Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Khushwant Singh - Delhi A Novel

Khushwant Singh
+Penguin Books UK

Delhi A novel starts with the protagonist, A Sikh Journalist, returning to Delhi from abroad.  He is loafing around, visiting his cronies in Coffee House, going around the city when he is asked to escort around a woman who has come down from London.  She has to look over the architecture of Delhi.  Our hero almost has an affair with her.

However, his one enduring affair is with Bhagmati, a hijra whom he had once saved when she had fainted by the side of the road. Once on a visit to Shamsi Talab, he comes across a stone inscribed with the name of Musaddi Lal, devotee of Nizamuddin and resident in the era of Balban. In the next chapter, we zoom into the life of Musaddi Lal in 1280 and thereabouts.  Musaddi Lal was a kayasth whose father was a scribe in the court of Balban.  When his father died, he was offered the same job.  He became a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin and hobnobbed with Amir Khusrau as well.  The life in that era is described beautifully with Musaddi Lal as the narrator.

From here the novel takes turns describing successive eras (with big jumps in time - it would have become a huge tome otherwise) and coming back to present time (which is somewhere from 1970's to 1984). From Balban we jump to a first hand account of the massacre led by Taimur.  Then comes the very touching story of Jaitoo, the Mazhabi Sikh who had the sorrowful privilege of carrying the sheesh of Guru Tegh Bahadur to Anandpur Sahib after he was executed by Aurangzeb. Through the eyes of Jaitoo, we learn how life was like amongst the very poor during the reign of Mughals.

After this comes an account from the pen of Aurangzeb Alamgir himself.  How he found himself sidelined by his father who favored Dara Shukoh. How he tricked and killed his brother and landed himself on the throne of Delhi.  Nadir Shah relates how he came to Delhi and was captivated by a concubine.

Mir Taqi Mir lived from 1722 to 1810. He tasted everlasting fame, but had to live in penury for most of his life, like many other great artists did.  The chapter where Mir describes his life and time is one of the best in this novel.  It sheds light not only on the life of Mir, but also the tumultuous times he lived in.

From Mir we go on to the events of 1857 which are described through the eyes of Alice Aldwell.  She was the daughter of a Kashmiri Muslim girl and an Englishman.  She shed her Anglo-Indian identity by marrying a 50 year old Englishman Aldwell.  She has to scrimp and scrounge to crawl up in the English world. Just when she has made it, the mutiny breaks out.  The English identity that she had built up so painstakingly is now shattered. Along with Alice Aldwell's account, we are also treated to the views of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the reluctant leader of the Mutiny.  We also go on to read about Nihal Singh, the Sikh orderly under the command of Major Hodson.

In the next historical segment we get a glimpse into the building of the Lutyen's Delhi.  For this who can be better than an eyewitness in the author's own family.  His father was at the forefront of action when Delhi was named, for the final time, the Capital of India.  To the author's credit, he spares no criticism, even of his own forebears and gives us a candid account of the way contracts were handed out.  How his father and grandfather maintained contacts, bribed, presented inflated bills and made a lot of money.  He also lauds them for their thrift and hard work that was also necessary.

The last historical chapter is about Ram Rakha, who becomes an RSS activist in Delhi for the lack of any other employment.  He has to instigate violence against Muslims in 1947-48.  He is also required to spy on Mahatma Gandhi as he fasts.

From the dark times of 1947 we jump to 1984.  Starting from Operation Blue Star in June to the Sikh Massacre in November, when humankind showed that it was not civilized yet.

The book does a very good job of traversing through 700 years of history of Delhi.  The best part is, of course, describing the events through the eyes of a contemporary.  I like the accounts of ordinary citizens much better.  In the story of Musaddi Lal, he does not like Amir Khusro initially. Older and mellower years later, they become good friends.  In the later story of Jaitu the untouchable, we are given a piteous account of how they live.  After he carries the head of Guru to Anandpur Sahib he is known as Rangreta Jaita.

The author does a very good job of getting into the skin of the characters and makes the era they lived in come alive. He lets the warts of his characters show, be they Kings, Commoners or Poets.  Bhagmati, the hijra the main protagonist is enamored of, is the emblem of corruption that Delhi has sunk into.  There is even a story in the book, in the form of a joke that foretold that hijras would inherit Hindustan in the year 1947.

