Sunday, 14 December 2014

Book Review: Wisdom of the White Mountain by Kandathil Sebastian

A human being born at the bottom of the Indian caste ladder is almost certainly doomed for the rest of his or her life. So it seems to the case for Thomas, a fair-skinned dalit Christian boy whose real father is upper caste landlord Shivaraman Nair. Being a Christian is of little use since upper caste Christians shun him. His dark-skinned foster father hates him since it is obvious to everyone that he is not the real father. His biological father is ashamed of his existence and plots to wipe him off the face of the earth.

Those who succeed in life, those who become rich and famous, those who make a lot of money, are not necessarily those who have worked hard or are extremely intelligent. Providence or sheer luck, if you will, plays a big role. So it seems to be the case with Thomas, or Thoma as his fellow villagers call him. Escaping from the jaws of death, Thoma, along with his friend Balu, runs away from his native village and makes his way (inadvertently) to the big city (Kochi) where he falls in the lap of a gang of hit men, who like him and adopt him. Just as some people are lucky with games of chance, Thoma is lucky with adventure. From the gang of hit men, he ends up with a group of Islamic fundamentalists, who too decide to help him and use him for their own ends. Thoma sees a lot of violence and his journeys take him to Pakistan and Kashmir.

However, lady luck does not desert him. Towards the end of the novel, Thoma achieves material success, though his riches are on account of his becoming an ascetic. A pretty western woman is willing to satisfy him sexually, for her own ulterior motives. However, Thoma doesn’t care for wealth or comfort anymore.

Kandathil Sebastian’s novel Wisdom of the White Mountain, the second in his Mountain Trilogy, is not merely the story of Thoma and his escapades. Rather, it asks profound questions about the purpose behind human existence and examines the root cause of sorrow in the world. Sebastian’s first book, Dolmens in the Blue Mountain, was more about the severe damage caused to the western ghats by human intervention and exploitation.

Written in simple English, Wisdom of the White Mountain conveys to its readers the immateriality of wealth and riches and the importance of peace of mind, something Thoma looks for everywhere and achieves only towards the end.

Wisdom of the White Mountain runs to less than 200 pages and I finished it is a couple of two hour easy sittings.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Book Review: The Colonel Who Would Not Repent – The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, by Salil Tripathi

I have been fascinated and perplexed by Bangladesh (actually more perplexed than fascinated) ever since I became interested in international politics. One of the many unanswered questions I’ve had about Bangladesh is how the founding father of Bangladesh and almost his entire family, including ten-year old son Russell Sheikh, could be killed within less than 4 years of its independence. I remember once discussing this with a stranger on a train – I must have been fifteen then and my correspondent had made a claim to extensive knowledge of global politics – how Bangabhandu and his entire family could be killed by Bangladeshi army officers, who were unpunished as yet, then. ‘Mujibur Rahman was a good man, but he was surrounded by bad people, especially his sons, who were really nasty. One of them once abducted a senior army officer’s wife, just because he liked her and you know what he did to her, and the army officer couldn’t do anything about it. Just like that. They were above the law. The army men hated Majuibur Rahman and his family so much that when they launched their coup, they killed them all.’ It would be an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked. To be honest, I did not fully believe that story, traces of which can be found on the internet, such as here and here.

As I grew older, I kept looking for answers to my questions. I found some answers, but until I read Salil Tripathi’s latest book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent - The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, no one had satisfactorily answered my questions regarding Mujibur Rahman’s killing and the aftermath. Tripathi gives a number of interlinked reasons as he explains how the mid-level army officers who plotted and carried out Mujib’s executions not only succeeded, but also got away for so long, until Mujib’s daughter Hasina came to power in 1996 and set in motion the wheels of justice (or revenge, if you will).

The Colonel Who Would Not Repent is not just about Mujib’s killing and the delivery of justice (or retribution) to his killers. Rather, it is a concise history of Bengal, starting from the arrival of Islam leading to the East India Company’s rule and Curzon’s partition of Bengal. The 350-odd page tome ends in January 2010 when Farooq Rahman and Mujib’s other killers went to the gallows.

