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.