and its lifelike characters. One of the things I could relate to most was that the city in which it is set is sometimes Pune and sometimes Bombay. Neither is named, and the transitions are seamless. The original review appeared here, and the unedited version is below.
This book has two sections. Its narrators, Tanay and Anuja, are brother and sister, and here they present their thoughts and experiences about the events that occurred in their family over a certain period. One day a paying guest arrives. He is different to anyone they have known before and through him they observe new ways of behaving and interacting. Each one establishes, unknown to others in the family, a separate and very intense relationship with him. In the sense of navigating the inner world of an adolescent in the first person, Cobalt Blue may be considered a high-quality ‘coming-of-age’ novel. It also explores the discovery, resulting confusion, and risk-taking activities of homosexual orientation in a hostile environment.
Set in modern times, this book shows us a traditional family and the impact on it of a changing world. People are reading management books, studying information technology, wanting to settle in the United States. Their city is the cultural capital of the state, it has great colleges. To use the word ‘poli’ instead of ‘chapatti’ tells people something about who your ancestors were. The municipal ward’s commissioner is a bigamist; heterosexual live-in relationships are permitted, and if people aren’t precisely proud of these things, at least they know about them.
One of the most striking aspects of this book is the way the family is presented. Despite being a single, tightly-knit and fairly loving unit, each of its members has a life as separate and removed from the others as if there are walls around them. The eldest sibling, Aseem, is a peripheral character. Despite easy compliance with family norms, he is detached and has his own life plans. The two who tell the story are different from each other in interesting ways. Tanay has learned what men do not do: they don’t use face powder, they don’t need mirrors in the rooms where they might change their clothes, on trips they can go behind a tree. The paying guest has made him aware of the mediocrity, the ordinariness of his secure and comfortable life. He is the kind of guy who tells us, “I dropped the towel. I took a long, clear-eyed look at myself. That I was different was nowhere apparent.”Anuja, on the other hand, reminisces, “When I was young, I did not have a doll’s house or any long-legged foreign dolls. I knew vaguely that my friends had dolls and that they dressed them up and played house for hours on end without getting bored.” She rides a motorcycle with her boyfriend sitting behind. Her idea of fun is a strenuous trek to a fort. In a relationship, she is the one who to ‘propose’, she is the one to betray.
The flow of this book is seamless. When the narrative switches, the two voices are impressively distinct. Tanay rambles back and forth, while Anuja’s diary is crisp and ready for publication. He calls the paying guest’s quarters the ‘tower room’ while to her it is the ‘upstairs room’.  It is difficult to evaluate how well the book has been translated, however, without comparing the two versions. We have an Irani ‘hotel’ and soon after that, an Udipi ‘restaurant’. While ‘hotel’ is a usage accepted in Marathi, it’s debatable whether either word is an adequate idiomatic representation in English. Words like ‘kunku’ and ‘shepu bhaji’ have been left un-translated (and placidly, self-assuredly un-italicised). And yet, the word ‘Aho’ with which a traditional Maharashtrian wife would address her husband, or ‘Aika’ with which she might call his attention, are absent. Perhaps “if you’d care to listen” can be considered adequate to convey the respectful, possessive, bashful nuances inherent in these words carry. 
This book could be read in one sitting, over the course of one enjoyable day. However, the impact of its characters and what we learn from them would last quite a while longer.

20 July 2014

Mrs Ali's Road to Happiness by Farahad Zama

Good, better, best

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is here again. The fourth book in this beautiful, gentle series takes us back to the unhurried streets of Vizag, where we meet our old friends from the previous books, and lose ourselves in the enjoyment of observing the complexities of their lives resolving and spinning out new patterns.
Of the four books, this one develops the motif of the cultural diversity of India, and the way in which Indian politicians work to divide the Hindu and Muslim communities, the most. I admired its realistic situations, boldly described.
I’m thinking about what I enjoyed most about this book and not very sure whether it was the straightforward language, the intrinsic theme of approaching life's problems with common sense, or the evocative descriptions of the beliefs and lifestyles of peaceful, mainstream Islam. Farahad Zama’s formula is getting better and better, and I find myself wishing that more and more people will read this book and be influenced by it.

