Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book Review: Byculla to Bangkok – Mumbai’s Maharashtrian Mobsters by S. Hussain Zaidi


Following the success of Dongri to Dubai, India’s best known expert on the Mumbai mafia, Hussain Zaidi, is back with a new book on Mumbai’s Maharashtrian mobsters. Just as in the case of Dongri to Dubai, Byculla to Bangkok is characterised by Zaidi’s Bollywood-style dialogues and an endless flow of anecdotes about Mumbai’s dons. To be honest, after a promising start, Byculla to Bangkok briefly goes through a tedious phase as Zaidi traces the background of gangsters who later made it big. However, the tedium soon gives way to excitement as men such as Amar Naik, Chhota Rajan (real name Rajan Nikalje) and Arun Gawli start the blood-letting and commence empire building.

As usual, one of the best things about Zaidi’s Byculla to Bangkok is the sheer number of interesting anecdotes he comes up with, all of which relate to the main narrative. For example, we are told that after gangster Ashwin Naik was shot in court, a few alert police officers managed to capture the hit men and took them to the Cuffe Parade police station. There, instead of being received and given assistance, they were turned away and sent off to the Colaba police station with Mumbai’s police’s signature line – Aamchya haddit nahi aahe! This is not under our jurisdiction!

Another interesting story is how, after the police arrested the killers who had assassinated the famous builder Sunit Kahtau and put them on trial, the case against them fell apart when his widow Panna Khatau refused to assist the prosecution. Zaidi does not tell us why Panna would do that. Was she or her immediate family threatened by the mafia or was there something else at play?

It’s not just the stories which are fascinating. Zaidi’s language is also a Bollywood-ish treat. For example, while describing India’s biggest druglord, Nareyi Khan’s lady-love, we are told that 'Ayesha Qandahari was a woman of indescribable beauty, an Aghani with flawless skin, big dark eyes, long eyelashes, a mesmerizing smile and a perfect-ten figure. Men would kill to possess her. But it seemed that those who made love to her were destined for certain death.'

It is well-known that Mumbai’s gangsters have a presence in places like Dubai and Bangkok. Well, Zaidi follows them there. In particular, we are given a blow by blow account of two hits carried out in Dubai by Chhota Rajan’s men. Sunil Sawant alias Sautya was Dawood’s chief lieutenant. After Dawood left Mumbai in the aftermath of the 1993 blasts, Sautya followed him and ultimately ended up in Dubai (in the wake of other lieutenants like Sharad Shetty and Anil Parab) where he converted to Islam and re-named himself Suleman. In 1995, three hit men shot him in broad daylight after which there was a chase. Sautya was cornered and his throat slit. Interestingly all the assailants were caught. It was then that Chhota Rajan’s ingenuity came to the fore. When interrogated, the killers confessed to have been sent by Sharad Shetty and Anil Parab, all of which led to some confusion within the Dawood camp, since Sharad Shetty and Anil Parab too worked for Dawood Ibrahim, though Dawood did not really fall for that ruse. I will not divulge how Chhota Rajan managed to fix all that, but do please read this remarkable book to find out for yourself. Dubai’s police chief, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan al Tameem, made sure all three shooters received the death sentence after a fast track trial.

In January 2003, Sharad Shetty too was killed in Dubai by Chhota Rajan’s men. Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan tracked down the shooters and caught them just before they could escape to India. Four men were awarded the death sentence by Dubai’s authorities who wanted to teach Indian gangsters a lesson and make sure that Dubai did not become a crime capital.

After the 1993 Mumbai blasts, Chhota Rajan did not immediately turn against Dawood Ibrahim. Rather he stood by him and even took the stand that Dawood was not involved in the blasts. However, this changed slowly as Dawood continued to sideline Rajan. Chhota Rajan and Dawood’s key lieutenant Chhota Shakeel started warring. Chhota Shakeel killed Omprakash Kukreja, a Chembur based builder, who was a Rajan sympathiser. Rajan retaliated by killing the managing director of East West Airlines, Thakiyudeen Wahid, since Dawood was reputed to have invested in East West, India’s first private airline.

Zaidi tells us (more than once) that the turning point in the life of Mumbai’s gangsters came about in 1994, after the 1993 Mumbai riots and the ensuing bomb-blasts, when Bal Thackeray anointed Arun Gawli and Amar Naik as aamchi muley (our boys), Mumbai’s answer to Dawood and other Muslim dons during his annual rally at Shivaji Park. However, the events which unfolded after that, as described by Zaidi, left me confused, with more questions than answers.

We are told that in the rivalry amongst the “Hindu” gangsters, Shiv Sena gave Gawli “the royal ignore”. Ashwin Naik’s wife Neeta Naik was given a ticket for Mumbai corporation elections while Gawli’s wife Asha received nothing. Why did that happen? The answers are not too clear.

