Thursday, 26 March 2015

Book Review: Forgetting by Devashish Makhija


What makes one forget the past? Embarrassment? Inconvenience? Guilt? Because one doesn’t give a damn? How easy is it to read about a new dam being built and not think of the consequential displacement of the people living in the hamlets that will soon be submerged? In one of Makhija’s stories, an adivasi boatman is asked where his village is, as he rows a boat across the waters of a dam. ‘Right below us,’ he murmurs.

There are 49 stories in Devashish Makhija’s recently released Forgetting, each of them a concentrated gem of pain or suffering or anguish or sometime just a memory. In the first story By/Two, Rahman and Rahim are identical twins who share an autorickshaw in Mumbai. The autorickshaw is langdi, the lame one, a beast with three legs, one that sends tremors up the driver’s legs, like a cheap massage. One of the brothers is dumb and so the other is forced to play dumb as well – you see, only the dumb brother has a licence to ply the rick. To the entire world, the rickshaw has only one driver, a man who doesn’t have the need for sleep, a legendary Duronto among other drivers. The brothers had run away from Akbarpur to Mumbai when they were young, to escape from the tyranny of their butcher father. From Akbarpur, ‘a small filth-heap of a town that sprang up along the railway tracks soon after the East India Company ran the first train across the nations breasts.’ To Mumbai, a Mecca that feeds those who live in its bowels, despite the lies they tell. Every time there is a blast in Mumbai, Rahim is picked up for interrogation, Indian police-style. Beatings, kicks, questions. Finally Rahim’s heart gives way and the police tell Rahman that there’s a body in his rick. Do the memories linger forever? I assume they do.

Makhija’s writing is not pleasant. I don’t think it’s meant to be pleasant. It is messy and convoluted, just like memories and forgetfulness.

It’s not only the oppressed and the victims who try to forget, or remember, if you will. There are many middle-class Indians who see, feel, smell and try to hold on to their memories. A few would rather not.

I’m trying to forget, but it isn’t working. These stories are gonna stay in my head for a while, I think.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Book Review: Miles To Run Before I Sleep, by Sumedha Mahajan


Our ancestors used to run to survive, to hunt food and to escape from predators. Human beings can run for sustained periods of time, unlike all other animals. Running is no longer so important for the modern human being, who lives in an integrated world with such an efficient food supply chain that one can consume all the food one wants without ever setting foot on a farm. We still use our legs and feet to move and it will be a long, long time before they atrophy and become relics of the past, if at all. Even though brute physical strength is no longer so essential for survival, we still enjoy competitions that require speed, strength and stamina. Of the various sports and games that we either participate in or at least watch, running races are among the most popular. We have them in schools and colleges. Almost all multi-sports events ranging from the Olympics to the Asian Games give pride of place to both short and long distance running events. Running events of various lengths, ranging from 10 kilometres to ultra marathons, are held almost all year round, all over the world.

What is it that forces so many otherwise normal men and women to rig their alarm clocks to ring before dawn, slip on a pair of trainers, a few of them very expensive and many not so, and run and run and run, before returning to a standard humdrum existence? What was it that made Sumedha Mahajan, a brave woman who has suffered from asthma since childhood, to run a Greenathon from Delhi to Mumbai, a distance of over 1,500 kilometres, along with five other similarly crazy people? A few months before Sumedha started her Delhi-Mumbai run, she had unsuccessfully participated in the 2012 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. A month before SCMM 2012 which ended as DNF (Did Not Finish), Mahajan was the victim of a hit and run car accident. It was definitely a leap of faith for Mahajan, a leap into the dark, so to say, something the average human being, including yours truly, would not have the guts to commit oneself to.

I found Mahajan’s Miles to Run Before I Sleep unputdownable. Written in simple, functional English, Mahajan has chronicled how she took up running and despite her asthma and other health issues, became a long distance runner who was invited by Milind Soman and others to join a team of six crack runners who would run a Greenathon from Delhi to Mumbai in 30 days, covering a distance of 1,500 kilometres, in a bid to highlight the importance of preserving the environment.