16 July 2014

Deki:the adventures of a dog and a boy in Tibet by George Schaller

Multidimensional views of life

This is, of course, a story about a boy and his dog. You could also call it an adventure story, or even a ‘coming of age’ novel. These would be apt descriptions, but inadequate. This highly original work can't be slotted into a genre. The gripping story, told in simple, descriptive language, sparse and nutritious as a monk’s diet, is enhanced by evocative charcoal illustrations. As it takes us through the Tibetan landscape and we observe Tibetan culture, this book also offers riddles whose answers might hold the key to the mysteries of the universe and provide insights which guide on how to deal with its complexities. Life is beautiful, but it is stark. Its realities are presented in the perspective of religious beliefs and philosophy. Existence provides for all. 
If you think something is beautiful, it is beautiful.
If there is fear in your heart, you will meet only demons.
We join wandering nomads in their travels; we observe traditional life in a monastery; we even get to see
something of human temptations and depravity in a sacred environment. Patterns of nature intersect with patterns of the imagination. In short, powerful sentences, the drama advances. Harsh climate might give way to demons and guardian spirits. There are past-life connections, and little glimpses into the powers that meditation can confer. The life of instinct which animals lead is another powerful theme.
Beyond all these, this book is something of a Buddhist primer, and the concepts are conveyed through metaphors, through the adventures of its heroes, and sometimes in simple language. 
One treasure and one alone can no robber steal,
The wise man’s wealth lies in good deeds that
Follow ever after him.
To make an effort to keep wealth,
You become afraid to lose it.
Can you possess a sunrise?
Can you own a cloud?