After the 1993 Mumbai blasts, Chhota Rajan, newly anointed as a Hindu don, killed six Muslims who were accused in the blasts. Dawood’s Lieutenant Chhota Shakeel (based in Dubai) declared war on the Shiv Sena in the late 1990s. Their first victim was former Mumbai Mayor Milind Vaidya who had been indicated by the Justice B. N. Srikrishna Commission inquiring into the 1993 Mumbai riots for unleashing violence against Muslims in Mahim. However, Milind Vaidya survived two attempts on his life. Many other Shiv Sena shaka pramukhs fell victim to Chhota Shakeel’s men. The police tried booking the gangsters under the draconian and non-bailable MCOCA, but when that didn’t work, they resorted to extra-judicial killings. Zaidi questions the real reason for the attacks on Shiv Sainiks. Were the killings being orchestrated by the Congress – NCP alliance, as alleged by former Shiv Sainik Narayan Rane? No, the killings had started even when the Shiv – Sena BJP combine was in power. Zaidi does not give a clear answer to this question. Instead, he talks of how Chhota Shakeel had unleased a similar attack against Gawli’s ABS which was becoming a serious threat to the Shiv Sena. Zaidi actually suggests that a political party (who could it be?) might have outsourced such killings to Chhota Shakeel. I found this part of this book very interesting, but equally rambling and hence, frustrating.

The growth of Mumbai’s Maharashtrian gangsters is intertwined with that of the exploitation of its mill-lands, leading to the development of malls and luxury apartments, none of which could have been achieved without the silencing of Mumbai’s trade-unions. In January 1997, trade union leader Datta Samant was gunned down near IIT Powai, most probably by Chhota Rajan’s men. Do read this exceptional book for more on this killing and the politics behind it.

One of the most interesting topics covered by Zaidi is that of encounter killings. As we all have come to know, an encounter killing is usually the cold-blooded murder of a man previously detained by the police or of someone whom the police could have arrested, an instance of law-keepers turning law-breakers by taking on the roles of judge, jury and executioner. We are told that in 1997, after Vijay Salaskar killed Amar Naik in an encounter, he held a celebratory press conference where he explained how his team had cornered Amar who fired at the police team, forcing them to fire back and kill him. Then an Indian Express reporter asked Salaskar, ‘How is it that Amar Naik who was using a Glock, could not even injure you or any of your team members while you with an ordinary revolver could kill him and escape unhurt?' Salaskar responded with a disdainful laugh and his explanation was hollow.

In many cases when the police are under pressure to catch a murderer, they tend to arbitrarily arrest an innocent man, kill him and claim to have killed the murderer in an encounter. When was what happened in August 1997, after music magnate Gulshan Kumar was killed by the mafia. Six days after Gulshan Kumar’s murder, a builder named Natwarlal Desai was also killed by the mafia in Nariman Point, not far from the State Legislative Assembly and the Secretariat. Ten days later as Ronald Mendonca took over as police commissioner of Mumbai, Assistant Police Inspector Vasant Dhoble and his team killed a man named Javed Fawda in an encounter and claimed that they had killed Gulshan Kumar’s killer. It turned out that the man killed in the encounter was a peanut seller named Abu Sayama who had gone missing earlier. The autopsy showed that Sayama had been riddled with bullets at close range and also run over with a vehicle. Encounter deaths came under a cloud.

One of Chhota Rajan’s lieutenants who went by the moniker D. K. Rao survived two police encounters. In one encounter, D. K. Rao and others were in a Maruti Esteem. The police arrived in a Maruti Gypsy van and fired without any warning. The bodies were riddled with bullets and dumped in a van. One of gangsters cried out in pain and police fired more shots. D. K. Rao took four more bullets in his feet. When the bodies were taken to a morgue at KEM Hospital in Parel, D. K. Rao got up and screamed.

Zaidi does not hide his blushes as he talks of corruption within the police and the scale of the corruption amazed me. When Chhota Rajan accepted a 20 crore supari (contract) to kill a two-timing drug dealer named Amjad Khan, he paid 5 crores to an encounter specialist serving with the Anti-Narcotics Cell of the crime branch to help him identify his target. The encounter specialist got a sub-inspector to point out Amjad Khan to the hit men.

For the mafia, it seems that everything is available for a price in Mumbai. For example, when drug-lord Nareyi Khan was undergoing trial at the City Civil and Sessions Court in South Mumbai’s Fort area (after being booked under the Narcotics Drugs and Pyschotropic Substances Act by by the Narcotics Control Bureau), he bribed the police to give his access to lady-love Ayesha. Whenever Nareyi Khan was brought to the court for trial, the cops apparently allowed him to use an unused court room to have sex with Ayesha!

However, what got me seriously thinking is Zaidi’s insinuation that Mumbai police specifically targeted certain gangs and decimated them, while allowing others to survive. For example, we are told that between 2006 and 2009, encounter specialists of the Mumbai police specifically chased down Chhota Rajan’s men and more than thirty were killed. The fear psychosis created was such that no new shooters join Rajan’s gang and many left. The police also warned builders from paying any money to Rajan. Rajan suffered big losses and was crippled. Wasn’t Rajan one of Thackeray’s Hindu dons, I wondered?

These days it is well-known that India nurses a dream of killing Dawood Ibrahim who is holed up in Pakistan. Zaidi tells us that in the summer of 1998, three of Chhota Rajan's men - Farid Tanasha, Vicky Malhotra and Bunty Pandey – were trained by India’s intelligence bureau and sent to Karachi to assassinate Dawood Ibrahim at a mosque. They failed because the weapons were not delivered on time. However, they managed to safely return to India.

