Sunday, December 27, 2009

Launch Pictures


Scenes from the book release of Have Some Chilli Snakes by Mamta Alva, at Oxford Bookstore, Mumbai. Seen (from left to right) are: Hollywood film-maker Manish Gupta, acclaimed writer Murzban F Shroff, author Mamta Alva and noted columnist and senior journalist Dilip Raote.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A peek into the seemingly uneventful lives of the middle-class society

Oxford Bookstore, Mumbai hosts the book release of Have Some Chilli Snakes by Mamta Alva

Mumbai 11th December 2009: Oxford Bookstore, Mumbai today celebrated the launch of ‘Have Some Chilli Snakes’ by Mamta Alva. The release was followed by an engaging discussion on life and its values upheld by the middle class with eminent writer and columnist Mr. Dilip Raote. The occasion was made special with the presence of Mr. Manish Gupta the renowned Hollywood Director of realistic movies including ‘Karma aur Holi’ starring Naomi Campbell.
Based on the real life stories of middle – class society residing in an archetypal Mumbai suburb, ‘Have Some Chilli Snakes’ comprises of extramarital affairs, compulsive gossip, a much-hated dog-lover, youngsters eloping, the loud Punjabi family, the smuggling Shahs, the spying neighbours, the wife-beater, the simple housewife, the flirtatious Jhatka all set in Jolly Apartments - a housing society in Mumbai. While residents of Jolly Apartments live mediocre and ostensibly uneventful lives, their closed doors hold a different story.
The book not only presents us the characters we encounter on a daily basis but also subtly reveal the hidden truths that mark their existence. The skeletons are brought out of the cupboard and we realize how masks have to be worn to assume normalcy in real life and acceptance from society. The book tells us how the purpose of living is missing or cleverly made obscure by the rule driven social order.
While talking about the book, Mamta Alva said, “With full of colourful characters, vivid settings, mundane lives, the book brings out real-world colloquial charm. It is a true portrayal of individuals whose aspirations and mental processes are often curbed with conflicting values, which persuade them into petty indulgences. However, in times of crises, the differences melt and they stand united to face it as a trouble of their own. I am grateful to Oxford Bookstore for providing the platform for the book launch.”
About the book: “Have Some Chilli Snakes” is a story of Nina and her fellow residents at Jolly Apartments, their petty politics, the shenanigans, hypocrisy, secret lives and betrayals. Generously peppered with humour, the book captures the lives of many suburban middle class families, their idiosyncrasies, their regional quirks, their unique lingo, their fears, insecurities and the shared lives they live as members of a 'housing society'.
About the author: Mamta Alva - Equipped with an MA (Eng. Lit.) from Mumbai University, Mamta Alva has spent over three years as televisions series scriptwriter. Mamta Alva is currently working with famous serial director Damini Kanwal Shetty on two popular serials on Sony television.
About Oxford Bookstore: Oxford Bookstore is a near iconic institution on Park Street, Kolkata. This 80-year-old, 6000 sq. ft, store in its new avatar offers a contemporary, multidimensional interactive experience in keeping with global trends. In January 2002 Oxford Bookstore opened its door in Mumbai, on the ground floor of Apeejay House in Churchgate with a unique product mix of books, music, gifts; internet, CHA BAR and Gallery. May 2003 saw the launch of Oxford Bookstore in Bangalore, at the Leela Galleria. The fourth store was opened on December 11, 2003 in Goa in the heart of popular Calangute area, opposite the St. Anthony’s chapel. In September 2004, Oxford Bookstore, New Delhi’s largest bookstore, opened its doors in the capital. Oxford Junior, the first dedicated bookstore for children in India, opened in Kolkata in August 2006. The other key stores of the chain across the country are in Goa, Shillong, Coimbatore, Bangalore, Chennai and Bhubaneswar. Oxford Bookstore is the only completely integrated online offline bookstore in the country with access to 6 million titles worldwide. provides special online shopping benefits and is the only one of its kind, hosted out of India. Computerworld Smithsonian Honors Archives & Academic Council recognized the path breaking work done by Oxford Bookstore by nominating it in the Business and Services category of the 2003 Computerworld Honors Collection. Oxford Bookstore is a part of the Apeejay Surrendra Group.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Vanity sans Divinity

Sunil K Poolani
More Salt Than Pepper
Karan Thapar
Harper Collins
Price: 399; Pages: 255
Every Sunday when you open the pages of Hindustan Times, you see the mug shot of Karan Thapar followed by his weekly ruminations. Over the years the nature of the column has had started losing its lustre (but once in a while it shines, when he is in his element).
Like the clipped accent he uses while he interviews celebrities or newsmakers on the telly, his columns, too, started looking irritating ramblings at times — a reason why I had stopped reading him long time ago. But, when, I got this book for review — the best of Thapar columns — I was really amazed at the range and subtle humour he had used in his earlier columns that I had missed several times; but my basic indifference to his writing has not changed, though.
Thapar’s pedigree, education (Doon, Cambridge) and contacts have made him go places. He is one of the pioneers of television journalism in India and has been a columnist from eons. And currently he is the host of shows on CNN-IBN and CNBC and is the head of Infotainment Television.
Now, coming back to his columns, he has written about almost all the aspects that unfurled in Indian society and polity every week. Most of them are witty and direct to the point but in several columns himself and his family and friends find a prominent place: his influence, his family’s contacts, name-dropping, you name it you have it.
Savour the one on Indira Gandhi. Once he and his sisters were going for a concert with Mrs Gandhi and her children. The then PM advices the kids to go to the loo (“There won’t be any where we’re going”). So when Thapar’s sister asks the mighty woman what if the PM did when she felt the urge, Mrs Gandhi said: “It’s tricky… It’s so much easier for a man. All they have to do is pop behind a tree. But you can imagine what would happen if I tired that?”
The book is full of these anecdotes, be it of Khushwant Singh, Manmohan Singh, L K Advani, Kapil Dev… In one column he tells how his uncle, Gautam Sahgal, proposed to Nehru’s niece, Nayantara Pandit, and she accepted. But Nehru was not keen on it. In order to show how much influence Edwina Mountbatten had over Nehru, Thapar tries to establish that only because of Edwina did that the marriage ever take place.
Thapar thinks India is a funny place and London is the most civilised city in the world; how Amar Singh donated ten lakh rupees to Doon School; how one Lt. Gen, M N Batra was smitten by Thapar’s mother when she was young; how Khushwant Singh still likes to kick around… it goes on and on.
Arguably the best section in the whole volume is ‘Between the Covers’. Here, too, he takes pot shots at people he dislikes of; like Madhu Trehan. Her book on the Tehelka scam, Thapar says, is “reams of unedited interviews which meander unstructuredly, often losing sight of purpose and frequently dissolving into pointless chatter in disconcerting slang.”
Then there is another column in which he regretted interviewing Benazir Bhutto’s biographer Shyam Bhatia… in another how he regretted not giving Vikram Chandra a job in Hindustan Times… and also how he embarked on a writing career in HT… Phew.
Yes, the book is interesting; in bits and parts. But what I do not understand is what the need for this compilation is? There is no concrete journalism, forget lucid insights or foresights. What I can conclude is that it is just a writer’s vanity exercise to see some of his works in one bound volume. And yes, for the publisher the name sells.
— Sahara Time

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Clear and Present Terrorism

By Dilip Raote

The Al Qaeda Connection – The Taliban and Terror in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas
Imtiaz Gul
Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 499; Pages 308


This is a good book for understanding how cynical realpolitik games are played, and how the intended consequences of these games are trivial compared to their unintended consequences. Imtiaz Gul tells the horror story simply, like a good reporter; there is no jargon and no pontification of strategic analysts.
The intended consequences were to make life miserable for the Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan so that they quit the country. This required nurturing terrorists who would create havoc in Afghanistan and escape to a safe haven in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan. The terrorists were funded by America and its close ally Saudi Arabia, trained in combat, supplied arms, ammunition and communications systems, and brainwashed to be Islamist jihadis. The tribal people of a backward area got globalised training and attracted zealots from other countries.
Pakistan’s military and the ISI intelligence agency were given the task of coordinating the activities of terrorists. So, along with the terrorists, the military and the ISI too became powerful and beyond the control of the Pakistan government which had become an American puppet.
Eventually, The Russians got tired of the mess and quit Afghanistan. What were the huge and well-trained terrorist networks supposed to do? Close down their operations and return to a quiet peasant life? That was impossible. They had been fired with a mission, an ideology, and the inspiration of hate and revenge. Their sponsors, who now tried to stop them, became the new targets of hate. The tribal terrorism globalised and created deadly big bangs in many countries. Imtiaz Gul says there are now 30,000 Muslim extremists in Germany and 10,000 in UK. What about the numbers in other countries, including the US?
In a speech on 27 March 2009, US President Barack Obama said the terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas were not simply an American problem. “It is, instead, an international security challenge of the highest order….. If there is a major attack on an Asian, European, or African city, it is likely to have ties to Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. The safety of people around the world is at stake.” Russian military officers who read Obama’s statement must have roared with laughter and ordered more bottles of vodka.
Gul gives these statistics for terrorism-related deaths in Pakistan: 189 in 2003, 864 in 2004, 648 in 2005, 1,471 in 2006, 3,599 in 2007, and 6,400 in 2008. Add to them the deaths in other countries and the numbers are scary. It is possible that cynics in Washington DC dismiss these deaths as ‘collateral damage’.
American forces never directly attacked Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, but now they are frequently bombing Pakistani territory. And the Pakistan government can’t to anything about it. Pakistan itself has become ‘collateral damage’ in the war against Al Qaeda. It is no wonder that the Pakistani people believe that the US is a bigger threat to their country than the terrorists. This fear about the US is spreading to Muslim communities in other countries.
Imtiaz Gul’s book should be compulsory text for the armed forces, foreign ministries and intelligence services. It gives step-by-step revelation of a deadly game and its consequences. Gul presents a huge amount of information, but it links well and provokes thoughts about the future. Many questions arise after the book is put away. Will Pakistan eventually seek the help of India and Russia? How will emerging technologies and tech-savvy extremists change the form of terrorism from mass murder and destruction of property to something more subtle and more ruinous? What new routes will terrorism funding take and who will be the new sponsors? Will the success of Pakistan’s terrorists inspire guerrilla movements in other countries? How will anti-terrorism technologies and strategies evolve? And much more.
-- Sahara Time