Khushwant Singh claims that he spent twenty-five years writing this book.  I can imagine the research it entailed.  I remember reading an extract from the book that was published in a magazine. It was about Nadir Shah and his tryst with Noor, the concubine.  Typically the focus in the press was on the salacious bits of the book.  When I read the book first about a decade ago, I was very impressed.  I liked the juxtaposition of modern and ancient times. I liked the way he does not mince words when indicting the actions of people throughout history, whether they were Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims, even Christians.  They were merely frail humans who wronged each other grievously.

In general I am not fond of Khushwant Singh's books.  He claims to be irreverent, and that is a good thing, but the substance of his books was rather thin.  But with Delhi A Novel, he has come up trumps because his subject is so sound.



Sunday, January 01, 2017

Carrie Fisher - Shockaholic

+Simon & Schuster Books
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Carrie Fisher was best known for playing Princess Leia in the legendary movie series Star Wars.  She reappeared recently in the episode VII, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and seemed all set to appear in further Star Wars series. Unfortunately she died on 27 December 2016.

For a girl who did not care for fame, Carrie Fisher garnered a sort of an undying fame. Her appearances in the Star War movies ensured that. A movie star may be forgotten after a couple of decades, remembered only when the movies are re-run on television or played on online forums. Not so for Carrie.

Once you achieve the admiration of the Nerd-Herd, you never die.  A couple of generations have passed since the first airing of George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977, but the movie has not been allowed to die.  Despite the less than worthy continuation of the original trilogy and Jar Jar Binks, they have a special place in the hearts of all fans. No wonder even Carrie Fisher's books have her on the cover as Princess Leia.

Carrie Fisher, despite what seems to us as a charmed life, actually had it tough as a celebrity kid. She was the daughter of the beautiful and very successful Debbie Reynolds.  Her father was Eddie Fisher who was later married to Elizabeth Taylor.  Her parents divorced very early and her father was barely present in her life.  Her mother was working all the time and dealing with bad marriages of her own. Carrie had drug related issues and also a big problem with her weight.

However, instead of going under all these problems, which celebrities usually face, she came up again like a tough survivor.  She wrote eight books, three screenplays, did a lot of theater and worked in movies.  She took care of her sick father, mended fences with her mother and always presented a humorous and a positive face to the world.

In Shockaholic, she writes about Shock Therapy, which is now known as ECT, that she had to undergo as the result of her depression.  Despite all the scary references to it in movies like 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest', 'Frances' and such like, she found it was not really bad, and really helped her cope with her problems.  She goes on to mention her relationship with her father, her step-father Karl, Elizabeth Taylor, Micheal Jackson, and one very memorable dinner with Ted Kennedy

She writes with such humor and such deep feelings that the people she is writing about come to life. Her father, despite his numerous failings, springs to life as a charming man who lived life king size. Micheal's need to recreate his childhood and befriend people who will treat him as a human and not take advantage of him is so well depicted.  Elizabeth Taylor's love of jewellery and her superstardom, her fart happy Step-father Karl and the obnoxious Ted will stay in your mind for a long time.

I don't hardly hate ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.
This is the essence of Carrie Fisher and her warm heart springs out of the pages of her book.  She writes fondly of a ring she 'inherited' from her father.  Rumors were that the ring was a real heirloom, an expensive piece of Jewellery until an Opal merchant revealed the truth.  She has such a talent for story telling that it is a pleasure to turn the pages of her book.

I am going to get and read all her books.




Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Claire Tomalin - Jane Austen A Life

+Penguin Books UK
@clairetomalin.com

After finishing the book I agreed wholeheartedly with the blurbs on it.

"As near perfect a life of Jane Austen as we are likely to get." Carmen Calil of Telegraph.

"A book that radiates intelligence, wit and insight." The New York Times


The book starts on the day of Jane's birth and concludes after all her siblings die.  It gives us that sort of a composite picture of the life and times of Jane Austen.  How things were when she was born, how children were reared in those days.  Apparently the children were fostered with some woman in the village who cared for them till the time they were grown.  It is all about her parents, her siblings, her neighbourhood and her extended family.  It gives us a view of all the people that the author was able to locate in her vicinity.