I could go on and on, but I am going to stop here and repeat my recommendation that Byculla to Bangkok is a must-read book for anyone interested in Mumbai’s mafia.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Book Review: Just For You by Rahul Saini


Rahul Saini's Just For You reminded me of a story I read for my English language class as a high school student. An important football match is about to take place (somewhere in England) and the famous referee Mr. Potts is yet to arrive. One of the organisers gets a relative (his brother-in-law if I remember right) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Potts, to don the referee’s uniform and do the honours. The makeshift referee does not have a clue about the game and he calls foul more often than necessary, declares a legitimate goal to be an offside one, shows the red card frequently and sends a record number of players off the ground. Naturally there is a furore. When the real Mr. Potts turns up towards the end of the game and finds out what has happened, he is angry and threatens to expose the masquerade. However, a famous sports writer saves the day for the organisers when he declares that Mr. Potts has stuck a blow for the future of the game by going out of his way to expose the dirt and scum which had crept into the game over a period of time.

In Just For You, Saini too goes to extreme lengths to poke fun at the latest trends in Indian writing in English – twenty somethings churning out light reads in atrocious English with plots and storylines revolving around hackneyed themes. Some of the books are co-authored. A host of literary agencies and editing services are in the market, in some cases these services are offered by the same agency.

I do not wish to spoil the story for my readers and so this is all that I will say: Protagonist Rohit Sehdev is a successful writer, thought not so young anymore, with a pretty live-in partner (Nisha) and a new book about to be launched. Rohit has a teaching job which leads to its share of hilarious situations. The award for the most popular work of fiction is up for grabs as is the possibility of being chosen by famous film maker Ravi Kapoor to provide a script for his next movie. A host of writers, younger than Rohit, such as Karun Mukharjee who detests Rohit and the Jeet-Neeti duo who are willing to even release (anonymously) a video of their love making to stay in the limelight, are snapping at Rohit’s heels. Rohit is brought down by his rivals and by D. K. De, a publisher who Rohit supposedly insulted in public. D. K. De made it big recently and his success allows him to indulge in his gayness with young writers such as Karun. To make things worse for Rohit, Nisha leaves him after a tiff about something which I’d rather not disclose here. Does Rohit manage to weather his storm? Can he make a comeback? Please do read this novel to find out for yourselves.

Just For You is well-written and is a good, light read. Published by Penguin Metro Reads, Just For You is definitely Fun, Feisty and Fast, and ideal for the Reader on the Go, as advertised on the Metro Reads’s website.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Book Review: Cuckold by Kiran Nagarkar


I recently got Nagarkar’s Cuckold as a gift and since I’d been planning to read it for many years, I wasted little time in getting started. However, many things came up in between and it was only yesterday that I finally finished reading it. Since Cuckold was released in 1997, I’m going to keep this review really brief. At least, that’s the plan.

Set in Merwar and Chittor in the late 15th and early 16th century, Cuckold tells the story of Maharaj Kumar, heir to the throne of Mewar occupied by Rana Sangha, a Sisodia Rajput. Like any Rajput kingdom worth its salt, Mewar is constantly at war with its neighbours, in this case, Gujarat ruled by Muzaffar Shah II, Malwa ruled by Mahmud Khalji II and the Sultanate of Delhi ruled by Ibrahim Lodi. Towards the end of the novel, Central Asian upstart Babur makes an appearance.

I understand that Maharaj Kumar’s character is based on Thakur Bhojraj. Maharaj Kumar, dutiful son, upright, chivalrous, honest and good-at-heart human being, is a double cuckold. His first wife, a beautiful young woman with green eyes (who later attains fame as Mirabai) is in love with Lord Krishna and hence will not let him bed her. Mirabai is never mentioned by her name. Instead Nagarkar uses various descriptions ranging from “green eyes” to “the Saint” to refer to Mirabai. Krishna is also mostly referred to as “the Flautist” and various other names. Rather than take on multiple wives as was the norm in those days, Maharaj Kumar stays loyal to Mirabai, until he is finally persuaded to marry Sugandha, the daughter of Medini Rai, the Prime Minister of Malwa, one-time foe turned friend, for reasons of political expediency. On his wedding night, buffeted by so many worries, Maharaj Kumar fails to perform and the marriage to Sugandha doesn’t work out. Later Sugandha almost openly takes up with Maharaj Kumar’s half-brother Vikramaditya, Kumar’s sworn enemy and an aspirant to the throne, but Maharaj Kumar doesn’t retaliate against either Sugandha or Vikramaditya.

