Books

Gods Without Men

Hari Kunzru

Fantastic! It’s one of those books which you either immediately connect to or switch off from. I wasn’t sure whether I’d like it because a few reviews said that the book leaves the reader hanging, and does not have a conclusive end. From a conventional perspective that’s probably true, but I felt that was precisely the point of the book – there are some things that will remain unknown. We need to acknowledge that in our lives and continue seeking or come to terms with it. It is that very human search for connection and meaning that made this book work for me. The other reason I was skeptical was because it was also described as an ‘American novel’, insinuating a deep cultural connect I feared I would miss out on. That fear proved unfounded since the work is nothing if not universal in its roots.

The action is mostly centred around the Pinnacles, a rock formation in the Californian desert, and the various intriguing happenings around it. Hari Kunzru has created a vast spectrum of characters, across several centuries. A British rock star, an Iraqi teenager, a family consisting of an Indian, an American and their son, believers of an alien worshiping cult, and so on. There is some immense imagination that is evident in the way the characters have been crafted – we can sense their back stories even when it’s not overtly mentioned. The narrative does not flow linearly, but I didn’t find it difficult to pick up the pieces of specific character plots or to identify their presence in others’ plots. More

The Accidental Apprentice

Vikas Swarup

If you’ve read Q&A (or seen its more famous screen adaptation) and Six Suspects, you’d recognise the narrative style in this as well – a series of sub plots driven by a connecting thread. In this case, an eccentric businessman sets a series of 7 tests for an initially reluctant young woman in order to prove herself capable of being the CEO of his conglomerate.

An ordinary person and her responses to circumstances that one would find familiar if one lived in India, that’s pretty much what the tale is. I finished the book in 2 days, would have finished it in one if not for a splitting headache. (not because of the book) That’s a testament to the pace of the narrative. Except for a slight lag towards the end, the plot is an edge-of-the-seat roller coaster. It also manages to showcase the various problems we face as a nation – from relatively small scale ones like khap diktats to large scale corruption. It also has characters whom one can easily map to real life popular personalities. That’s the good part. More

Best Kept Secret

Jeffrey Archer

The third volume of the Clifton Chronicles, which picks up right at the point where the second one ended – the House of Lords deciding the beneficiary of the Barrington fortune.

This one differs from the earlier volumes by almost ignoring the protagonist – Harry Clifton – altogether. There are plots around Giles, Emma and Sebastian, and they manage to take the story forward very well despite Harry remaining in the background most of the time. More

Mumbaistan

Piyush Jha

Piyush Jha’s Mumbaistan has “3 explosive crime thrillers’ as a descriptor, and a blurb from Ekta Kapoor that promises “entertainment, entertainment and entertainment.” All things considered, both sets of promises have been kept.

The first story – Bomb Day – has a set of stereotypes that one would associate with the subject – a prostitute, a cop, terrorists from across the border, a man with a past who is manipulated most of the time. To me, this was the slowest of the three novellas, but that’s only a relative measure, since you’d not be bored. The plot does keep moving, but there is a sense of predictability and cliches that seem to weigh it down. However, this is still a good “behind-the-scenes” look at the terrorists who hold a city to ransom and the law enforcers who try to prevent them from prevailing. More

Backseat

 Aditya Kripalani 

Judging by the date of publishing, this is probably the prequel to the school of writing (not genre, but language skills) that has one Mr.Tripathi as its patron saint now. The word skills are right up there – my favourite would have to be “help her bare the night” which, in the context of dance bars, was unintentionally very funny. There were enough bloopers around to indicate that the above was not clever wordplay.

The plot itself is fairly predictable except for patches, and the pace makes it bearable. The characters are uni-dimensional, though on a few occasions, they get out of their skin and go roaming randomly. The language is Marathinglish, and it’s possible you might pick up a few non-English phrases by the time you finish the book. More

Sons of Sita

 Ashok K Banker

The final book in Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series. It is also the concluding part of the Uttara Kaanda, and is set a decade after Rama banished Sita. Luv and Kush, her sons, grow up in the hermitage of Valmiki, and from the first page, set out, unwittingly, on a collision course with their father.