If this makes you think that the lives of those people were dull as ditch water and makes a tedious read, think again.  Did you know that Jane Austen's mother wrote wonderful verses?  Starting from Austen's mother, many of Austen siblings wrote verses from time to time.  Her brother brought out a journal for some time.

Cassandra had Jane's blessing to cull her letters.  The sisters were prolific correspondents but the contents of the letters were only for their eyes.  Hence, Tomalin is not able to get an unexpurgated look at Jane's letters.  She feels sorry for this, so do we.  Times have changed and a candid Jane would be very welcome.  If we look at her writing, she does tend to be candid in her observations of people.  This is precisely why we love her books, this is why they have survived over the years.

The book reads like a Jane Austen novel, full of witty observations.  Tomalin also includes a review of her work and feels we would have seen even better novels by Jane if sickness had not cut short her life.

Frankly, though Jane is one of my most favorite authors, I knew nothing of her.  I have read only short biographical sketches of her on Wikipedia and suchlike.  I have to thank my dear friend Pacifist Immer for having gifted this book to me on my birthday.  It was such an eye-opener to have read it.

It has opened my eyes not only to the life and times of Jane Austen, but the painstakingly detailed work done by Claire Tomalin. She has riffled through all the papers of the time that have a mention of Jane Austen or her family.  She even read through the diary of a neighbour who knew her.  It is clear that the work is very authoritative.

If you love Jane Austen, the book makes you love her more.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Lynn Bishop - Put Asunder

+Amazon India
@Amazon Asia Pacific Holdings
+Kindle Store

We meet Michael Rheese in 1809 at Talavera in Spain.  He is wounded and accompanied by some other soldiers who are badly wounded too.  They have been left behind by the General Cuesta.  Rheese knows they have to keep moving or be taken by the French army that was on their heels.

They arrive at the hacienda of Dona Maria Gutierrez y Valdez.  At one time Dona Maria's hacienda was thriving and rich, now because of war and frequent lootings, Dona and her meager household is impoverished.  She worries about the fate of her beautiful granddaughter Eva.

When she sees Michael Rheese, she thinks up a perfect plan. She asks Michael to marry Eva and take her away to England.  In return, she will care for the invalid soldiers in his company. Rheese and Eva agree to this for their own reasons. Rheese wants his friends to be cared for, as they are wounded and cannot travel. Eva has to agree for her Grandmother's sake.

In a dim light, where they can barely make out each others' faces, they are married. The same night, again in pitch dark they leave the hacienda.  That very night, a few hours later, Rheese is taken by the French and Eva lies in a ditch in a faint.

Six years later, Eva learns that her husband is still alive.  All she has is a marriage certificate and the ring her husband had given her at the wedding.  She travels to England to find her husband who lives in Brigford Manor. On her way there, she runs into a Mr. Denborough who is sometimes helpful, sometimes in the way and sometimes plain annoying.  Eva must not think about this handsome stranger and instead concentrate on getting to her lawfully wedded husband.

Here is a book which is all about romance.  Eva is married to man she has not even properly seen and been without for six years. She is not even sure if her husband remembers being married to her, or worse, if he wants her at all.  She has pieced together whatever little money she could manage to gather and come in search of her husband. Will it end well for her?

The book is well written and the reader is kept turning the pages.  All the characters, Michael Rheese, Denborough, Dona Maria, are very well etched.  I love that it is set in Regency Period, just when Austen's Sense and Sensibility came out.

It could have been a bit shorter.  Romances are not usually such long reads.

The subtitle says "A period romance (War Brides Book 1).  This means we can look forward to many such books by Lynn Bishop which is the pen name of Madhulika Liddle of Muzaffar Jung fame.


  

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Greame Macrae Burnet - His Bloody Project

@Contraband
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

In 1869 a 17 year old boy called Roderick Macrae killed three people and surrendered tamely.  He was upfront about owning to the murder. Something about the stoic, taciturn boy appeals to the lawyer chosen to defend him, Andrew Sinclair.