Nagarkar’s style of writing is in a similar to Steven Pressfield’s Afghan Campaign as he uses numerous modern day terminology while telling his tale. One comes across a Small Causes Court, a Court of Last Resort, an Institute of Advanced Military Tactics and Strategy and a Head of City Planning. Courage on the battlefield is rewarded with a "Veer Vijay". To some extent, this is because Maharaj Kumar is modern and revolutionary in his outlook. Sanitation and sewage worry him more than tradition and culture. Even as the Rajput kingdoms around Mewar bravely fall one by one to invading armies from the west, Maharaj Kumar starts a programme of modernization and reformation. Instead of fighting to the death, Mewar’s troops are trained to retreat in good order. Deception is treated as yet another strategy and Maharaj Kumar does not hesitate to use it when the situation so demands. Many battles are won but Maharaj Kumar is detested by many nobles and common folks for his deviation from Rajput values of chivalry and courage. Words such as “slimy rat”, “quick sands of shame” and “rancid rat” fugure in a ditty about Maharaj Kumar which does the rounds in Chittor. However, Maharaj Kumar does have his supporters and when Medini Rai defects to Mewar, he does so because Maharaj Kumar has gained a reputation as a man who would like to win his wars without losing many soldiers, a man without scruples, one who has no qualms about attacking his enemy from the rear, an untrustworthy liar and one who is prone to change his plans without much notice.

As Babur makes repeated forays into India, Maharaj Kumar tries to acquire muskets and cannon for his troops so that they are prepared for the inevitable faceoff with Babur. He is unsuccessful and when one hundred and twenty thousand brave Rajputs and their Muslim allies meet twenty thousand of Babur’s men at Khanua, the Rajputs lose. Maharaj Kumar had built an observation tower, intending for his father Rana Sangha to direct the battle from the top of the tower but Rajput ethics make the Rana treat the observation tower with disdain and instead march at the head of his troops, only to be grieviously wounded.

As we all know, the Rajputs lost out to the Islamic invaders from the West and were finally decimated by the Mughals. In all probability, if only they had ditched their chivalry and modernised their tactics and weaponry, their fate would have been different. Nagarkar admits in his Afterword that Cuckold is a work of fiction, though ‘a substantial quantum of history has inveigled itself into the novel.’

A telling example of the divergence in values between the Rajputs and their Muslim adversaries is demonstrated by Nagarkar in the course of his yarn. Much before Babur’s arrival in the novel, Prince Bahadur, the son of Sultan Muzaffar Shah, seeks asylum in Mewar. The Prince can be charming and his hosts wine and dine him for months on end. One night, in the course of drunken banter, as the inebriated men exchanged anecdotes of hilarious blunders committed by Malwa and Delhi armies, Prince Bahadur jovially mentions how his father had tricked Rana Sangha during a campaign many years ago. The Sultan had sent an emissary with a white flag to the Rajput camp, asking that the fighting be deferred by twenty four hours since the next day was a feast of Islam. The Rajputs agree and start partying. Early morning the next day the Gujarat soldiers attack, resulting in a massacre of close to three thousand Mewar soldiers. Despite such a lesson, the Rajputs don’t change their attitude, except for Maharaj Kumar who decides that one must conduct war as if the life of one’s country depends on it. War needs to be conducted by all means, fair and foul.

Maharaj Kumar comes across as a man driven by a sense of duty and destiny, one who loves children (though he has none), a man who would not cause pain to anyone unnecessarily, but would kill to save his clan and country. One cant help but love such a person, though such a character is naturally the result of Nagarkar's hindsight.

One of the best things about Cuckold is the way Nagarkar conveys to his readers a feel of that era, its sounds, smells, sights and values. Rajput women seem to have had a fair amount of freedom and values were relatively liberal. A man accused by his young wife of impotence is ordered to prove his virility with a prostitute. When Maharaj Kumar’s second wife Sugandha sleeps around and gets pregnant with someone else’s child, it is treated as a bit of a joke. I do not know if all of this is historically accurate, but it can’t be denied that Nagarkar wields a powerful pen and writes very well.

For example, when describing a simple meal of Paunk (fresh jowar (sorgum) seeds) which Maharaj Kumar and Mirabai have while travelling within their Kingdom, Nagarkar tells us that 'Paunk is no ordinary food. It is ambrosia and an enigma. Which mortal would have thought of using crisp vermicelli savouries made from chickpea flour as a foil to the lightly roasted green and succulent corn of jowar picked fresh from the farm? Eaten soft and crunchy, it is deadly and unpredictable, but spike it with lemon and what you get is a collision and collusion of sweet, sour, and salty that’s likely to go down as one of the high points of one’s life.'

However, atleast once Nagarkar gets its wrong. While describing a Barasingha (swamp deer), Nagarkar informs us that 'The twelve-antlered one stood out, literally, head and shoulders above the rest of his tribe. His complexion was a russet gold. Even in the dark it would shine like a nimbus around him. He was atleast five feet tall, that’s not counting his horns. He was lean and tight and without a gram of fat. The sinews on his legs were made of steel cables.' Steel cables when the narrator is a 15th century prince??!!