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Of Beautiful Women and Other Disturbing Issues

Sunil K Poolani
The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions
Mukul Kesavan
Black Kite
Rs 295; Pages 302

It’s an unpardonable mistake from my part. Not having read Mukul Kesavan much, earlier. Part of the reason being his columns and his occasional writings (I missed reading his three earlier books: Looking through Glass, Secular Common Sense and Men in White) that used to appear mainly in the still-venerable Calcutta-based Telegraph rather than the Bombay rags that are only interested in showing Sania Mirza’s bare thighs than carrying pieces by Kesavan who, in one of the essays in the book under review, observes: “Sometimes [Sania] gets fed up with the attention she gets and asks to be left alone, to be given the room to be just an eighteen-year-old.”
For the uninitiated, which is unlikely if you are a reader of this magazine, Kesavan, who presently lives in Delhi, teaches “history, reads fiction, and has a particular interest in cinema, cricket, and politics”. Predictably, this collection of essays, which had appeared in publications like the Telegraph and Outlook among others, mainly touches on these topics.
But the main toast of the collection is the first section, ‘Looking’, arguably the best, save some of his travel writings and two on the media. In ‘Cine Qua Non’ he makes a valid point when he says the fundamental difference between (Hollywood) films and ours is that in Hollywood it’s all right for both heroes and heroines to be good-looking. His ‘find’ of ugliness of the Indian man does not stop there. In the title essay he makes a hilarious statement. “[The Indian male] uses [the index finger and the thumb] to adjust himself in public… You’ll never see women doing this, only men. It’s an important route to ugliness.”
Why is that, men, including me, are ugly? I believe men try to be macho and think they can get away doing dirty, offending mannerisms in public since they have the authority to preside over their women: in life, sex, family matters… They like to flash ornaments (think Bappi Lahiri, who wears more jewellery than his wife) and how much ever neatly they dress they wear the thick bands of rotting pink threads on till they discolour and fall off.
In another piece, the author is in awe of Konkana Sen, the actor, who “represents within Indian cinema the prospect of properly pan-Indian actors who have the intelligence, the linguistic ability, and the mimetic genius to plausibly inhabit the skins of characters from parts of India that are not their own.” He analyses two of her films, Omkara and Mr and Mrs Iyer, to drive this point home. Rightfully so. Never thought of it, though.
One has to admit that Kesavan has this uncanny gift of vividly narrating an issue threadbare, without being nasty, though highly subjective at times, with the aid of his experience as a historian, and with a Biblical simplicity. This is highly appreciated when he writes on politics and religion, where a minor casualness can kill the whole credibility of the writing.
One of the best pieces in the volume is ‘The Men of Madras’. Though he is unabashedly in admiration with the city and its people (he was visiting the city after twenty-two years, mind you) he thinks it is another country, cut off from the ineptitude and lethargy of say the cities of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. He likes the food, he likes the people in Madras, he looks around the city in wonder, and when he goes back home, with a full stomach and an happiness-brimming mind, what he fears is that will one day the South secede from the subcontinent, for subsidising the laid-back BIMARU states.
One of the brilliant observations he makes is, “Sitting in a plane where the world isn’t north or south but simply below, it becomes clear that geography isn’t a subject, it’s a conspiracy. Mercator’s maps are a plot; they pump Europe up to the size of a continent and shrink India to the size of France… Why should England be North and Sri Lanka South?” Any objection? Not at all.
Travelling interests us all, so does travel writing, and Kesavan has a good section devoted to just that. Though I did not particularly like the piece ‘Antiquities of Egypt’ where he travels with Amitav Ghosh to see the hidden mysteries of that ancient land, another one, ‘Bathing in Istanbul’ is like a dream come true. Reading it we are virtually taken to a swift journey through the lovely, ancient capital city of Turkey, describing the richness of it; ruing, though, by drawing parallels, how badly India maintains its national heritages and monuments.
Another exotic piece is a junket to Australia he undertakes where he finds time to visit the most famous aboriginal place, the great red monolith Uluru. “The guides knew very little about Uluru… because it was what the Anangu considered a male site and their lore about it was kept secret from outsiders and even uninitiated aborigines.” What if he learnt anything, it is “the idiot’s introduction to geological time”.
The section on ‘Reading’ has, regretfully, ponderous essays: one on ‘Fiction and History’ (which does not reach a point); ‘History and Whimsy’ which unnecessarily praises Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown which to me, and several others, is an utterly boring joke; and ‘The Jews of Georgette Heyer’ (meanders). But there are two magnificent essays in this section: one on, why when American papers like to go local, Indian papers like to go national; and the second one on how the Net has changed the newspaper reading habits but people in the West prefer to read columns which are not Web-exclusive.
Then comes the vitally important section of the volume: ‘Politics’. In ‘My Emergency’ he talks about his personal experience and his father’s meeting with Maneka Gandhi. “She was the editor of Surya India, an Emergency rag, now deservedly dead… No one wanted any attention from that family: not from the mother, the son, or even his wife.” But the meeting turned out to be (a)harmless chat about libraries.
In another essay he argues South Asia will begin to make collective sense when India’s neighbours are remade by the idea that made India, while in another he emphasises that “the scale of American virtue — its extraordinary freedom, its myriad careers open to talent, its appetite for improvement — is usually invoked to put America’s failings into context”.
Talking about the Iraqi crisis he rightly points out that “the Iraqis need time and a common enemy so they can dissolve the politics of identity in the vague consolations of anti-colonialism”. It is not gibberish, but a cruel testimony of today’s multi-polar world. You may disagree with this stand in ‘The Defence of the West’, though: “To single out Muslims for special attention is fine because religious profiling is not the same as racial profiling… Liberals shouldn’t make the stupid mistake of equating Muslims with dark-skinned Third Worlders.” How righteous this argument is, is open to discussion.
In ‘Veiled Insinuations’ he touches upon a delicate issue: “The burqa [in the traditional families’] view was viewed as an enabling garment, a form of insurance that allowed anxious conservative parents to send their daughters out into the world.” This is a topical issue, now, since the French President wants to ban that piece of cloth in his country. Kesavan, it looks like, is particularly concerned about this issue because he teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, founded and nurtured by Muslims.
An essential essay in this impressive volume is ‘A New History of Indian Nationalism’ where his skills as a historian come to play. While lucidly analysing the role of Muslims in the Freedom Struggle, he cleverly sums up thus: “One of the mistakes the Congress made in the 1930s and the 1940s was to imagine that its good intentions in the matter of pluralism and secularism were enough to make it representative of all India.” This argument is becoming more and more important to be addressed at in today’s polity of perniciousness and religious intolerance.
In ‘How Pluralism Goes Bad’ he says Sardar Patel was venerated for his work of territorial consolidation because it addressed this anxiety at a time when the young nation seemed fragile. The problem, he discovers, is that the history of republican India is the history of a state which, when pushed, will recognise every sort of identity — linguistic, tribal, even religious — for the sake of pluralist equilibrium and political peace. This assessment may not find many takers from across the political spectrum, but I have to admit it that it is true.
The biggest article in this volume is ‘Secular Common Sense’, which was earlier published as a pamphlet by Penguin. Since this essay is a book by itself and it will take another long review to explain it, it is succinct to put that what Kesavan likes us to believe is: “In India today, secularism often appears to be a form of Hindu chivalry… Muslims are seen as victims of Partition and the prejudices that it institutionalised.” To substantiate this view, he lucidly examines the history of India, the Congress’ appeasement of the minorities, the Muslim point of view, the despicable act of the Babri Masjid demolition, the rise of the Hindutva, Dalit issues and even the Kashmir imbroglio. Well written.
Some of the interesting essays, according to this reviewer, are the ones on cinema. Particularly likable is ‘Urdu, Awadh, and the Tawaif: The Islamic Roots of Hindi Cinema’. Kesavan enlightens us that it is ironic but true that Hindi cinema is the last stronghold of Urdu in independent India, its last haven in a sea of linguistic bigotry. “It is appropriate that this is because the Hindi film has been fashioned out of the rhetorical and demotic resources of Urdu.” Agreeable, if you ponder over it.
In ‘Patriotism at the Pictures’, though Kesavan lays emphasis on the film Gadar saying it has the implications of communal conflict carefully sorted out, and the film “was so scrupulous in crossing the T’s and dotting its sectarian I’s is a tribute to the bred-in-the-bone pluralism of Bombay cinema,” I beg to disagree, find it naïve and also think the film was anything but a contrived attempt at pseudo-patriotism and a cheap attempt to rake in revenues.
Now I have to confess. This is a very difficult book to review — as in it covers several issues that are sometimes grave and other times frivolous (interesting, mostly, though), is a collection of essays culled out from several years of Kesavan’s writing and can even grapple with you due to a broader canvas. A smorgasbord, this collection is a reviewer’s nightmare but a reader’s delight. Particularly if you read it in several attempts: an essay a day.
Apart from sentences in one essay getting repeated in another, and some bit of typographical and grammatical errors, this is a volume you will always cherish: due to the mastery and beauty over the prose, the historical veracity in analysing facts and figures and, most importantly, the intellectual honesty.
A must read.