The author departs from the various versions I have read and puts a new spin on the events leading to the family reunion. I can’t be sure, but it would seem as though Banker’s version of Ayodhya is modeled after a superpower, complete with a political group called Republicans! Its acts of aggression, citing necessities that would seem selfish to an objective viewer, are easily comparable to what the US has been doing. Rama is portrayed as a king who takes on the mantle of an emperor on advice from a set of people motivated by their own vested interests. His relationship with his brothers has moved away from one of affection to more between that of a monarch and his vassals. More

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

William Dalrymple 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” This book brings that quote to life! More than the book itself, kudos to Dalrymple for choosing a subject that has so much of relevance in the contemporary era! In fact, I wish it were written a few years earlier. ‘Return of a King’ is the story of the British (East India Company) invasion of Khurasan (modern day Afghanistan) in 1839 in an effort to establish their man Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, (descendant of the Ahmad Shah Durrani, regarded to be the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan) on the Kabul throne in place of the incumbent Dost Mohammed. That was the easy part, but as one Afghan commented then, the British had gotten in, but how would they maintain this status quo, or even get out? In a couple of years, the Afghans, in an ever changing mixture of coalitions, rebelled against the British and massacred them on their way back to Hindustan. The British then created an Army of Retribution to avenge this, and ended up bringing things back to square one.

What set off this chain of events is something I have read about in some Sherlock Holmes adventures and seen alluded to in other works like ‘Kim’. The Great Game, an international milieu of intrigue that pitched the mighty powers of the time – Russia and Britain – against one another. Afghanistan, as per British intelligence, was where Russia was poised to strike next, to control Central Asia. This was supposed to be achieved with Dost Mohammed’s help. The Russian plans were far less threatening than reported by the British and ended up creating a war that need not have been. There is some amazing parallel here with what the Russians (80s) and the Americans (now) tried to do in Afghanistan! More

Serious Men

Manu Joseph

“All a man really wants is to be greater than his friends”- Ayyan Mani’s belief is indeed the theme that runs through ‘Serious Men’ though it manifests in different ways across classes. The jacket pitches the plot as the ramifications of Mani’s efforts to raise himself above his peers by creating the myth of his son’s genius, but the story belongs as much to the scientist Arvind Acharya as well – an eccentric genius heading the Institute where Mani works, and whose contempt for his peers and views about the direction that physics should advance in, make him a target.

The narrative switches between the two characters – from Mani’s first salvo in showcasing his son’s non-existent mental abilities to the office politics at the institute to Oparna’s entry in Arvind’s life and so on. The author fully uses the characters to philosophise, (“Hope is a lapse in concentration“) but it’s woven in excellently and doesn’t jar at all. There is some amazing wit – usually acerbic when Acharya is involved (“I have been inside your mind. It was a short journey“)- as well, and again, in line with the nature of the characters. What I really liked is how the author has fleshed out the characters – not just the main ones, but those in a supporting role as well. Their motivations, their own little quirks, all point to a deep insight on how the human mind works, though it is surfaced in unusual ways. More

Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography

Naman Ramachandran

The definitive biography of perhaps the biggest star that India has seen – THE superstar Rajinikanth – is quite a big thing to bite off. At 255 pages, I’m not too sure it does complete justice. This is not to say that the author hasn’t tried, but to me, the contents just didn’t seem enough. In fact, it was in the second half that I felt he was warming up to the task at hand.

The first half includes the early years of Rajinikanth, his entry into movies, and the first decade and a half of his movies. The author does try hard to remain objective and not be in awe of the object of his attention, but that’s obviously not an easy task. What results is a mix of two things – a kind of retrofit applied to his formative years which tries to show that he was always meant to be the Superstar, and an almost bare factual filmography. It’s probably not the author’s fault because he might have found it difficult to find anecdotal material from that era, or people might have altered their memory to fit the image of the superstar who exists now. Either way, the first half swings between these two, and does not really make a great read in terms of narrative. You’ll love it if you’re a Rajini facts junkie and it also shows the amount of research the author has done, as he tries to explain the milieu and the context of life, culture, movies and politics of the era, mostly in Tamil Nadu, but sometimes even beyond that. (this was really done well, I thought) We do get glimpses of Rajini the person, and his life outside cinema, but never really enough. It almost seems as though the author was in a hurry to start with the contemporary era. [To be noted that this part also manages to show how big a star and talented an actor Kamal Hassan was in that era] More

Empire of the Moghul: The Tainted Throne

Alex Rutherford 

The fourth and (I think) penultimate installment of the ‘Empire of the Moghul’. The book begins with Jahangir quelling Khusrau’s rebellion and ascending the throne. This episode, as well as his machinations to get back Mehrunissa, give us a sense of the ruthlessness in him.

The book also brings out the chequered relationship between him and Khurram, who was also a favourite of Akbar. Though the main protagonists appear to be these two, the book is brought to life by Mehrunissa, portrayed as an intelligent and shrewd queen who will stop at nothing to make sure that she is a relevant force in the scheme of things. As Jahangir succumbs increasingly to opium and alcohol (possibly encouraged by the queen) she takes control of the running of the empire and then tries to ensure that Jahangir’s successor would also be her puppet. The narrative also features Europeans in fairly prominent roles and is a representation of their increasing presence in the subcontinent. More