One of the most interesting aspects of Cuckold is Nagarkar’s examination of Babur’s ideology as he invaded India. I should mention that Nagarkar has Maharaj Kumar receive intelligence about Babur much before he gets to India – his intelligence chief Mangal has an agent in Kabul who retrieves Babur’s discarded notes or manages to copy his diary and pass them on. As Maharaj Kumar reads Babur’s writings, he ruminates that 'Babur’s language has undergone a radical change since he came to Hindustan. It is only while talking about a war with us that he repeatedly speaks of a Holy War. What then does one call his wars with Ibrahim Lodhi and all the other Shia and Sunni chieftains, not to mention kings and sultans? It seems sad, not to say counterproductive, if one only has contempt for the people one has conquered, and all one wants to do is to dash, to quote Babur, the gods of the idolaters……………Even at the time when Babur attacked Bajaur on one of his earliest forays into India, he thought of himself as a defender of ‘the Faith’. He reverted to the ways of his ancestor Timur, sacked the town and massacred all the denizens, barring the few who managed to escape to the east, because they were not true believers. Now that he has assumed the throne in Delhi, he has begun to cast himself in the role of a Ghazi, Avenger in the name of God. Strange word that, avenger. For what slights and grievances, does Babur wish to axact vengeance from infidels on whom he has never set eyes nor had any social or other commerce? Our only crime seems to arise from an accident: that we were born to another faith. Since his victory over Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi, the Padshah has been razing temples and building mosques on the same sites or if time and funds are short, converting Hindu places of worship to that if Islam.'

Then Nagarkar suddenly changes tack and Maharaj Kumar has a counter-thought. 'Nothing special about that. We’ve done the same with Buddhist sacred places as well as mosques, as the Muslims have been doing with our temples since they first invaded India. …… Why this obsessive need to occupy the very precincts of a defeated belief? …. It is the naked assertion of brute power. The victor is signaling that the old order is dead and letting his subjects know who the new master is.'

I was left confused and could not really figure out whether Nagarkar thought Babur was a bigot or a shrewd warrior who used Islam to his advantage or just another conqueror who wanted to assert his power over those he had conquered.

On the whole, I would say that Cuckold is an excellent read, one I would highly recommend to everyone who enjoys fiction based on real history.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Book Review: Dead in a Mumbai Minute by Madhumita Bhattacharyya


Madhumita Bhattacharyya has brought out a sequel to her previous book The Masala Murder which saw ace detective Reema Ray, dusky, pretty, strong and clever, not necessarily in that order, in action. Reema Ray continues the good fight against evil in Dead in a Mumbai Minute, but this time, as a member of Titanium, the best detective agency in India. Actually, Titanium is not just a detective agency. Rather, it is a security solutions provider, combining the best of corporate efficiency, thoroughness, professionalism and organization to keep people safe, that is, those who can afford to pay for Titanium’s services. Titanium also dabbles in some serious stuff involving India’s security and Bhattacharyya hints at dangerous operations undertaken by Shayak, Titanium’s founder and CEO, but doesn’t disclose much. Shayak used to be an army officer with a passion for covert operations who founded Titanium after leaving the army. Shayak is so well connected that he is able to pull strings and get access to places which ordinary civilians cannot even dream of having, one of the reasons for Titanium’s success.

When the story starts, we are presented with a murder on a private island owned by fading movie star Kimaya. Reema has just been hired by Titanium, or rather by Shayak. The victim is Ashutosh Dingre, formerly Kimaya’s agent, one of the last gentlemen in the profession, we are told. Reema is thrown into the deep end, getting to know Titanium and its processes and at the same time, starting the murder investigation.

Shayak is single, good looking, very influential, owns a yatch and Reema is naturally attracted towards him. In fact, before hiring Reema (she was running her own outfit in Kolkata and had had impressed the hell out of Shayak during an investigation), there had been a kiss. I will say no more, other than that the chemistry between Reema and Shayak lends a Mills and Boonish air to Dead in a Mumbai Minute. This is not necessarily bad, but if you are expecting a hard-nosed detective who has locked away all her emotions, you may be disappointed. Reema is a real person, who likes to cook, bake, drink, date and seems to have a crush on Shayak, but maintains a professional air throughout. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Shayak was briefly married to Kimaya before her movie career took off.

Bhattacharyya has put in some effort to make her characters real and she succeeds to a large extent, if you ignore the quasi Mills and Boon-esque Shayak, who is s perfect . Also, there is nothing realistic about Titanium, a hi-tech, super advanced organization which could put the CIA or Mossad to shame. Bhattacharyya’s description of Titanium reminded me a bit of Ian Flemming novel, but this works to the novel’s advantage.

Dead in a Mumbai Minute is a cerebral mystery and the action sequences are limited in number, but when the call to action comes, Reema proves to be equal to the task. I should add that the fights are reasonably realistic and I enjoyed them.

Bhattacharyya’s biggest success lies in the fact that she keeps her readers guessing and turning pages till the end. With 300-odd rather densely packed pages, Dead in a Mumbai Minute is not a book which one can read in one go – I took three days to finish it. However, with impeccable, but simple English and very good editing (I don’t think I spotted even a single mistake), the pages do glide by. As the novel ends, Bhattacharyya lays the ground work for the third book in what’s obviously meant to be a trilogy. That’s one book I’ll be looking forward to reading.

Dead in a Mumbai Minute is not a continuation of The Masala Murder and one need not have read The Masala Murder to follow Dead in a Mumbai Minute.

