Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Book Review: Birth of the Bastard Prince by Anurag Anand


Best-selling writer Anurag Anand has come up with a sequel to his novel, The Legend of Amrapali. When The Legend of Amrapali ended, legendary courtesan Amrapali (who lived during the period of Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavira) had been appointed Nagarvadhu, much against her wishes, Pushp, her lover had been murdered, after having been implicated in a false case of spying and Amrapali was busy plotting revenge against Manudeva, the evil ruler of the Vajji confederacy who was responsible for her plight. Well, in Birth of the Bastard Prince, Anand drives the story forward at a furious pace. Amrapali gets her revenge against Manudeva pretty quickly and everything seems hunky dory, especially when Amrapali’s heart is won over by Bindusen, a seasoned player. Likewise, her companion Prabha’s affections are won over by Suraj Mal, whom Amrapali rescues from the clutches of an evil Raja Udit, the King of Ukkacala Khada, using her intelligence. Things go into a tizzy when it turns out that Bindusen is not the simple traveler he had originally appeared to be. In fact, he is the enemy.

Since time immemorial, consorting with the enemy has been considered to be an offence. After the Nazis were thrown out of France, there was large scale retribution against French women who had had relationships with German soldiers. When Amrapali learns that her lover and the father of her son is none other than Bidusara, the King of neighbouring Magadha, she is shocked. Magadha had always coveted democratic Vaishali and when Amrapali discovers Bindusen’s true identity, Vaishali and Magadha are at war and Vaishali is under siege. Nagarvadhu she might be, but Amrapali knew that the starving people of Vaishali would not countenance her actions. I will not disclose more other than to say that Anand writes well and I stayed up at night to complete this book once I got past the half-way mark.

There are a number of twists and turns, the plot keeps changing constantly and I could not guess how the story would end, though the blurb on the back cover did offer a vague clue. Anand writes in simple English and as is common these days, allows a number of modern day jargon to creep into the narration.

If there was one discordant note, it was in the early part of the book, when Amrapali gets Raja Udit to agree to pay compensation to Suraj Mal in the form of potatoes. The agreement is a clever tactic which allows Amrapali to get the better of Raja Udit, and I will leave you to read this book and find out for yourself what exactly Amrapali did, but the fact is, potatoes were introduced to India by Europeans and until the 17th century, there were no potatoes in India.

Let me stop nitpicking and reiterate that Birth of the Bastard Prince is an excellent read and all those who (like me) enjoy history based fiction will find it a delight.




Friday, 26 September 2014

Book review: Strictly Personal - Manmohan and Gursharan by Daman Singh


I’m sure there are millions of Indians who would like to understand the human being behind that inscrutable face, the man who as India’s foreign minister was responsible for policies which in 1991 led to India’s economic liberalization and who later became India’s prime minister for two consecutive terms from 2004 till 2013, a man who is said to have allowed some of India’s most high profile and profligate scams to take place under his watch and a man who finally came to be called a stooge of the Gandhi family, collecting brickbats on its behalf. I picked up Strictly Personal - Manmohan and Gursharan written by Manmohan Singh’s daughter Daman Singh, not only in the hope of finding out more about India’s ex-prime minister Manmohan Singh, but also with the expectation of being presented with Manmohan Singh’s defence against the various allegations that have dogged him during his second term as India’s prime minister.

Manmohan Singh has three daughters and author Daman Singh is his second child. As I started reading Strictly Personal, I wondered about Daman’s reasons for writing this book. Was Daman one of those middle children who crave for her parents attention? Was Daman writing Strictly Personal in order to get parental approval? Or did Daman plan to use Strictly Personal to get back at her father for past injustices?

Manmohan was born in British India in 1932, at a place called Gah, which later became part of Pakistan. India’s freedom struggle was at its zenith. Manmohan’s father Gurmukh was a clerk based in Peshawar, working for a private firm involved in the import and trading of dry fruits. His mother Amrit died when Manmohan was still an infant and Manmohan was brought up, initially by his grandparents Sant Singh and Jamna Devi at Gah, and later by his uncle and aunt Gopal Singh and Ramditi who lived in Chakwal, before he moved to Peshawar to be with his father who had remarried. After Partition, Manmohan’s family moved to India. During the riots which accompanied the partition, Manmohan’s grandfather Sant Singh was killed at Gah.