Mahajan’s daily struggle on account of her various ailments and asthma as well as inadequate support from the crew as she ran 1,500 kilometres in 30 days makes Miles to Run Before I Sleep a compelling read. At times I was reminded of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, except that Mahajan was successful and Amundsen’s trek would probably be a better comparison. Mahajan combated bad food, diarrhoea, stress fractures, disputes with the crew, bad weather, unruly highway traffic, pollution and periods. I am not going to disclose more here, but will leave it to you to read this wonderful book for yourself and find out more.

Miles To Run Before I Sleep offers its readers a study in human behaviour. The six runners and their crew set out on their expedition on the best of terms and spirits, all noble intentions and all, but things soon began to disintegrate. The crew was composed of non-sportsmen who did not understand what running is all about. This I think is a common refrain across various sporting events and organisations in India. Almost all sporting bodies are run by non-sports persons, usually politicians. Most marathons are organised by businessmen or politicians who have an agenda. As TRPs generated for the run failed to meet expectations, the journalists accompanying the runners became disinterested. When runners across cities flocked to accompany the six runners for brief stretches, the crew failed to extent any hospitality to the guests. Was this really the crew’s fault, I wonder? Were they warned in advance of the guests’ arrival and were they expected to have additional supplies for the new arrivals? Mahajan does not make this point very clear.

Raj Vadgama was one of the six runners and Mahajan tells us that on Day 25 he had a serious fight with the crew when they served cold coffee – only to Milind Soman and denied it to the other five runners. Soman tried to calm things down, but he was unsuccessful. Vadgama left the team and ran on his own, but he did complete the run. Recently Vadgama has been in the news on account of his Bharathon.

Mahajan’s first marathon was the SCMM 2011. We are told that though Mahajan ran without a clear plan and forgot to hydrate herself for the first half of the race, she ran in under five hours and came 15th in her category. A few months later, she ran a marathon in Malaysia and came 6th. The same year, she ran the 75-kilometre Bangalore Ultra and was the winner in her category. When it seemed that the sky was the limit and the next SCMM was barely a month away, fate willed otherwise and she was hit by a speeding car. An injured Mahajan bravely took part in the SCMM 2012, but did not finish. She also abandoned her plans to run the Comrades Ultra in South Africa, but that did not stop her from accepting Milind Soman’s invitation to take part in the 1500 kilometre Greenathon!

The Greenathon started on 20th April 2012, when summer was already underway. Why didn’t they choose to run in the cooler months, I wondered? Mahajan does not offer any explanation.

Mahajan does not seem to be one of those people who follow specific diets or plans. We are told that as preparation for the Greenathon, she used to eat 500 grams of homemade paneer, a lot of yoghurt, peanuts dates, spinach and fruits daily. Though she does not say so, one gathers that she is a vegetarian, but not a vegan. There is very little discussion about the merits or de-merits of any diet or exercise regime. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Listen to your body and eat what you feel like in moderation. That’s me, not Mahajan, though I’m sure Mahajan would endorse my statement.

Mahajan is highly observant and her various comments regarding the places she ran though are very interesting. A number of towns and large sections of the highway were extremely polluted, causing Mahajan to wonder about the cost we are paying for India’s development. The sad truth is that India’s poor are paying a disproportionately high price for this so called modernisation, though they stand to gain little in the short term. In various parts of Rajasthan, Mahajan was an item of curiosity as she ran wearing clothes which were considered unsuitable for women! It was not just illiterate villagers who disapproved of Mahajan's run. Even Mahajan's parents had initially felt that she ought to stay at home and think of having a baby, before Mahajan won them over to her side!