On the whole Dead in a Mumbai Minute is a well-written yarn and I would recommend it to everyone who likes a good thriller or mystery.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Book Review: Private India by Ashwin Sanghi and James Patterson


Well known Indian thriller writer Ashwin Sanghi has teamed up with internationally acclaimed writer James Patterson to bring Patterson’s Private series to India. Private India ticks all boxes required of a thriller. It has a number of two-dimensional characters who could have been picked out from or planted in any other thriller. Pakistan’s ISI makes an appearance, as does a Mumbai underworld don, gold rings on various fingers and all. It has a couple of big mysteries and a few minor small ones. Most important of all, it is unputdownable and definitely a page-turner. Yes, one is forced to keep reading till the end, though the end is over 450 pages away.

Private India is India’s biggest and best detective agency, a branch of Private Worldwide, run by the inimitable Jack Morgan. Santosh Wagh heads Private India, though in this novel, Jack Morgan makes a few appearances and has a substantial role. When visiting Thai surgeon Kanya Jaiyen is killed in mysterious circumstances at the Marine Bay Plaza, Private India gets to the scene first since apparently it is employed by Marine Bay Plaza. The police come by later, but they are happy to let Private India get on with it, since they are overworked and have their hands full. The rule is the same as in countless other crime thrillers – the actual detective work is delegated to the private detectives on the understanding that if they succeed, the police will get all the credit. It is not clear who’s paying Private India to spend so much time and money on the hunt, but I didn’t let that get in the way of enjoying this fine thriller.

The first murder is followed by many others. Afternoon Mirror reporter Bhavna Choksi is the second victim. Then Elima Xavier, a school headmistress, Anjana Lal, the Chief Justice of Mumbai High Court, Ragini Sharma, a politician and others follow. The serial killer keeps killing without a break, each murder victim found strangled with a yellow scarf and surrounded by strange religious and cultural artifacts. Private India is unable to find the killer till a number of victims have fallen prey, but when it does, it does so in style, like any good thriller.

Like all good thrillers, Private India is not restricted to a main plot. In addition to the main plot – the identity of the serial killer, we get to know that Pakistan, acting through the Indian Mujahideen is trying to blow up the offices of Private India since Private India has thwarted so many of its plans and plots. Then there are minor mysteries such as why Police Chief Rupesh is no longer so well disposed towards to his old friend Santosh. Naturally all of these are resolved towards the end.
Since the novel is set entirely in Mumbai, I came across familiar landmarks in almost every chapter. From the Taj Hotel to Colaba and Haji Ali, to suburbs like Bandra, Andheri and Thane to the Tower of Silence and its vultures, Arthur Road Jail, Chowpatty Beach, Cooper Hospital, Private India is wrapped up with the sights, sounds and smells of Mumbai. Private India has detailed descriptions of advanced technologies used by Private India as well as explanations for complicated stuff like DNA evidence. All of this is done very well, on par with any Tom Clancy novel.

The only negative I found is that the English slips occasionally. For example, in one place one reads “that boy needs his beard trimming” instead of “that boy’s beard needs trimming”. Before I nitpick any more, let me stop by saying that despite such minor irritants, Private India is an excellent read.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Book Review: This Divided Island – Stories from the Sri Lankan War, by Samanth Subramanian


At the Kangu Garage in post-war Jaffna, a few mechanics are hard at work. They don’t talk much to each other. All of them are in their 60s and 70s, as are almost all cabbies in Jaffna since most young Tamil men living in the North have been devoured by the cruel war. Chief Mechanic Nirmaladevan focuses on his work with such concentration that he is oblivious to his surroundings and to journalist Samanth Subramanian who stands nearby watching the men work. Samanth has made many visits to Kangu Garage and spent many hours waiting, hoping to strike up a conversation with Nirmaladevan and get him to talk about life during the war. Samanth has turned up in the morning before the mechanics arrive, during their lunch break and other odd hours, but Nirmaladevan has always managef to fob him off, pleading work pressure, focusing on his work with ferocious concentration in the placid calm of Jaffna where nothing really seems to be urgent. The only bit of information which Samanth manages to pry out of Nirmaladevan is that in 1995 they were forced to close down Kangu Garage when the Tigers, on the verge of ceding control of Jaffna to the Sri Lankan army, tried to persuade all civilians in Jaffna to follow them into Vanni wilderness. Unlike in 2009 when they successfully managed to force a few hundred thousand civilians to follow them to their final redoubt in Puthukkudiyiruppu, they were unsuccessful in 1995 and men like Nirmaladevan merely went to their villages around Jaffna and returned in six months. Is Nirmaladevan really busy or is it that he hates talking of his experiences during the civil war?

Samanth has an almost similar experience with Chelliah Thurairaja, a retired Major General in the Sri Lankan army. Thurairaja continues to work even after retirement, just as he continues to play golf with his fellow army officers. What makes him tick? Samanth wonders. How did he survive the Sri Lankan government’s “Sinhala Only, Tamil Also” policy which made it mandatory for serving civil servants and soldiers to learn Sinhala to get further promotions? Samanth has better luck with Thurairaja (than with Nirmaladevan), who opens up a bit, though he is very guarded in what he says. Not learning Sinhala was a way of penalizing onself, Thurairaja had reasoned to himself. If in France, one would learn French just as one would learn German in Germany. Samanth never fully figures out how in his own country, Thurairaja was able to put himself in the shoes of a foreigner who opts to learn the most widely spoken tongue in order to get by. Thurairaja does put him on to Sivagnanam, another army officer who used to be a radiographer in the army and had migrated to Canada, someone who could possibly speak more freely. Samanth goes to Toronto, but never get to meet Sivagnanam. However, he does talk to Ravi Paramanathan, a retired army major, who never supported the Tigers or even the idea of Eelam, but feels betrayed by the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of Tamils.