Hard bound, soft touch

Sunil K Poolani

There are books in hard cover, when most of them appear first in print. Then there are those paperbacks to cater to a ‘lesser’-audience that piggyback on the ‘hard’ part’s success. Then there is a class called coffee table books that target a discerning audience, to a cherished class, who treats them something like decorated showcase items. So, now, here we talk about the latter category of books that you would like to keep them on your table, when your kith and kin come home and savour brewed coffee. Test (taste?) ten:
New Delhi: Making of a Capital
Malvika Singh & Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Roli Books
Rs 1,975; Pages 240

A veritable visual celebration of and a treatise to a city most South Indians love to hate. The authors (Mukherjee: a renowned historian and an eminent journalist; Singh: a known journalist-publisher) are the perfect pair to give a ringside view of the city’s chequered past. Savour that with the visual research by the inevitable Pramod Kapoor.
Kishore Kumar: Method in Madness
Derek Bose
Rupa & Co
Rs 395; Pages 128

An impeccable movie writer analyses the mad genius of Hindi cinema: singer, actor, filmmaker, music composer, lyricist. But Kishore was also a miser, madman and troublemaker. Who was he then? This book attempts to provide an answer with a well-rounded picture of his personality and rare and lively pictures to supplement the text.
Islamic Art: The Past and Modern
Nuzhat Kazmi
Roli Books
Rs 695; Pages 144

Islamic art, not many Hindutva elements may agree though, has taken from other cultural traditions and has also given to different social structures and visual languages of the world. This invaluable book looks at the artistic output of the Islamic civilisation from the time of its inception to its interpretations in the contemporary world.
Occupying Silence
Devashish Makhija
Gallery Kanishka
Rs 495; Pages 40

This is a rich collection of full-colour plates of graphic-verse pieces, interspersed with miniature vignettes of a life of creative confusion. The works provide an insight into an observant mind, which skilfully dissect the experiences, laying bare the other side of real vision. Makhija’s are daily occurrences in our common world viewed with a completely different perspective.
Royal Enfield: The Legend Rides On
Price not mentioned; Pages 162

The Bullet is a legend and when it completes 50 years, it is a matter of celebration. The book meanders through many a highway and byway, while trying to answer pictorially why is it so loved by so many people globally: starting with the early days of the Enfield’s birth, at the Redditch Works, England, to the Enfield factory in Chennai, where it is assembled even today.
Coimbatore: The Emerging Indian Cosmopolis
Pictures: Stalin Ramesh and K Marudhachalam
Text: Shobhana Kumar
Esscom, Esslingen Coimbatore Association
Rs 500; Pages 250

A great effort to present Coimbatore as an emerging metropolis. The photographs are awesome, so is the writing. It is a clever and effective mix of the ancient and the present in vivid details: from the Perur temple that dates back to the Chola period to today’s shopping centres, restaurants, theme parks… The book, a guide to a visitor, will make the city-dwellers proud.
Sikkim: The Hidden Fruitful Valley
Parvin Singh & Yishey Doma
Prakash Books
Rs 1,295; Pages 90

Sikkim is a land of mystery and enviable charm. Any book on Sikkim will transport you to a land of bliss. The text by Yishey Doma supports rich photographs by Parvin Singh, a photographer who spent many years documenting life, customs, people and the beautiful landscapes of this tiny state of India. A virtual photography journey you will always cherish.
Sahyadris: India’s Western Ghats — A Vanishing Heritage
Santosh Kadur & Kamal Bawa
Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment
US $50; Pages 240

The Sahyadris are home to the most intact rainforests in peninsular India. Myriad species of flora and fauna live here, many of which are found nowhere else on earth, and countless of which are still being discovered. This book takes you to one of the last great places on earth: a place to be cherished, a wild heritage to be preserved for generations to come.
Tipu’s Tiger
Susan Stronge
Roli Books
Rs 595; Pages 96

This eye-catching book narrates the tiger’s travels from India to elsewhere, explaining how it has inspired artists and authors, and frightened or entertained the public since its first appearance in England. It also discusses the intriguing meanings of the many tiger motifs on Tipu’s personal commissions, from his jewelled golden throne and idiosyncratic weapons to the emblematic wooden semi-automaton.
The Indians: Interesting Aspects
Sumant Batra
Tara Press
Rs 8,500; Pages 240

When there is a plethora of books on India (ahem!), this comes as a whiff of fresh air: a humble attempt to showcase the extraordinary spirit of the Indians and a few interesting facets culled out from the daily lives of peoples this great country. A journey through rural villages and small towns which are preserving houses of civilisation, customs and traditions.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

It is elementary, Mr Basu

Sunil K Poolani
The Curious Case of 221B
Partha Basu
Harper Collins
Price: 299; Pages: 277

Any person who reads in any major language in the world would be familiar with 221B Baker Street and its famous inhabitant. Arthur Canon Doyle’s famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, the detective par excellence, and his extraordinary gift to solve crimes — and even his narratives to his British doctor, Dr Watson, who becomes the friend, sometime roommate, and sidekick — are part of our lexicon and occupy permanent space in our minds till we kick the bucket.
Holmes is like an addiction, or an energy, that refuses to leave our bodies; we are like Obelix, in Asterix comics, who has no need to drink the druid’s magic potion, because he fell into the cauldron as a baby, making its effect upon him permanently.
So it is with much trepidation that I started reading Partha Basu’s first book — a Holmesian, mind you — in which the detective and his storyteller-doctor appear, not in the cobbled streets of London but in distant Calcutta. And I am, after reading the book with tremendous mental pain followed by an excruciating headache, realised that my initial apprehension turned out to be true: Basu can never be Doyle and it is a crime he even tried to do it: a mystery only the original Holmes can ever resolve.
It is the stupid narrative style that will put many a readers in a tizzy. Narrative after narratives, interspersed, in different fonts: by Jit, who apparently stumbles upon a letter sent to his slain dad by Dr Watson; by Emma Hudson, in whose house Homes stayed; Dr Watson himself; and Julia Stoner. As if these are not enough the book has copious amounts of ‘newspaper clippings’ in not only in a different font but in different layouts.
So what is the story about and what is the mystery involved here? Jit discovers certain letters and notebooks that were stashed away by his deceased dad for more than fifty years. The notes, which involve Holmes and Dr Watson, “are redolent of temptation, torture and terminal punishment.” Why? Dr Watson writes of racism, revenge and sexual algebra and the blood money that flowed from opium, ivory and slaves.
The mystery is how and why did these papers reach India of all the places? Basu is trying to ‘find out’ why, and the readers will get to know why if s/he can reach the final pages of the book, which is hugely unlikely. The only plausible reason I can reach why the papers were found in Calcutta is that Basu wanted them there. No one else. Why blame poor Dr Watson or Holmes for that?
Who is this Basu? Apparently he was a corporate honcho and a BBC Mastermind India semi-finalist, which explains why he gets all the knotty questions and so-called mysteries and suspense that he worthlessly weaves into a narrative (or the lack of it) which lacks charm.
The blurb-writer has the audacity to even say that this is a “brilliant retelling that turns the Holmesian canon on its head” and the ‘present-day’ Doyle has “[brought] back a host of readers, except that they are no longer what we had made them out to be”. Even this could have been justifiable if Basu would have used the same simple style Doyle employed, which, even after a century, reads like a dream; instead our man uses all his skills to showcase his vocabulary to hapless readers.
Now, Holmes would have said, unless he is not turning in his grave: “It is elementary Mr Basu, do not try to be a Doyle.”
-- Sahara Time

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A home away from home

By Raziqueh Hussain

4 September 2009: Novelist Asha Iyer Kumar talks about her debut book Sand Storms, Summer Rains, and gives an insider’s view of an expat’s life in the Gulf and how she’s made herself at home and etched out a new life in her adopted land.