Sinclair asks Roddy (Roderick) to write out in detail the events leading up to the murder of Lachlan McKenzie and his kin.  In addition, he sets about getting Roddy examined by a criminal psychiatrist (though he is not called thus in those times) about the possibility of Roddy being insane at the time of the murder.  This is the only thing that will acquit him.


Through Roddy's memoirs we learn how the events came about. Roddy feels the bad things started happening when his mother died, or when the two Iains died, both his uncles.  He was left alone at home with his older sister Jetta and younger twins who were very little. And his father, of course, John Macrae.

They were a family of Crofters in the remote place called Culduie near Applecross Village in Scotland.  They were very poor, renting a small farm to croft to get along.  Things got worse for them when a neighbour called Lachlan McKenzie became the Constable in their little village.  He was not well disposed towards the Macraes and harassed them at every given opportunity.  

Roddy's memoirs consist a part of the book and serves to give us a look at all the events that led to the murders.  After that comes cherry on top of the cake for the readers. We get a magnificent look at how the case was conducted in the court of Lord Justice-Clerk, Jury, Prosecutor Gifford and Defending lawyer Sinclair.  Witnesses are examined, evidence is produced, the lawyers argue their versions, the people in the gallery are entertained and the reporter Philby of Times sends out lovely dispatches.

We are treated to how the Law maintains its solemnity despite the circus around it.  The author who speaks in a very different, rather droning voice when Roddy's memoirs are being recounted, becomes different, more energetic, descriptive, when giving us the court scenes.

At no point does the reader feel manipulated into liking the cold-blooded murderer.  We are merely shown the reason why he picked up arms. The extreme poverty, the pathetic life of the Crofters in 19th Century Scotland is shown vividly to us.  Historical dramas usually talk about nobility - the well heeled aristocracy who saunter about the countryside not heeding the poor men to whom they owe their wealth.  Here we get to see the men who tipped their hats at the aristocrats in the usual historical novels, and their beggarly lives.


It is a fabulous novel which deserves to be read.  It has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.  It may or not win. That is immaterial.  It is a wonderful Crime/Courtroom drama which lovers of the genre should not miss.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Helen Fielding - Mad about the Boy

@vintage publications
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

The trouble with sequels are that they are sequels.  They never have the sheen of the original. They cannot, the original came first and wowed us with the new concept, the mad, wonderful idea.

Bridget Jones, 30, single, overweight, has a tendency to over indulge in cigarettes and liquor.  Being plump, she has a low self esteem in this world where all women have to be well groomed and thin.

She is not the take charge, alpha female.  But she has oodles of charm.  It is something Mark Darcy and Daniel Cleaver are able to see.

So did millions of readers.  Helen Fielding's first Bridget Jones (1996) book became a bestseller and was made into an equally popular movie.  A sequel (1999) followed fast on its heels; 'Bridget Jones: The edge of Reason.'  It wasn't as brilliant as the first book, but it rode on the popularity wave of the first book and was likewise made into a film.

When 'Mad about The Boy' came out in 2013, I waited for the reviews.  They were quite unkind and I gave up on the idea of reading the book.  A few days ago I read this article on the new Bridget Jones movie. It send me racing to amazon to buy  'Mad about The Boy', which I read with expectations duly lowered.

Of course, the latest Bridget Jones cannot beat the original for the very reason I mentioned in the first paragraph.  BJ is still scatterbrained. She can barely take care of her two children. Mark Darcy is out of the picture, dead. Like a good man that he was, like any man that Miss Austen dreamed up, he was a good provider and BJ does not lack money or resources.  She lacks love.

Her good friends, Jude, Tom and Talitha (Shazzer has moved to Los Angeles) try to get her out there. New Bridget Jones is not using intra office messaging now, she is tweeting. She picks up a yummy boyfriend over Twitter.  Roxster is young and toned and oodles of fun.  Just what a newly minted BJ needs. She needs to lose her 'Born-again Virginity', stop obsessing over Mark Darcy and get on with her life.

BJ's sojourn into the world of social media circa the second decade of the new century is hilarious. There are sad moments when she misses Darcy, but being Bridget, she lapses back into being funny soon, so we do not feel too depressed.

The ending seemed a little upper class and tame to me.  Surely she could have done something crazy.

The book was very rollicking at the beginning,  It got a bit tame later, but was still a v.g. yarn.


 
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