I found Mujib’s personality, as sketched by Tripathi, to be fascinating. Tripathi tells us that Mujib was a physically weak child, taking two years to complete his third grade. He also needed eye surgery and missed four years of schooling as a child. However, when he reached adulthood, he was tall and handsome. He married at the age of eighteen. He studied law, but never graduated. He became close to Suhrawardy and stood by him during the Calcutta riots, which Suhrawardy was responsible for. However, after Pakistan became independent, he was vociferous in his opposition to Urdu. In short, I got the impression that Mujib was an emotional man with charisma who, if he hadn’t become a successful politician, would have turned out to be one of those absolute no-gooders who drink tea at way-side stalls and pontificate endlessly.

As for the story that one of Mujib’s sons had abducted and raped an army officer’s wife, Tripathi merely says that ‘there had been rumours that an Awami politician had misbehaved with Brigadier Dalim’s wife at a party. He had complained to Mujib, but Mujib hadn’t taken the complaint seriously.’ This was only one of the various reasons why some army officers got really annoyed with Mujib and killed him, along with his family.

The reasons for Bengalis in East Pakistan wanting their own country has been well-documented and repeated ad nauseam. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, many in East Pakistan were angry that East Pakistan was left undefended. West Pakistan got the bulk of resources and development. When Cyclone Bhola stuck, West Pakistan sat back and smirked. On top of it all, Punjabis could not understand why Bengalis loved to sing and dance and follow other Bengali customs which seemed to be entirely “Hindu”. These are covered by Tripathi too and there are no big surprises. However, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent also provides answers to a few other questions which have tormented me for a long time. How could Pakistan and Bangladesh resume normal ties and become rather good friends, if Pakistani troops had indeed massacred over 3 million Bengalis, as widely claimed, I’ve always wondered? Also, if India had sacrificed its soldiers so that Bangladesh could be free, how come there is so much animosity towards India in Bangladesh? I have blogged about these questions in the past. Tripathi offers some answers. It should not be forgotten that East Bengal had in 1947 opted to be with Pakistan, rather than India. There are many more reasons which are of course much more nuanced than I could explain in the course of a book review. Do please read this excellent book to find out for yourself.

Did Pakistan play a role in Mujib’s killing? Tripathi does not rule out the possibility. How else could Pakistan come out in support of the new rulers within a few hours of Mujib’s execution? Tripathi wonders.

After Mujib’s assassination, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad took over power. Mujib’s killers received praise and promotions. Various leaders perceived to be pro-India were arrested and less than two months later, on 3 November 1975, the imprisoned leaders were executed in jail, allegedly on Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad’s orders. At the same time, a counter-coup took place on 3 November 1975, allegedly at India’s behest and Khaled Mosharraf took over power. Four days later, on 7 November 1975, there was a counter-coup to the counter-coup and Ziaur Rahman was 'the last man left standing'. Trust me, Tripathi explains all of this much better and in greater detail and you’d better hear it from him.

Interestingly, Tripathi tells us that when Bengalis in East Pakistan started to fight for independence, the Indian government had wondered if the Indian state of West Bengal also join the struggle and seek unification with Bangladesh. I found that funny. Tripathi is painfully dispassionate when he says that 'the decision to send the troops into East Pakistan was particularly hard and difficult for India, since its foreign policy was based on peaceful co-existence and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, in particular its neighbours. The policy was based on hard, cynical and practical reasons – India didn’t want the world to poke its nose in Kashmir, and it already had Tibetan refugees, it did not want to appear to be interfering in internal affairs of others.

Did Pakistani forces kill three million people during the period from 25 March 1971 until the surrender of Pakistani forces? The strongest argument agains this number has been put forth by Sarmila Bose and Tripathi takes note of the various discrepancies in the mainstream narrative, but he does not offer a concluding verdict in this on-going debate.

Tripathi is a good raconteur, but never ceases to be a neutral reporter, always taking care to present both sides of the story. For example, as he examines the various types of discrimination faced by Chakmas living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other minorities in Bangladesh, he wonders why Bengalis who faced so much persecution at the hands of the West Pakistanis find it so difficult to be so fair to other minorities who are even more vulnerable.