What sort of man is Manmohan Singh in his personal life? Is he loud and jovial, as would behoove the stereotype of a Punjabi? Or does he behave more or less the way he behaves in public? As a seventies child who grew up in small-town India, I knew a number of men, usually friends or acquaintances of my father, who led the most colourless lives one could imagine. Employed by the government or semi-governmental organizations in various capacities, they were morally upright men who spent very little time with their families and not on account of their long working hours. Relaxation for them usually involved a long chat with other men of similar temperament. Some of them were workaholics and some were religious, but the main characteristic was their anhedonic nature. Naturally thrifty, they rarely went on holidays or watched movies or got drunk. Faithful to their wives with whom they were stiff and formal and from whom they expected and received total obedience, they were not wife-beaters. They didn’t have to be, since subservience was there for the asking. They were incapable of showing much affection to their children either, especially once they ceased to be toddlers. Manmohan can't be called a small-town man, he went to Cambridge and later Oxford, worked in New York and Geneva, but the above description would fit him to a T. Mind you, he is a good man all along. Once, Daman tells us, Gursharan went for an event at Tagore theatre, taking young Daman with her. Kiki was away at school. Gursharan sang to her heart’s content and came back happy. Manmohan however wasn’t very happy. It was wrong of her to have handed over Daman to strangers he reasoned and freezing silence followed, finally forcing Gursharan to apologise. This was the same Manmohan who when he lived with his wife in Oxford, allowed Gursharan to attend a ball at Oxford as his friend Sudarshan’s date, just so that Gursharan could experience an Oxford ball. An all-nighter, Gursharan had a good time and returned home early morning.

There are some men who are primed to be very good at academics. They always get along very well with their teachers and have an instinct for saying and doing the right things at the right time. Well, Manmohan was definitely one of those. We are told that even before he set sail for Cambridge in 1955, Manmohan had set his sights on the Adam Smith prize and found out its rules well in advance.

Manmohan almost always carried his work home. I am sure that the positions he held required a fair amount of work, but did he always have to put in such long hours or did he behave thus because he had no other interests? Was Manmohan good at delegation or was he a micro-manager? Daman doesn’t tell us and I can’t believe she doesn’t know.

One expects to read a number of anecdotes about Manmohan’s contemporaries in a book such as Strictly Personal. There are a few, but not as many as I would have liked. Daman tells us that once at Cambridge, Jagdish Bhagwati’s tutor Joan Robinson uttered the expletive ‘balls’ as she came across an error in his essay. Jagdish apparently believed that this was the English way of expressing disagreement and used the same expression in polite company.

Daman Singh does not say enough about Manmohan Singh’s food habits. He is not a vegetarian, but his favourite dishes all seem to be vegetarian. We are told that young Manmohan had a weakness for chhole, tossed with green chilies and lemon juice. I found a solitary reference to mutton curry being eaten by Gursharan (not Manmohan). Somewhere in the middle, there is a mention of chicken or turkey sandwiches (again Manmohan is not the eater) and towards the end, Daman describes a Christmas dinner at Boston, which had Turkey. I am pretty sure that there is no mention of Manmohan eating any meat. In any event, there isn’t a single reference to tandoori chicken being eaten by anyone. Did Daman, who turned vegetarian later in life, subconsciously block out all memories of meat eating within the family?

Daman tries to devote as much space to Gursharan as she does for Manmohan and she does a good job. Gursharan was a pretty girl who was an average student and who liked to sing. When Manmohan was an academic at Punjab University, there were a number of family get-togethers and picnics. Needless to say, Gursharan seems to have enjoyed these though Manmohan admits to signing a few sad songs such as Lagta Nahin Hai Dil Mera (a poem penned by Bahadur Shah Zafur while in exile in Rangoon) and Aankhan Waris Shah noon, kitney kabran vichon bol (Amrita Pritam’s poem about the Partition).

In 1966, Manmohan and his family moved to New York where Manmohan worked for UNCTAD. Daman reveals that Gursharan was told and not asked if she wanted to go. In New York, Manmohan was keen to buy a car, but could not pass the driving test. Gursharan thinks she could have passed the test, but Manmohan never suggested that she should give it a go. Later when they moved to Delhi, the husband and wife duo learned to drive, but Gursharan was always the better driver.

Manmohan was the typical Indian husband who did little or no housework and made no effort to learn to cook or clean. Precisely nine months after Manmohan and Gursharan got married, they had their first child Upinder, who got the nickname Kiki. Even when they lived in New York, Manmohan expected all his guests to receive Indian standards of hospitality and restaurant standard meals. Gursharan had to do it all by herself, in addition to looking after the children. Daman (rightly) excoriates Manmohan over his treatment of Gursharan.

As a bureaucrat in Delhi, Manmohan ruthlessly applied government rules of conduct to this family. This meant that he cut down socializing so that there could be no possibility of parochialism or nepotism. The office car and telephone were meant solely for office use. The family took very few holidays, but the children were allowed to buy as many books as they wanted.

If Daman does not think much of Manmohan’s social or housekeeping skills, she makes up for it in the admiration she shows for his professional competence and intelligence. Starting from the time he did well at school, to his Cambridge days, his time at Punjab University, his PhD from Oxford, his PhD thesis (on India’s Export Trends and the Prospects for Self-sustained Growth), his work at UNCTAD, it’s all praise, praise and praise and quite rightly so. Manmohan was the typical, clever small town boy who worked hard and earned his laurels. Manmohan was appointed to the Planning Commission and was involved in the 6th and 7th five year plans. Later he was made the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, which made him move to Mumbai. The RBI was riven with trade-unions and a serious strike had just ended. Daman tells us that he father calmed things down by giving in to a number of demands of the workers. In 1987, Manmohan went to Geneva to work for the South Commission, which tried to facilitate south-south solidarity and cooperation.

When Narasimha Rao was sworn in as the Prime Minister in June 1991, he chose Manmohan Singh to be his finance minister. Manmohan had just returned from a trip to the Netherlands when PC Alexander called him late in the night and woke him up. The economy was in a really bad state. Daman quotes Manmohan to say that policy making was entirely left to Manmohan. As a finance minister, Manmohan was decisive and he seems to have enjoyed his job, his detractors notwithstanding.

Manmohan was definitely a social conservative. One of the reasons for returning to India from his UNCTAD job at New York was that Manmohan and Gursharan wanted their daughters to grow up in India, with Indian values. Kiki had just turned ten. Manmohan was not overtly religious and I got the feeling that he is one of those men who always play lip service to the religion they grew up in. None of the three daughters turned out to be religious and Gursharan is upset about it, especially because as parents Manmohan and Gursharan did not take sufficient pains to make their children religious. All three of the daughters married outside the Sikh faith. Kiki’s marriage to Vijay Tankha caused immense pain to Manmohan and Gursharan. It actually took Gursharan quite a while to accept Vijay and eat at the same table with him. Eventually she grew to like him and accepted him. There was less pain when Daman married Ashok Patnaik. When Amu married Barton Beebe, there was only happiness all around.

Many intelligent men (and women) are snobbish and Manmohan is no exception to this general rule. When Kiki opted to study history, Manmohan was not particularly delighted, though he had initially said that the decision was Kiki’s to make. Daman tells us that Manmohan had a low opinion of social science disciplines other than his own. Occasional careless remarks from Manmohan regarding the study of history hurt Kiki. Daman took mathematics and her father was pleased. Was it a case of the middle-child trying to please her father? When Daman switched to the Institute for Rural Management at Anand, her father was not pleased. Amu followed her father’s footsteps, studying economics at Cambridge and Oxford. However, when she suddenly switched to law, Manmohan was distressed. For a while it appeared that his daughters would not measure up to Manmohan’s expectations, but Daman tells us that over a period of time, he learnt to acknowledge the worth of their chosen paths.

Kiki seems to have borne the brunt of Manmohan’s social conservatism and snobishness, though Daman does not say so in as many words. Also, one gets the feeling that Daman played peace-maker more often than not. When Kiki told Manmohan that she wanted to get married, Manmohan asked when rather than whom. Kiki was once again upset.

Daman Singh’s narrative is written in simple English and she refers to her father as Manmohan throughout the book. The book is written chronologically starting from Manmohan’s childhood, but Daman does not hesitate to move back and forth in time and there is topical segregation as well.