An article Asha Iyer Kumar was asked to write for the Khaleej Times’ weekend magazine on ‘Gulfees’ (a term for expats she coined herself) was the trigger for her to pen her book Sand Storms, Summer Rains. “I decided to take the thread of privations from the article and weave a story, keeping the sentiment intact but filling it with fictional characters and instances. I stuffed it with my own observations and broad view of people and life,” she reveals.
The premise of her book is the life of expats living in the Gulf. The two main protagonists are symbols of the emotional and personal upheavals men suffer when they travel to distant lands to make money and support their families back home. The book takes the reader on a dune-bashing ride through their agonies and ecstasies, their lives summing up the futility of the expat journey in personal terms. It took three years for Kumar to write her book, and three more to have it published. Kumar moved to the Gulf in 1998 after her marriage, but becoming a novelist wasn’t a conscious choice. “It was joblessness and boredom that drove me to take up writing full time, not the intention of getting published,” she says. “It was a means of keeping myself busy. As my observations and experiences of life in the Gulf grew, I felt an urge to write them down.”
Although Kumar admires authors like RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond and Shashi Deshpande, she vehemently denies any marked influences in her style. “I haven’t tried to imbibe any particular style from any particular author. I doubt if any writer would consciously do such a thing and risk losing their identity. I think, as we evolve through reading and writing, our own style becomes a confluence of various influences — of theme, thought, technique, even the genre of writing. But yes, there might be a mild sway here or there that is evocative of some other author, but that cannot be intentional,” she says.
Kumar, who lives in Fujairah, feels the best part of being an expat is having to make a home for yourself in a different culture and learning 
to adapt.
“You are in a country that has a completely different culture from your own, yet you feel at home because of its adoptive nature and its multicultural and cosmopolitan fabric. I don’t think my first novel would have happened if it wasn’t for the fact that I live here,” she says.
But like all expats, she misses home. “Oh, how I miss the monsoon and the lush green landscapes of Kerala. How I regret not being able to partake in family gatherings and occasions.
“I see the life of an expat as an extended metaphor for life itself. There’s no guarantee of being here tomorrow, so live today to the fullest.”
-- Khaleej Times

Friday, September 04, 2009

A Struggle for Identity Amidst Suffering


A Girl called Asha Albuquerque
By Vikshiptha
Frog Books, Mumbai
Price Rs 195

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell us of our saddest thoughts”

Vikshiptha’s novel A Girl called Asha Albuquerque reincarnates this idea as the protagonist, in his bitter struggle of life, strives to get an identity for himself. Though the little could be confused for the story of a girl, a reading through the novel turns it a recording of the epiphany of Vikshiptha. Vikshiptha struggles to get a meaning for himself, ‘who is neither dead nor living’, As a teacher, as a worker in “a(n) (M)and agency”, as a son, as a brother, as a husband and as a father, Vikshiptha undergoes a continuous metamorphosis. If Kafka’s hero becomes an insect overnight, Vikshiptha lives like an insect for 40 years. His inability to get the post of a permanent lecturer (owing to the ‘forward’ status of his caste and his commitment to morality by not giving a bribe to get a permanent job) becomes his albatross, though he is not a sinner. The weight of the social dogmas, the corruption in the education departments, the bitter reality of life and the non-availability of an alternative mean to recognize his temperament make Vikshiptha’s metamorphosis a never ending process. The novel is an embodiment of this struggle.
If I resort to give a summary of the novel, then there would be no meaning at all in analyzing the novel as a text. Before I dissect the text in my own crude and amateur way, I beg the pardon of Vikshiptha (Niranjan Sharma), for I am fully aware that my analysis would not be able to access its potentiality to the highest degree.
The structure of the novel is, perhaps, first of its kind. It is far away from the Mills and Boons romances, the “classics” or the recent award winning ‘popular’ fictions. The novel is a document; it is a culmination of experience and scholarship. The reading of the novel prerequisites a base in literary criticism, philosophy, psychology and literature. The author tries to negotiate between two identities: writing for living or living for writing? This struggle between two identities is shown in the description of the girl: A Girl called Asha Albuquerque: with Hypnotic eyes and Ravishing lips….., she is a “child-woman”. The author/Vikshiptha’s struggle goes in parallel with the struggle of the girl. She becomes a sign through which author’s metamorphosis is expressed. While Vikshiptha describes himself, he is also being described by the girl. In between these two narrative strategies, philosophical and psychological extracts are woven inextricably. In structure, theme and style A Girl Called Asha Albuquerque is a different experiment.
The novel cannot be read in the ordinary sense of the term ‘reading’. It requires a preliminary understanding of various thinkers, literary laureates and an acute awareness of the pain that has stimulated the author to write the text. T.S.Eliot, the modernist thinker and writer has said: “……..creation of a work is a continuous extinction of personality. The more the writer suffers, the more creative in him will be the mind that creates”. Vikshiptha’s sufferings, therefore, contribute a lot to the understanding of the metamorphosis and transformation of hisself’. The numerous quotations that the author makes use of in the novel don’t become ‘hanging’ quotations. They suit to the purpose and situation as they enhance the narrator’s metamorphosis to the reader. Therefore the reaching of this novel requires a basic knowledge of Beckett, Freud, Golding, Jung, Tolstoy, Kant, Stendhal, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, William Faulkner, Rousseau, Arun Joshi, Nirad Chaudhury, Baudelaire, to name a few. Hence, the novel cannot be read in the ordinary sense of the term ‘reading’.
The field of education becomes a target (it deserves an attack) in the novel. Its flaws, the rampant corruption, the illogical handling of the department, the hipocracy of the state – all come under Vikshiptha’s scrutiny as he has seen them from a distance during his career as a lecturer. The tasks of a lecturer are parodied in the novel – who has to ‘finish’ the syllabus or ‘portion’. In this process, according to Vikshiptha, the very essence of teaching goes into astray. The students learn English in the manner they are taught – in patches, not in the way it has to be taught and learnt. When it comes to the question of teaching English literature, the knowledge of the professors does not to go beyond Shakespeare. They continue to believe that quoting from ‘classics’ is the ultimate sigh of having a mastery over those particular texts in general and over literature as well. These gunny bags of quotations have turned the seriousness of literary pursuit into a mere academic reproduction of an existing knowledge, far away from a creative and productive venture. Vikshiptha is deprived of a permanent lecturer’s post for two reasons: first, he belongs to a caste that is considered to be a ‘forward’ caste by the constitution. Second, he refuses to pay bribe. Therefore he remains a ‘permanently temporary lecturer’ in English. This prompts him to write: “……….at 40, being a ghastly failure, left with nothing but words, all I could do was to write” (P-16).
Vikshiptha’s genius is at its best while describing the places with pun. The city where he stays is ‘Monkeytown’ (Mangaluru/ Mangalore?) is in the state of KARKOTAKA (Karnataka?). He began his career in a place called IPUDU (UDUPI?) and the village nearby has turned into the Las Vegas of banking and education with a name MONEY’s PAL (MANIPAL?). His early years were spent ALAREK (KERALA?). While naming the characters, Vikshiptha makes use of irony as well. So there are persons like Dr.Icecold Frozen, Dr.Asyoulikeit, Dr.Muchadoaboutnothing, Dr.Sillymind Freud and Dr.Colourblind. The magazines that he reads are “India Tomorrow”, “Inlook” and “Weak”. Of course, we are not asked to play the guessing game. But our temptation is strong. But what should catch our attention is the irony, wit and humour that could be derived in reading the text.
There are still a lot more in the novel A Girl Called Asha Albuquerque. I am not going to deal with them. I leave them for the readers to enjoy and analyze.
Review by:
Subrahmanya Sharma
M. A. (English) First Rank (2007)
Mangalore University
S/O Venkatramana Bhat
P.O. Ukkinadka
Kasaragod-671 552

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Whine and Dine

Sunil K Poolani
Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
Arundhati Roy
Hamish Hamilton
Price: 499; Pages: 252