Tripathi does not talk about the mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles' personnel in 2009, which ended in the deaths of so many officers, including its Director General Major General Shakil Ahmed and his wife. I wish he had. This is the only grouse I have against this book.

As the book ends, one is left wondering about Bangladesh’s future. As more and more young Bengalis are attracted to Islamic fundamentalism, will it go the Pakistan route? Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh was not formed on the basis of religion, rather, it was formed because the majority of people living in Bangladesh wanted to be as much Bengali as Muslim. However, if Bangladesh is as much Bengali as West Bengal, would it become a poorer cousin of India and this seems to be unacceptable to many in Bangladesh. I could go on, but I am going to end here with a strong recommendation to all my readers to buy a copy of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent and read it. Just like Colonel Farooq Rahman, you won't repent either.

The first three pages of this 2010 article in the Caravan form the prologue of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, in a slightly modified form.

Tripathi is also the author of Offence: The Hindu Case

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Book Review: The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Rohini Mohan

Rohini Mohan, a young but celebrated journalist has come up with a book on Sri Lanka, yet another in a long list of recent releases which seek to understand why the fabled Serendib has had to undergo so much pain and suffering since its independence. In Mohan’s account, no one is blameless. Even the victims of Sri Lankan army’s torture are shown to be harbouring irrational animosity and distrust towards Sri Lankan Muslims who speak the same language (Tamil).

Divyan and Prashant, two ex-LTTE fighters are incarcerated by the Sri Lankan army after the Sri Lankan civil ended. During their imprisonment, the men are repeatedly interrogated and tortured. After their release, they struggle to find gainful employment in a Sri Lanka where there seems to be very few avenues open to Tamils. Employers prefer Sinhalese and even infrastructure projects in the north refuse to employ the two Tamil men who are very keen to find some work. I found the inability to find employment or otherwise earn a decent livelihood subsequent to their release from the detention centres to be much more painful and cruel than the torture and interrogations they faced when in custody. In other words, there is total absence of hope for the relatively young men, who nurse a number of wounds and scars, not all of which are physically manifest.

Sarvanatha Pereira is a Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up-country in Nuwara Eliya, a fluent Sinhala speaker to boot. However, his ability to speak Sinhalese and surname which enables him to pass for a Sri Lankan, only leads to trouble, since he is suspected to be a spy. What I liked best about The Seasons of Trouble was the way Mohan unspooled Sarva’s tale slowly, maintaining an element of suspense throughout. Until I covered more than half the book, Mohan kept me wondering if Sarva had been in the LTTE, as accused by the government thugs who abducted him. As Sarva flees to a Western country for asylum, one can’t help but root for him and hope that he is successful. With this too, Mohan keeps her readers guessing till the end.

In multi-cultural Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and Tamil have lived in isolated cocoons with very little interaction with each other. Schools are either Sinhalese or Tamil or Muslim and most Sri Lankans are mono-lingual. Mohan tells us that “In Sarva’s homeland, the hard-driven Tamil plantation worker was deemed okay but not the Tamil university student protesting discrimination. The happy-go-lucky Burgher with his glass of whiskey passed muster, but not the Burgher with a government job. The trading Muslim was fine, but not the praying Muslim. The devout Sinhala Buddhist was all right, but not the inquisitive one. These groups had to fit in, flow into the crevices the majoritarian state created for them.

Mohan tells us that the LTTE, which had once expelled 72,000 Sri Lankan Muslims from the Northern Province, was no less cruel than the Sri Lankan army which ultimately defeated it. The LTTE used to forcibly conscript children and used them as cannon fodder. Its propaganda was everywhere, including in schools and colleges. After the end of the war, the Sri Lankan army has been deployed in strength in the captured north. Sinhala classes have been made compulsory for everyone, though Tamil is not taught to Sinhala students in the south. Mugil, a former LTTE combatant, finds that her son has a Sinhala teacher who does not know any Tamil, who teaches her pupils Sinhala songs by rote. The students are unable to form a single original sentence in Sinhala.

Of course, there are glimpses of hope. Many of the aid workers helping Sarva and others like him are Sinhalese. Mohan reiterates that there are alternatives, imperfect though they might be.

The only place where I found myself disagreeing with Mohan was when she casually mentioned that Hamas had trained some Tamil militants in the eighties. As far as I know, the LTTE and other Tamil insurgent outfits had ties with the PLO and certain Kurdish groups. I am reasonably sure that no Sri Lankan Tamil outfit has collaborated with any fundamentalist Islamist group, including Hamas. In any event, Hamas was founded in December 1987.

Mohan writes well, in simple English which is to the point, as she tells her readers one of the saddest stories the world has ever heard. As the book ends, Mohan tells us how the Bodu Bala Sena has started to target Sri Lankan Muslims. Unfortunately, Mohan is not a fiction writer and The Seasons of Trouble is a true story.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Book Review: Daughter by Court Order, by Ratna Vira

Since 2012, 11th October has been celebrated as the year of the girl child. Women face discrimination in so many spheres all over the world and India has one of the worst track records when it comes to fair treatment of women. This discrimination exists not only in public spaces, but also inside most Indian households. In fact, it tends to be much more pronounced at home, with girls receiving step-motherly treatment in everything ranging from food to education to toys. One would tend to believe that this discrimination would be much more pronounced amongst the working classes and that the economically well-off sections of society would not discriminate against their daughters. Recently released debutant author Ratna Vira’s novel Daughter by Court Order suggests that it may not be so and that even among the rich, daughters receives a raw deal.

Aranya or Arnie is smart, pretty and bright as a button, but has a mother who seems to be straight from hell. Not only does Kamini dote on her effeminate son Randeep, but she also seems to hate Arnie with a passion. To start with, when Arnie was born (in France), Kamini didn’t want her to survive. Luckily for Arnie, her paternal grandfather Eshwar Dhari, a famous politician, willed otherwise and sent his daughter, Chhoti Phua to get Arnie to India. There are a number of instances where Arnie is shown to have suffered at the hands of her mother, who constantly put her down. Not so surprising in India, except that Kamini is supposed to be a feminist who publicly espouses the cause of women and their rights, all the time.

Arnie’s paternal grandfather is not only a successful politician, but is also frightfully rich. Her mother’s family, the Sharmas, on the other hand, came over to India from West Punjab during the partition and are shown to be not so well off, though quite shrewd and tough as nails. Well, to cut a long story short, Arnie’s grandfather has left behind a lavish mansion at Civil Lines, the house where Arnie grew up in and because Arnie’s mother does not want Arnie to inherit her share of the property, Arnie does not find a place in the family tree which has been filed with the court in connection with the partition of the property. When Arnie does find out about her mother’s deceit, it is too late. Or is it?

Arnie is a woman who has suffered a lot. A divorcee, Arnie has brought up her two kids singlehandedly after her husband Krish walked out on her. Arnie is torn with doubts as she prepares to fight her own kith and kin. Fortunately for her, she has a number of friends, including ex-husband Krish. Kamini is tough and she doesn’t hesitate to play dirty, but luckily for Arnie, India’s much criticised legal system delivers, and that too, with relative speed. The judges who hear her cases are honest and though Arnie is not able to hire a battery of lawyers like her mother and other relatives, the team she has assembled is top-notch. Many people help Arnie secretly, sending her documents and other evidence secretly by courier. In fact, Arnie even receives a visit from a Pakistani woman whose family suffered a lot on account of the Sharmas, Kamini's relatives, in pre-Partition West Punjab. There are threats to her life and towards the end, Arnie has a narrow escape from an acid attack, but Arnie never turns back.

The second half of the novel is especially riveting, as the action shifts between courts in Delhi and Ranchi. Towards the end, there is a sort of reconciliation with Krish who helps her in her quest for justice, but there is no doubt that Arnie’s fight is her own and her success, almost entirely the result of her determination, perseverance and single-mindedness. One starts to feel sorry for Arnie from the outset and as one learns more and more about Kamini and her viciousness, it is inevitable that one roots for Arnie and her success in claiming her rightful share of the property.

