Books

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

From The Ruins of Empire

Pankaj Mishra

The mid-late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was a period dominated by Europe and later, America, and much of humanity’s narrative in that period has, as always, been written by the victor. The victors also did much to enforce their way of life and thinking on to their subject audience, which, seeing its own set of institutions crumbling against this onslaught, began admiring and aping their masters, or at least silently suffering.

What Pankaj Mishra does in this book, is give us a perspective shift – a view from the ‘first-generation’ thinkers of the time. Though their approaches and line of thinking were different, courtesy the varied milieu they lived in, their narratives had a couple of commonalities – an aversion for the West, and a recognition that they needed to build an indigenous renaissance to break the shackles and rise again. More

Dongri To Dubai: Six Decades of The Mumbai Mafia

S. Hussain Zaidi 

As a chronicle of the Mumbai mafia, this book does complete justice to the job. While the ‘hero’ remains the big D, the author traces the history of Bombay’s underworld from the 1950’s until Operation Neptune Spear – Bin Laden’s death – and its repercussions on Dawood.

The book begins with an interview with Dawood Ibrahim in 1997, the last published one, and one that is credited to the author himself, spends a chapter that serves as a synopsis of the don’s life thus far and then quickly zooms back to the 50s and 60s focusing on the birth of Mumbai’s underworld. The triumvirate of Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, and Varadarajan Mudaliar feature prominently in the next few chapters, which are dedicated to the intricacies of gold and electronics smuggling, bootlegging, minor extortion, the prostitution trade, dispute settling and other activities that filled the coffers of Mastan and his allies. Mastan’s search for ‘legitimacy’ and associations with Bollywood and politics are also highlighted, as is the beginning of the underworld’s nexus with the cops and politicians. More

India In Slow Motion

 Mark Tully, Gillian Wright

A book written a decade back, and yet, it is still relevant because as the cliche goes ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. India has changed in many ways, and yet remains the same in many other ways, and that’s exactly the theme of this book too. Mark Tully and Gillian Wright have tried to study the various forces that keep India ticking at its unique speed – forces that accelerate and forces that pull it back. Through 10 unique scenarios they have attempted to not just unravel the fundamentals, but even taken a shot at the nuances that define the ‘Indian experience’.

The book begins on a day that has left an indelible mark on modern India’s psyche and society – 6th December 1992 – the Babri Masjid demolition. The first chapter is about the rise of Hindutva, the role of the BJP, VHP, RSS etc and perspectives of the common people who reside in Ayodhya and the nuances in their approach to religion and gods. The second chapter shifts the premise to carpet making, child labour, and the machinations of organisations, including NGOs to achieve the moral high ground even at the cost of truth. More

Urban Shots : Bright Lights

Paritosh Uttam

29 stories by 21 authors, held together by the premise of urban India. Each story is only about 4-5 pages long, so the chances of boredom are fairly slim. But most of the stories do revisit well trodden paths, and do not really offer a refreshing take. The twists are fairly predictable except in a couple of cases. It really could’ve done with better editing – not just in terms of basic grammar and punctuation but also with the ordering and flow of stories.

My favourites were ‘The Bengal Tigress’ by Malathi Jaikumar, (for the tender nuances) Saurbh Katiyal’s ‘The Wall’ (mostly because of a setting I could relate to) Paisley Printed Memories by Sneh Thakur (for the superbly poignant portrayal of a terrible human affliction) and ‘Heaven and Hell’ by Shachi Kaul for its empathy and Rashmi Sahi’s ‘The Raincoat’ for a well written, meaningful tale.

Some stories attempted humour, others were more sober, some were poignant, and many were interesting, and all were indeed interesting to some degree. But what I hoped for and did not find were slices of life that would narrate the human condition that connects all of us. Dissing Chetan Bhagat’s brand of ‘Rs.95 + hint of love in the title’ does not count! :)

Urban Lights