I have a friend who is chauffer driven to work daily. Most days, on his way back, he runs part of the way, around five kilometres and his car trails him. Sometimes he runs the entire distance of around eight kilometres. Though this works well for my friend, the environment gains nothing on account of my friend’s run, in terms of cutting down on fossil-fuel usage and carbon emissions. Most long distance runs are supported runs. The Greenathon runners required extensive support – they were tailed by a large crew in buses and cars carrying their supplies – it could not have been otherwise, though the idea was to draw attention to environmental issues and the need to preserve the environment. In an ideal world, a really fit runner ought to be able to run from Delhi to Mumbai, taking breaks on the way, buying food and water from clean wayside restaurants and dabhas, serving hygienic food and water. “You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will live as one.” I’m sure Mahajan would endorse this quotation.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Book Review: The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi by Aditya Sudarshan

Aditya Sudarshan, author of A Nice Quiet Holiday and Show Me A Hero, has come up with his third novel. When I finished reading the first page of The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi, I had started to believe that Sudarshan’s latest offering is a gently flowing story with a simple mystery or crime to be solved, something on the lines of his first (A Nice Quiet Holiday), not unlike an Agatha Christie, with maybe a touch of Wodehouse.

However, after I turned a few more pages and found out that Madhav was an important officer in the Ministry, I thought I detected a hint of George Orwell’s 1984. As I read further, it seemed I was a bit off the mark. There was no Big Brother and I didn’t know where I was headed, until I realised that I was in a Matrix. You know how it is. One can’t explain the Matrix. You’ve got to read it for yourself to find out.

Persecution comes in various forms and intensity levels. Usually it is the weak or meek who are persecuted. Minorities may feel persecuted when they are denied their rights. However, Madhav Tripathi is a successful bureaucrat, in good health, a week short of his thirtieth birthday and does not really have an excuse to feel persecuted. Also, it’s not just Madhav who is persecuted. Even Shivani, his pretty girlfriend, is targeted.

Can one be persecuted by one’s own thoughts? If yes, would that be the result of one’s guilt? And why should Madhav or Shivani feel guilty? Sudarshan does offer a few clues – the country-side has been devastated by something, possibly famine. Humans live like animals, having possibly mutated. No, we are still in India, an India with slums and dirt and a lot of riff-raff, a place almost unrecognisable to the reader. Would a murderer feel persecuted by his victim’s relatives who may possibly be searching for him, in their quest for revenge? Should Madhav Tripathi feel persecuted as he works his way up the ranks of the Ministry, under the tutelage of the ever-so-powerful Secretary?

Madhav Tripathi’s oppressors are a determined lot. They do not wilt under pressure. Though they seem to be working class, they seem to be everywhere. Madhav’s friends and well-wishers are equally determined and they too take casualties. Unlike Sudarshan’s first two novels, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi has a lot more violence and dead bodies, though most dead bodies do come back to life.

I liked Nisha a lot. Nisha is Madhav’s previous girlfriend and she reminded me of a character from the French Revolution, strong, powerful and determined. At times, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi seemed to be set in the cusp of a violent revolution. Does Madhav’s guilt on account of his own success and the poverty around him cause him to image the revolution and persecution?

Sudarshan writes very well and I’d say that he has definitely evolved as a writer. His prose is limpid, yet beautiful. The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi is a brilliant and cunning fantasy novel that leads to nowhere and yet takes the reader places.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Book Review: Red Handed – 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, by Souvik Bhadra and Pingal Khan


Around 15 months after the release of leading corporate lawyer Zia Mody’s 10 Judgements That Changed India, two young and enterprising lawyers have brought out a book on criminal cases that caused India to shudder. Souvik Bhadra and Pingal Khan’s Red Handed – 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, cannot be called a thriller since the twenty cases analysed in the slim paperback volume are well-known to most Indians. However, what makes it a worthwhile read is the analysis and comments that intersperse the well-known facts.

Most cases involve a murder or two and the death penalty. One meets Dhananjoy Chatterjee, the cruel watchman in Kolkata who tormented and later murdered young schoolgirl Hetal Parekh. Santosh Kumar Singh who murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo and Manu Sharma who shot and killed Jessica Lal aren’t missing. Baby faced Ajmal Kasab, Auto Shankar, Charles Shobraj, they are all there. The one person who I expected to find, but didn’t was Commander Kawas Nanavati. I guess the author had to leave out a number of big-time baddies and most probably there is some soul-searching going on in hell on account their omissions.