Author Ratna Vira is the daughter of Nalini Singh and S.P.N. Singh, the son of C.P.N. Singh, former Governor of UP and the vice chancellor of Patna University. Nalini Singh is the sister of Arun Shourie, the well-known and highly reputed politician and former journalist. It has been reported on a number of blogs and other websites that Arnie’s story bears an uncanny resemblance to Ratna Vira’s own life. Arnie’s parental grandfather Eshwar Dhari, C.P.N. Singh’s counterpart is shown as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and the vice chancellor of Ranchi University. Arnie’s Yudi mama who betrays her, bears a striking similarity to Arun Shourie. Was Nalini Singh as nasty to Ratna Vira and Kamini is shown to be towards Arnie? Was Ratna Vira embroiled in a family property dispute like Arnie and did she have to fight her family as well as the system to gain her rightful inheritance? Did Arun Shourie betray Ratna Vira’s trust in such a family property dispute? Interestingly, Ratna Vira has not denied any of these parallels.

It is surprising that both Nalini Singh and Arun Shourie, who are usually never tongue-tied or at a loss for words, have not commented on these real-life parallels. Their silence seems to suggest that at least some of Daughter by Court Order is based on truth.

It is a not so well known fact that five years ago, Ratna Vira instituted a scholarship at St. Stephens in memory of her grandfather C. P. N. Singh and each year for the last five years, a meritorious female student with financial needs has been receiving a substantial sum of money from Ratna Vira.

Daughter by Court Order is written in elegant English and is, on the whole, an exciting read. More importantly, Ratna Vira's tale is bound to inspire millions of women, in India and elsewhere, to stand up for their rights and to keep fighting till they have won.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Running a marathon to help children suffering from Leukemia

I am planning to participate in the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) on 18 January 2015. My prime motivation for running the SCMM is to raise money for the Cancer Patients Aid Association (CPAA), a wonderful charity which does a number of things to fight cancer and assist cancer victims in India.

I have been assured by CPAA that all monies raised by me will be used entirely to help children suffering from Leukemia. Further, all donations to CPAA are eligible for tax exemption under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act, 1961 (by way of deduction from your taxable income).

I have run the SCMM before – in January 2012. Last October 2013, I ran the Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM). I took 5 hrs 23 minutes to run the SCMM. Thanks to very hot weather, my VVMM took me much longer, 5 hrs 49 minutes to be exact. You can access my timing certificates through these links:

SCMM 2012

VVMM 2013

This January, I am hoping to complete the requisite 42.195 kilometres in just under 5 hours. Please wish me luck!

I do not personally know any child suffering from Leukemia, but I do know that there are many in India and a majority of them are poor. They need help. Our help. I request you to donate generously to the CPAA, which you can do through this link

I wish you a very Happy Diwali!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Is Shrien Dewani Guilty?

Shrien Dewani’s trial has been underway at Cape Town for two days now. Since Leopold Leisser, a German male prostitute is expected to give evidence that Shrien paid for sex sessions with him, Shrien pre-emptively admitted to being a bi-sexual who paid for sex with other men. Apparently, his affairs with men were non-emotional and merely physical, whilst his relationships with women were otherwise.
A British parliamentary aide is also expected to give evidence to the effect that he had gay sex with Shrien many times. Shrien is said to like S&M and was a frequent visitor to The Hoist gay nightclub at Vauxhall and other gay bars in London. Leisser has claimed that Dewani asked to be humiliated and racially abused. Even after he was married to Anni, Shrien logged into gay websites such as Gaydar and Recon.

A lot will depend on the testimony of taxi driver Zola Tongo who claims to have been paid by Shrien to arrange his wife’s murder and make it look like a car-jacking. Zola Tongo and two other men, Mziwamadoda Qwabe and Xolile Mngeni, have already been convicted for their roles in Anni’s killing.

In April 2014, I had wondered in this post if Shrien Dewani is gay, assuming that a gay Shrien would have a motive for having his wife Anni Dewani murdered by a hit man. Now that Shrien has confessed that he is a bisexual, does it mean that he is definitely guilty? Not necessarily. It’s like this. Let’s assume that Shrien is speaking the truth when he says that he pursued Anni and asked her to marry him. Either Shrien was under pressure from his family to “get married and settle down” or he himself wanted to find a partner who would allow him to meet the expectations of his Indian family or Shrien genuinely loved Anni. If Shrien genuinely loved Anni, then obviously he is not guilty. If Shrien married Anni without any pressure from his family, but in order to meet his family’s expectations, then there is a lesser chance that he wanted her dead. It can still be argued that having married Anni and made his parents happy, Shrien may have wanted Anni to disappear from this world. As a widower, he would face a lot less pressure to remarry. If it comes out that Shrien’s parents forced him to marry Anni, say with the threat of disinheritance, then the chances are much higher that Shrien is guilty.

Let’s assume that three percentage of the world’s population is gay and another seven percent is bisexual. In communities where arranged marriages are common, this would mean that ten percent of men and women getting married are closet homosexuals and do not particularly want to get married or get married to either meet social expectations and to prevent tongues wagging. Having got married, would anyone want to get rid of the spouse? Consider a man buying an expensive car which he doesn't really need and which is high maintenance, just to show off. Would the buyer then sabotage the car because it is high maintenance and is something he doesn't really need.

Shrien claims that he had informed Anni about his testosterone levels and the possibility that he might not have a child. It is not clear if this claim is backed up with evidence. Did Shrien also disclose to Anni that he is a bisexual who has in the past paid for male prostitutes? Pretty unlikely. Will the prosecution be able to disprove Shrien’s claim that he has had many relationships with other women in the past?

What are the chances that Anni finally figured out that Shrien was either gay or bisexual? Actually, they are pretty high. I am assuming that the couple did not sleep together till they got married. In any event, they had not lived in. I am also assuming that Anni (who grew up in Sweden) had some experience of relationships on her own. Most probably she too had agreed to marry Shrien to meet her own parent’s expectations. She might have figured out within a few days of marriage that Shrien is not your normal heterosexual man. How would she have reacted? Brought up in Sweden, Anni might have done some plain-speaking. Did she threaten to leave him? Did an angry Shrien then hire a hitman to kill his wife when they reached South Africa? Or is Shrien just another closet homosexual who did the standard Indian thingee to please his parents and then happened to get very unlucky in South Africa?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Book Review: Half Girlfriend by Chetan Bhagat

Each of Chetan Bhagat’s novels addresses an issue and carries a message. Five Point Someone focuses on the unimaginative and monotonous curriculum which all Indian college students suffer and goes on to say that there’s more to life than academics and grades. One Night @ the Call Centre addresses the insecurities of the Indian middle class and calls on them to face their problems with courage. The 3 Mistakes of My Life is not very different from One Night @ The Call Centre in terms of the message it carries, but the setting, Ahmedabad towards the end of the last decade, seething with communal differences, is very different from the call centre. In Revolution 2020 Bhagat delves into the problems facing India’s education sector and tells his readers that corruption can be fought successfully. Bhagat’s only work of non-fiction, What Young India Wants, addresses many issues and carries a number of messages.

Like his earlier works of fiction, Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend digs into an issue and conveys a simple message. Do you remember all those Indian movies, so many of them, in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and many other languages, where a poor man, usually a cabbie, falls in love with a rich girl, the rich girl’s family objects to the match, makes life hell for the poor boy and his family before true love emerges victorious? Obviously, such movies struck a cord with all cabbies, not to mention other single men in similar circumstances. Half Girlfriend does not have a hero living below the poverty line - protagonist Madhav Jha is not particularly poor. Far from it, he is a prince from Dumraon, is well over six feet tall and plays basket-ball very well. Well enough to play for Bihar. However, he cannot speak English and to get admission to St. Stephens he has to rely on its quota for sportsmen. Madhav’s character is likely to strike a cord with every Indian struggling with English (the typical Chetan Bhagat reader) and aspiring to improve his/her diction, fluency and accent.

At St. Stephens Madhav makes friends with Riya Somani, rich, tall, slim, pretty and most importantly, has English dripping out of her mouth, in the right accent. Riya also plays basket-ball, she too gets her admission through the sports quota. Riya wants to be friends whilst Madhav wants a lot more than mere friendship. As a compromise, Riya offers to be Madhav’s half girlfriend.