12 July 2014

Thank you, Stephen Covey


Stephen Covey died on 16 July 2012. He was 79 years old, and had led a productive life. His best-known contribution is his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When I read it, sometime in the 1990s, I was charmed by the theory and so influenced by it that I tried my best to practice the Habits it propounded. I felt that the book had changed my life. Nearly two decades later Sunday Mid-day asked if I’d interview him. I was thrilled! It was only a phone interview, but still. He was visiting Bombay and they had been given a 15-minute telephone slot. The interview was fixed for 8pm on 14 January 2009.
As it happened, that was my father’s 75th birthday. The family was celebrating with dinner at what was then the poshest place in Pune, the Chinese (that’s what they still called it back then) restaurant at the Taj Blue Diamond (that’s what they still called it back then). It was quite an exercise because he had advanced Parkinson’s but did not like to use a wheelchair, and would walk with support, shuffling along slowly and drawing gawks.
I had told everyone that I’d have to be excused for 20 minutes. As we entered, I located a quiet spot where I could leave the group and settle to take the call. We were seated well in time. But, just as the interview began, a group of rowdy children began playing, running up and down the staircase and yelling loudly. They yelled right through the interview. When I listened to the recording next morning, I could hear their yells louder than anything Stephen Covey told me. But I did transcribe and file it in time and it appeared that Sunday. What I remember even more than the noisy children was how disappointed I was with Stephen Covey’s replies to my questions. So it was a big surprise when I received a number of compliments over the next few days. It was only much later that I realised why I’d been disappointed. It was because his replies were telling me things I already knew. They were things I’d already learnt: from Stephen Covey himself.
Here’s the article, which appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 18 January 2009.
In 1989, the world was a different place.
The use of commercial email had just been authorised for the first time and Google was still nearly a decade in the future. It was only a privileged few who had begun using cell phones, and global communication was still a cumbersome process. Reality TV had not yet become mainstream.
Connectivity and supply-chain were concepts still in the future, and Japanese management techniques were still on the periphery. India had produced only 2 crowned international beauty queens in all of history. We had not yet emerged as a world technology leader and were still struggling with the License Raj, still looking anxiously to the West for direction in literature, fashion and social values.
It was at this time that Stephen Covey’s new concepts caught the fancy of people round the world, and from the author of a brilliant and useful book he became, almost overnight, one of the great gurus of self help, and a sought-after personal-growth trainer for corporates. His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People went from bestseller to bible to cliché.
Many of the most widely accepted concepts of effective management today – including “prioritization”, being “proactive”, achieving “synergy” and “win-win” – stem from Covey’s movement. They continue to be preached and valued, even two decades later in today’s much-changed environment.
This book transcends what it calls “the personality ethic”, something that instructs us on issues like making eye contact, using people’s names while talking to them, and making sure to wish everyone we know on their birthdays. It promotes, instead, “the character ethic” through a set of clearly-defined principles.
To read this book is to enjoy and appreciate it.  To put its principles to work is to experience a new and uplifting energy and clarity.
Today, at 77, Dr. Covey continues to spread his creed through structured workshops all over the world.
Did you draw on any particular religious theory or religious experience to produce this book?
No, I did not. But I studied for my PhD in Religious Education. Each of the seven principles in my book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is based on universal and timeless concepts which every religion preaches. I could see that in these lay the solutions to many of the world’s problems.
Today in this economic downturn, it’s more than ever important to learn to internalise these principles and use them to manage ourselves at an individual level. They can empower groups of people inside our organizations, and we must allow them to permeate the entire culture of our organizations.
Be proactive. Begin with the end in mind. Put first things first. Think win-win. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Synergize. And always work to sharpen these skills.”
What about the 8th Habit?
It’s about achieving your full potential. It leads you from Effectiveness to Greatness. There are 6 Cancers that inhibit people’s greatness: Cynicism, Criticism, Comparing, Competing, Complaining, Contending, and if we allow them they will consume the body, the mind, the heart and the spirit. We must not let them infect our cultural DNA!
We must learn not to let ourselves feel victimised, or that we are a product of other people’s image of us. When we overcome those cancers, we can build a culture which is positive and cohesive.
Tell me something about the new Stephen Covey on-line community.
It’s a space that’s open to all, but most useful to youngsters. We are trying to use the internet to promote these principles. The 7 Habits and their offshoots are imbibed and practiced through shared learning, goals and journal entries. 
Admirable – but how would you advise us to detach youngsters from television, computer games and social networking sites and interest them in your community?
Parents and teachers must take the initiative. My wife and I have 9 children and 49 grandchildren. The children in our family have grown up involved in various projects, and with rules and discipline. They are only allowed to watch television one hour a day, and watch a football game or a movie only on a weekend.
We have brought them up to avoid comparisons between people. Television is one of the factors that compels us to compare ourselves with other people, and this is something that damages our cultural DNA. The principles of the 7 Habits form a culture.
We are warned more and more about the threat of identify theft. However, the greater identify theft is our cultural DNA; it’s not someone taking your wallet and using your credit cards – that’s very superficial. It’s about the profound identity threat that comes from people being raised in a comparison-based culture.
Do you feel that the new accounting standards laid down by the International Financial Result Standards (IFRS) are adequate to address the needs of the new and changing environment?
The accounting norms we use today were laid down during the industrial revolution. Machines are recorded as assets and people are recorded as expenses. But today in the knowledge age, what you don’t find in the balance sheet of a company can be far more valuable than what you do find.
I think companies can correct this by bringing in cultural change through the 7 Habits. They must bring principles into the organization using a top-down command and control approach.
The subprime mess in the US has created a global mess that’s eroded half the wealth of the rest of the world and the collapse can largely be attributed to personal greed. People in your country have not been listening to you! What are you doing about it? 
When examining the great losses we’re seeing in the global financial crisis, one of the greatest losses we feel is broken trust. But all is not lost. It is a challenging path and a time consuming one, but trust can be re-built and restored.
My organization and I are working hard at many different levels – family, school, organization and government. I have even trained heads of state to work using these principles.
It is these principles that can save the companies.
As you know, we in India have recently been a target of global terrorism. You’re a proponent of fairness, integrity, honesty and human dignity. Can you tell us how we can specifically use these virtues in an environment where terrorism may strike anywhere and at any time?
Yes. We must use the Inside Out approach. We must work first on ourselves, and spread the principles through our circles of influence. We must all work hard to create a world in which people don’t control us, only our principles control us.
Rest In Peace, Dr Covey. And thank you so much.

04 July 2014

Stupid Cupid by Mamang Dai

Not by its cover

This book is not ‘chick-lit’, as its title indicates. Neither is it a ‘metro read’ as you might anticipate, looking at its cover. The blurb is equally misleading. What we have here is a well-written, intelligent piece of work which could provide several pleasant hours to a spectrum of readers.
Mamang Dai, the book tells us, is a journalist and former civil servant based in Itanagar. And, though Stupid Cupid is very much a Delhi novel, Arunachal Pradesh inhabits it at various levels.
Starting with the intriguing premise of a house converted into a hotel in which rooms might be rented by the hour, this book is not strewn with titillating scenes – or even much promiscuity. Its characters’ actions reflect independent thought and mature choices. We glimpse a little of the lifestyle of Arunachal Pradesh, understand some of the agonies of the beautiful border state, and meet some of its stereotypical characters. On an excursion to the narrator’s village, the eager tourist in me was disappointed not to be lavished with rich descriptions of the flora, fauna and local exotica – though I admired the author’s restraint in not providing it. Adna is a strong woman who lives life on her own terms. To observe her intrinsic vulnerability is to wonder whether such characteristics are shared by other (or all) women. And as we move to the end of the book, we find that the medley of unorthodox relationships has somehow developed into a comfort zone incorporating the feelings of familiarity and affection that prevails in most families. Perhaps life is not so very peculiar, after all.