In his quest to tell his readers about the events which led to the demand for Eelam, the creation of the LTTE, its defeat at the hands of a marauding Sri Lankan army and the continued victimization of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, Samanth does not restrict himself to Sri Lankan Tamils who served in the Sri Lankan army. Over a few years starting from just after the Sri Lankan army killed Prabhakaran on the banks of Mullivaikal, Samanth made a number of trips to Sri Lanka, each trip lasting over many weeks, travelled all over the island and met all sorts of people ranging from Tamils who continue to long for the LTTE and the possibility of Prabhakaran returning to lead the struggle once again, Hindu Tamils who work for and promote the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Sinhala Buddhist leaders such as the liberal, left-wing Samitha who thinks that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have honest grievances, the chauvinist, right-wing Omalpe Sobitha, Sri Lankan Muslims, journalists, bloggers, Sinhalese soldiers, Sinhalese politicians, LTTE war widows etc.

If I have given you the impression that Penn State/Columbia educated Samanth Subramanian toured the island with machine like efficiency, working non-stop, pestering people to part with their secrets, please forgive me. No, during his Sri Lankan sojourns, Samanth seems to have spent a fair of time drinking beer, arrack, whiskey or whatnot and talking shop with like-minded liberal journalists and falling seriously ill at least once. However, from Samanth’s rambling travels and meetings comes out a very incisive and coherent discourse on Sri Lanka’s past and the current state of affairs in the emerald paradise. Most importantly This Divided Island is unbiased, despite Samanth obvious sympathy for Tamil grievances and their current state of utter despair. All of this in very elegant prose, which is also simple and easy to read.

Samanth is a reporter and he keeps his analysis and opinions to a minimum even when detailing the most horrible atrocity or violation. I had known that the Tamil civilians who were herded together into a small strip of land at Puthukkudiyiruppu during the Tigers’ death throes had a horrible time as the Sri Lankan army shelled and rocketed them without regard for human life, in a desperate bid to crush the Tigers. However, Samanth’s detailing of those days, final days for many thousands of human pawns, left me breathless with shock and anger. Granted that many of those civilians were Tiger sympathizers and even relatives, what right did the Sri Lankan army have to shell no-fire zones, including hospitals, with such wanton frequency, which can only be interpreted to denote an intention to kill as many as possible, without any consideration of age or gender or non-combatant status? However, it was not only the Sri Lankan army which resorted to such inhuman behavior. In those last days, the LTTE which had never been shy of forcible conscription, went out of its way to snatch young boys and girls from families, forcing them to take part in a fight in which death was almost certain. Families pleaded in tears as their teenagers were taken away, never to return. As Samanth details how the Tigers used Tamil civilians as human shields, one scene from those final days at Puthukkudiyiruppu sticks in my mind. A man in his fifties tells a young Tiger in a calm voice that they ought to let the people go at least then. The Tiger whips out a pistol and shoots the man dead.

Samanth tells us that the LTTE had always been cruel, right from its inception. Even when the LTTE numbered just around 400 men, they were all yes men, as spies reported on spies and dissent was stamped out. Apparently Prabhakaran often asked new joiners if they would be willing to kill a brother who joined a rival Tamil outfit.

Many Sinhalese have a genuine fear of an “Ekanta Demala Rajya”, a Greater Tamil Nation stretching from Tamil Nadu to Malaysia. The Sri Lankan government has played on this fear and used it to suppress the Tamil community. The Mahavamsa, a purported history of the Sinhalese race since their arrival in Sri Lanka from Bengal and the growth of Buddhism in the Island, celebrates the story of Dutugemunu, a prince who fought Elara, a Chola king who invaded Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa says that Elara was actually a fair King who did not oppress Buddhism, but despite that Dutugemunu battled Elara’s forces for 13 years and finally killed him. Thousands of Tamils were massacred. Later when Dutugemunu suffered from the pangs of conscience, Buddhist monks comforted him by saying that the “Tamils were heretical and evil and died as though they were animals.” Both the Mahavamsa and Dutugemunu are celebrated in Sri Lanka and a famous Sri Lankan army regiment, the Gemunu Watch, is named after King Dutugemunu, not exactly actions which would inspire the Tamil minority to show confidence in the government and the majority community.

Respected Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge who often spoke out against the government’s human rights violations was shot dead by government-backed assassins a few months before the civil war was over. After the Sri Lankan government won the war, its actions akin to doctors excoriating a tumor, destroying the last suspicious cell with heavy chemotherapy, the harsh treatment of minorities has continued. With the Tamils totally crushed, organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena have started to target Tamil speaking Muslims, at times destroying their places of worship.