When the story begins, Madhav meets Chetan Bhagat and we are given to understand that Riya is no more. Madhav has with him a stack of diaries written by Riya in English and these he gives to Bhagat to read (since he can’t read them himself even though he has put himself through 3 years of St. Stephens). With some reluctance, Bhagat agrees and starts reading them. The journey which follows takes us through their troubled and topsy-turvy romance and I was reminded me of a number of Indian movies I have seen. In particular, one scene where Madhav, on the advice of his friends, smuggles Riya into his hostel room and tries some crude stuff, only to have Riya leave, reminded me of a Malayalam movie I saw around 2 decades ago, whose name I can’t remember.

Chetan Bhagat’s English has improved ever more since What Young India Wants and Revolution 2020. I assume his publishers have put even more editors on the job. There are no grammatical errors and the narration is simple and even elegant. In the course of the story, as Madhav prepares to make a speech in English, Riya advises him, among other things, to read simple books in English such as those by Chetan Bhagat. Half Girlfriend would definitely fit the bill here for those learning the English language.

Just as in the case of Revolution 2020, Bhagat does a great job explaining the problems faced by poor Indians to those more fortunate. In Revolution 2020 Bhagat delved into the problems facing India’s education sector. Here, the focus is on villages and village schools. You see, Madhav’s mother runs a school in Dumraon and after finishing his degree at St. Stephens, Madhav forsakes a job offer from HSBC and goes to Dumraon where he helps his mother manage the school. Why don’t villagers send their kids to school, badly run though they might be, when school education is free? Bhagat’s explanation is simple and sensible. Please read this eminently readable book to find out the rationale offered by Bhagat through his characters.

There is one bit about Half Girlfriend which irked me no end. We are told on a number of occasions that Madhav has played basketball at the ‘state-level’, meaning he has represented Bihar in ‘state-level’ basket-ball competitions, which is supposed to be a big deal. When one plays in an inter-state tournament, which is what one does if one represents one’s state, one plays at the ‘national level’ and not the ‘state-level’. Playing at the national-level is really a big deal. Playing state-level would be playing in an intra-state tournament, such as an inter-district tournament, which is nothing to write home about.

Did you know that Somani is a Marwadi name and not a Sindhi name? I didn’t, till I read Half Girlfriend.


Have you watched The King’s Speech? George VI has a stammer and he needs to make his maiden speech after the start of the Second World War. He manages to do so with a speech therapist. In Half Girlfriend, Madhav Jha, the Raj Kumar of Dumraon who lives in a haveli that is falling apart, needs to make a speech in English if he is to get a grant for his village school from the Gates Foundation. He goes to Patna for lessons to brush up his English and fortunately runs into a divorced Riya, who had earlier broken up with him, married an even richer man and gone to England. Riya helps him with his English, which at that point seemed to be pretty basic for a man who studied Sociology at St. Stephens for three years and got a job offer from HSBC to be a personal banker. Never mind that, with Riya’s help, Madhav does make the speech successfully and the grant is in the bag, one even bigger than expected.


Since we are told at the beginning of the book that Riya died and left her diaries behind, one is all set for a tragic ending. However, Bhagat the story teller has a big ace up his sleeve and towards the end the reader is offered the delicious possibility that Riya might not be dead after all. Madhav’s search for Riya leads him to Manhattan where he has the enviable job of visiting each of its live music bars to look for a pretty female singer who could pass for a Spaniard or Greek and might not be singing under her real name. I will stop my review her and leave it to you to travel to the happy ending on your own.

On the whole, I found Half Girlfriend to be as entertaining as any good Bollywood movie might be. In any event, the script has been tailor made for a Bollywood adaptation - there are a number of scenes in the beginning where Madhav and Riya play basket-ball all by themselves, laying the ground for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai type basket-ball court scenes. Also since Riya Somani is five feet nine, I assume someone tall like Deepika Padukone would play Riya in the movie. Times of India has put its money on Kriti Sanon who at 5 feet 6 inches is just an inch below Deepika Padukone.