24 June 2014

Unbordered Memories by Rita Kothari

Unheard stories

I first came across this book when I was writing my book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland
I was writing my book with the keen awareness of the lack of documentation about the Hindus to whom Sindh was once home, a fairly large community now living all over India and in many parts of the world, but by and large firmly faced away from their past and almost entirely disconnected from their roots. To find this collection of short stories, originally written in Sindhi, was like finding treasure. 
These stories give a glimpse into life in Sindh during, just before and just after Partition, and capture customs, habits and the inaccessible ways of life of a time gone by. For the Hindus who left their homes, life has moved on, and it’s not just the place that they lived in that they no longer have access to but also their close-knit community that has had to scatter far and wide. Everything has changed. In refugee camps and new settlements, we see what happens to people whose language nobody understands, and whose abrupt homeless condition is viewed with indifference. 
This narrative I understood, and I found it gratifying to read about the real and fictional instances this book presents. One that I found moving was the studio photograph a family went to have taken, not knowing when they would all be together next. Accustomed to shrugs and a philosophical attitude towards their estrangement from homeland, I found the emotional fabric of this book most refreshing.
To me, the most fascinating stories in this book were the ones which take us into the Sindh of yore and show us how closely integrated the Hindus and Muslim Sindhis were before Partition caused its breach. It was a shift in which religion rooted in spirituality transformed into religion arising from ritual. Just a few months after reading this book, I started experiencing for myself, time and time again, the intrinsic one-ness of the Sindhis of Sindh and those of the diaspora.
There are thousands like me who would find this book precious for the period of history it captures so well. But even to others less emotionally invested, the stories are engaging and elegantly presented. Some follow a crisp reporting style, others are poetic and self-indulgent. I felt this book was a brilliant translation because it is written in good-quality English and also manages to convey nuances of thought which are indigenous to the Sindhis, both the diaspora settled around the world as well as those who remain in Sindh.

17 June 2014

The Prince and the Sannyasi by Partha Chatterjee

Real-life thriller

This is the fascinating story of a man who died and later reappeared. Well, maybe it wasn’t him. But somebody appeared claiming to be him. Discussions, rumours, sworn statements, legal battles and nearly a century later, we are no closer to the truth.
In 1909, the Second Kumar of Bhawal, Ramendra Narayan Roy, died. In 1921, a naked sannyasi who bore a striking resemblance to the Second Kumar, and gave accurate answers to questions about the Second Kumar’s childhood, appeared. The Second Kumar had never been cremated. Was he still alive? Could the naked sannyasi be him?
This beautifully-written, beautifully-produced book is actually much more than just this thrilling mystery. It has maps, evocative descriptions of landscapes and communities, the thought processes of people, the workings of the courts, and detailed historical information that transport us to another place and time with great skill. There are layers around the central story – and, surprisingly, other similar stories are included too. In fact, the high-quality research and production values of this book somewhat subdue its sensational aspect.
This book could have been a 'bestseller' if it was one-third its present size, with a lot of its details carefully pruned out. It was in fact a bit long and detailed for my liking. But if you're looking for something compelling, which gives you a ringside view of life in a princely home in British India and delves what it calls ‘the Secret History of Indian Nationalism’, if you find pleasure in reading slowly and with concentration, this one is for you.

