Books

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.

I loved the two child’s-perspective stories – ‘Birds’ and ‘Hanging On Like Death’. Both are quite the tearjerkers, with some sublime narration. At least a couple of stories are built on the premise of sudden uncharacteristic decisions, and a different couple of them have sudden twists as well. ‘For love or water’ was a favourite and reminded me of a character from the author’s earlier books. So was ‘Immanuel Kant in Shillong’ and this time (since I have visited the place recently) I was able to visualise some of the settings.
To me, very few authors can capture the ‘need to escape and the longing to belong’ as well as Anjum Hasan. In essence, a wonderful read especially if you like Anjum Hasan’s style of writing that reveals layers each time you read.

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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! :)

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The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Pico Iyer

One of my favourite authors writing about a human being who has intrigued me from the time I read Siddhartha. It didn’t disappoint at all!

What is it like to live, practice, preach a faith while facing oppression from one of the most powerful countries in the world? Even as Tibet becomes more of a Chinese province day by day – the Potala Palace is treated as just another tourist attraction and the streets of Lhasa are filled with entertainment and shopping options – and several Tibetans question the wisdom of his approach, he is respected across the globe as a spiritual leader for the universal truths he espouses.

And yet, he underplays the role of religion, and stresses his own humanity while creating a future for Tibetans that is less dependent on him. He has brought Tibet to the world – a culture that was as hidden as a treasure and also gave the world a brand of Buddhism that is universal in appeal. Pico puts Tibet well in the context of a world that has moved from too little info about itself to too much in a few years.

Pico also writes well about how even with all the respect, people probably see his images and messages through the ‘keyhole of their own priorities’. He once mentions an instance when the Dalai Lama cried- he was asked ‘what is the quickest, cheapest, easiest way to attain enlightenment’.

While much of the book deals with His Holiness’ thoughts and perspectives, there are also mentions of his family, his early days including the time he was forced to flee from Tibet, and quite a few pages devoted to Dharmasala. Dharamsala – where foreigners come seeking wisdom, antiquity and mysticism from every Tibetan they see, and some Tibetans play the part to understand and probably even reach the lands of ‘abundance and freedom’. Pico Iyer writes about the confusion faced by young Tibetans – on whether to stay on in Dharmasala or go back to Tibet to either change or be changed. Dharmasala – also the place to which Tibetans flock, braving persecution by the Chinese, just for a glimpse of their leader and their belief that at some point in time, he will solve their problems.
In addition to all of this, the wonderful quotes, the additional sources of information on the subject, and various perspectives all offer us some thoughts on ‘joyful participation in a world of sorrows’.

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Overwinter

Ratika Kapur

‘Mature’ is probably the first word I’d associate with the book. True, it does fall under the general existential angst category, but I felt that it does go beyond the stereotype – in the characters, the way they are handled, and the way situations flow. The story spans only a few months, though the narrative does go back in time to provide contexts and many events unfolding in the story do have a connection with the past.

I felt that the only truly complex person in the book was Ketaki, the protagonist. I could pretty much relate to everyone else very easily, but her way of dealing with situations and people was the little unpredictability that made the book ‘different’. ‘Overwinter’ means spending winter or waiting for it to pass, and that is pretty much what Ketaki seems to be doing. The novel starts with a rather dysfunctional scene involving her and her uncle, but that’s not really a good indication of the story.

Ratika Kapur shows tremendous skill in narrating day to day events (a trip from Delhi to Gurgaon, for instance) such that they completely step out of the mundane. This is also true of her excellent descriptions of human emotions. There is a sense of reality in the book – for instance, the conversations around the Nano or T20 cricket or Nadal vs Tsonga – that happens between characters. It’s as though I stepped into a living room and happened to hear these conversations.

The other word I’d associate with the book is ‘intelligent’. The prose is assured, the narrative measured, and though you may not get a sense of closure that books often give you, this is a wonderful read.

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The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road

Paul Theroux 

Whenever I take a vacation, I arrive as a tourist and like to think that I leave at least partly converted into a traveler. I am forever envious of travelers, many of whose journeys serve as a purpose in itself. This book is an excellent little guide to what the author mentions in the preface – paraphrasing the Buddha – “You cannot travel the path before you become the path itself”, and how travel is also a way of living, and thinking.

In addition to excerpts from various works by different travel writers and adventurers, classified by unique and amazing themes from Railways, time spent in travel to Murphy’s laws, to imaginary journeys, how places are different from what they sound like and so on, the book is peppered with Travel Wisdom from various authors.

There are gems hidden in the pages – little quotes that somehow tell you that the spirit within each wanderer is essentially the same. The description of places and times by masters are splendid enough to transport you to locales across to world from Alaska to Africa and Russia to South America….And it’s not just the places, but the people who live there, the way they think, and one can sense the cord that invisibly connects humanity.

In 275 pages, the author manages to indeed provide a Tao of Travel across time and space. Must read.

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First Draft: Witness To The Making Of Modern India

B.G. Verghese

BG Verghese’ “First Draft” is part memoir, part history and covers many decades in its wide sweep. From the description of the Times on the day of his birth (21/06/1927) until his assessment of the challenges facing the nation in 2010, the book is his perspective on the events he has witnessed and many a time, been part of. Sometimes it is tinged with nostalgia – his description of the Doon School for instance, and at other times, it is an objective view of the various decisions and circumstances that have shaped India.

From national milestones like the first elections (described so we get an idea of the herculean task it was in an era that didn’t have the communication infrastructure we see now) and the construction of the steel plants and dams and IITs,IIMs we see around now, to humanity’s collective achievements such as Neil Armstrong on the moon (even as a villager adamantly states that it is just impossible) we get a first hand view of things we now acknowledge as history and landmarks. Relationships with the US, USSR as well as neighbouring countries and the wars fought with the latter, including an analysis of the things we did right/wrong all appear, mostly in chronological order. Also adding texture to the narrative are anecdotes of Prime Ministers, most significantly Indira Gandhi. The formation of AIR and Doordarshan, nuclear tests, the political battles within the Congress, formation of other parties, JP’s work, the rise of Naxalism, Operation Bluestar, Sanjay Gandhi’s bizarre schemes, the Emergency, the death of Mrs.Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi’s baby steps into politics and the paradigm shifts he kickstarted, communal riots, the formation of LTTE, the Bhopal tragedy, VP Singh and Mandal and Bofors, BJP and Ramjanmabhoomi, the chronic Kashmir issue all gives one a feel of time travel.

There is massive ground covered – nuclear policy, social-economics, geo-political relationships, the functioning of media houses etc in addition to his views on public service broadcasting, policies for the North East, industrialisation, water and so on. As an editor and someone who has worked with the government, and as part of external agencies, fact finding committees and so on, the author is well placed to deliver an incisive view of history as it was being made and with the advantage of hindsight. (now) Barring a meagre few pats on the back and digressions, he does provide a decent and objective look. It is quite a humbling feeling to ‘watch’ as generations of politicians and institutions almost flash by and one finds some pattern in the fuzziness seen around – the reason for the way we are, as a country. It is also heartening to see that patriotism aside, the author feels that we are on an ascendant. Despite some patches that are specific in nature (towards the last 100 pages) and tend to be discourses, this is a great read for anyone interested in modern history.

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