There was a nice, short girl from the riverside of a Kerala village who wrote a book in the mid-nineties. A sweet, small novel which was likeable but immensely forgettable. But it was not the case. The staccato style she employed got the attention of the Booker judges and it went on to win that coveted award, thanks to which millions of copies were sold, and still counting.
Arundhati Roy became a household name since then. But there was a noticeable lull period in her writing. Her next avatar was in the form of a ‘crusader’, but purely as a heavily subjective commentator who voiced her views in the form of non-fiction but with poetic cadences — which for many was like blurring the lines of fact and fiction. Nevertheless, she was serious.
The Narmada movement led by Medha Patkar was her first foray into her campaigner career that would then span more than a decade. It was a small trip from Meenachil to Narmada, then. Since then she has travelled all over the world; there is hardly any political party, any fundamental religious group, any despicable dictatorship in the world that has not failed to face her wrath.
I have been observing this little-bird-lady for more than a decade, like most of her readers spread across continents. She is determined; and always gets into trouble (including a token one-day jail sentence for ‘insulting’ the judiciary); makes enemies faster than ‘War Criminal’ Bush; and I have an inane feeling that Roy enjoys them all.
There are two Roys. One, a totally devoted, sharp, meticulous and daring Roy who does her homework very meticulously and comes up with periodic commentaries on issues that we tend to sweep under the carpet. An eye-opener Roy.
Then there is the maverick Roy, who finds gratification in upsetting many an applecarta; mightier the better. She is like this: there is a calamity that affects India or things closer to the polity of the country — be it the Bombay terror attacks or the Gujarat genocide — and, voila, you can expect her to comment on that very soon. And make provocative statements (of course, there is truth in what she says) to incite (mostly the neo-Hindutva elements) the masses, or the lay English-language reader.
Admit it. She is very much part of us, but aloof, almost invisible; not present even for the launch of her book in question, Listening to Grasshoppers, which is a collection of her essays that have had appeared in national and international media on all issues close to her heart; and in some way to us, too. Most of the stuff we have read, along these years. And most of them have earned her more brickbats than bouquets. Be it questioning the media, be it how a democratically elected state government like Narendra Modi’s orchestrating a pogrom, be it how the Parliament attack accused have been vilified, be it…. whatever.
Reading through most of the articles in the book, which are not updated “intentionally”, one comes to realise that, how much ever we hate Roy, we love her in an equal measure.
Love her or hate her, she is going to be with us. As a mirror. Doesn’t matter if she is not at all objective in her views. And, yes, she mixes verse and worse in equal measures.
This book should be more of a reference guide and a ready-reckoner than just a book that should be read and stashed away.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Nothing but a bad joke

Sunil K Poolani
The Gold of Their Regrets
Ravi Shankar Etteth
Penguin India
Price: 250; Pages: 227

One-two chapters into reading, I was not sure what is the genre of this bizarre book that I was, excruciatingly, trying to make sense of. Serious fiction? Plain fantasy? Historical novel? Or a joke? When I was through I got my answer: it is nothing but a bad joke. Why? Will come to that.
For that you need to know the story (or the lack of it). The supposed thriller begins in circa 1945. A Mitsubishi K1-21 bomber — carrying Subhas Chandra Bose (the commander of the INA), his trusted bodyguard Bezbaruah and 30 million pounds in gold with Nazi imprint, crashes — nothing more is learnt about it since then. Three men masterminded the crash, so tells Etteth, and only the trio still knows what happened to the gold.
Sixty years pass. Bezbaruah’s son, now a trained mysterious killer, is all set to kill the trio and accumulate the wealth; also in the process he learns where his dad’s remains could be found. Now, the Killer is a Tarzan, invincible, and knows everything that is going on in Indian intelligence agencies; he can reach anywhere, anytime, like Superman; he is invincible, like Mandrake. He is ruthless, like Jack the Ripper. Until… until he finds out that his opponents are no lesser mortals: Anna Khan (super cop, whose husband was killed by a Kashmir militant), and Jay Samorin (martial art specialist from a Kerala royal family). Khan and Samorin are now together and have sex all the time when they are not doing dishum-dishum.
DCP Khan and her fighter-gigolo friend are all set to find out how Samorin’s wild pet, Bharadwaj (one of the 1945 trio), his daughter, her lesbian girlfriend, the lesbian girl’s boyfriend, and lastly Khan’s own dad (the second of the trio) were killed. And naturally they want to nab the Killer and squeeze him to death.
The story revolves around Delhi, Kashmir, Haridwar, Kerala… sans any honesty, subjectivity or any sense of timing. Difficult to believe? So what? It is fiction, right? Wrong. Etteth is only interested in showing off his knowledge of a Delhi high life (Versace, Prada, Armani), his convoluted vocabulary, and his possession of the ‘historical’ facts of the INA. But, ahem, they do not contribute to the continuity of the narration he intends his readers would scurry through.
Sorry for the digression. The story is not over yet. Then comes a character called Tulsi, who seems to have even wooed Alexander the Great, is the godmother of all the nefarious and internecine happenings in the whole world, and can even get pregnant by Samorin (so what she is in her eighties — or is it 180s?
Now, the third of the trio happens to be Samorin’s dad. Ha, ha. So believable. And this Tulsi, who is ravishingly beautiful and has had sex with almost all the royals, fighters and mafia goons since a century, is the person who helps Samorin and Khan to get rid of the killer. How? She personally kills him. And the final truth is revealed: the Killer is Tulsi’s son. Surprises galore? Unless you feel like throwing up.
If this weren’t a ‘serious’ thriller, and a joke book, I would have loved it. Nevertheless, I am sure Etteth did not mean it so; so might be the commissioning editors of the novel in question. To be frank, the book is a page-turner; in a way that, you read it in disbelief but with a suppressed smirk. And, hah, the language is good at times. But lexis is, fiction is not. Other defining and ‘entertaining’ moments in the book are the varied sexual activities: from lesbianism, voyeurism, to even bestiality.
The talented Ravi Shankar (Etteth) should have stuck on to what he is really good at: political cartooning and social commentaries.
-- Deccan Herald

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Eternal, rustic lamp

By Uma Chandrasekaran & Sunil K Poolani

A Silence of Desire
Kamala Markandaya
Penguin India
Price: 250; Pages: 179

Certain wonders never cease to enchant. Be it the Taj. Be it the Egyptian Pyramids. In literature, too, there are unmatchable gems that stand the test of time. Like Homer’s Odyssey. India also has (now, not talking about the Vedic classics, here) an array of quality writers’ works that refuse to stop fascinating you. The ever-effervescent Kamala Markandaya is one writer.
First published in 1960, about a middle-class Indian family, Markandaya’s A Silence of Desire stages a seamless comeback. Why so? Because it is crafted in a deceptively gentle style in simple-yet-evocative language, much like its leitmotif, the tulasi tree in a homely courtyard, portraying the silent symbol of faith and family. And Penguin decides to publish it, like many of her earlier works, this year, too.
What makes Markandaya so special? For which you should reread the story, at least of the book in question. Sarojini is the dutiful wife of Dandekar the clerk and mother of two daughters and a son: 12-year-old Ramabai, 10-year-old Lakshmi and the youngest little son Chandru. Until one day.
“Three children, no debts, a steady job, a fair pile of savings that his wife regularly converted into gold… ” What more could Dandekar ask of Sarojini, his wife of 15 years, who tended to his neat and orderly needs and was good with the children? She met all his demands placidly and listened to his account of another day in office with the same patience and regularity. And he was always grateful to her for keeping her report of the day brief — ‘not bad’ was good enough.
All is quiet until the day he comes home from office to the deafening sounds of Chandru’s loud crying, the servant girl helpless and whining and his two daughters squabbling. Sarojini is not home. Strange. She says she went to see her Cousin Rajam.
Well, the last day of the month, when, as usual, Dandekar goes shopping to buy little gifts for his family with the money he saves on bus fares by walking to and from the office… who should he bump into but Rajam herself — enquiring about Sarojini who she hasn’t seen for four months. Quite strange. Dandekar hardly hears the rest of the conversation and breathes an uneasy sigh of relief only when Sarojini tells him that was Cousin Pankajam she saw. More unease when he opens the old tin trunk under the bed in search of an old book and sees the photograph of a strange man — a married woman did not have men friends who were not known to the husband, did she? The seed of doubt is sown and starts to show in his demeanour in the office also.
He starts coming back home at odd hours to find his wife not there, the servant dismissed and the children on their own. And one evening he finds his wife sitting cross-legged in the courtyard praying intensely by the tulasi, lamps lit and the man’s portrait garlanded. The dutiful Dandekar, obsessed, takes leave from office and shadows Sarojini. More lies follow. He confronts her about her ‘affair’ and for the first time, she takes her hands away from her face and he sees her face naked and wet; she had always covered her face when she wept.
Has he lost her to the Swamy? Will he be able to persuade this man to go away and give his wife back to him? Does the Swamy teach her the secret of detachment even to accept his own leaving? Sarojini’s one line says it all: “It would be sinful to batter oneself to pieces because one refuses to recognise that another’s life is his own.”
The blurb on the back cover of the book does not prepare you for the deeper storm inside. This is no simple East-West or faith-versus-reason argument. We wish the author were alive to see her readers get all the meanings she has brought out so subtly and, yet, powerfully.
A Silence of Desire is a gentle book spoken almost in silence, but it grips and keeps you thinking about it long after you are through with it. No wonder her work is prescribed reading for students of literature in many American and British universities.
Final touch: It would be too limiting to call this work the usual ‘Indian writing in English’. It is universal in its theme and relevance.
-- Deccan Herald

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Our Team at Leadstart Publishing

Sunil K Poolani
Has had a wide and varied career graph, starting with journalism (as a Senior Editor in the Express Group, The Sunday Observer, The Free Press Journal and Blitz); is a regular contributor to mainstream publications like Hindustan Times, DNA, The Asian Age, Deccan Herald, Deccan Chronicle, Sahara Time and Oman Tribune. Founded Frog Books, which later was incorporated into Leadstart Publishing and is now its Executive Director and Publisher.