13 June 2014

The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street by Shabnam Minwalla

Encore please

I read somewhere that Shabnam Minwalla had written a ‘charming’ book, and pondered for a while on how the well-meant adjective could easily be construed as patronising. Anyway, that was the word that led me to read this book – and I did indeed find myself charmed.
The six spellmakers are school-going children who live in a Bombay building, one that was built around the time of Partition by someone who left his home, crossed the new border and settled on Dorabji Street, Colaba, in privileged South Bombay. Since then, the building has changed names and a few residents, but the little garden with its two lovely, climbable bimbli trees remains.
As an adult reading a children’s book, I admired its language and plot, its distinct characters, and the many authentic descriptions and episodes, through some of which life-values are subtly conveyed. I liked the spectrum of children’s feelings encountered as the narrative proceeds, creating awareness and inviting empathy. I enjoyed the book design and its apt and elegant, evocative illustrations. And I loved the idea that Colaba (which happens to be one of my adopted native villages) has a garden in which the leaves are not coated in Bombay's characteristic grime.
I smiled through every page of this book, and yesterday, reading in the Local between Churchgate and Andheri, realised with embarrassment that I was laughing aloud at the spellmakers’ antics. At an emotional level, this book did to me what others like The Magic Faraway Tree, The Secret Garden, and Alice in Wonderland had done in their time, many-many years ago, and I felt sorry when I’d turned the last page and had to reluctantly put it down. In fact, I felt myself not just charmed but enchanted, and maybe even enraptured, and look forward to more about Nevi, Sarita and the others.

Outlook Bibliofile 16 June 2014

What is a critic but one who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely? 

David Mitchell, writing in Cloud Atlas

For a few years I wrote a weekly book column for Sunday Mid-day, Bombay’s most wonderful tabloid. It was one of the most enjoyable assignments I’ve ever had. The perks included a never-ending supply of new books, and junkets to the Jaipur Literature Festival (that Disneyland for the reader).
Among the negatives was horror at the growing number of mediocre books that the combination of new technology and a lack of discernment were conspiring to produce. Another problem I had was that readers quite often complained that they didn’t enjoy my reviews, because, they said, I only ever praised books. Apparently, mean, nasty reviews are much more fun to read than positive ones, and one can build a much more attractive reputation as a reviewer if your reviews are dripping with wit and sarcasm. Sometimes people even asked me whether authors and publishers paid me to write good things about their books. So I would explain (trying to hide my indignation) that they did not, but that I saw no point in writing about books that I hadn’t enjoyed reading.
I hardly ever condemn a book, even if I hate it, because there’s no accounting for tastes and something I dislike could well be liked, enjoyed, and may even be admired by someone else. There’s only one book on this blog with a ‘burn’ rating – Culture Shock! India, and it is in fact a popular book which scores of hapless visitors to India refer to, perhaps even with deference.

08 June 2014

The Last Wave by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Island Purgatory

The Last Wave is set in one of the most beautiful, pristine places on this earth. Its primary characters are a young man and woman – a gentle, sincere, capable pair. We travel with them through the Andamans, experience its complex environment, its many distinct and exotic communities, learn about its fascinating history, and observe life, administration, ‘development’ and tourism on the islands.
The Last Wave is not a romantic novel only because it has a young hero and heroine who encounter each other in this honeymoon paradise. It is also the romance of its author with a place he loves and has worked for decades to protect, and for whose survival he fears. The novel was launched in Pune yesterday and I felt honoured when Pankaj Sekhsaria invited me to be ‘in conversation’ with him at the event.
I had met Pankaj years ago, I think it was 1996 or 97, to profile him for a glossy magazine called Marwar, a short meeting with a lasting impact. What I learnt from Pankaj about the Andamans in our hour together all those years ago stayed with me, and I passed on the message to whomever I could, whenever I could. The message was basically the manner in which the indigenous peoples of the Andamans were being colonized by the government and and the people of India, and robbed of their culture and dignity. As a people ourselves recently freed from colonial yoke and all too conscious of the loss of our own precious heritage, making do as we are with our veneer of superimposed non-native culture, many like me have felt sad, and helpless to repair the damage that has been done or even prevent the continuing damage.
Reading Pankaj’s book and marvelling at the many situations which he worked in to show different aspects of the islands, I wondered whether he had written it as a means to reach out to more people to share the Andamans tragedy, and some of the questions I asked him at the launch were aimed at finding out whether this was so. What I understood from Pankaj's replies was that his novel was a purely creative enterprise; an attempt to put all that he knew about the Andamans into a fictional setting, and not particularly aimed at creating awareness or social change. However, while I did find it an engrossing story, the biggest value I got from it was the enormous amount of information it has. I also feel that this is an extremely important book for the way in which it entertains readers while giving us insights into different ways of living, and showing us the delight and wealth of being sensitive to and promoting cultures radically different from our own.