Spoiler Warning

Just after the four hundred page mark, I crossed the chapter which describes how in May 1999, Manmohan stood for elections to the Lok Sabha in South Delhi and tasted defeat along with all six other congress candidates for Delhi. I started to turn the pages even faster. What sort of explanation would Daman Singh have for all those scams which took place under her father’s watch? Had Manmohan Singh turned the Nelson’s eye or was he genuinely ignorant of all that was happening around him? Well, I was disappointed. After that electoral defeat, Strictly Personal has a couple of small chapters titled “Moving On” and “And On” and they reveal practically nothing much about those ten years. The rest of it was Notes etc.

There are many bureaucrats who earn a reputation for stellar honesty even as they live and work among those who are dishonest. In many cases, their promotions depend on those who are corrupt. The obvious inference is that though honest in their own dealings, the gentlemen in question are definitely no whistle blowers and can be relied on to not ask too many inconvenient questions. Was Manmohan such a man? Daman actually tells us that Manmohan was one of those bureaucrats who believed in doing good by stealth. In other words, he never challenged a wrong doer, especially if the wrong doer was a superior.

In the 1960s, Jagdish Bhagwati and Padma Desai dissented from the left wing approach adopted by the mainstream at the Delhi School of Economics and were ostracised. Manmohan actually agreed with much of what the duo said in their book Planning for Industrialisation, but he did not take sides. He saw himself as a pragmatist and a consensus builder who did not believe in fighting for a side which was unlikely to win.

Early on in Strictly Personal, Daman narrates an anecdote which has some bearing on this question. While staying at Chakwal with Gopal Singh and Ramditi and their four children, Daman tells us that Manmohan had developed a habit of stealing money from his cousin Tarna and secreting the stolen coins in a sock hidden in a suitcase. And what was the stolen money used for? Apparently for studious Manmohan, ‘schoolbooks were his most precious possessions and he could not bear to see them smudged or torn. If one book was even slightly blemished, he simply threw it away, dipped into his sock and bought a new one.’ Manmohan must have been around nine by then - he had cleared Class Four before he left Gah for Chakwal - and it cannot be said that nine year old Manmohan did not know that he was doing something wrong. What are we to make of a man who would steal to make sure that his books remained unblemished? Does that foretell a love for perfection, without any thought about collateral damage? But then the stolen funds also financed Manmohan’s weakness for chhole.

When the 2nd World War got over, sweets were distributed in at Manmohan’s Khalsa High school. Thirteen year old Manmohan convinced his classmates to refuse the sweets as a mark of protest at India’s continued bondage to Britain. Would Manmohan have been so bold if independence was not in the air? I feel not. I just can’t imagine Manmohan as a freedom fighter in the beginning of the 20th century, when independence was a distant dream.

Manmohan’s childhood friends from Gah remember that he was bad at marbles and that they threw him into the village pond when he refused to play with them. Was Manmohan bullied at school, I wonder?

Manmohan seems to have been a bit of a hypochondriac, one who occasionally complained of palpitations and uneasiness. When it happened, Gursharan would drive him to Willingdon hospital. Daman tells us with a touch of guilt that Manmohan did have a real attack in May 1990, when he was in London. Apparently by-pass surgery was successfully performed.

One of Gursharan’s cousins, a lady, was detained by the security forces in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar. Daman tells us that though innocent, the cousin was detained for 4 years. It is clear from Daman’s narrative that Manmohan Singh did not try to pull strings to secure his cousin-in-law’s release. Was it because Manmohan did not care about that cousin-in-law or because it thought it was wrong to pull strings for any personal cause, even if it was to secure the release of one wrongly jailed?

Manmohan was also a big fan of Partap Singh Kairon, Punjab’s Chief Minister. Pratap Singh Kairon set up an industrial board with representatives from government, industry and academics. Manmohan was on that board. Daman tells us that Manmohan considered Partap Singh to be a man of vision, a nationalist who stood for a cohesive, strong and progressive Punjab. Manmohan admired Indira Gandhi, though he didn’t particularly get along well with Rajiv Gandhi who thought the Planning Commission (of which Manmohan Singh was a member) was a bunch of jokers. I can visualize Manmohan Singh happily working for a Prime Minister like Vajpayee or Advani or even Modi, following instructions quietly and efficiently and doing a good job. However, I just don’t understand why he took so much shit from Sonia Gandhi and her coterie and Strictly Personal left me none the wiser.

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.