Mishta Roy
Is a graphic designer, BFA, First Class First, Delhi College of Arts and MFA from Central Saint Martin’s, University of London. She has worked with various organisations since 2000, notably with Tehelka, Saatchi and Saatchi, Explocity and Rave Magazine. She currently resides in Bangalore from where she freelances for ArtIndia Magazine, India Foundation for the Arts and Breakthrough among others. She has been working with Frog Books since 2006.

Derek Bose
Is a senior journalist, author, magazine editor, film jurist and columnist. Over the past 25 years, his writings have appeared in leading news journals in India and abroad. He has authored seven best-selling books on cinema. In 2007, he was awarded the Rashtriya Ratna as the best Indian film journalist of the year. He has been a Consulting Editor with Frog Books since its inception.

Abhirami Sriram
Has at least 10 years’ experience in publishing, working with prestigious publishers that include Oxford University Press, Pearson Education, Rupa & Co, Sage Publications, EastWest Books and Katha Books. She has been working with Leadstart since 2008, editing mostly non-fiction.

Sadhvi Sharma
Is a sociology graduate with a Masters in International Development from the University of Warwick, UK. She has worked in the non-profit sector and more recently in the print media, in India (as an Editor, Hindustan Times) and in the UK (Spiked). She has long been associated with the NGO WORLDwrite and has filmed documentaries in Ghana. She has been a Books Editor with Frog Books since 2005.

Shubham Gupta
Is a writer, essayist, researcher, painter and a cartoonist, all rolled into one. His varied interests have seen him work as correspondent to various newspapers and put him on several editorial boards, until he found solace in settling down to become a storyteller. Apart from being a Consultant Editor since 2005, he handles Leadstart’s business operations in Bangalore.

Ramkrishna Salvi
A designer who has worked with several national and international newspapers and magazines, he has had a wide experience of about 30 years in print design and publishing. Has been designing books for Frog Books since its inception.

Abha Iyengar
Is an internationally published writer and poet. She is a Kota Press Poetry Anthology contest winner and is a member of Riyaz Writer’s Group at the British Council, New Delhi. She has recently produced a poem-film that is being screened at international film festivals. She is the Fiction Editor with Frog Books since 2006.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Been there, seen it

Sunil K Poolani
Arzee the Dwarf
Chandrahas Choudhury
HarperCollins Publishers India
Rs 325; Pages 184

Immediately after I got this book for review, the books page editor of a national daily called me up and said: “This guy, Chandrahas Choudhury, his debut novel is, what can I say, can be compared to Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum.
Wow. That is a great compliment, coming from him. So I started reading Arzee the Dwarf with great expectations. So does the literary aficionado stand vindicated? Those things later.
Choudhury, whose book reviews I have been reading regularly in several prestigious publications, has taken a great risk: a books reviewer turning novelist and exposing his work to others to review. And, to be honest, he has almost succeeded in writing a good book — not great by any standard.
The book talks about Arzee, a great loser and moaner; he sulks about his life to even people he hardly knows. And, yes, obviously, he is short and he is acutely aware of that fact and, naturally, develops an inferiority complex.
He works as a projectionist in a soon-to-be-multiplexed, fading-away Noor — a landmark movie theatre where Madhubala and Nargis sang and danced to enchant gleaming movie-goers at an era when even television was unheard of.
When the novel starts Arzee is playing cards with his ruffian friends. He is but in a good mood: his senior, Pherozebhai, the ageing Parsi who has fathered a blind daughter who will get married in the last chapter, is retiring, and Arzee will be replacing him. And Arzee’s Mother has found a girl for him, despite his shortness, from Nashik. What else do you want in life?
But all comes to a null when Arzee was told that the once-luminous theatre will be demolished and in its place a multiplex theatre will come up and they will not have openings for redundant, unkempt workers of the Noor. The ground under his feet slips away. He falls into dejection and takes to vigorous drinking.
In between there is this famous and funny encounter with Deepakbhai, who is part of a crime syndicate; Arzee apparently owes him money, because he gambled and lost. Deepak always chases him, and eventually Arzee does pay Deepak all the money he owes him.
His Mother is worried that something has happened to his son (Mother only comes into the picture only towards the end of the book), and learns from Pherozebhai that Arzee’s job will be history. And to add injury to insult she confesses to him that he is not the real son of hers (a Muslim) and Father’s (a Hindu bania). Arzoo is actually a Christian and he was adopted by Mother and Father when they were childless for a long time.
He then goes into another bout of hopelessness and anxiety; another reason being his girlfriend had, thanks to her drunkard dad, left him two years ago. Finally Mohan somehow tracks her down in Goa and his life starts looking up. Arzoo makes plans to visit that place, but before that he has to attend Pherozebhai’s daughter’s wedding. The train is about to leave for Goa and he remembers he had forgotten his sunglasses and there was almost no point in going to Goa sans them.
It is one of the most intriguing, insane and insensitive ending (all rolled into one) I have ever come across. And after reading this short novel, it is not Arzoo, but the reader who is left astray.
Now, about Choudhury’s writing. He knows his craft well, has an eye for detail and possesses vivid imagery. But what pulls him back, intentional or not, is his oft-repeated conversations and thoughts that can be utterly boring and infuriating. The style is gimmicky at times, with a dose of street-smartness; especially so when Choudhury uses this vivacious city, Bombay, as the background for his maiden effort. And if you are an owner of a two-bit brain what you could never decipher is, how almost all the characters in this novel is a philosopher: I have never seen a cabbie or a bargirl talk about the intricacies and complexities of existentialism and karma.
Sorry, Choudhury is no Grass, never. Excluding these flaws this book is a page-turner, and I will of course look forward to his next work. He is a talent to watch, only if he realises that the road ahead is harsher than the potholed lanes of Bombay.
-- Sahara Time

Friday, July 24, 2009

Onam This Year, Every Year

This year too we are going to celebrate our National Festival, Onam, this way. Any problem?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How we Mallus like Gold

Recession? What is that? Well, we from the Mallu Land does not know what it means.
General elections in Kerala? Well, oh we think they just got over. Who cares who won and who came at the Centre.
What we care most is Gold. Yes 'peoples' from this Gawd's own country like only that: Gold.
You know what Asianet, our own Gelf channel, is famous for? No, not for the Star Singer programme.
Then? The ads that come in between -- that of different jewellery shops spread across Kerala, India, the Gelf, the UK, the US...
The real fight was not fought in the ballot box; it was (and is) between two major jewellery shops -- primarily on the telly.
Shop Chain No 1 said: "You do not need salesmen in jewellery shops; they cheat you. You should only go for the "certified", pre-priced gold jewellery in our shops."
Countered Shop Chain No 2: "Bullshit, only our salesmen can give you the right piece for the right price; the "certified" shops cheat you."
Both roped in popular cine stars to endorse their respective claims...
And the internecine battle continues.
(Last month when I was licking my wounds in Kerala, I came across a small news report buried inside the largest newspaper in Malayalam which carried several ads of the above-mentioned jewellers: "A girl committed suicide in Kottayam district because their parents could not afford to buy her a 100-gram gold chain for her wedding.")

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


This is the winner:

My darling, my lover, my beautiful wife,

Marrying you screwed up my life.

I see your face when I am dreaming.

That's why I always wake up screaming.

Kind, intelligent, loving and hot;

This describes everything you are not.

Love may be beautiful, love may be bliss,

But I only slept with you because I was pissed.

I thought that I could love no other --

that is until I met your brother.

Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.

But the roses are wilting, the violets are dead, the sugar bowl's empty and so is your head.

I want to feel your sweet embrace;

But don't take that paper bag off your face.

I love your smile, your face, and your eyes --

Damn, I'm good at telling lies!

My love, you take my breath away.

What have you stepped in to smell this way?

My feelings for you no words can tell,

Except for maybe 'Go to hell.'

What inspired this amorous rhyme?