25 May 2014

The King's Harvest by Chetan Raj Shrestha

Sheer brilliance

There is a sheer brilliance to the fabric of this book that goes beyond its obvious function of being the best ever companion volume for a visit to Sikkim.
This brilliance shines through its skillful use of language, the details of description of landscape and incident (precise but unobtrusive); the insights into the lives and minds of the characters; the turns of engrossing plot, and so on. I think I enjoyed The King’s Harvest even more than I’d enjoy an actual trip to Sikkim (set like a ruby on a knuckle between Nepal and Bhutan).
This book consists of two novellas: An Open-and Shut Case, and The King’s Harvest. Between the two, we experience urban and rural Sikkim and, by virtue of the essential nature of travel on its winding roads, also come in close contact with all that lies in between. Along the way we observe great natural beauty, denuded forests and remote wilderness. We witness lives of abject rural poverty as well as the abundance of the land, the joys and rigours of monastic life, and the clutter of haphazard civic development in areas where people play tambola and aspire to upward mobility. We learn that cleansing is forbidden when attacked by leeches, for a wiped-out leech is bound to be replaced by a hungry one. We understand that the ephemeral nature of reality is not just intrinsic to this terrain but also that its people are steeped in the consciousness of this reality.
And this book is strewn with humour and irony. In fact, our first major event in this Shangri-La is a most gruesome murder, and every aspect of that open-and-shut case is strewn with humour and irony. This is equally true of The King’s Harvest, from its basic premise, all through the journey it takes us on, and right down to the children’s names.
One of the things I admired most about this book is that, set as it is in a small, landlocked region, it is inhabited by a wide spectrum of humanity. In fact, two of the central characters determinedly represent opposite ends of this spectrum. Dechen OC may be a small-town policewoman, but she has sophistication embedded in her mindset, language and even lifestyle. Tontem, on the other hand, is an exaggerated parody of rusticism and gullibility.
I can’t wait to read what Chetan Raj Shrestha turns out next.

20 May 2014

Healer: the biography of Dr Prathap Chandra Reddy by Pranay Gupte

The foolish reviewer

A friend sent me this message a short while ago, something she saw on facebook:
Does anyone know who Saaz Aggarwal is? Well, let me tell you: She's a Pune-based writer who "reviewed" my biography, Healer: Dr Prathap Chandra Reddy and the Transformation of India (Penguin) for Hindustan Times. In my opinion, I wonder if she actually read the 600-page book. For example, she says I did not deal with health insurance! Whaaa? There's an entire chapter on health insurance. And so on. Ordinarily, I ignore foolish reviewers on the grounds that they are, well, foolish, and that they have some sort of agenda. But this so-called review is egregiously misinformed. It misrepresents my book. The next time that Manjula Narayan, books editor of Hindustan Times, makes assignments, she should at least insist that reviewers read a book before "reviewing" it.
My ‘review’ of this book actually appeared in Hindustan Times on 5 April 2014, and if you like you can read it here:
http://www.hindustantimes.com/books/booksreviews/book-review-healer-a-biography-of-dr-prathap-c-reddy/article1-1204417.aspx or at the bottom of this post, along with images of the facebook conversation I had with its author, Pranay Gupte, who had posted the comment above, along with a photograph of me.
It’s not nice to spit and scratch in public, no? So I did ‘like’ on the comment. Then I noticed that this was a 'sponsored' link. This meant that Pranay Gupte had paid money to facebook so that my photo and the defamatory comment would be seen by more people!
Here is a transcript of my response, and the next two comments:
Saaz: Uh oh Pranay Gupte ... this SPONSORED link misses a few other things I said in my review:
Presented as the author’s year-long journey in writing it, Healer includes irrelevant description of each interview: the interiors of Sheila Dikshit’s ‘lovely bungalow in the Lutyens Zone in New Delhi’; the CV of the architect of Apollo and information about his leisure pursuits; lyrics of a song New York financier Richard Cashin sang at a Chennai cocktail party; and more. The interviews are weighted with banal hallelujahs: “Dr Reddy possesses great strength of character”; “it is rare to find a leader with such infectious enthusiasm and high principles as Dr Reddy”; “a handsome man with exquisitely polite manners”; “the so-called learning curve happens faster at Apollo than anywhere else I have seen”; and dozens more. Pruning these and the rather excessive repetition (that Dr Reddy’s granddaughter married ‘superstar’ Chiranjeevi’s son appears four times) would have made Healer easier on the wrist.And a whole lot of other stuff I LIKED about your book too :-)
Pranay Gupte: Well, I appreciate your response, Saaz. Cheers from Delhi, and I hope we meet in more pleasant circumstances.
Saaz: What I wrote was a measured, balanced review AFTER reading, making notes and mulling on every page in your book. What you've done here is post a slanderous comment along with my photograph. Nice, eh! (Incidentally, I never said that you "did not deal with health insurance". What I said was, "Controversial topics such as vaccinations, the impact of health insurance and tort, and the basic concerns of access and affordability to best-quality medical care for the majority of Indians are not delved.")
I've been away from this blog for far too long. Thank you, Pranay Gupte, for getting me back to it.

