Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: The Sirens of Baghdad

Yasmina Khadra/ Mohammed Moulessehoul
Not in many best seller lists and not as sublime as Nadeem Aslams ‘The Wasted Vigil’, this book nevertheless does to Iraq what the other does to Afghanistan.
The protagonist is a young man in his early 20-s, a Bedouin who has left his village to study in Baghdad, become a doctor and make his family and village proud. He has already built a world of dreams when it comes crashes down. American GI-s take over the country and what follows is the continual denigration of a race too proud to sit and take it. He returns to his village where tragedy after tragedy strikes. Uncalled for killings of innocents by an over excitable marine troop, bombing of a marriage party mistaken to be an arms stronghold, and then a village torn apart by the military, young men taken away, old men insulted in front of their children. Blood will have to be spilled to avenge an insult. That is the Bedouin way.
The story starts in Beirut, where the protagonist is already a fedayeen, then moves to tell his history to Kafr Karam, his village, Baghdad and then moves back to the present. The changing mileu is so well presented. Proud of their bread earning status at one time, men now have become effeminate, reduced to arguing about who is to blame for their countries downfall. Saddam? The West? They themselves? And to taking money from their mothers and sisters. Sisters revolting against the tribe to go for higher education and become doctors. Sisters living “in sin” in the big city. Homosexuality. And of course, the growing “waiting list” of would be fedayeens.
This morning the newspaper talked about 2 car bombs going off in Baghdad killing 30 people. The book talks about groups who are actually responsible for this. Who think it is justified to kill children and innocents to avenge a wrong done to their country by the west. They are not warring against their own, but they end up doing just that. And some lose their minds in the process, like Hassan who is not quite there after he saw his best friend mowed down by police after a botched suicide bombing. Or the man who became stark mad after he blew up a school bus full of kids. He bound himself with bread loaves to look like a human bomb and walked into a checkpost.
Whats best about the book is that it supports no one and damns everyone. Humanity suffers in a war between two factions. It is the women and children who are left to pick up the pieces when the men are bombed away. It is the frail and old left to mourn their youngs’ passing. And it is a generation of machines moulded by a thought process which no one can justify. Be it the young marines killing civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan or they who blow themselves up for Paradise. Or for country.
The conscience of the book must be Dr Jamal, not a main character in the book but a professor who used to support the west at first, and then switched sides to support the Iraqi voice. And then realizes that every one is wrong in this war. And gets killed for it.
Of course the ending itself is a bit tame. I wont give it away but the weapon he is supposed to carry to end half of humanity is pretty clich├ęd and the way the book ends itself, unravels the tightness of the book and keeps it from raising itself from good to great. That of course would be a spoiler so I will refrain from telling. I wish it ended better. But a subject too relevant to ignore.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Man who Died Laughing

Publisher: Hutchinson, London
Indian Price: Rs 550
Available: All major book shops

“Have you met Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator?”