Two parts tequila, one part lime

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Do not take this call

Sunil K Poolani

BPO-Sutra: True Stories from India’s BPO & Call Centres
Compiled & Edited by Sudhindra Mokhasi
Rupa & Co
Price: 95; Pages: 384

This is one of the most outlandish, blasphemous and ludicrous books that I have received for review in so many years. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, some bit of background.
When the information gateway charted new roads into India, there came a nonsensical youth brigade that jumped on to that bandwagon; they could not talk or write in simple English, but talked in a lingo no one, not even the puppies they owned, deciphered. But there was money; easy money. And then the US, the snake pit of fast money due to conning the rest of the world till then, started losing jobs and those jobs came to India. And more money came into our yuppies’ pockets; easy, filthy money, to boot.
Now, our laadlas, started wearing Chanel T-shirts and expensive perfumes, flirted with “what the f**k-man” babes or dudes, talked jargons like “paradigm shifts”, holidayed in Pattaya; and displayed more attitude: scorn towards the have-nots.
Then came an ‘apostle’ for that breed, who could talk their lingo: Chetan Bhagat. He, and his publisher, smelled a great market here. And Bhagat wrote an all-time bore (what if it sold in thousands!): One Night @ the Call Centre. No one with a two-bit brain could go beyond two pages. But for the BPO crowd, and that includes my cousin sisters and nephews, this book was gospel, manna from heaven. Why not, it still sells; recession or no recession.
Okay, we have all heard lots of stories of this breed: how they worked their ass off at any hour of the day, how they doped, went for midnight binges, how they used to whiz around in their Bullets, how they changed sex partners like they use and dump stained… whatever.
So should not these raunchy, salacious stories be stored for posterity? Of course. So thought the publisher of this book. So did the compiler of this tome. (What I admired most about this ambitious volume is that the publisher priced this book, numbering nearly 400 pages, at a mere Rs. 95.) And no marks for guessing who wrote the endorsement blurb on the front cover: Bhagat.
Mokhasi, the compiler and ‘editor’, poor thing, thinks he has done a great service to mankind in getting this book out; a great contribution to world writing history. But the sad truth, somebody should tell him, is that he has no style, can’t write a line in that’s not in ungrammatical English. And, see, he claims that he was the vice-president of a top IT company and is now, a CEO of a company. Sometimes I am surprised how people climb up the ladder sans even a cretin’s intelligence level.
Now, the book. All the ‘stories’ in the book are basically hearsay and or told by Mokhasi’s friends to him. There is no point in ‘reviewing’ them as they do not fall into any class; it does not even have the quality of a grocery bill.
Most of the ‘stories’ are supposed to be funny, but they are absolutely gruesome; brew that with bad English (I could count 18 mistakes in one page, and almost every page has several of them), bad puns, uninteresting sexual innuendoes… you name what you can expect from a trash bin, you have them all here. It seems Mokhasi is in love with ‘!’ and you can find them in dozens after a sentence he makes, thinking he has just made a funny statement.
Final assessment: Yes, this book is unputdownable. You know why? Because it is immensely throwable. With a thud.
-- Deccan Herald / Sahara Time

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Lost in Verbosity

Sunil K Poolani & Uma Chandrasekaran

Chinnery’s Hotel
Jaysinh Birjepatil
Ravi Dayal / Penguin
Price: 325; Pages: 261

It is by now known that Indians can write in English as good as, and in several cases, much better than contemporary British and American writers. This comes at a time when India is considered to be a great market for books published in English — doesn’t matter even if the imprint says it was first published in the late 1800s or it is a pirated version of the Fuhrer’s autography.
But, this soaring market has its own downfalls. Mediocrity of all standards get the front seat… and attention and glamour. Well-chiselled writings, painstakingly done though, get a step-motherly treatment and sinks into oblivion. Sad. True, but. So, it is with immense pleasure that we marvelled at the novel penned by Jaysinh Birjepatil.
Chinnery’s Hotel has style and a huge amount of substance, and it offers a wonderful window into the old days of the Raj. And how Birjepatil could assume and analyse those days in vivid details is amusingly mysterious. But, like every good work of art, this too is flawed with a disease that is spreading across the globe: verbosity.
That does not mean Chinnery’s Hotel is a throwaway dish; it is a smorgasbord. It tells the story of yearning, of homelessness, of a journey in search of her borrowed roots seen through the eyes of Grace, in her old age, travelling back to the India of her childhood — longing to go “back home” while in India, but finding England not as British as she was in India.
Set in Mhow, a British cantonment town in India, Chinnery’s Hotel is more than just a home to Grace, her Mater, Pater, brother Bobby and sister Jo Anna, their chokraboys, ayahs, boxwallahs, and all the paraphernalia that were quintessential to being British in the India of the Raj.
Birjepatil paints a rich gossipy canvas of the life and times of many a mixed-up race: the English-American-European, the Parsi, and, the Anglo-Indian. The subtext is one of the utter hopelessness of being an Anglo-Indian — while the other mixed races are fun and ‘in’, the Anglos cannot rise above their station and there is almost a cry of triumph when they err on the wrong side of Victorian morality.
And incest is natural to Grace’s daughter Camilla, for after-all, she is just another one of them: forever reflected in a cracked mirror “…. Don’t you see, it’s the knowing that’s sinful, not what we did?” And, therefore, her bleeding to death on the birth of her daughter “had a logic of loss by instalment”.
The tone of the book has the pallor of death and old age hanging like stale air but not touching you an emotional chord, as say, an Iris Murdoch. So many big, harsh words tumble out in such numbing succession. Your prayer for relief gets a rare simple, yet picturesque line hidden amidst the drudgery. Sample three: “memory kept alive by touch is the Braille of ghosts”; “face caved in like a document hastily thrown in a grate”; “as though Grace has died in her sleep, leaving behind an empty dress hanging from a peg”.
Don’t read it if you have hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia but look at the brighter side: Chinnery’s Hotel can be very useful when you play Scrabble. The author is truly a Professor of English literature.
-- Sahara Time

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Life Looks Up

Uma Chandrasekaran

There’s a coconut tree in my backyard. I fought to plant it more than eleven years ago. Everyone, who wasn’t an expert on coconut trees or about anything auspicious, advised – should not plant a single one as its not good for the house. Very practical objection from spouse – where’s the space? A psychiatrist, he gives everything it’s wingspan and doesn’t like Bonsai! I made the decision on the clear household rule for autonomic decisions taking the entire responsibility for the actions and fruits thereof!
I bought a sapling from the nursery (even coconut trees are born there – what containment!), found a fella who needed money for his next drink and recited the technical advice doled out by the staff at the nursery while he planted it. My tree grew so well, the fronds so green, the trunk thick and strong – let me name her– “Life”? Life continued adding more fine greenery to her as many years rolled by. Everyone came – why is she not flowering? Have you got one that takes fifty long years to mature? Will you be alive to taste the fruit or nut? (Come on I’m not in my dotage!) Teams of tree-climbers broke my confidence. Said the tree needed help to mature – we’ll get to the center of her and put some stuff there that will induce flowering. Have you noticed these guys – come in pairs, one drunk and the other wiry older guy will do the climbing? Your regular gardener does not handle coconut trees, if you please.
The pair of climbers came with more big men and they got to the center of the tree, brushing off her protests when she tried to use her foliage as fig leaf. I can’t forget to this day the violent rape of that tree in broad daylight. Some ash-gray chemical, some iodized sodium chloride and some red soil forced into her heart to ‘help’ her flower. We’ll never know if she might have come of age on her own but these guys crowed with triumph when after a couple of months of this horror, Life showed five beautiful fluorescent yellow flowers as though wanting to please us fivefold for all these years of silence. The fruits matured on my daughter’s eleventh birthday and we offered the first coconut to the Lord in true Indian style. The feeling of really having celebrated her birthday was so lovely and pure. The fruits and the water inside were unbelievably sweet. Reaped about ten of them.
Despite the flowering, I hated Life’s violators and banished them. Then the haunting began. Another guy who knew coconut trees happened by. You could see from the way he touched her with so much respect and affection that he worshipped coconut trees. A sad look on his face, he told us that the main shoot had turned direction and Life would start growing sideways. He pronounced mercy killing. Also said she wouldn’t bear fruit – not with that huge gash that would appear with turned head. Nothing doing. Kill a woman if she cannot bear a child? Let my Life live never mind the fruits. We’ll keep trimming the foliage if it gets into neighbour’s territory. He was bang on target. We found her lower fronds drooping downward and upper ones sticking upward instead of fanning out. Like an inverted L or the bright brittle little tinsel fans mounted on thin sticks of chiseled bamboo that children buy at temple fairs and run about to make them twirl.
How did Life react? She just decided to look up. In a quiet simple majestic move, she started reaching out to the Sun the Giver as though she knew her life depended on it. Slowly but surely, she has reversed the downward trend and is now laughing at our worries. The tree-lover climber came saw the wonder and shared in our happiness. She had conquered all in less than a year.
I have seen people behave much the same way as my tree.
A truck knocked down a young carpenter, about thirty, married, with three children, on a fine morning when he went to the teashop for usual round of tea and daily news. I saw him in hospital both legs amputated at the knee, right arm gone too, angry lacerations all over his body. He was ready to be sent home as the treatment was over and he was clinically recovering. His young wife beside him, he had healed himself beyond imagination. They were talking about how they would start life afresh, find a new occupation, wife would find some houses to work in, and continue to put their children through school. A matter of fact acceptance: no emptiness, no bitterness, and no anger, just plain positive sunny hope of making it again. Where many would have sobbed, they had seen it as a mere sniffle! He wouldn’t pass the screen test for Baywatch but so what! His family had given him eight legs to glide.
Recently, an elderly person who wanted to institute a gold medal to be given to the best student of management met me in the university. Only great teachers or researchers and the administrative genre are around in a campus during vacation time. I teach – get the picture! Father of an alumnus, he asked if I remembered his son. But of course I did and the last occasion he was here, he spoke so excitedly about his business venture that had started showing results, was happily married and we admired his new car. The father now said this only son died in a motoring accident a couple of years ago. The tears had dried but the pain had not. The family wanted to keep the memory of their son alive by making meaningful contributions to education. The gold medal at the university and a scholarship at his school were their way of doing it. His wife is doing her MBA and working too. We, the living!
What I recently heard about a friend made me wonder. A doctor couple with a brilliant computer whiz-kid pre-teen son, their car had crashed and taken away her husband and son in a trice. My friend had a head injury and did not know any of this till after many weeks. Now recovered and back to full-time professional work, although mobility restricted, she lives in her flat on her own near her parents’ but prefers her independence, her many hobbies and two children whom she cares for as her own. I dare not offer her anything more. We had once shared the fun of being seventeen, off-class jaunts, visits to the pani-puri joint, so many books, the stimulation of idealism and intellectualism that is at its best at that age. Now she has risen way above in stature, a study in courage and the reason perhaps, why (wo)man is the highest known living stage in evolution so far.
Padmasri Dr.G.Venkataswamy, the Founder Chairman of Aravind Eye Care System and the chain of Aravind Eye Hospitals located in five places in South India. A promising medical professional, serving in the army during World War II, he was struck by a rare form of arthritis that twisted his fingers and toes. A young man with all the usual expectations of life, he drew on reserves of inner strength to fight the acute pain, the social distancing, and the forced bed-rest to train in ophthalmic surgery and dedicate himself to the cause of eradicating needless blindness. Today his hospital chain performs the largest number of cataract surgeries in the world as a single entity, to the largest proportion of patients getting free care. In 2004, they performed 2,27,435 surgical and laser procedures of which 1,41,689 were free of cost to poor patients. Their sister unit operated under a separate Trust, AuroLabs makes and exports Intra-ocular lenses to many countries around the world and supports ongoing eye care research activities. Dr.V as he is popularly called, is an enthusiastic and responsible user of IT for service to humanity. Actively learning, still seeking for newer and better ways to bring light to more eyes he launched CARE – Creating Access for Rural Eye care – a chain of Internet kiosks for aiding consultation and empowering the patients from hitherto unreached villages. Born on 1st October 1918, he is now 87 years young and lives in Pondicherry and Madurai and in the hearts of millions he has helped see.
Life deals each of us our hand, to work around the dents and win. Helen Keller, Somerset Maugham, Stephen Hawking – they have all done it. Instead of asking “why me?” many like them have shot back with “why not!” Repairing a dent can be as simple as kissing away the hurt when your little one comes with a tiny bruise! Or it can mean a huge incision that has to be sutured up. An application of TLC a.k.a. tender loving care can cure or soothe. The healing takes steely inner resolve to keep going sunny side up. A few march way ahead and make things better for humanity.
The coconut tree in my garden is flowering again. Like a proud war veteran, Life has made a comeback with scars and a hunch left by the dent, but the fruits are going to be the braver for it! Ever wondered at the beauty of a face lined with life's experiences? It doesn’t turn you tizzy like the twenty something, but dawns on you. A beautiful dawn.
(Visual by Ambika Bhatt)

