Books

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

The Last War

Sandipan Deb

Sandipan Deb’s rendition of the Mahabharata in Mumbai. This is obviously not the first rendition of the Mahabharata in contemporary events – Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi, Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti – but this one manages to shift the scene to what seems like an apt arena – the Mumbai underground. Bombay is Kurukshetra and Bombay is the prize.

As with all the other renditions, it is practically impossible to fit all characters and events into the new canvass, so the author has been clinical in removing characters and reshaping events to fit his narrative. On a positive note, the interpretation is not altogether flawed, but is written very clearly on a simplistic level. Many characters have been well etched and can be seen as very close parallels of their originals. There are also contemporary incidents like match fixing, 9/11 etc which have been woven into the plot.

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Chasing the Monsoon

 Alexander Frater

The monsoon – a phenomenon that has India in a tizzy every year. To me personally, the monsoons are a treasure trove of memories, associated with the various Junes that have been part of my life – childhood, college days, work – different places and different times. So I picked this book with quite some interest.

Frater’s prologue tells us about his intent and motivation, but I’m afraid it tends to get a bit technical and I wouldn’t be surprised if people stopped reading the book because of it! But the chapters that follow are completely different, so do persevere. The first chapter is all about the immediate trigger that made the author set out – chasing the Indian monsoon from “where the rain is born” (to quote Anita Nair) to the wettest place on earth.

Trivandrum is where it all begins and the author captures the tension across the country around the beginning of the monsoon pretty well. The weather forecasters, astrologers, politicians, and even regular folks – all have their theories and perspectives. One of the things that makes the book really good is the author’s reading and chronicling of the milieu he has been pulled into – sociocultural, economic, political and so on. His meeting with Kamala Das, the death of John Abraham, (Malayalam movie director) the Ambassador car’s preeminence, all add flavour to the narrative.

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Mumbai Noir

edited by Altaf Tyrewala

14 stories, divided into 3 sections, edited by Altaf Tyrewala, that’s Mumbai Noir. A completely different version of the city from the usual grandiose, glamorous ones that most fictional works create, it definitely lives up to the title.

For some reason, I saw more of Bombay in this than the current Mumbai – in terms of the city’s character and how the actions of various people across different stations in life helped create it. Altaf’s introduction sets up the overall tone and feel of the book pretty well, and sensitises us to the stories ahead.

In the first section – Bomb-ay – Riaz Mulla’s take on how ordinary hard working people become pawns in the machinations of global terrorism is an excellent start. Paromita Vohra’s mix of internet and real life ‘romance’ and trust makes ‘The Romantic Customer’ a neat read. Devashish Makhija’s ‘By Two’ is quite surreal and tragic, and Abbas Tyrewala’s “Chachu at Dusk” has to be a contender for my favourite among the stories. It captures the transition from Bombay to Mumbai the best.

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The Other Side of Light

Mishi Saran

I completely loved Mishi Saran’s earlier work “Chasing the Monk’s Shadow”, an inner journey as much as an actual one. In some ways I could associate it a little with Asha’s journey in ‘The Other Side of Light’, a work of fiction. The blurb says she has written short stories earlier, but I have to wonder whether this contains autobiographical elements, like many first time works of fiction do. (just a thought)

The book is written in flashback mode as we get the current status of Asha’s life in the first few pages. We follow Asha’s life right from the time she was born – with a harelip. Childhood is zoomed through but college is an important part of the story – friendships and first love and the camera that, in many ways, defines Asha’s life later. The narrative is fairly linear, with Asha’s friends, love interests, parents and teacher playing important roles. History and events pop up every once in a while in the background and it’s almost as though the protagonist and the nation are being moulded by their experiences in parallel. More

Difficult Pleasures

Anjum Hasan

Anjum Hasan is definitely among my top 3 favourite authors, and this book only adds to it. But that also means that this is not a thoroughly objective review. :)

The book has thirteen short stories that have a varied set of characters in different circumstances. As the jacket informs us, some of the stories are borderline surreal, but that doesn’t take away from the empathy that the author (has and) seems to be able to evoke in the reader. This is especially commendable because the characters vary in age, socio-economic class, mindset, location and many other factors. Yet, the single common takeaway from each of these (sometimes not-so-ordinary) slice of life situations is how the author is able to drag the reader in and empathise with the character/s even if not completely identify with. More

The Krishna Key

Ashwin Sanghi 

‘The Krishna Key’ has all the ingredients that a thriller needs – a direct connection with history and/or mythology, a James Bond -like leading lady and vamp, a serial killer, and a plot that more often than not, is racing to a climax; and yet, I had a feeling of unfinished business after I completed the book. I think Ashwin Sanghi painted himself into a corner as soon as he decided what the ‘key’ would be because it would be difficult to end it any other way.

The entire plot is built around Krishna’s legacy and its path through the ages. So chapters begin with Krishna’s own story and at many times, one can sense a certain similarity in events, though the characters are completely different. There is a fair amount of vagabonding in space – Kailash, Dwarka and so on and time – Vedic to Mughal to the modern era. More