Well I met him finally this week, and I must say, Im totally bowled over. England has Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple. Belgium has Hercule Poirot. US has so many. Even Sweden has its Lisbeth Salander (Millenium series- Stieg Larsson). Its time India had one of its own.
To be fair, we have our Felu da, the Holmes-esque Bengali genius. But he is so niche, that so few even in the country outside of Bengal know of his brilliant exploits. That’s the problem. Our detectives are so regional, so bound by the foibles and tics of a particular race, that outside of it, so few know of them, even if translated.
Tarquin Hall comes to somewhat bridge the gap. Vish Puri is quintessentially a Delhi-wallah. With his Punjabi quirky habits, aloo parantha-s and family ties, he is still a part of the cosmopolitan middle class baby boomer ethos. With his “arrrey”s and using “no?” after sentences (he is supposed to be here by now, no?) he talks our language. He says every thing is just “tip-top”, so “no need to do tension”. Its so us, no?
Oh and finally someone having ghee dripping aloo paranthas and aloo tikki masala, and similar saliva inducing stuff, finally finally, Indian street food on a world class book.
The story?
The “Guru Buster”, Dr Suresh Jha, takes on Maharaj Swami on television and incurs his wrath. Maharaj Swami promises his death on a certain day due to his non believer’s attitude. On the said date, in full view of the world, while attending the morning session of the laughing club in the open, a twenty foot Goddess Kali appears, levitating in all her terrible glory and with a sword, strikes Jha dead, disappearing without a trace after the act. It falls on Vish Puri to trace down the murderer. Science, religion, magic, logic, superstition… every thing is rolled into one. And adventure. The must-have of a good detective novel, DISGUISE. Vish Puri is master of disguise. His helpers and side kicks, male and female, are dependable and masters in their own game. And it’s a page turner too.
Here is what I liked about this book apart from its innate Indian ness. The book makes you guess much in the fashion of Agatha Christie. Its got genuine detective flair. It is topical. And with the guru-frenzy still very much on in the country, it is very relevant. You wish someone would make your mother in law read this. Talking of which, the mother in law herself in this book is a detective of sorts. So yo not only have your “Indian Poirot” but a bit of your Indian Miss Marple as well. And its so much fun. You cant help laughing through the book. Who else had made murder such a joke?
Here is what does not work. The book is too Indian. So while Indians will totally identify with it, readers in other countries would be a little lost. But seems after reading the book, it is meant for a predominant Indian audience, either in the country or the huge diaspora spread across the world. In that case Tarquin Hall did a brilliant job.
There is too much going on. There are three separate cases in the book. You sometimes wish the chapters would not keep going to Mummy Ji-s kitty party case. It is enjoyable in itself, and is perhaps meant to be a comic relief, but the whole book is comic, and the action never reaches feverish pace, so probably comic relief is not required at all. However the characters all being believable and lovable, it does not become too much of a hindrance, though it mars the overall composition of the case.
The third point would be a spoiler. The end of the book and the solution of the case, the murderer, so to say, is a anti climax. You so wish it were someone else. But its ok as all the bad guys are actually bad guys and they all will get punished. But gee, the murder… something is missing about the ending. It needed a better tying up. Then again, the journey is so enjoyable that the destination in itself can have its faults.
Finally it does what any good detective book should do. Get good word of mouth, and make the reader buy the other books in the series. Im definitely reading “The Case of the Missing Servant” next.

Rate: 8/10

About the author: from his website

Tarquin Hall is a British writer and journalist.
He was born in London, 1969, to an English father and American mother. Hall has spent much of his adult life away from the United Kingdom, living in the United States, Pakistan, India, Kenya and Turkey, and travelling extensively in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. He is the author of five books and dozens of articles that have appeared in many British newspapers and magazines, including the Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Observer and New Statesman. He has also worked in TV news and is a former South Asia bureau chief of Associated Press TV. His chosen subject matter has proven extraordinarily diverse. He has written features on Wilfred Thesiger, Texan rattlesnake hunters, the Taliban and British-Asian Urdu poets.
Hall’s books have received wide acclaim in the British press. His second, To the Elephant Graveyard was heralded by Christopher Matthew in the Daily Mail as “a classic.” His third, Salaam Brick Lane, about Brick Lane in the East End of London, was described by Kevin Rushby in The Guardian as “charming, brilliant, affectionate and impassioned.” Salaam Brick Lane recounts a year spent above a Bangladeshi sweatshop on Brick Lane.
In 2009, Hall published his first mystery novel The Case of the Missing Servant introducing the Punjabi literary character Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator. Hall′s second novel in the Puri series, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, is scheduled to be released on 15 June 2010. The sequel follows Puri as he unravels who really murdered a renowned Indian scientist.
Hall is married to the Indian-born BBC reporter and presenter Anu Anand. They have a young son.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pritish Nandy's article

Some days back we were shocked out of our dinner time reverie by the news item that a Class 8 school boy in Kolkata has committed suicide, allegedly because he was caned as a punishment in school. Here is an article, I dont know the source, it came as a forward, by Pritish Nandy which sums up what many of us thought.