Why is it that Sri Lanka’s Tamil speaking Muslim community has never identified itself with Sri Lanka’s Hindu and Christian Tamils? Samanth tells us that the LTTE had, throughout the 1980s, made attempts to recruit from Sri Lankan Muslims, but it came to nought and later in October 1990 the LTTE ruthlessly expelled around 24,000 Muslims from Jaffna, forcing them to be refugees in their own land. If Sri Lanka’s Hindu and Christian Tamils can unify on the basis of their mother tongue, why can’t Sri Lanka’s Muslims do the same? There seems to have been no history of Muslims placing their Tamil identity over their religion, though almost all Sri Lankan Muslims are Tamil speakers. I wish Samanth had addressed this issue.

Sarath Fonseka” is another topic I wish Samanth had bothered to tell stories about. Why and how did the hero of Sri Lanka’s victory become estranged from the Rajapaksa brothers and end up in jail? There is a stray reference to Fonseka’s portraits in a Buddhist viharaya built next to a Tamil Hindu temple on Katys, and their subsequent replacement with Rajapaksa’s and that’s all that there is on the former army chief who, after the victory, aspired for political power.

On the whole, This Divided Island is an excellent book, a must-read for anyone interested in knowing more about Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Book Review: Lamplight - Paranormal Stories from the Hinterlands, by Kankana Basu


There are ghost stories and ghost stories, some fall flat and some make you sit up in fright, hair on end, desperately reaching out for something to hold on to. I think the best ghost novel I have read is Little Stranger by Sarah Waters which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009. I have read Kankana Basu before and when I found out that her latest offering was a collection of ghost stories, I was, to put it mildly, shocked. Both of Basu’s previous offerings, Vinegar Sunday and Cappuccino Dusk, are set in Mumbai and revolve around large Bengali families, their retainers and friends. Even though both these books tackle a number of contemporary issues, there is a definitive feel-good factor about both these books which I was sure would be missing in a collection of ghost stories. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lamplight consists of eight short stories, all of which, except one, are set in Monghyr, Bihar, in pre-Independence India and revolve around a large extended Bengali clan, their neighbours and servants. The Chattopadhyays are rich and aristocratic, but also friendly and warm. The matriarch of the family has three sons, Srikanth, the eldest, a doctor, affectionately referred to as Boro Jetha, Deep the second son and Balai, the youngest, a novelist. The grandsons outnumber the granddaughters and all the grandchildren evolve and grow as the stories progress. Srikanth has two sons, Tutul who is shown to have become a lawyer as we reach the end of the collection and Nabendu (Benu) who throws off a debilitating ailment and becomes an industrialist, Deep has two daughters Mala and Mini and Balai has three sons, Sutanu (Shontu) and Ronojoy (Ronny) and Manohar (Montu). Balai’s spouse Bonalata has a crucial role in one of the witch-hunts. There is no shortage of friends and neighbours either. Balai’s friend Nirmal Choudhury plays a pivotal part in Séance, the first story in this collection and for me, the best of the lot. Kumkum, the maid and Raghu Kaka the gardener are flesh and blood characters who make their mark despite their lowly stature.

I found all members of the Chattopadhyay clan, their friends and hired help to be lovable, except for maybe Deep in The Séance. The feel-good factor, which I think is Basu’s hallmark, is ever present as we are gradually introduced to various characters. The ghosts dutifully make their appearance in every story and I didn’t particularly find them to be scary, and to be honest. I don’t think they were meant to be. These are stories which a twelve year old could read and not have nightmares. Basu’s ghosts are gentle and sometimes helpful, as in the Terrace, where they help football genius Ronojoy get a job with a manufacturing concern in Bombay.

Basu is extremely good at conveying the atmosphere of 1930s India, without appearing to try very hard. There is no reference to the independence movement or poverty, but there is no doubt that we are in pre-independence India. Basu’s characters are very individualistic and different from each other. For example when describing Chitra pishi, a neighbour, we are told that she of average height, had a stick-like physique, was pigeon chested, sallow skinned and gaunt of countenance. However, she had a fine pair of eyes which nullified every shortcoming in her appearance.

In The Guide, Shontu is dying to ride Montu’s new, red bike and when a need arises for someone to reach faraway Sitamarhi and deliver medicines to Dwarakanath Misra’s daughter. Shontu promptly volunteers and I wondered for a while if I was reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer rather than an Indian collection of ghost stories. However, a ghost eventually made an appearance, followed by a number of rustic Indian characters and my confusion faded away.

One of the stories, Monghyr Fort, revolves around an actual fort and when I googled the name, I realised that Monghyr Fort actually exists. In this story, Basu’s references to the Slave Dynasty and characters like Mir Kasim seem to be authentic.

In Blood Emerald, the final story in the collection, Basu moves away from Monghry and takes her heroine, one Avantika, to faraway Mahabaleshwar where she meets the ghost of a pretty Maharashtrian lady who died in unhappy circumstances. Despite the change of venue, the same old world charm, courtesy and grace of a bye-gone era are kept alive.

On the whole, Lamplight left a very pleasant aftertaste in me, it’s the sort of story you could read after a tough day at work. I recommend this book to all those who are interested in ghost stories and all others who, like me, like to read good stories.