The best thing about 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India is that Bhadra and Khan have done an excellent job of summarising each of the twenty cases and presenting them in a single-gulp capsule, garlanded with their commentary. For example, I had heard of Auto Shankar but had forgotten what exactly he had done (which was to run a few brothels and murder many prostitutes). Be it white collar offenders like Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh or Abdul Karim Telgi or events such as the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the reader is presented with a summary which is concise, to the point and lays open the various social and legal issues arising out of the case.

With the explosive growth in technology and information services, the media is all powerful and pervasive. Therefore, every time a sensational case comes up for trial, the media comes up with its verdict in a matter of days, if not hours, something which might be a problem since the judicial system takes many months if not years to produce a verdict and in the meantime, the media trial may influence or even prejudice the judges, making it impossible for the accused to have a fair trial. Bhadra and Khan tell us that trial by media was a concern in the Dhananjoy Chatterjee murder case. The only available evidence against Chatterjee was circumstantial and the media frenzy made it impossible for the trial to be held in a sterile environment. Bhadra and Khan wonder if the judges were affected by the sensational reporting that took place. They too are human, after all.

What happens when the murderer is someone powerful or related to someone powerful? Santosh Kumar Singh who continually harassed and later raped and murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo was the son of a respected police officer. If he weren’t the son of a well-known police officer, would he have been acquitted by the trial court, though the trial court pointed out flaws in the CBI’s investigation? In the case of Nitish Katara’s murder, the accused Vikas Yadav was the son of influential politician D. P. Yadav. Similarly, Manu Sharma who murdered Jessica Lal, was the son of a Congress politician and Rajya Sabha MP. He was also distantly related to former president Shankar Dayal Sharma. Incidentally, in all these cases where justice was finally done, even though it took public protests to get there, the victims were also either middle-class or enjoyed some degree of respectability in society. For example, Nitish Katara was the son of an IAS officer. If Priyadarshini Mattoo had been a slum dweller instead of a middle-class girl, would she have got justice, I wonder? The Nithari Killings case illustrates this point. There, the victims were children of migrant labourers and the murder trial brought to the fore the lackadisical manner in which police respond to any crime involving poor people. However, the sheer depravity of the murderer made it impossible for the police to maintain their inertia. The murderer, Surinder Kohli, is still on death row.

Sometimes when the offence committed is particularly heinous, the accused, even if powerful, well-connected and rich, is left high and dry by his fair-weather friends, as happened to politician Sushil Sharma who murdered his wife Naina Sahni and had her burned in a tandoor. Unlike in the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case, Sushil Sharma was sentenced to death by the trial court. The High Court confirmed his death sentence. However, the Supreme Court, rightly in my opinion, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, pointing out that mere brutality does not justify a death sentence. Sushil Sharma’s actions were not premeditated, he had shot his wife dead in a fit of rage and his brutality was to the corpse.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was another politician who seemingly got away with corruption. The case arose when during a no-confidence motion in July 1993, cash bribes to the tune of Rs. 3 crores were allegedly paid to MPs from the Jharkand Mukti Morcha and other parties to defeat the motion. When in the dock, Rao invoked the defence of Parliamentary privilege. He also claimed that politicians were not public servants and hence not covered by the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1986. Though his conviction was overturned due to lack of sufficient evidence, the court did not fall in line with Rao’s arguments.

In some cases, it would appear that the final verdict shielded the mighty and powerful. In the Auto Shankar case, the accused took his secrets to the grave, possibly shielding some powerful politicians. In the Jain Hawala Case, many high profile politicians like Sharad Yadav, L. K. Advani and Arjun Singh were involved. It was held by various high courts and the Supreme Court that there was insufficient evidence to convict them. Can the prosecution successfully prosecute people who control it, Bhadra and Khan ask?

Even death row convicts are entitled to rights. What happens when a convict awaiting execution suffers from the Death Row Syndrome? It is perfectly understandable that a condemned prisoner would undergo severe trauma while waiting for his or her execution. In the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, the death row syndrome was sufficient cause for the commutation of death sentences to life imprisonment.