Learning starts with irreverence
Pritish Nandy, 14 June 2010, 09:42 AM IST

La Martiniere was the only school I ever went to. I joined it at 3 and passed out completing my Senior Cambridge. This is the school currently in the news because a student hung himself after the Principal caned him reportedly for not doing his homework. Corporal punishment is always a silly idea. It achieves little, hurts a lot. Depending on which part of your anatomy gets the stick. In our time it was the posterior, and as we all padded that well in advance with notebooks and towels, the Principal (who swung the cane) would first instruct us to drop our pants.

No, I wasn’t caned for not doing homework. In our time, students were far more irreverent. Not doing homework was the least of our transgressions. But the ecology of schools was so different then that even when we were punished, we took it easily in our stride. Studying was never a big deal. Learning was. And the real things I learnt out there were either on the rugby field or in the boxing ring and, yes, I made a few friends who have stayed on for life. That’s what schools were about in those days and La Martiniere was a fine example. It was there that I learnt music, theatre, swimming, writing, waltzing, carpentry and how to smoke grass. Geography I learnt much later while travelling the world. Poetry I found after I unlearnt Shakespeare. History I picked up from the movies. But the subject I hated the most, maths, is the one I love today thanks to Martin Gardner who taught me the art of artfully resolving any complex mathematical problem.

Caning was commonplace then. No one gave it a second thought. If anything, your classmates saw you as a hero if you got whacked. Like the time the watchman caught me climbing down the waterpipe at night from the Girls School dorm next door. A sudden burst of pigeons from the corner of a ledge woke him up and almost killed me. Another time I was caned for scribbling love notes with strong sexual undercurrents to my junior school teacher, Miss Martin. I was also whacked for helping a friend during an exam. The notes in his underwear had fallen off. The hardest whack I got was for writing an essay which questioned the existence of God and said that if I had a choice I would rather go with Madhubala. Yet I was let off with a warning when they found me, at a social, waltzing with a girl not where the others were, but behind the Tech School in the dark, under the starry skies. My school tie was off. So was her shirt.

Yes, we were punished for many reasons. But we never felt humiliated. We went back and did the same things again, just making sure we were not caught. Caning was like a badge of honour. We were heroes every time the Principal (Mr Chalk and Mr Vyse, the two fine men who wielded the cane on our bottoms) announced our names sternly at the morning service and called us to his office. We knew what that meant. But it never embarrassed us. In fact, I took bets on how many whacks I would get. Three was the max. I always got away with one. I suspect we were caned only because the Principal felt it was his duty to do so. It was an intrinsic part of the Coming of Age ritual. There was no viciousness there. Nor a mistaken belief that caning would make better young men out of us.

Today, the entire ecology of schools has changed. The charming irreverence that made our years there such great fun has all but vanished. What we have instead is a strange combination of fear and stress. The love, the warmth, the humour, the camaraderie that was an intrinsic part of our growing up years has gone. Everything is judged purely by academic performance, the marks students get. It’s an edgy, competitive scenario where you perform or perish. Everyone’s under great pressure. When I got a first division, I remember how disappointed I was. It was not what I wanted in life. I would have much rather run off with Mr Vyse’s charming daughter, the lovely Suzette who danced like a dream and won every race at the school sports. But no, she was not mine to be. She finished school, married an Anglo Indian boy and vanished into the Great Outback.

It’s this ecological breakdown that makes corporal punishment look even uglier. When a young boy in Class VIII kills himself for being caned it can only mean one thing: A total breakdown of communication between him and the world around him. School is not where you go just to get some good grades. It’s a place where you grow up, make friends, learn a few sports, discover yourself and the world around you. And if someone whacks you once in a while, you take it in your stride. There’s a whole world out there to be conquered. You can’t give that up so easily.