Postscript: The morning after I wrote this post and shared it on my facebook wall, tagging Pranay Gupte, I find that he seems to have 'unfriended' or perhaps 'blocked' me. I wonder why!

Pranay Gupte is a high-profile journalist, sufficiently well-connected to get the President of India to launch his book for him. He responds to a genuine critique by making malicious and ill-founded comments about the reviewer.
Does this mean that book reviewers must always praise books by well-known people, even when they are full of holes, for fear of vindictive reprisal?
Perhaps this is the reason that responsible books editors like Manjula Narayan of Hindustan Times (also maligned in Pranay Gupte's sponsored facebook post) try, whenever possible, to give books for review to writers with a track record of understanding and analyzing books, in addition to having a respected body of their own work.

And the HT review on 4 April 2014:

Dr Prathap Chandra Reddy is a cardiologist and entrepreneur. He founded Apollo Hospital in Chennai in 1979, and grew it to a chain of corporate hospitals, 38 owned and 13 managed, treating patients from 120 countries. This book shows us how Apollo created opportunities that brought Indian doctors settled abroad back to India, and by investing in technology, helped specialists to advance professionally. It credits Dr Reddy with introducing a culture of competence, and a more soothing environment, into Indian hospitals; implementing emergency services; and influencing Tamil Nadu to develop the most advanced ‘cadaver policy’ in India.
Dr Reddy comes across as kind, sensible, and generous to colleagues. He meditates and prays daily – but is also influenced by mythology, astrology and godmen. An entrepreneur and innovator from a young age, he made a fundamental business mistake when expanding into Sri Lanka. When two of his four daughters wanted to be doctors, he discouraged them, now he would like one of his grandsons to become one. Once a fussy eater, he was difficult to cook for, and people would ‘tremble’ at his sometimes petulant behaviour in reaction to a dish he didn’t like. Working at Massachusetts General in Boston in the 1960s, he was once slapped by a patient enraged at being treated by an Indian doctor. Dr Reddy’s boss wanted the patient discharged; Dr Reddy convinced him not to react to the bad behaviour and treat the patient kindly.
Healer also has information about healthcare in India and anecdotes about well-known personalities. We learn about organ transplants and innovations such as robotic surgery. Charming footnotes provide context when required. However, the challenges of raising standards of clinical care and JCI accreditation are not described. Controversial topics such as vaccinations, the impact of health insurance and tort, and concerns of access and affordability for the majority, are skirted.
Presented as the author’s year-long journey in writing it, Healer includes irrelevant description of each interview: the interiors of Sheila Dikshit’s ‘lovely bungalow in the Lutyens Zone in New Delhi’; the CV of the architect of Apollo and information about his leisure pursuits; lyrics of a song New York financier Richard Cashin sang at a Chennai cocktail party; and more. The interviews are weighted with banal hallelujahs: “Dr Reddy possesses great strength of character”; “it is rare to find a leader with such infectious enthusiasm and high principles as Dr Reddy”; “a handsome man with exquisitely polite manners”; “the so-called learning curve happens faster at Apollo than anywhere else I have seen”; and dozens more. Pruning these and the rather excessive repetition (that Dr Reddy’s granddaughter married ‘superstar’ Chiranjeevi’s son appears four times) would have made Healer easier on the wrist.
This book also succumbs to what Patrick French calls “the distorting lens of the present”, using phrases like “back in the 1970s” and providing long lists of recent associates. Technology new in 2013 will soon recede; to specify that a “technique is truly revolutionizing spinal surgery” is to ensure that a book will soon be out-dated.