20 Criminal Cases That Shook India is not restricted to murder cases. The infamous Telgi stamp paper scam, a case involving stamp paper forgery on a massive scale, led to many reforms in collection of stamp duty in Maharashtra, E-stamping is a direct consequence of this case. Charles Shobraj was a killer and a conman, but he successfully filed cases against the government seeking better prison conditions and rights for prisoners.

Not surprisingly, the Sanjay Dutt case finds a place among the top twenty. After all, how many famous film personalities can claim to have had been in touch with Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Anees and hidden a chache of weapons on their behalf? However, 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India does not discuss the matter of Sanjay Dutt’s frequent furloughs from jail.

It can be argued that rape is as heinous a crime as murder. Hanufa Khatun was a visiting Bangladeshi national who was raped inside a waiting room in a railway station. Chandrima Das, an advocate practising in Kolkata, filed a writ petition seeking compensation, making it possible for the Supreme Court to opine on important questions such as whether compensation may be claimed from the government for harm suffered on account of the private acts of government employees and whether a foreign national may file a writ petition against the Indian government. The Vishaka Case was filed by a number of women’s organisations subsequent to the Bhanwari Devi gang rape and it led the Supreme Court to define sexual harassment at workplaces and prescribe guidelines to prevent it.

Nothing exemplifies the need for a good witness protection programme as the Best Bakery Case. Immediately after the targeted slaughter at Best Bakery during the 2002 Gujarat riots, nineteen year old Zaheera Sheikh, daughter of the bakery’s owner, filed an FIR. The prosecution did not win any brownie points during the trial, at the end of which 21 accused were acquitted. 37 out of 73 witnesses turned hostile, including Zaheera who had lost so much during the attack. An outcry followed and the case was moved to Mumbai. Later Tehelka showed Zaheera receiving an 18-lakh bribe from a BJP MLA. The Best Bakery Case exposed so many flaws in the Indian judicial system and emphasised the importance of witness protection programmes, something which is lacking even now.

Bhadra and Khan call the Nitish Katara murder an honour killing. What’s more, I got the impression that it was described thus even by the trial court. Wikipedia, which is my main point of reference for almost everything these days, describes an honour killing as 'the homicide of a member of a family by other members due to the perpetrators' belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or has violated the principals of a religion'. In other words, when a man is killed by his girlfriend's or fiancée’s family members, it is not an honour killing. Just nitpicking!

Bhadra and Khan have reserved the best, or rather the most interesting case, for the last. Afzal Guru was hanged in February 2013 after he was convicted of having played a central role in the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. Was Afzal Guru really involved in the attacks, the authors wonder? The only link between Afzal Guru and the deceased militants was that the latter seemed to have made calls to Afzal Guru’s mobile phone. I am not going to divulge any more here. Please read this excellent book to find out for yourself.

20 Criminal Cases That Shook India at times ventures into issues which are very much outside the scope of crime and punishment. For example, while discussing the Naina Sahni Tandoor murder, Bhadra and Khan ponder over how the case ‘brings to light the consequences of living in a society where choices are often dictated by religion. If Naina could have married the man she truly loved, she would have still be alive.

On the whole, 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, is well-written and is an excellent read, especially for non-lawyers who want to hear it from the horses’ mouths.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Book Review: Pirates of Bollywood, by Kalyan C. Kankanala


All of us living in Indian towns and cities have seen pirated books and CDs being sold at traffic signals and on sidewalks. I’m sure many of us wonder why the police doesn’t take any action against an activity which violates the law so blatantly. True, piracy is an offence which only harms the owners and creators of the literary creations which have been pirated. A number of human beings make a living out of piracy and pirated goods are much cheaper than the real stuff, which makes a number of buyers happy. Another important reason is the general lack of awareness regarding intellectual property rights.