Breakdown of communication:
That must be it. Parents, most of all, need to be aware of this bane, in their busy schedules and dawn to night jobs. Children need to be TALKED TO. To be UNDERSTOOD from their viewpoint, not yours. Most of all, in all spheres of life, in every problem, the most important cause is lack of communication.

The one thought that kept troubling me for days is that, I was caned too. So many times, one lost count. I was hit on my thigh with "double scales"- two scales joined together to make the sting worse. I was hit on my knuckles for not doing homework. I was made to stand in the sun for hours for not bringing my exam admit card. I was made to do sit ups for shouting in class. I was made to stand outside class for talking.

I showed the scale marks to all and sundry, with pride, like being 'the marked', or 'the chosen one'. We all laughed about how the angle of the scale affected the knuckles, which hit harder, the face or the edge. We winked at each other while standing outside class. My legs hurt for days after the sit ups but I carried it like a badge of honour. And when a couple of my friends fainted, standing in the sun, we ran to get water and fanned them, and cursed the school and our principal, Sister Andrea, and compared her devilish treatments to the other angelic Sisters... but we did not think it was the end of our lives.

Failing in exams were not the end of our lives, we just picked up and moved on... sometimes a few beatings/scoldings later. But the message was clear, nothing is a personal agenda against me or you or anyone... its the SYSTEM. And the system aims to make us "persons" in this way, and we just survive this bit.

School was fun. School was where we had our best times, our best friends, our bonds for a lifetime. School was were we did well in some tests and failed some, but it did not matter. We had exam fever too... we woke nights to make notes and solve trigonometry problems. I did so badly in my 10th standard exams that I actually thought life had ended. But it didnt.

We are good at certain things. We are not good at others. Its better that parents keep an open channel of communication with their kids, and put this into their minds.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Messi hair day

What happens when a football dud like me starts writing about football. It becomes all about hair, thats what.

Btw, my husband went into mourning yesterday after England lost. So has half the world I know. Going on like that about the goal that wasnt given. Shame on you, as if it had anything to do with the other 3 goals that Germany sent into their post. Now Germany, thats one serious team. Im going to put my amatuer bet on them to win the cup this time. All the "Go England" people- HUMBUG! "Go Germany" is what I say.

As I was saying, so many people lost their appetite, that too at dinner time on Sunday night, this part of the world. Which is better than losing your job, I say, which the England Goal keeper, whatisname, has coming. What can you expect with that kind of hair... and facial hair too, yuck! So very yesterday. Now Rooney, thats a name I know... he's been playing for aaaaaGes. Look at his receding hairline. He looked so crestfallen after the first half hour of the match, I was almost expecting Beckham to come in and give him a peck of encouragement on the cheek. So sweet of him to cheer on his team, no? Looking so dapper too, sigh! They dont make them like that anymore.

So much talk about Messi, I finally HAD to watch what he is all about. And he reminded me, I really do have to get a haircut. Ive started looking somewhat like him. Not that he looked bad with flying hair and all, when he was running with the ball... from 3 kmph to 30 kmph in 3 seconds flat, according to some. (They actually measure these things nowadays!!! and they cant say when it is or isnt an actual goal!!!!!!) In fact a lot of their team is about flying hair and bad haircuts. Speaking of which, Maradona, shouldnt he be really banned from coming within 10 feet of anyone or anything during a match? All the raving and ranting, shouting and screaming, jumping and pacing, is not good for his heart at his age. Who listens to him anyway, apart from Pele, who does a lot of talking back too, from what I hear in snippets between my E-news.

No wonder the Mexico goalie was too green to stop their shots from sailing in. He has only a shining bare scalp to show.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Whole New World

A month of servant-less existence has finally made me sit up and take notice on where my life is headed!!! Of all things, yes it is true. Why, I was a destitute this last one month, a veritable orphan without my cook-and-housework person. For the first time in my life I was waking up sharp at 7 every morning with or without alarm, for day after day. Not for me the luxury of getting another 40 winks, for if I overslept, my office work would not get done and I would be spending all morning boiling dal and frying fish. Not to speak of breakfast.