Monday, February 16, 2009

From Sorority Sisters

By Sunil K Poolani

Nine by Nine
Daman Singh
Price: 250; Pages: 250

If you are a debutante novelist in these present-day times, expectations (thanks largely due to global recession and a low-buying power) are high. Higher if you have a famous father, to boot. And if he father happens to be the Prime Minister of India, well, you can imagine.
So, here comes an ambitious work by Daman Singh, the second daughter of Manmohan Singh. Like father, like daughter. Senior Singh always kept a low-profile, not to talk about the unassuming character and the dignified probity he brought into his office; ditto his progeny.
And Daman Singh (and henceforth let’s call this Singh, Singh) has had a great career record; unassuming again. She spent twenty exciting years in rural development and — now here comes the interesting part — is now a full-time author, to wit. I do not know whether that is a wise decision she took, but reading the book in question, I am tempted to say that, she should tread that path carefully.
A gist of the book before we progress: it is primarily about Anjali, who is burdened with her mother’s persistent demands; she seeks solace in Tara, a talented free-spirit. Then there is this Paro, who wants to settle down by peacefully getting married, but her dreams got shattered; she comes as an absolute antithesis of what Anjali and Paro are.
Nine by Nine comes from that ubiquitous ladies’ hostel where rooms are divided in that size. Here is where all the antics played out by the inmates, or sorority sisters; and it is a universal syndrome. There you have everything: bra-strips, dope, lesbianism… Jane Austen, et al, portrayed these well. So tries Singh. The book may not have a great story to narrate; in bits and pieces it does. But the beauty lies in the observation and the uncanny portrayals of individual characters, whether it is the “dangerously handsome” waiter Ashok or Naresh, Tipu and Ajay, the characters who appear and disappear like in a Bollywood flick.
So Singh’s ‘sisters’ indulge in vices that are so ‘blasphemous’: drinking rum, bunking classes, showing the slip… So how is this maiden, ambitious novel different from the chic-lit churned out by our gullible, instant fame-seeking babes of our present times? Well, Singh has style; the book has substance. It is both absorbing and engaging. The simple reason being, this is a book that not only revolves around mundane characters but talks about losses and friendships, in vivid details.
There are surprises, though: Paro gets perfumed anonymous letters. And she thinks her cousin Vivek is behind this act. It is another matter that the real character is revealed at a later stage; but by then the damage has been done.
The plot and characters, if one brows through this, look like they are not in a hurry to catch a train or board a flight; and for exactly this reason, it is equally interesting or equally boring, whichever way you take it.
The final shot: Nine by Nine can never be a great book, and do not expect miracles in Singh’s later writings, too. The debut novel by Singh is a good read underneath a tree when you are holidaying. Nothing more, nothing less.
-- Deccan Herald / Sahara Time

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Out of the Closet

By Sunil K Poolani

Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History
Edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai
Penguin India
Price: 450; Pages: 479

If the West is more open to same-sex love (by allowing marriages between two gay people and even giving political positions and power) and the East is increasingly becoming intolerant to this “anti-natural” act of love-making, you only have to blame the West for it.
The Portuguese came to the Indian shores and, apart from looting our natural resources, inculcated in us rigid, and often barbaric, Christian sensibilities, which frowned upon any form of “indecent” sex practiced in India, then. Then came the British and their pseudo-Victorian sensibilities, which did more harm than the postal and railway systems they brought in.
And to think of it, it was in India that open sex and all kind of sexual variations were depicted and practiced since centuries; not to talk about same-sex love, which had great respectability since the time of the Vedas...
Precisely for that reason, Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai should not just be welcomed but celebrated, as it vividly and meticulously tracks down the literature from India since two thousand years. What is more enriching is that the book contains select portions from Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim literary history. The range is amazing: from Mahabharata to Vijay Tendulkar.
What’s more, this veritable and valuable collection is for anyone who is interested in knowing the so-called nether world. Is this book just about same-sex and its literary history? On the contrary. Vanita, herself a lesbian, in her Preface says: “A primary and passionate attachment between two persons, even between a man and a woman, may or may not be acted upon sexually. For this reason our title focuses on love, not sex.”
And Kidwai, a homosexual, analysing the medieval material available on the subject, says: “During the early medieval period there are a few scattered references to same-sex love while in the late medieval period a huge body of literature on same-sex love develops.”
No wonder that the most powerful rulers then — Ghazni, Babar and Khilji — were practitioners and protectors of homosexuality, thus demolishing the myth that Muslims hardly imported homosexuality into Hindustan. For that reason, Muslim women from medieval India to, say, even in the lucid prose of Ismat Chughtai have practiced lesbianism.
And talking about the Hindu gods and their sexual orientations, Lord Ayyappa was thought to be a product of sex between two male deities; some even claim Murugan too is a progeny of that confluence. There are references about the love that existed between Lord Krishna and Arjuna — Arjuna after a sacred bath turns into the beautiful Arjuni who then consorts with Krishna. I hope the neo-Hindu fundamentalists realise this and become more tolerant.
One of the best verses in the book is by the indomitable Vikram Seth: “Some men like Jack / and some like Jill; / I’m glad I like / them both; but still / I wonder if / this freewheeling / really is an / enlightening thing— / or is its greater / scope a sign / of deviance from / some party line? / In the strict ranks / of Gay and Straight / what is my status? / Stray? or Great?”
Some of the best contemporary works are by V T Nandakumar’s Two Girls (translated from Malayalam); Bhupen Khakhar’s A Story (from Gujarati); Hoshang Merchant’s Poems for Vivan (English); and Nirmala Deshpande’s Mary Had a Little Lamb (from Marathi).
Even if you are “normal” but loves good literature, this commendable volume is for you. No, you do not need to hide it under the pillow…