Friday, December 20, 2013

Betty Smith - Joy in the Morning

Joy in the MorningJoy in the Morning by Betty  Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published by Buccaneer Books
Borrowed @ Central State Library, Chandigarh.

The book is set in the early 1900s.  The heroine, Annie has just turned 18.  She has packed her bag and left home to travel to where her boyfriend, Carl lives.  Carl is a law student in the university town of --.  They go straight to get married.  They have barely any money.  All they have is love for each other and a hankering to be together for ever.

Times are hard.  Carl works part time and studies.  Annie also finds work and they manage to scrape by, counting pennies and living cheap.

It is a heartwarming tale of young love.  Not the starry eyed kinds you find in romance books, but the kind that gives you the reality behind love stories.  Annie and Carl fight, and kiss and make up.

This is a story of their early life together.  The story is based on the author's own experience.

I read an excerpt of this book in an old issue of Reader's Digest.  I loved it instantly.  Almost by serendipity, I found the book in my local Central State Library.  The book was every bit as good as the excerpt.  This happened nearly fifteen years ago.

On a recent trip to the same library, I chanced upon the same book once more.  I just had to pick it up again to read it once more.  I was charmed anew by this lovely story.  But this time, I managed to write about it.

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Sunday, December 01, 2013

Alexander McCall Smith - The Sunday Philosophy Club Series or Isabel Dalhousie Series

Isabel Dalhousie (The Isabel Dalhousie Series, #10)Isabel Dalhousie by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the entire series of Isabel Dalhousie/Sunday Philosophy Club. I actually bought the entire series, which is something I have NEVER done. I had to buy the books because they were not available in the library.

The fact that I was willing to spend my money on so many of these books speaks of the love I have for the Isabel Dalhousie series.

These books are not flashy fiction. Readers of action thrillers will do well to keep far away from these books. Readers who love Jane Austen, Anne Tyler, Ruskin Bond and similar authors will love these series.

The books have a gentle laid back tone. Isabel Dalhousie is a rich woman. She edits a philosophy journal (Review of Applied Ethics) and had once founded Sunday Philosophy Club. The club closed down as the members did not have time for it.

Ruminating on philosophical aspects is what comes naturally to Isabel. She is a bit of an old fashioned girl. She likes following social niceties. She likes her old fashioned house that she inherited from her parents. She loves her unfashionable green Swedish car. She loves living her quiet, sedentary life in Edinburgh.

She brings to mind a leisurely era when people had time to lunch and dine gracefully, go to concerts, visit museums and art galleries, or merely walk about the town. Although she lives in our times, there are no mentions of mobile phones and dish TV. Emails and internet are referred to, but clearly, Isabel is a woman who prefers her letters handwritten or, at the very least, printed.

The mysteries that Isabel solves, are almost the side plot in each book. At times, the mystery is not satisfactorily solved even. But she likes what she learns out of each encounter. She likes meeting new people and she likes being allowed to look into their world.

I have completed all the nine books in the series. And absolutely adored all of them.Alexander McCall Smith

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Monisha Rajesh - Around India in 80 trains

Around India in 80 TrainsAround India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Chennai girl by origin and a British girl by nationality and upbringing, Monisha Rajesh seeks to examine her roots by opting for a journey around India in 80 trains.

The title is a nice salaam to Jules Verne.

Monisha's Phileas Fogg has a Passepartout of her own.  A photographer who is looking to improve his resume.  They are not ideal companions, but they manage to stick together through thick and thin.

As we know, taking trains in India is not an easy task.  More than anything else, you have to fight Grime.  Even a 'clean' train like a Shatabdi or a Rajdhani makes you look dusty and covered in a stink straight from an overused lavatory that just cannot be kept clean.

Then, you have to fight the awkward booking system.  Oh ok, we do have the now to aid us in booking our journeys.  But even so, booking journeys at a pinch is not easy.  For Monisha and P. it is the grim faced Anusha who helps book them into trains across India.

Next comes grappling with food.  Getting clean food to eat and clean water to drink can be a struggle when marooned at smaller stations.  Our train food is quite inedible at times and the local station food can be dodgy.

Monisha and P manage to overcome all these and survive to bring us this book.

To vow and keep up the promise to travel to as many parts of India as possible in 80 trains is a humungous task on its own.  To turn it into an entertaining book is another major task.

The book falls into that sweet spot between informative and entertaining.  It is full of witty anecdotes that keep you chuckling as you turn the pages.

I wish there was a chronological information about the trains taken.  It would have made it easy to refer to various journeys.  Also, some of the anecdotes end abruptly, making you feel something is missing.

This is a unique book.  It is about trains.  It is about diversity that is India.  It is about life.

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Friday, August 30, 2013

Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

You get a feeling that there is something different about the world you are reading about when you are already a few pages into the book.

It is not a usual coming-of-age book. Kathy reminiscences about her childhood, about her days at Hailsham, a premium boarding school that she went to.

Ruth, Tommy and the narrator of this story, Kathy were together in that school. There was a bit of a mystery hanging over the school. Although their teachers, called "Guardians" are as rigid as any teacher found in any boarding school, there is one Guardian who seems to treat them differently.

From her, the children get some ominous hints about their future.

We learn the story through the narrator Kathy, who reveals the story mostly chronologically.

This facility, Hailsham is not a school. It is a place where human clones are reared for their organs. The children are cared for because a healthy child will be able to yield healthy organs.

Will the children, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, be able to chart a different life?

Are human beings capable of mercy? Can human beings deal fairly as far as other species are concerned? I think we know the answer to that already.

Kazuo Ishiguro treats this tale, which could easily drip with horror, with gentleness. The shocking facts of the fate of the children are revealed gradually and with a sparse and a deft touch.

The novel is immensely readable. Years ago, I picked up a book called Curious case of the dog in the nighttime, and found it un-putdownable. This book was the only novel I read from cover to cover at a stretch after that.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Cap Lesesne - Confessions of a Park Avenue Plastic Surgeon

Confessions of a Park Avenue Plastic SurgeonConfessions of a Park Avenue Plastic Surgeon by Cap Lesesne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the book.  It is a memoire of a plastic surgeon.  There are not too many 'revelations' about celebrity clients.  They are merely hinted at.

There are times when the book reads like a documentary.  He lists the steps a person seeking plastic surgery should go through, the ways in which a client should assess a surgeon.  There is a chapter titled "Failures (and what to ask a surgeon)".

He even had a section in which he mentions skin-care.

"Some of the best skin I've ever seen belongs to women who cleanse with cold water and soap, then apply a mild moisturizer on the dry spots."

He recommends use of sunscreen lotion with SPF greater than 20, and re-application every two hours.

Exfoliate the skin regularly, he says.  He even recommends microdermabrasion - spraying of fine crystals at the skin to loosen dead tissue.

Hmm.. I confess, I found this part of the book quite interesting.

As for the rest, he writes about his education, how he got into plastic surgery.  He has some interesting anecdotes to narrate.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Marie Desplechin -Sans Moi

Sans MoiSans Moi by Marie Desplechin

It was a wonderful book.  So different from the usual "stories".  It was about a year in the life of Anna, a writer and a single mother.  She hires a young girl Olivia as a babysitter.  Olivia is a recovering drug addict with several other issues as well.  On the face of it, Olivia is highly unsuitable as a babysitter, but yet she is a person with a lot of promise.

Anna and Olivia help each other out and develop a friendship.

It was likened to a novel by Colette, but it wasn't.  Do not look for anything naughty in here.

The book was about faith and trust and healing.  Excellent!

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Rupa Gulab - The Great Depression of the 40s

The book is about 4 women, Mantra, Anjali, Reshma and Samira.

Mantra is married happily to Vir.  They have an easy relationship, no children, lots of banter, no sex.  Mantra has lost her mojo and Vir is begining to be pissed by it.  She has just left her job and wants to write a book and/or freelance.  Vir is having troubles of his own at work.

Vir's sister, Anjali has a perfect marriage.  She has a dream husband and a teenaged boy.  But she finds herself getting attracted to the ex-boyfriend who has just come back into her life.

Reshma is Mantra's maid.  She is a terrible cook but can speak flawless English.  She is carrying on with the driver, Makrand.  Not a wise idea as Makrand is already married.

Samira is Mantra's upstairs neighbour.  She is being beaten black and blue by her rich husband.  She refuses to lodge a complaint as she seems to think she will be able to reform her man.

Here is a perfect book for light reading. It is not about someone's college issues, or a maudlin love story.  It is a perfectly crafted book about an eventful year in the life of Mantra.

Mantra is a smart, thinking, affectionate woman.  She is her own person.  She is a modern Indian woman who does not care to conform to the stereotype of either Bharatiya Nari or Firangi Vamp.  She smokes, drinks and lets her house go to the dogs if she feels like it.

She is just the kind of girl I would like to have as a friend.

The book is not sweet, it is kind of spicy and crispy like a well made plate of chaat.  There were SO many times that I broke out in chuckles over something.  Quite like I would if I were reading Wodehouse.  Ole PG also wrote about light happenings in lives of young wastrels! 

The editing is excellent and the language is, thankfully, perfect.  This quality is rather difficult to come by in Indian-English fiction.  The author credits the good editing to her sister Kushalrani Gulab.