In Kalyan C. Kankanala’s latest IP blockbuster Pirates of Bollywood, Arjun Mamidi, once again plays the lead role. Those who read Kankanala’s previous novel Road Humps and Sidewalks, would be familiar with Arjun, the clever IP lawyer from Hyderabad. Arjun’s pretty wife Shreya, Associate Jose and guide dog (Arjun is blind) Neo also make an appearance. Since Pirates of Bollywood is all about piracy of Bollywood movies, a number of actors and producers make it to the cast. All of Kankanala’s characters are very Bollywoodish, with a fair dose of masala thrown in. This applies to the police officers as well, especially the pretty Helen Joseph.

The plot revolves around the attempt by Ganesh Shan, the Chairman of Tunes, one of the largest production houses in Bollywood, to execute Project Pi, with assistance from Krish and Khan, a management consultancy firm. Project Pi would see a multi-pronged assault on piracy of Bollywood movies. Naturally, there are many who do not want Project Pi to take off and as the project gets underway, the bodies start to pile up.

As may be expected from Arjun Mamidi’s fans, there are some courtroom scenes where Arjun gets to display his erudition and knowledge of law. Just as in Road Humps and Sidewalks, Arjun gets into harm’s way more often than not.

Kankanala introduces the concept of piracy rights. In case you haven’t heard of it before, piracy rights enable to holder of those rights to sell pirated copies of the movie or book or other intellectual property, with the blessings of the copyright holder, who would take stringent action against all pirates, except the holder of piracy rights. I guess piracy rights are awarded when a copyright holder believes that piracy cannot be stopped and would rather channelize it fruitfully. All of this is illegal of course. I’m not going to explain any more here, because if I do, I’d give away the plot. I’ll leave it to you to read this very interesting novel and find out for yourself.

Kankanala writes in simple English, though there is a surfeit of adjectives and clichéd phrases. None of that detracts from the plot or the suspense as the story unfolds. A very interesting read, I would recommend Pirates of Bollywood to everyone interested in knowing more about the status of intellectual property rights in the Bollywood film industry.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book Review: Warrior by Olivier Lafont


There are novels and novels and novels. Realistic literary novels bring to you the grime of real life, the sweat dripping off the brow, smiles and tears, joy and sorrow, usually in moderate measure. The beauty of the narration, the quick turn of phrase and the author’s eye for detail, if administered properly and in the right measure, could make the literary novel a pleasure to read, for readers who appreciate such stuff. Chicklits and thrillers are essentially fantasy novels, but attempt to persuade the reader to identify with the hero or heroine and also cling on to the faint hope that all of it could happen in real life. A genuine fantasy novel on the other hand takes the reader to a fantasy land and keeps him or her there on the strength of the fantasy. The characters and settings are so far off from reality that the reader is under no illusion that the story could come true. Just as in the case of thrillers, the prose may not be up to the mark all the time and the writer’s strength of imagination needs to be supremely high and fascinating in order to carry the story.

There are writers and writers and writers. There are real writers and there are ghost writers who write autobiographies for celebrities, or help out those who want to be known as writers, but can’t really write. It is rare to find a celebrity (other than a famous writer) write well. Olivier Lafont, of mixed Indo-French heritage, known to Bollywood fans as Sunit Tandon of the 3 Idiots fame, is one of the delightful exceptions to this rule. A well-known personality in the Indian movie and TV circuits, Lafont’s debut novel Warrior, an adventure fantasy, has been published by Penguin India very recently.

The initial part of the novel is set in Mumbai, in suburbs such as Mahim and Bandra and well-known roads and landmarks such as Turner Road, Carter Road, Linking Road, Pali Hill etc. The end of the world seems to be neigh and Lord Shiva’s son Saam’s blissful existence is thrown into turmoil. Saam leads a humble, non-descript existence as a watch mender, with his live-in girlfriend Maya when the monsoon brings, of all things, snow to tropical Mumbai. There is turmoil and there are riots. People panic and godmen and charlatans reign. The Peerless meet to take stock of the situation and it falls upon Saam, the only demi-God in attendance, to save the world. To do so, Saam who has been living on earth for a few centuries in various guises, has to risk all that he has. