Thursday, 27 August 2015

An Interview With A Wiccan, An Author And A Lawyer

Deepta Roy Chakraverti’s is a Wiccan, an author and a lawyer, all rolled into one. A few weeks ago, I had reviewed her book, “Bhangarh to Bedlam - Haunted Encounters”. Those who have read my review would know what Wicca means and how Deepta’s mother Ipsita is an established practitioner of this newly revived ancient religion. What would be of great interest to many of my readers is that Deepta is a corporate lawyer who obtained an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Delhi University and went on to do her undergrad law degree from Kings College, London and now works for an oil and gas major in Kolkata. I managed to persuade Deepta to answer a few questions about herself, Wicca and her book for the benefit of Winnowed’s readers.

Winnowed: Have you been interested and involved in Wicca from birth?

Deepta: I think Wicca happened to me very naturally and gradually. I remember, as a very young child, being aware of Ipsita’s books, her papers and her work. I would come home from school, and spend time in her study, where as long as I was quiet, I could sit there and go through some of her papers. I remember the glow of the silk shaded lamps, the glint of crystal and the red roses strewn in crystal bowls. A beautiful combination of the monastic, the scholarly and the aesthetic which appeals to the senses. I think that what Wicca is, seeped into me, through the way of life and Ipsita’s attitude to what happens in the world around us. Wicca is about strength, about dignity and about the individual. It is an ancient branch of learning, which delves into esoteric lore of old, into comparative religion, anthropology , and much more. It is about a perspective which delves into the unexplained, without the blinkers of superstition. And it is that whole which came within me from an early age.

Winnowed: Let’s forget Wicca for a bit. When did you become interested in the Law? When did you decide to become a lawyer?

Deepta: Perhaps I first thought of Law when I was completing my Mathematics degree at Delhi University. That’s when I applied to a couple of law schools abroad and started my course of legal studies.
What made me go into the study of law? I think there were two very strong individuals who I had grown up hearing about and who influenced my decision to go into law. And even though I myself had never met them (they had passed away earlier) their imprint remains as strong today as in their lifetimes. One of them was Nisith Chandra Sen, my great grandfather. He was a renowned criminal barrister, who was feared and regarded equally. I grew up hearing about how at the time of the freedom movement, he would fight for the downtrodden and those the administration of the day tried to choke off. He was a rebel, a fighter, and the British authorities of the day were afraid of him. They had no control over him, and they could not buy him off with a peerage.
The other remarkable person who I feel influenced my decision to go into law, was the enigmatic Carlotta (written about in Ipsita’s ‘Beloved Witch’). She was the one who initiated Ipsita into the Wiccan way, many decades ago in a chalet in the Laurentians in Canada. Carlotta was a lawyer who had studied law in Madrid. Her husband was high ranking in the Spanish army and came from a political background. They were living in Montreal at that time. She was, apart from being a lawyer, a scholar of the esoteric and ancient traditions of the world. I remember hearing about her, and seeing a few black and white photographs. Her strength, her scholarship, and her compassion. My mother’s Teacher. When I looked at her picture, and when I heard about her, I felt tangibly as if Carlotta’s knowledge was living on through Ipsita’s teachings.

Winnowed: Would you say you are a different lawyer on account of your practice of Wicca or are you just another corporate lawyer among the hundreds of Indian corporate lawyers?

Deepta: Is a Buddhist a different lawyer because he or she follows that path? Is a follower of the Sufi way a different lawyer because he or she is a Sufi ?

Winnowed: Point taken. Which year did you complete your law degree and what did you do after that?

Deepta: At the time I went to study law, I had just completed a first degree in Mathematics Hons from Delhi University. I graduated with an LLB Hons from King’s College London in 2005. After that I worked for a few months in the area of film production. Then I worked briefly at a law firm in London. Then I joined an FMCG in India. Then I switched to an oil and energy major – where I am currently.

Winnowed: What’s your average working day like? Does Wicca have any space in it?

Deepta: Wicca is the way I live my life. It is not something one can switch on/off. It is part of the person I am.

Winnowed: What’s your average week-end like? Does Wicca have any space in it?

Deepta: I love Sunday evenings- that’s when we (usually) have our Wiccan Brigade meetings led by our Teacher Ipsita. We do out study, our discussions, and come together. Throughout the week, all of us in the Brigade lead our day to day lives. The members are of all ages and from all walks of life. Some are 25, and some are 65. Some are in academia, some are in medicine, some are in finance, some are engineers, and many more. Some have large families and some are single. But we are all together and part of the Wiccan way in the gurukul system of old, a bond which perhaps was forged many lifetimes ago and still endures. We walk together on this path, which is a quest.

Winnowed: You are based in Kolkata. You have worked in Delhi and London. Do you miss either of these places? Are you at a disadvantage because you are in Kolkata?

Deepta: Let me put it this way. The Wiccan Brigade and Ipsita’s classes are based in Kolkata. As far as I’m concerned, this is the centre of my world!

Winnowed: Do you have any advice for budding lawyers/law students who may want to explore Wicca or other similar belief systems?

Deepta: As I see it, a belief system does not have anything to do with your profession. It impacts who you are as a person, and your perspective generally. But how can it change your skills in say law, or engineering or accountings, or medicine or any other profession?
Any advice? I would say, always have a mind which is free and unencumbered by conditioning. Think your own thoughts. Draw your own conclusions. Explore. Don’t follow. Lead.

Winnowed: How do colleagues in the legal fraternity look upon your Wiccan identity?

Deepta: There is interest, and sometimes there is curiosity. I think many lawyers appreciate the academic aspects of Wicca and the learning which goes into it. The fearlessness with which one looks at new ideas and new perspectives. The overcoming of conditioning. The spirit of adventure.

Winnowed: Do you find that people view your area of research (the supernatural) as ‘irrational’? Given that you are qualified with two very orthodox degrees (mathematics from Delhi University and law from King’s College London) , what do you feel about it?

Deepta: I think it is mostly superstition and fear of the unknown which makes people call the supernatural irrational. Almost like a defence mechanism. Perhaps even a lack of awareness. If you look at it, in the west, we have scientists from NASA, experimenting (successfully) with spirit orb photography. We have string theory of physics which talks of parallel dimensions. We have researchers from universities in Berlin and Southamptom, who are delving into survival of consciousness after death. And in India – we have superstition and fear.

Winnowed: You had some trouble with your publisher and you had to find a new publisher. What happened?

Deepta: I was shocked when a south Kolkata mall threatened and bullied the first publishers (Alchemy) into withdrawing the book in April this year. In fact, I couldn’t believe it when Alchemy wrote the mall an apology along with notice of their withdrawing the book! This was all against the backdrop of the mall not having read the story. I had referred to newspaper clipping which named the mall, in context of certain tragic accidents which have taken place there in recent times, and whereas the mall had not objected to national dailies reporting on it, they reacted to my book and wanted to stop it. Their management later admitted the same to the press, that they had not read the story.
When Life Positive Books took up this book, they did so completely. The mall had again written to them (Life Positive), but this time, the book was supported fully by the publishers.
When the book was withdrawn under pressure from the mall, Kolkata’s youth erupted in outrage, and this movement, “right to read” garnered tremendous support. Social media went wild, and I was deluged by people writing in to me, in support. The press in most major cities covered this news, but in Kolkata it was silent. Given that the mall is a big business conglomerate, there was much speculation amongst the people in Kolkata as to why the press in the city did not cover the issue.
The book was formally launched by Life Positive at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi on 15th July. Within a week of the launch, the book was rushed into first reprint! Then on 9th August, there was a city launch at the Taj Bengal in Kolkata, hosted by The Wiccan Brigade. The book was sold out at major retail outlets in Kolkata within about 5 days of supply!
I believe this book has a strange destiny of its own.

Winnowed: Is South City Mall one of your favourite haunts? Do you still go there?

Deepta: Oh yes, I definitely go to South City Mall. It is unfortunate that South City has such a tragic past and has seen so many deaths. In January 2014, newspapers reported a horrible accident where one worker was killed and three injured when a stairway from which they were hanging up banners suddenly collapsed. In June 2013, a young autistic girl fell to her death from the 20th floor of one of the high residential towers of South City. In August 2012, a woman with her two daughters jumped off the 35th floor of one of the residential towers there. In October the same year, a man jumped to his death from the 30th floor of one of the towers. In January 2012, a young man in his 30’s jumped to his death from the residential towers. The Hindustan Times Kolkata called it the “death parade of South City” (in article ‘Girl jumps to death from South City’, June 18, 2013 , Hindustan Times Kolkata). And to come to present times, just a few weeks ago, in August 2015, newspapers reported how the blood splattered body of a young 25 year old man was found in the parking lot of South City mall. So many deaths, so much blood. It is a place which has seen much tragedy.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Book Review: Aarushi by Avirook Sen

The Madeline McCann Kidnapping took place in Portugal around eight years ago and the then four year old remains untraced even now. A few months after Madeline disappeared, the Portuguese police declared that Madeline’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, were suspects in her disappearance. The police theory was that Kate and Gerry, British doctors who were visiting Portugal when Madeline disappeared, had accidentally killed Madeline and had hidden her body. At that point in time I was living and working in London. During a casual conversation with a colleague, an Englishman who did not have much faith in the Portuguese police force, I suggested that it was possible the Portuguese police were right, that the McCanns may have accidentally killed their daughter and then hidden her body to avoid punishment. I could make out that my colleague was staggered to hear my views, though he maintained a stiff upperlip. He was also angry and annoyed, though he remained silent for a bit, only to curtly ask what made me so sure. I wasn’t. Parents Kate and Gerry belonged to the same social class as my colleague, who was also a parent and he did not believe that it was possible that the McCanns were lying to the police and trying to fool everyone, even if they had accidentally killed their daughter. Over the years, the cloud of suspicion has lifted from the McCanns and having followed this case very keenly, I am now convinced that the allegations made by the Portuguese police were completely baseless.

I was reminded of Madeline McCann’s case as I read Avirook Sen’s book on Aarushi, the almost fourteen year old who was brutally murdered in a Noida flat in May 2008, almost exactly a year after Madeline disappeared. Aarushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were well-to-do dentists in their late forties and Aarushi was an only child. Hemraj, a Nepalese manservant who lived with the Talwars was also found murdered on the terrace of the same flat, though his body was detected only after a day. Pretty soon after the murder, the Talwars came under suspicion, the police theory, which was later taken on by the CBI, being that they had caught Aarushi in a compromising position with Hemraj and had killed her, a classic case of honour killing. Additional Superintendent AGL Kaul of the CBI was so convinced of the Talwar’s guilt that he went out of his way to pressurize various witnesses to give evidence damning the Talwars. Dr. S. M. Dahiya, director of the Forensic Science Laboratory in Ahmedabad, the same clever gent who examined the Godhra carriages and decided that they had been set ablaze by a mob, also toed Kaul’s line and declared that the Aarushi murder was a classic case of honour killing.

As soon as I heard of the honour killing theory in connection with Aarushi's murder, I knew that the police had got it totally wrong. A man like Rajesh Talwar would not do it, I had told myself and everyone else who was interested, just as my English colleague had refused to believe that the McCanns could be lying to the police. Avirook Sen’s book backs up my gut feel regarding Aarushi. The UP Police who commenced the investigation assume that Aarushi led a “loose” lifestyle with many boyfriends. The fourteen year old was actually no different from any other fourteen year in this day and age in a big city like Delhi and her male friends were just that, friends. Rajesh Talwar was said to be having an affair with Aarushi’s friend’s mother. Sen goes to the extent of saying that because Dahiya is a Jat, a community known for its Khap panchayats and honour killings, he assumes that Rajesh Talwar too shares his own belief systems. Nupur’s unwillingness to show the slightest subservience to police officials, her putting on make-up when the investigation was on, not crying enough, all of these pointed to her guilt in the eyes of the investigators.

When the McCanns fells under a cloud of suspicion, they too were criticized for doing similar things, for exercising, putting on makeup, having emotional resilience etc.

The various narco tests and polygraphs done on Rajesh and Nupur show them to be innocent. On the other hand, the tests done on Krishna, a Nepali youth employed in Rajesh’s clinic and two of his friends, suggests that they were around when Arushi was killed and they were probably the murderers.

If the Talwars were unlucky in having a set of biased and prejudiced investigators gunning for them, they also had a bad press which reported everything parroted by the investigators. The judges were equally unfriendly and the district judge who gave the verdict against them seems to have been cut from the same cloth as Kaul and Dahiya. Sen goes to the extent of claiming that Judge Shyam Lal, who is very proud of his English, actually started writing his lengthy judgement in atrocious, cliched English, much before the defence counsel started his arguments.

It is the prosecution’s job to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Talwars committed the crime they have been accused of. The Talwars do not have to provide an alternative narrative or find the real culprit. They only have to show loopholes in the prosecutions case. And there is a big loophole, in that, Hemraj’s blood was not found in Aarushi’s room. Since Hemraj was found murdered on the terrace, fully clothed, it is quite likely that he was murdered on the terrace. Dahiya’s honour killing theory is based on the mistaken assumption that Hemraj’s blood and pillow were found in Aarushi’s room.

I also knew that our policemen were corrupt and inefficient. However, the miscarriage of justice in the Aarushi case is not a result of corruption, but prejudice, arrogance and wanton nastiness, a sheer unwillingness to accept mistakes even when pointed out. For me the most heart breaking scene is when Rajesh Talwar is on one occasion being taken to court from jail and has to be handcuffed. Since the police do not have enough handcuffs, they handcuff Rajesh and Krishna (the man who probably committed the murder) together. ‘Don’t do this, this man has killed my daughter,’ Rajesh Talwar pleads, but to no avail.

In Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she has documented a specific case of police officers lying to falsely implicate a poor man in a case of attempted murder, though it is actually a case of attempted suicide. Though Boo has named the officers in question, one is sure that no action will be taken against such officers. However, I believed that the poor and underprivileged alone are victims of such corruption and inefficiency. The rich can buy their way out of trouble and the middle-classes can stay out of trouble, such as from being indicted for an offence they did not commit, or so I thought. In that sense, the fate suffered by the Talwars comes as a rude jolt. Here’s a case of an upper middle-class couple being not only falsely accused of murdering their own daughter, but also being convicted by a trial court.

I am convinced more than ever that the Talwars are innocent. I would rather not give more reasons for why I think so and end up summarizing Sen’s excellent book, written in simple, but incisive prose. If you are too busy to read it for yourself, here’s a list of ten reasons why Sen thinks the Talwars are innocent.

I have blogged about the Talwars in the past.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Book Review: Bhangarh to Bedlam - Haunted Encounters by Deepta Roy Chakraverti

For those you haven’t heard of Deepta Roy Chakraverti and her famous mother Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, here’s the plug. Ipsita is a self-proclaimed Wiccan priestess based in India. I assume there aren’t many of those around. Ipsita’s father was a diplomat and she grew up in Canada where at the age of fifteen, she commenced a five-year course studying ancient cultures, rituals, texts and mysticism. At the end of her training, Ipsita opted to practice Wicca, a pagan witchcraft religion which was revived in the UK around 60 years ago. Ipsita is married to Jayanta Roy, an Odissa royal. Ipsita’s daughter Deepta has taken after her mother – she too practices Wicca, but she is also a corporate lawyer.

Deepta Roy Chakraverti has now come up with a collection of twelve “incidents” (I consciously avoid the word “stories”), which are based on her experiences. A trained Wiccan, Chakraverti has used her logical mind, sharpened senses of perception and intuition to analyse her experiences, applying the Wiccan philosophy that there is much more to the world than what is merely seen or heard. A born skeptic, I wondered if I would be able to appreciate Chakraverti’s intuition, perception, clairvoyance and empathy as I started reading the collection. I needn’t have worried. Chakraverti is such a good narrator that she is able to take along all sorts of folks on her boat.

Chakraverti’s experiences commence at Bhangarh Fort, on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, about a hundred kilometres from Jaipur, in the district of Alwar. One of its past rulers, Jai Singh II was a believer in the mystical and he installed a young and beautiful Rani Ratnawati to work her magic and ensure the success of Jai Singh. Ratnawati was adept at the occult arts and a mistress of magic. Under Ratnawati, Bhangarh thrived and resonated with energy and vitality. Ratnawati was able to harness the streams that ran through it in the midst of the desert. Singhia, the prince of neighbouring Ajabgarh, was smitten by Ratnawati, but could not win her heart. His struggle to do so cost him his life. As he died, he cursed Bhangarh that it would become a prison of souls. All who died there would forever be trapped there. Singhia’s curse came true. In 1783, a massive famine overtook Bhangarh and ever since, it has been a deserted township, Chakraverti tells us.

When Ipsita, Deepta and gang visited Bhangarh Fort, they faced a steep climb up to the main fort on a slippery path, but when they reached the top they were rewarded with a stunning view. A set of crumbling stairs took them to the main corridor of the fort. Deepta tells us that she ‘could make out a dull whispering noise. Many presences. Tortured beings, held back in captivity. Trapped within these walls through the distorted workings which were carried on year after year. This fort was a living entity we were intruding upon. And it would not welcome us. We must make our own way.

They did proceed forward. Chakraverti’s narration is gentle, but she keeps her readers on her toes. One believes her as she says that, vibrations of past prayers and rituals seemed to emanate from the rocks and the land. ‘One corner of the courtyard seemed to shimmer and vibrate. We were all aware of the sudden shift in atmosphere and an electric feel in the air. We sat up now, alert and still. As we gazed in the direction, it was almost as if a mist was trying to coalesce and take form. A slim woman, not very tall. Spinning, as in a dance, with her skirt billowing out about her and her veil flowing with the wind. Pale blue, glowing, as if the whole image had been dusted with silver shards. Her arms were held out slightly as she slowed down and stopped. It was a fragile and delicate shadow, with deep-seated sadness within her. She seemed to be seeking something, asking for help, with her arms stretched out in front.

To cut a long story short, Ipsita managed to communicate with the spirit and found out that she was Sooraj Bai, who had been a young dancer in Akbar’s court who had fallen out of favour and banished to Bhangarh. I will not reveal more here, but will leave it to you to read this story for yourself.

For me, some of Chakraverti’s best experieces are set in places I am familiar with – Mumbai and London. The one in Mumbai titled "Who Walks On Marine Drive?” starts off when Chakraverti visits Mumbai on work (as a corporate lawyer). A walk along the Marine Drive results in meeting a peanut seller surrounded by spirits of people who had died suddenly and were looking for someone to talk to. And why would they want to do that? Please read this excellent collection to find out for yourselves.

After the ninth experience, Chakraverti suddenly takes us to London. Which shouldn’t have been a big surprise since Chakraverti studied law (as an undergraduate) at King’s College, London University. The first London “experience” is at Harrods and involves Princess Diana. As everyone knows, Diana’s lover (and the man who died with her in the tragic car crash) Dodi Fayed’s father owns Harrods, which has a small memorial to Diana, including the wine glass she drank from before setting out on her last journey. We are told that ‘She stood there, her face so close to the glass as to be pressed to it, while one palm rested on the glass, as if trying to touch the chalice within through the layers of separation. She was tall and the folds of her pale blue dress fell gracefully around her. Her sandy golden hair touched her shoulders and moved slightly as she seemed to rub her cheek against the glass of the case. Her silhouette looked so familiar.

The second London experience, The Night Of The ‘Soul Bell’ turned out to be my favourite for various reasons. For one, the settings were very familiar. Chakraverti is in the final year of her law degree at King’s College London, a place which I am very familiar with, having taken a couple of King’s College courses for my Masters Degree in Law from London University. Famous pubs such as Wig and Pen, Knights Templar, Chancery Lane, The Royal Courts of Justice, the Church of St. Mary le Strand, Bell Yard – all very familiar places! The spirit in this instance happens to be an interesting character named Mrs. Lovett, who was in love with Sweeny Todd, a serial killer. The reason why Mrs. Lovett’s pies tasted so good is revealed to us during the course of the story. No, I’m not going to give away the secret. You’ll have to read this excellent book for yourself to find out.

Ipsita Roy Chakraverti has written the Forward to this book and she explains that ‘Wicca was originally a woman-oriented craft invoking the Mother Goddess and Her powers.’ Maybe for this reason, most of the spirits with whom the Charavertis connect are women. The female spirits we are introduced to (Sooraj Bai, Shyama Pallavi, a widow who was abonded and left to die, a Persian female scholar in Lodhi’s court who was most probably poisoned to death, Princess Diana, Mrs. Lovett, Eliza Josolyne – described below) are all strong characters who are timeless and admirable even by modern day standards.

How do the Chakaverti mother-daughter duo manage to be so clairvoyant and connect with spirits? Chakraverti gives us a clue when describing her experiences at Konark when she could hear loud chattering which was not the cry of birds, Chakraverti says, ‘I closed my eyes. An old practice. When one of the senses is not enough to lift the veil, one reaches for the others, which can go beyond the tangible. I willed my consciousness to explore. Like invisible fingers, probing beyond, going past the cement and glass of the building, beyond the drooping green branches and the stillness. The elements responded, and I could feel the strength of the red gravelly soil, and the quick heartbeat of the rocks and stones, which lay scattered at every step on the path to the nearby sun temple. The moist leaves and patches of grass sagged and gave way easily to my search. But there was something just beyond the foliage which was aware of my presence. It was watchful and hesitant.

Chakraverti’s narration is not a plain vanilla description of her experiences. There is a fair amount of science and analysis thrown in. She quotes diverse authorities such as Issac Newton who toyed with the occult and the black sciences. When detailing her experience at Indira Gandhi’s house at 1, Safdarjung Road, which has been turned into a memorial, where she feels Indira Gandhi’s spirit and sees two figures from behind, a short-haired woman and a kurta-clad, heavy-set younger man, she quotes Marcel Vogel, a research scientist from IBM’s San Jose Research Centre, in order to back up her theories about crystals and their power to retain memories.

Though I call myself a rationalist, I was able to enjoy the book and at times even wished I were a teeny bit less left-brained so that I could appreciate Charaverti’s experiences better. Once I totally failed to make the final connection. This happened in the final experience which is based in Bedlam (the place where the famous old mental asylum was located), after meeting yet another spirit, Chakraverti does some limited digging around and declares that the spirit was none other than Eliza Josolyne, a domestic help who was admitted to Bedlam at the age of eighteen. Now how did Chakraverti decide that its Eliza Josolyne’s spirit that she met a few weeks earlier? There is no mention of any out of the world communication to such effect. Never mind, that was one minor hiccup. On the whole, Bhangarh to Bedlam is an excellent read irrespective of whether you are psychic or clairvoyant or clairaudient or clairsentient or something in between or none of these.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Book Review: Captain Hawk by SJ Garland

1823. Singapore. The East India Company is at the height of its powers. The Indian mutiny is many decades away in coming. Singapore is a sleepy piss-pot slum on the tip of the Malay Peninsula which has been recently colonised by Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles on behalf of her Majesty, a place which crawls with soldiers, sailors, taverns, pirates and traders, not to mention women of ill repute and easy virtue. Enter Nathaniel Hawk, the progeny of the celebrated Captain Sebastian Hawk, one of the most famous sailors in the employ of the East India Company Captain. Nate is your typical prodigal son. Though talented enough to be one of the best sea captains in the British navy, Nate has chosen a life of gambling and adventure on terra firma. When Nate arrives in Singapore to spend Christmas with his father, he has no intention of changing his lifestyle. Fate however has other plans for Nate who never gets to meet his celebrated Father. Seb’s ship Diligence is attacked and destroyed by a so-called ghost ship and Seb seems to have met a watery grave.

Since Great Britain is at odds with the Dutch, Nate’s initial suspicions fall on the Dutch and it is easy to hate the Dutch sailors in Singapore who had no love for his father, especially Captain Jacob Collaart. An uneasy truce prevails in the far-east between the British and the Dutch and there’s actually a moratorium in place, while a treaty is being negotiated back in Europe.

Once Nate starts the hunt for his father’s killers, he realises that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. The captain of the so-called ghost ship is a master of his craft and the first battle results in the sinking of the Falcon and the death of Buck, its captain. Worse is yet to come. The battles bring back to Nate the ghosts of his previous battles, nightmares he had run away from.

Garland has done an excellent job in conveying the touch and feel of those times. Research, she has positively carried out and Captain Hawk is definitely a period drama. However, Garland’s characters are not stereotypes from Victorian times. Human beings tend to be the same everywhere, across time and geographies and Garland’s characters, as they go about discharging their roles in humid 19th century Singapore, lie, cheat and betray. They are also at times kind and considerate and loyal. Some of Garland’s female characters play a significant role. For example, the much married Maggie loves Masters and Cornelius too. Charlotte Carstairs, who is in love with Edward Bishop, is the narrator of a big chunk of the novel and definitely a woman of substance. When the novel begins, we find that Charlotte’s father William Carstairs has taken a big gamble by not insuring his cargo ship, the Navarch and lost, when the Navarch is sunk by the ghost ship. Edward and Nate are good friends and as the novel progresses, Edward dies. But hold on, Nate doesn’t automatically step into Edward’s shoes, no. Garland doesn’t make it any easy for Nate and that’s all that I’ll say here.

Singapore is a cruel place where brothel-keepers use their own daughters as merchandise and towards the end Nate realises that good and evil are all mixed up. Individuals who he thought were above suspicion are definitely clothed in grey and the answers are not always to his liking. I’ll end here rather than give away the story, but if you are a history fiction buff, like I am, Captain Hawk is a helluva read. Do go for it.

A special thanks to SJ Garland for sending me a pdf copy of her novel.

The book:
Captain Hawk by SJ Garland
Publisher: Maple Kakapo Limited
Published: May 2015
ISBN: 978-0473319236
Pages: 308
Price: $13.00

The Author:
SJ Garland hails from Vancouver Canada and has travelled widely. Currently she lives in Singapore. Garland enjoys skiing, cooking, rugby and sampling wines from around the world. Garland specialises in historical fiction.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

On International Driving Permits

Many years ago, as I prepared to leave for the UK to pursue my higher studies, I was advised to get myself an International Driving Permit. It will allow you to drive in the UK, I was told. I wondered how any authority in India could issue a permit which allowed an Indian citizen to drive in another country. Later in the UK, I found out that foreigners can drive for a year from the date of their arrival on the strength of the driving licence issued by their home countries. The UK did not care whether the Indian driving licence was an ordinary Indian driving licence or an International Driving Permit issued by an Indian authority.

The above is true of most English speaking countries. They do not differentiate between a standard driving licence and an International Driving Permit. Why then do so many people spend money in acquiring an International Driving Permit before venturing overseas?

International Driving Permits are issued under an international convention which allows member countries to issue such permits for use overseas. The idea is to facilitate residents of one state to drive in another, until they are settled in the new state.

I did a quick survey and found that in the UK, New Zealand, most states of the USA, most states of Australia, Canada etc., a standard driving licence will suffice, provided it’s in English. Even in Germany, an International Driving Permit is not required if the licence is in English. Which means, Indians can drive with an Indian licence. On the other hand, in places like Japan where local policemen would have problems deciphering a driving licence written in English, an International Driving Permit is required.

I’m told that even in a developing country like the Philippines (where English is widely used), Indians can drive using their Indian driving licences for three months from the date of arrival, after which they need to get a local driving licence. If you are travelling to Manila, don’t waste your time and money on an International Driving Permit. Your Indian licence will do.

In Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates, visitors need an International Driving Permit to drive. The IDP must be accompanied by the Indian licence. Once a visitor has been issued a UAE resident visa, a UAE driving licence is required. In Saudi Arabia too visitors need an International Driving Permit to drive and can do so only for 3 months. The IDP must be accompanied by the Indian licence.

Go on then, before investing time and money in acquiring an International Driving Permit, do find out if it is really required. In most cases, it is not. Your ordinary driving licence will suffice.

You better read this, if nothing else: This blogpost is not meant to be legal advice and don’t you come to me looking for compensation if you rely on the stuff above and make a fool of yourself. Please move your arse and verify the facts for yourself. Also, I am generally a lazy bum and am unlikely to update this shit even if the facts change.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Book Review: The Orphanage for Words, by Shinie Antony

What’s common to Chetan Bhagat and me? We are both fans of Shinie Antony, the author of a number of novels and short story collections such as Kardamom Kisses, Barefoot and Pregnant, Why Don’t We Talk, Séance on a Sunday Afternoon, When Mira Went Forth And Multiplied etc. and who I believe has edited Chetan Bhagat’s recent literary endeavours. Antony’s most recent book, The Orphanage for Words, is a collection of short stories, all of which revolve around ‘loss’. something which Antony suffered when her father passed away not so long ago. The chapter titled ‘Fathers’ is a touching account of her father’s last few days and was previously published, with minor differences, in the Hindu. At the end of ‘Fathers’, Antony tells us that she is used to confiding everything in her Dad. She tells him everything! Naturally, the book is For Dad.

Even though the theme of The Orphanage for Words is totally different from Antony’s previous books, it is easy to recognise the Antony girl. 'I need common sense, she thinks desperately, as if ordering a drink. One Common Sense, please. On the rocks, with ice, lots and lots of ice.' Later towards the end of the story as she breaks up with her lover, the Antony girl bravely decides that ‘she is going to ace it, the business of being an ex.’ In another story and in another world, the jilted female lover concludes that ‘the next time, if there was a next time, there would be a safety net – of a formal engagement and parental blessings-when it came to men. Perishables like love and lust are best refrigerated in marriages. She would play the game society’s way. That way, when he fled they would chase after him and club him to death’. Antony does not use a moral meter as her protagonists, mainly women, have affairs, abortions, suffer cheating husbands, express desire, display lust, scream, cry and get on with life. She is mildly amused, Antony is, as she looks at her characters on the moving travellator, unashamedly put on public display for the whole world to see.

Cancer is a sure fire way of suffering a loss but Antony’s cancer victims are survivors. In Hair, when Afreen Khaala or Afri-ka loses all her hair as a result of the chemo, her sister, the narrator’s mother, strokes and kisses Afri-ka’s hairless head in order to comfort her even though she never liked the vegetable stir-fry which Afri-ka made. It is unclear who is more traumatised – Afri-ka or her sister. However, in Breasts, the cancer victim is braver, even utilitarian. Her breasts are ‘like small trusting things not made for this world. Like secrets told before their time. With veins like baby skies under the skin.’ Such breasts can salvage a situation.

What happens when a woman undertakes a 24 hour journey to meet with a former teacher, one she had an affair with, now suffering from Alzheimer’s? Is she entitled to assume that her former lover, one she almost had a baby with, remembers the kiss she had initiated many, many years ago? Is she right in thinking that as a nineteen year old ugly duckling she had possibly initiated the affair with her 46 year old teacher who was only being kind to her?

Oh! And in case you thought The Orphanage for Words is all about women in various stages of undress, that’s not true. There’s a girl who has an accident and dies (and goes on to narrate her own story) and a dog which falls out of a multi-storey and also dies (and is hugged by a boy who I assume loved it). An old man loses a lot of skin on his feet and ends up inconveniencing his daughter-in-law who is all set to go out that evening. Actually she does go out and the old man’s son takes him to the hospital. Because, in Sandeep’s own words, it’s his job, not his wife’s. Why should others spoil their day on account of Sandeep’s father?

In The Orphanage for Words, loss never seems to cause sharp piercing pain which kills. The Antony girls and other protagonists are too brave and strong to die on account their loss. The agony is more of the lingering kind, the one which gets worse as some of the memories fade, a few random ones get stronger and as one struggles to remember. Antony is so good with her prose that hours or even days after one puts down The Orphanage for Words, her words return to haunt her victims, the knife twisting in the wound as one considers yet another permutation or combination amongst so many vague possibilities.

Do read The Orphanage for Words for Antony is unique among Indian writers and The Orphanage for Words is easily her best. Till date.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Book Review: Death in Mumbai by Meenal Baghel

Neeraj Grover, an employee of Synergy Adlabs, a Mumbai based television content production house was murdered on 7 May 2008. A few weeks later, actress Maria Susairaj and her boyfriend naval officer Emile Jerome were arrested for Neeraj’s murder. Eventually, Emile Mathew was convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and for destroying evidence and is still in jail. Maria Susairaj was sentenced to three years imprisonment for destroying evidence – she was acquitted of any role in the murder - and since she had already served most of her sentence by the time the trial ended, she walked free pretty soon after the sentencing. The murder and the subsequent trial caused a media sensation, especially because the murderers were alleged to have cut up the victim’s body into 300 pieces before partially burning it. There have been a number of movies on this topic, but Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai is the only one book on this topic, at least in English, which has been published by a Tier 1 publisher.

At the beginning of her 230-odd pages book, Baghel gives us a hint of what to expect when she says that ‘large swathes of Mumbai have been ‘reclaimed’, as if the sea were an encroacher against whom a case had been filed and won.’ Baghel devotes as much energy and space telling us about the lives of television executives like Neeraj Grover, television moghuls like Ekta Kapoor and Oshiwara where many aspirants to Bollywood and television live and where Balaji Telefilms and Yashraj Films have their offices, as she does in narrating the story of Neeraj Grover, Maria Susairaj, Emile Jerome and the people who surrounded them in their day to day lives. We even get glimpses of celebrity movie directors such as Ram Gopal Varma!

Neeraj Grover was a Kanpuria, the son of an immigrant from Peshawar. A small town boy who dreamed of making it big, as restless, hardworking and ambitious as they come, a glib talker who was successful with women. Baghel, true to form, takes her readers to Kanpur and walks them through the city which was once called the Manchester of the East before ennui and industrial decay took over. Emile Jerome on the other hand was the son of Malayali immigrants to Mysore, middle-class to the core, educated at good schools such as St. Matthias and Marimala Pass. Jerome was unsuccessful in cracking the IIT entrance exam, but made it to the Naval Engineer’s Course in 2000. After completing his BTech, he decided to join the Marcos, India’s reputed marine commando unit, but was not accepted, more because the Navy did not want to lose an engineer. He however passed a grueling divers course, one in which only 5 or 6 out of 30 odd applicants qualified.

Maria Susairaj was the spoilt daughter of a construction moghul in Mysore, an immigrant from Tamil Nadu. She went to the same school as Emile, but was his senior. Neeraj Grover and Maria Susairaj had a lot in common. They both wanted fame and were willing to take shortcuts. Emile Jerome and Maria Susairaj did not have much in common, other than that they were from Mysore and were Catholics. Did Maria actually love Emile? Most probably she did, since she always introduced Emile as her fiancé even though Emile’s haughty parents had refused to accept her. Why did Maria want to marry Emile even as she flirted around Oshiwara, trying to make her way up the Bollywood ladder? Why did Emile kill Neeraj? Was it an unplanned act carried out in the heat of the moment or was it preplanned? Did Emile and Maria have sex immediately after the murder? Or was it an act of rape? These questions do not have easy answers, but Baghel does not best to provide some in her excellent book. Written in elegant but limpid prose, Death in Mumbai is a riveting read for all those interested in the Neeraj Grover murder.