Rupa Gulab has written several books.  I remember not liking Girl Alone much.  I read that years ago.  I should give it another shot.  Maybe I was not in the right frame of mind at the time. I liked Chip of the old Blockhead, but it was more YA fiction.  I will pick up I Kissed a Frog as well and see if it is as good as this book.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Sid Bahri - The Homing Pigeons

This is a story of Aditya and Radhika.  The way the story goes, one chapter narrated from the perspective of Aditya and another from Radhika’s, you know that these two people are going to end up together.  The title of the book leaves no doubt as to the outcome.

Aditya is out of a job, as the book starts.  He is well on his way to being an alcoholic.  He passes out in the bar of a fancy hotel.  Divya, a traveling professional woman, rescues him.  She has a proposal for him, an indecent one.

In the meantime, Radhika is on the brink of marrying off her step-daughter.  She is a rich widow and looking forward to an independent life finally.

Aditya and Radhika have a common past, but do they have a future together?

The story moves forward in a very controlled manner.  One chapter is by Radhika and another by Aditya.  They are forever going into flashbacks and coming back into the present.  The story could have become very confusing if the author had lost his hold on it. But he does not.  The story is strung together very well.

Most of the action takes place in Chandigarh and Delhi, which are two of my favorite places.

The language is adequate, but could have been better.  There were a few shoddy sentences in there.  The story lagged a bit in the middle before picking up pace towards the end.  The end was wrapped up rather suddenly.  It seemed abrupt.

Despite being a romance, it does not read like a typical maudlin love story.

This book review is a part of "The Readers Cosmos Book Review Program". To get free books log on to

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Somnath Batabyal -The price you pay

I got a free copy of this book thanks to Indiblogger and Harper Collins.  I thank them both for feeding my never ending hunger for books.

Uday Kumar is a Supercop.  He is famous for having nabbed many criminals.  Amir Akhtar is a veteran journalist with Express.  Abhishek Dutta is a rookie, with some experience of editing a magazine called Secure Now.  On an impulse Amir gives Abhishek a chance at a job.  Abhishek gets lucky when he overhears Uday Kumar and a junior cop exchanging classifed information.  "Babloo Shankar is planning a comeback".

In a bid to impress his new boss, Abhishek gives this information to Amir.  It earns him a job as a crime reporter.  Abhishek is a pushy guy and finds himself in the news sweet-spot often.  He earns a formidable reputation as he continues breaking important stories.  He is the darling of the Police force and the envy of his tribe.

The going is good, but how long will it last?  Will Abhishek trip up and let his ambition consume him?  More importantly, Is the media fair? These are the things Abhishek has to discover on his own.

Somnath Batabyal has worked as a journalist for some time, hence he is able to describe the routine of reporter with authenticity.  Too much seems to be happening to Abhishek, one journalist does not get this lucky all the time, I feel.  Yet, to keep the story moving, a lot has to be going on.

This is Somnath's first attempt at fiction, he has written a non-fiction book previously - Making News in India - Star News and Star Ananda.  He has made a smooth transition from writing news to writing fiction.  His book is full of jargon that a journalist would use.  He presents a faithful picture of how things are at the reporting level.  Maybe not the FULL picture, but a fair picture.

The book keeps up a good pace and is an engrossing read.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ranjit Lal - Faces in the water

The ancient and rich Diwanchand family is famous for having only sons.  You can sense the horrible secret behind this as you find out that all the children of this family are born in their ancestral farmhouse.  Gurmeet or Gurmi, the only son of one of the Diwanchand brothers,  is sent to live in the farmhouse when his house in Delhi is shut for renovations.  His mother forbids him to step anywhere close to the well that is attached to the farmhouse.

Like any other 15 year old, Gurmeet does exactly what he is forbidden to and unearths the secret behind the unbroken line of Diwanchand family's sons.  The beautiful girls who were lowered into the well to keep the tradition alive are now a series of ghosts, he discovers.

You could be forgiven for thinking this makes the story spooky and gruesome.  It does not.   With a deft and gentle touch, Ranjit Lal turns this story into a fantasy, where the girls show their brother that had they lived, everyone's life would have been much more fun and enriched.

Even as Gurmeet tries to struggle with the enormity of the crime, he is amazed at the calmness with which the girls accept the atrocity and refuse to strike back, despite having some 'ghostly' powers.  Soon, Gurmeet finds he has a bigger problem in hand...

The novel is more YA (young adult) fiction, hence the story is kept simple and sweet.  There are a few plot holes, for instance, if the women were pregnant so often, surely the neighbours remarked on how the women turned up without a child at the end of it.  It could be explained away as a stillborn birth, but so frequently?  If we set aside this, there is nothing to crib about because the story has a beautiful heart, it brings out how much a girl child enriches the lives of the family.
I am a fan of Ranjit Lal's writing.  I loved his book The life and times of Altu Faltu.  His writings on birds appear frequently in magazines.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Christopher Isherwood - Goodbye to Berlin

It helps sometimes to have a To-Be-Read (TBR) list handy as you go book hunting in a library. Just go to the relevant shelves, pick out your book and, zip zap zoom, you are done. I have taken to making a TBR list based on recommendations by people. 

I picked the first two books on my list, Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood and The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott, a few days ago.

I have just finished reading Goodbye to Berlin.

It is an account of the author’s stay in Berlin for a period of time. It was an exciting time, just before Hitler came to power and launched his full scaled pogrom against the Jews.

While we do not get a political commentary on the times, we do get sketches of people who go about their lives, not having any idea about the storm that is headed their way.

The novel is divided into several chapters, A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930), Sally Bowles, On Rugen Island (Summer 1931), The Nowaks, The Landauers, and finally again, A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)

A Berlin diary is an account of Isherwood's life in Berlin. He profiles his stay in a boarding house there. He writes about Frl. Schroeder, his sweet and caring landlady, his fellow lodgers and their everyday happenings.

The piece de resistance here is undoubtably Sally Bowles. I was struck by the similarity between her and Holly Golightly. I found out from wikipedia that Sally Bowles was indeed the inspiration for Holly. Capote and Isherwood met in New York and happened to talk about this small time night club performer who was a complete degenerate. Unlike Holly, Sally did not get a glamourous 'face' to play her, hence she remained unknown.  

On Reugen Islands examines Otto, a handsome spoiled young man who puts himself out for favors. Holidaying in the Reugen Islands, Isherwood runs into Peter and the young man he has 'befriended', Otto Nowak. The relationship between Peter and Otto soon runs into rough weather, and Isherwood gets a ringside view to their fights. The Nowaks is a sequel to the previous story.  Here Isherwood goes to live with the Nowaks as he has fallen on hard times.  Here we get to look at the sad, poor life that Otto's family leads.

The Landauers is about a rich Jewish family that Isherwood gets introduced to. He soon strikes up a special friendship with their daughter, Natalia, who is a pretty, curious, intelligent young schoolgirl. Isherwood seems to waver on the brink of a relationship with her.

The final chapter is again about his previous landlady and life in the boarding house. Things are getting sinister now, Hitler is almost upon them. He sees life changing around him and he prepares to leave.

The stories are not told in a usual 'fictional' style. They read more like memoirs, and often seem like pointless sketches. But later, you realise that that these are an important record of those times, some
what like snapshots that drop out of an old family album, reminding you of past family events.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Anurag Kumar - Remembrance

Anurag Kumar has brought out another book, Remembrance, a sequel to his previous Recalcitrance.  Here is a quick look at what I wrote about it.
 I am quoting from the blurbs here: "Anurag is a freelance journalist.  He belongs to a very old family of Lucknow which witnessed the events of 1857.  Ever since childhood he was fascinated by the Great Uprising"
1857 was indeed a very tumultuous time and there were surely some great stories that can be written on that period.  My favorite is Ruskin Bond's "A flight of pigeons".

Recalcitrance follows the lives of two friends Chote Bhaiyya and Narinderlal who happen to witness the events that take place in Lucknow at close quarters.  Chote Bhaiyya finds himself smitten by a muslim girl, but cannot find the courage to act in time to get close to her.
The problem with the book - despite a story that should practically tell itself, after all the events were happening so rapidly at the time - is that it gives out a very disjointed feel.  It proceeds from one event to another without any apparent link. There is no attempt to bring together the events at any later chapter either. Several characters are not named  but referred to ambiguously like, "a holy man", a "general" etc.  I got the feeling that the author is trying to point to some important historical figures of the time, but I failed to place them.

This incoherence spoils the story and I wish the author had worked harder on it, because it is apparent that the subject is very close to his heart.

Remembrance continues with the story of Chhote Bhaiyya and Narinderlal.   The Great Uprising is over, and the persons involved with it have to return to their normal lives.  Chhote Bhaiyya returns to his father, and tries to settle himself in his family business.  His wish to do something to upset the British rule has not gone, and he is merely looking for the right opportunity.

The story here is very sound, as was the case with Recalcitrance.  There is some improvement as the narration is not as disjointed as was in the previous book.   The story needs some detailing and fleshing out though,  it is written more like a summary, a rapid fire listing of events.  The language needs some serious editing as well.

 The market is inundated with books on romance and 'coming-of-age' stuff.  This theme is repetitive and boring.  In comparison, the subject of this book is refreshing.  I only wish the author had worked harder on this subject and made the books better.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Mohammed Hanif - A Case of Exploding Mangoes

"Why keep reading it when you already know that the hero is going to die." asks Ali
"To see how he dies.  What were his last words. That kind of a thing" replies Obaid

We know right from the start about the people who are going to die, and the manner of their death. The death of Gen Zia, then President of Pakistan, and the US Ambassador along with a clutch of his Generals , is common knowledge. We know his plane had a mysterious crash that was subsequently put down to some technical fault in the aircraft.  This novel is a fictionalised account of the events leading to Zia's death.

An Air Force cadet, Ali Shigri is on the scene of Zia's death with some inside knowledge of the proceedings. He narrates his side of the story in the first person.  There is a further account of the goings on in Zia's cabinet in the third person. The devout Gen. Zia is in the habit of opening the Koran at a random page each day and taking the words inscribed therein as a kind of message from the Allah. He is disturbed when he finds himself opening the page describing Jonah again and again. He feels it is a bad omen of some kind and orders his security tightened.

Gradually, we find that Zia's suspicions are not far from the mark.  There are several people who are conspiring to kill him. Ali Shigri's father, General Shigri, committed suicide in mysterious circumstances years ago.  Ali suspects the hand of his fellow officers in the 'suicide'. The CIA is always loitering around, wanting to swing things in its favor by yet another kill. Zia's Generals have agendas of their own. The leader of the gutter cleaning association wants him dead. So does Zainab, the blind rape victim, who has been awarded a sentance for fornicating and is to be publically stoned to death. Will her curses be powerful enough to kill the President?

The novel has a very good start. The motives of the characters are revealed slowly. In the meantime,
we get a good look at the life inside a military training camp. We get a good look at things in Pakistan as
they were after the coup pulled by Gen. Zia.

The novel keeps us in the confines of the upper strata of the rulers of Pakistan. We do not stray beyond that. Hanif creates a closed space where his characters exist.  Like a spotlight in a circus the light seems to fall in and around his characters and keeps all else in darkness.  So we live in a pool of light in the Army House where Zia has sequestered himself, with Zia at the center of it.  Or we move to the pool of light (and at times, darkness) where Ali Shigri is, in the jail or in the Air Force Campus.  At times the spotlight moves and falls on common people going about their lives, but that happens only now and then.  At no time do we lose sight of our main characters and what they are up to.

I particularly liked all the passages that deal with Gen. Zia.  He is seen as a devout, canny, foolish, foolhardy, cunning, perceptive, trusting and a suspicious person all at once.  In short, he is a bundle of contradictions.  All the passages dealing with him are so humourous, so darkly humourous that I wanted to read them again and again.  In fact, the novel is replete with black humour. You find yourself smiling and chuckling even as a character hurtles to his death.

Mohammad Hanif pulls no punches in describing the political scene in Pakistan.  There is no leeway given to politicians or the religious heads.  You can see that they are being blamed for the mess that Pakistan is. He writes as if he feels for his country, even as he exposes its warts. He writes as if he wants to heal, and not maim his country.  I felt quite envious, I must say.  I wish we had such a writer for India as well.

His book is mostly crisp, the language terse. As is usual with books, the middle sags at times, mostly because the motives of Ali Shigri are revealed to us with excrutiating slowness. Once we know what Ali is up to, the book regains its pace and clip clops smartly to the grand finale.

Hanif does like to end his books with a bang. And we are left to scramble back to look at the chain of
cause-and-effect that led to the final blast. This is similar to the situation in his second book, "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti" , which I happened to read first.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Madhulika Liddle - Engraved in Stone

We were introduced to a dashing and handsome nawab in 'The Englishman's Cameo' by Madhullika Liddle.  According to a wikipedia entry,
The Englishman’s Cameo introduces Muzaffar Jang, a twenty-five-year-old Mughal nobleman living in the Delhi of 1656 AD. Muzaffar ends up investigating a murder of which his friend, a jeweller’s assistant, is accused. The book became a bestseller in India, and was published in French by Editions Philippe Picquier, as Le Camée Anglais.
Muzaffar Jang is young, intelligent, futuristic and well read.  His parents died when he was young.  He was brought up by his wise and kindly older sister, Zeenat and brother-in-law.  In the first book, Muzaffar takes upon himself the task of investigating a murder to help his friend.

Eighth Guest and other Muzaffar Jang mysteries is a collection of short stories featuring Muzaffar Jang as he goes about solving various mysteries.  Although the stories can be read independent of each other, there is a thread of continuity between them.

Engraved in Stone is the latest novel in the series.  Catching the eye of the high and mighty is not always an advantage, Muzaffar knows.  When the Diwan-e-kul hands the task of finding the murderer of Mumtaz Hassan, a prominent trader, to Muzaffar, he is not entirely thrilled.  One misstep and he could find himself on the gallows.  Muzaffar sets off immediately, chasing after an elusive murderer before his trail gets cold.

He is aided by his loyal friend and cousin Akram.  Not 'aided' really.  Merely 'accompanied' by.  Akram is a bit of a dandy and is happy being a pampered nawab with a good heart.  I am always happy to see Akram by Muzaffar's side, he is good fun.  I hope he is there in ALL of Muzaffar's books.

The USP of these books is the beautiful backdrop of historical Dilli.  I love the descriptions of the bazaar, the clothes, the men (and women) and their manners, the food, the jewellery.   I can feel the swish of their chogas and dupattas as they go about their business.  Madhulika's sound knowledge of history and faultless language is what enhances this effect.

This time round, Muzaffar has a love interest as well.  Beautiful Shireen was introduced to us in the last story of the previous book.  Zeenat is keen on Muzaffar settling down with Shireen.  Muzaffar is not sure about this, he has shadows in his heart, left by a previous love.

If you like historical fiction, you will love this book.  As I did. The only bit of annoyance for me was the harping on the perfection of Shireen.  I hope we will have no more of that in the future books.  Madhulika's writing is so evocative that it brings the world of Muzaffar to life. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Madhulika Liddle - My Lawfully Wedded Husband and other Stories

I love short stories. Flip over 5-10-20 pages and the story is done.  It usually deals with one aspect of the life of its protagonists, so the reader does not have to remember a lot.  On the other hand, just as you have gotten into a story and the character, it is done with.  It is difficult sometime to turn to another story immediately, as you are still 'into' the first one.  Hence, I find it difficult to get through books of short stories at a stretch.  They usually lie on my 'unread' pile on the bookshelf, to be picked up when the fancy takes me.

My Lawfully Wedded Husband is a collection of 12 stories.  They are mostly funny/scary/dark and sometimes, all three combined.

1. Sum Total - A young woman goes on a killing spree when she finds herself pushed to the limits by people around her. 

2. A Tale of a Summer Vacation - A young girl happens to be visiting her grandmother in Goa when an incident takes place with a neighbor.  There are some secrets that only time can unlock.

3. A Brief Lesson in Trust - Two childhood friends find themselves face to face again after many years.  Surely an old friend can be trusted to help you out when you are in a bad spot.

4.  Feet of Clay - There are many people who seem harmless, but are not.

5.  My Lawfully Wedded Husband - Boring people can be safe to be with, some times.  Maybe it is not a good idea to be scornful about people who are staid on the outside.

6. Number 63 - Sometimes it helps to be a nosey neighbor.

7. On the Night Train - There is a nice tip in here that can help you get a good night's sleep on a train.

8. Hourie - A grim look at the happenings inside a whorehouse.

9. Silent Fear - A scary office tale.

10. St. George and the Dragon - This is what happens in a government office when a frustrated PA decides to act against his boss.

11. The Crusader - How many times have we gone to see a movie and felt unhappy about people who don't allow us to watch it peacefully.

12. The Howling Waves of Tranquebar - Even a tiny place like Tranquebar can have an exotic story behind it.

Madhulika's prose is elegant and simple.  The stories often have a twist in the end, some skilful and some predictable.  In case of St. George and the Dragon, I liked the story a lot.  It was a very genuine portrait of a government office.  But I felt the end was a bit too drastic.  Silent Fear was a bit unsubstantial.   Apart from these little things, all the stories are immensely likeable.

The last one in the collection, The Howling Waves of Tranquebar is exceptional.  It is going to rank among the best short stories I have ever read.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Keigo Higashino - Salvation of a Saint

I do not have a huge budget for buying books.  A book that costs Rs.350/- or more makes me groan.  I am not one of those IT professionals who take home upward of 50k every month. Much much less in fact.

I could join a library, you might suggest.  There are seldom good choices available in a library.  It is like shopping for exotic vegetables on the cart of the vendor who roams in your mohalla.   Just like the cart is often loaded with the ubiquitous aloo, the library is also loaded with books that were published in the 50s.

Hence you are forced to buy books if you are to read the latest titles that are reviewed in the newspapers.  If the book measures up to your expectations,  you do not mind the money you spent on it.  If it does not, you rue even the poor tree that was cut down to print the book.

I read a glowing review of the book by Keigo Higashino, Salvation of a Saint in a newspaper.  That sent me off to to order the book.

Yoshitaka and Ayane are on the verge of a split.  He is carrying on with her friend and  assistant Hiromi. Ayane is upset about this and goes to visit her mother.  She has to hurry back when her husband is discovered dead in his house, a cup of poisoned coffee by his side.  What looks like a suicide is found to be murder.  Detective Kusanagi steps in and finds himself falling for the lovely widow.  His assistant is worried that it will affect his judgement.  She decides to get help from an old friend.

The story is narrated skilfully and keeps you turning pages.  The writer gives away very little, just a tantalizing hint here and a glimpse there to make you suspect this or that character.

However, the denouement, when it did come, made me feel a wee bit let down.  The mystery of how the man was poisoned seemed a bit far fetched.  And the story also changed a lot in the last chapter.

The novel was not too skilfully translated.  The translation is not really smooth.  It is a bit awkward in places.

It is good enough to read in an airport/metro and all such places where you just want to lose yourself in something racy to while away the long hours. 

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Mohammed Hanif - Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

The book reminded me of a game of billiards.  The cue hits a ball which nudges several other balls and finally kisses one teetering on the edge, and pushes it into the pocket.  We are not solely responsible for all that happens to us.  It is a game of cause and effect, the actions of others tell on us and often improve or worsen our situation.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is the story of Alice Bhatti of French Colony daughter of Joseph Bhatti, the prince among chooras. He is the go-to guy when a clogged drain flummoxes all the other cleaners.  Her sainted mother died when she fell down the stairs in the house where she was employed as a maid.  The mourners at her funeral were intrigued by a fellow servant from that same household who kept saying 'murder murder' as he cried.  Some people were of the opinion that he was actually crying 'martyr martyr'.

What chance does Alice have of getting on in life when...

1.  She is an untouchable, a choora

2.  She is a Christian in the land of Muslas

3.  She has just served time in jail

4.  She is a woman

Alice tries to rise above her station in life by studying Nursing.  With some help from Dr. Jamus Pereira she finds work at the Sacred Heart hospital of All Ailments.  The grim looking Sister Hina Alvi comes to her rescue when she is stuck.  The young jailbird Noor, another of Dr. Pereira's proteges, is working at the hospital so his mother, who is cancer ridden, can get medical aid there.  

Alice has just started work at the hospital when Teddy Butt walks into her life.  Captivated by the pretty nurse, Teddy starts wooing her with determination.   Teddy Butt is body builder and also a peripheral police helper.  His boss, Inspector Malangi has caught Abu Zar, a terrorist.  Teddy is given the task of making him talk.

All these characters impact the life and times of  Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.  Alice is a victim of a society where it is a crime to be a woman, let alone being an untouchable and a Christian.

Mohammed Hanif draws a realistic portrait of life in Karachi and at a big busy hospital, Sacred Heart.  In fact the life at Sacred Heart is so self sufficient, that the novelist steps outside it just a few times, when he needs to show how the events happening outside will impact the lives of those who live within the hospital.

This is a skillfully written story.  It is replete with dark humor and compassion.  I won't say the book was unputdownable for me.  There were times when its starkness disturbed me and I had trouble continuing with it.  But the story of Alice and Teddy made me pick it up, and I must say, the end of the book is superb.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Amitav Ghosh - River of Smoke

In our History textbook in school, we had a chapter titled Greater India.  It was about Indians settled in other countries.   How these people came to move away from their motherland and settle in a foreign places is often an interesting story.  How Indians came to mix and match their language and culture with that of their adopted country to create a hybrid culture that was acceptable to them as well as the natives can make a fascinating narrative.

Sea of Poppies was about how a lot of people from various backgrounds find themselves on the Ibis.   River of Smoke starts with a magnificently evocative description of Deeti's shrine.  The Ibis had landed, after a stormy crossing, at Mauritius.  Deeti finds herself in an alien land, with a child, and has to forage for food in the forest there.  On one such sojourn she finds a cave in the cliff overlooking the sea.  This becomes her shrine, where she draws images from her past life.  This is where she starts her family, and establishes a clan.

But we are running ahead.  The story where Sea of Poppies ended continues with Raja Neel.  Raja Neel finds himself along with Ah Fatt, on way to Canton where Ah Fatt hopes to meet his father the great opium merchant Behram Moddie, owner of the grand ship Anahita.  In Canton, we meet an array of new characters.  Behram, his Man Friday Vico, the British and American opium merchants, Charles King, Mr. Lindsay, Dent, Wetmore, Jardine.

Essentially it is about how the East India Company forces the farmer to grow opium in India and then sells it to China to suck the wealth out of these countries.  Unfortunately for the traders, this is the time when the Emperor of China decides to appoint a tough Commissioner to deal with the issue of widespread Opium addiction that was eating into the social fabric of China.  The Commissioner Lin decides to make the traders of Opium pay for their smuggling, both the Chinese and the British.  The Britishers are not used to being dictated to by the countries they trade with and try to strike back.

Caught in this crossfire is Bahram Moddie who has staked all his wealth in this last huge consignment.  It is a trip that will either make him or break him.

Paulette has been taken on by Fitcher, a botanist who is visiting China to look for a rare plant that he has drawing of.  She cannot go to Canton, and has to stay in Hongkong.  She runs into Robin, an old playmate from Calcutta, the bastard son of the celebrated painter Chinnery.  Robin is in Canton looking to broaden his artistic skills and knowledge.  He pledges to help Fitcher and Paulette to look for the elusive plant by tracking the person who made the drawing.  In the process, he writes very illustrative, incisive and entertaining letters to his old friend Paulette.

River of Smoke paints a beautiful picture of the language, food, the clothes, the culture, the way of life of these merchants in Canton.  It is a brilliant sequel to Sea of Poppies which was more like an introduction to the key characters and their backgrounds.

In one of the blurbs the author was compared to Charles Dickens and Tolstoy.  I shook my head after I was done with the book.  This is Amitav Ghosh, he stands in a class of his own.  It is not fair to compare him with anyone else.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights is right up there on the list of my favorite books.  I have owned several copies of it, lost them in transit from one place to the other in my life, and bought again, lost again, till I lose count.  It popped up somewhere in the lists when I was browsing for books on  It arrived with another book that I ordered.  I tore the open the wrapping and started reading it three days ago.  I have barely put it down, in any free moment that I have to call my own.  It helped that my net crashed for a couple of days.

First Edition
I met my favorite characters once again, if you can call that rude bunch a favorite.  Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Nellie Dean, Lockwood, Edgar and Isabella, Frances and Hindley, Linton, Hareton and Catherine junior.  I was transported once again to the moors of Yorkshire and roamed over them with Cathy and Heathcliff.  It is not hard to see why such  a rough and cheerless place excites passion in the hearts of those living there.  Heathcliff is bound to Cathy by a common childhood, and a bond they cannot break.  The word love is useless to describe their feelings for each other.  It is just that they share a spirit.

As long as they are children, things are alright with them.  But creeping adulthood brings changes in them.  Heathcliff is a foundling and a ward of Catherine's father, a fact that her older brother Hindley resents.  As soon as he gains control of the house, he tortures Heathcliff and wedges barrier between him and Cathy.  On her own part, Cathy grows up and discovers the charms of being wooed by a rich, good looking and an accomplished neighbour Edgar Linton, whom she marries by and bye.

Heathcliff is devastated at losing Cathy and vows to wreck revenge, first on Hindley for his mistreatment of him and later on Edgar.  He succeeds, but finds the whole exercise futile in the end.  He does not repent, but dies possessed of the spirit of Cathy.

It is not an easy book to love.  It is full of heady passions and hatred.  Yet it is beautiful.  The passages that describe the love between Cathy and Heathcliff are unparallelled anywhere else in literature that I know of.  "I am Heathcliff" Cathy declares. "He is always, always in my mind", she says.  On his part, Heathcliff never desires to possess Cathy's body.  He is happy to be close to her, and be allowed to see her and walk with her.  'I could never hurt Linton', he says, 'because of her.'  If Cathy wants Linton around him, he would not dream of preventing her.  It is SHE that he adores, above his own feelings.  It is when he is prevented from being with Cathy, that he turns into a vengeful beast.

All the rough characters in the book, Heathcliff, Joseph, Hareton are closer to nature, they live more like farmers than gentlemen and are bestowed with rude health and manly beauty.  Edgar Linton, and Linton are pretty boys, full of bookish learnings, but are weak in health.  Emily probably saw a lot of such examples in her life.

Most readers that are fascinated with the strange novel, are also fascinated with Emily Bronte, its writer. What mind produced such a singular novel.  Hence Emily, along with her talented siblings, Charlotte, Anne and Branwell are subject of many books.  Their cloistered lives, enriched only by their readings, are as curious as the novels they wrote.

Anne Carson writes in her beautiful poem, The Glass Essay:

She lives on a moor in the north.
She lives alone.
Spring opens like a blade there.
I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books—

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.   
This is my favourite author. 
All of us that feel emotions other than we perceive as 'normal' can agree a lot with Emily. This is a bold novel that she wrote. It is full of forbidden feelings, but also very true. Sometimes it seems to be as if Heathcliff and Cathy are the normal people in the narrative, true to their inner selves. This is the way Emily wanted to be, true to her inner self, which is why she could not write in any other way.   
Her superb imagination awes me and makes the stark world of the moors and Wuthering Heights come alive even today.

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