I would roam about the rooms in the morning with the look of a lost kitten on my face, wondering where to start. Shall I dust the shelves now, or after I make the tea. When do I fry and keep the egg for my daughter. Almost forgot to take the fish out of the freezer, bloody things need hours to thaw, and then to marinade them... and the horror of frying fish. I could not do it to save my life, the fish ends up half its size, with the rest stuck all over the wok.

Ill be proud to proclaim, I did not pull my family of three to dinner every night, only some. I cooked and I cleaned, and I dusted and I washed. And I fed my daughter religiously 4 times a day. And believe you me, feeding my daughter is not the work of the faint hearted. I must declare that my heart is much the worse for wear now, after 1 whole year of single handedly feeding her at least 3 times, if not 4. Oh well, she wont feed herself and I cant wait for the day that she finally gets so independent that she wont let me feed her any more. Or when she does not want to stay home for dinner, or hell... when she wants to leave and set off on her own in the world. With all my blessings, dear one, with all my weary boned droopy eyed blessings.

Here is where a confession is due. I was a kitchen virgin till 24, when I was rudely yanked from the comfort of home food or the convenience of hostel food, and after my then-boyfriend-now-husband ran out of money to feed me in expensive Bangalore. Therefore at that impressionable vulnerable age I was forced to peek into the confines of that room in the house which had always been farthest from my repartee till that time. Alladin sang in my ear - "A whole new world", and with the most fallen of faces, I gingerly took an egg plant in one hand and the knife in the other, and proceeded to make baingan bharta much like Juhi Chawla did in QSQT... only much worse.

How times have changed.

Back to present. So, when I was finally left home- um, cook-less, I finally had to take it on to my own two hands to feed my little devil of a daughter and very patient-in-food-habits husband. And would you believe it, I make the best chicken I have ever tasted, save one. (That one is of course another story.) But thanks to a dear dear friend, who introduced me to the fearless world of cooking chicken, and newer ways of doing it, I am now the mistress of all things chicken. Oh not quite, I have tried three recipes, variations of them, but Im glad to say, everyone liked it. My husband went as far as to say that its the best chicken he had ever tasted, even better than restaurants. And no benifit of doubt, darlings, for he says that every time I try that particular recipe.

Its my ssssssecret recipe of course, only that its not so secret, being taught me by my friend as I was talking about, and so I shall tell you my secret ingredient. English Mustard, the kind you get in a bottle in any self respecting grocery shop. Instead of curd, if you marinade the chicken in some mustard oil and this mustard paste, and then add some mustard seeds crackling in your mustard cooking oil before putting the rest in, its a true blue chicken variation of SHORSHE ILISH!!!

Who would ever... ever... ever imagine, that one day I would be writing about cooking in my blog. But hey, it truly is a whole new world. Its even, wonder of wonders, therapeutic. I tended to be my most calm in a year during this time. It was single handedly the cure for my onsetting depression due to my condition which can be summed up as follows "My jobs a joke, Im broke, My love life's.. what love life, Ive been with one man for 10 years, married for 5"

Coming up next- Chinese Chicken. And Chicken Stew, Payal Mukherjee style, you have not tasted stew so good! Crossmyheart.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oh My Darling Kolkata, Where Have You Disappeared

Lets get right to the brass-tacks, shall we?
My last three days in Kolkata.
Day 1, Jan 13 2010- I had to take baby to the hospital. Park Street- Neotia Hospital. On the way back I had taken the Anwar Shah road route. Road closed. We thought that this was a routine road block by the locality people, common in this area. So we drove down some alleys to Ashutosh Mukherjee road, the plan was to go straight down to Tolly Metro, where my house is located. Tollygunj Phari crossing- A band of people, holding hands has just closed down the street as we cruised to a stop at the crossing, one of the first cars to be stuck. Traffic bearing down behind us already. I got down and asked the police officers how long it would take. "Only they know, sister" is what he said to me. "THEY"- Trinamool Congress supporters, and their chakka jam. This was a spot where I was not familiar with any detours. But the officer pointed out a narrow alley and said you can take this and see what happens. So before our tail got completely blocked we decided to go for it. At 2 pm with a hungry sleepy baby in the car, to think of standing there for an hour or two... unthinkable. The narrow alley became narrower and people who moved fast enough were all in there, but we got through it, after much shouting at errant rickshaw drivers, and more silent prayers, we reached home, and lunch.

Day 2, Jan 14 2010: My in-laws place is in Brahmapur, near Bansdroni in Tollygunj. Its about 4 kms from my parents place at Tolly Metro. And easy to reach if you know the inside roads. This day there is a "bandh" in that area, south of the canal, by the 'ruling party' CPM, so that much tougher to get through. I have a baby in the car, travelling from my inlaws to my parents. I was stopped thrice, the third time they wanted to see my id card. And when I said Im taking my child to the hospital they refused to believe me. I said how dare youstop a woman with a toddler in a car. They got a bit hassled. And when I shouted some more, shaking with anger, they let me pass, to freedom. For a moment, I felt trapped, imprisoned in my own city. For a moment, I realised how some men and women, one group of people with nothing to do on a weekday morning, can hold millions of people to ransom, making them walk miles with baggage and children to reach schools, and offices. For a moment I shed some tears to what my beloved haven of freedom had come to, a dear city, fighting for survival between some bands of ruffians, illiterate, semi-literate, who think nothing of stopping ambulances, and people who want to work, and people who just have to work to get their daily bread.

Day 3, Jan 16 2010: My flight to Chennai is at 5 pm. I come out at 2 pm from the house, the plan is to pick my father from his office in Esplanade and reach airport. Park Street flyover at 2.30, we grind to a halt midway up the flyover. It takes us the next hour to reach Esplanade crossing. Trinamool again, they have closed up one side of the road for a rally. And thousands of cars in the busiest crossing of Kolkata waited patiently for hours to let the police get them through one tiny strip left open, one car at a time. The poor Kolkata police force. Kudos to them. When they retire they would have been there done it all... probably not as adept at encounters as the Mumbai police, but world-best in handling bandhs and rasta roko-s and chakka jams of all kinds. I did make it to the flight, reaching the airport at 4.45, the last possible minute. And they allowed us on, the last passengers, because I had called and told them I was stuck in a Trinamool rally with a kid. Everyone knows about it. Everyone in Kolkata.

Everyone in Kolkata now sigh once again when they hear about another bandh. They curse beneath their breath, all those who will not let a city rise from its ashes. They hang their heads when their colleagues from other cities laugh, they try to laugh and joke along with them. But in the end they know that they are the ones to blame. To have stayed at home during bandhs, fearing lathi bearing toughs- the political supporters, who would beat on the cars and deflate tyres. To have been afraid of being threatened on the road. As a Kolkatan, Im sorry to say, I am ashamed of what my city has allowed to be done to herself. Im ashamed of myself and of all those I know who has not raised their voice.
I fought the toughs to get my daughter and me through... What if we all shouted, if we all screamed, if we all cried out- CHOLBE NA CHOLBE NA... No- you cannot keep me from my work, from my play, you cannot force me to be home for fear, you cannot keep my freedom from me, from us, from all us Kolkatans... if only we could...

PS: On 12th Jan, a fire broke out in a slum in Ultadanga, 70 huts were gutted, 1 dead, about 2000 homeless in the bitter January cold... the reason why the whole slum burnt down before any help could reach- Auto rickshaw drivers (alleged Trinamool supported) had blocked the road and would not let fire engines through to the fire... a fire burnt homes down, thousands watched, while some men refused to let fire fighters save lives and homes. Oh Kolkata, Kolkata!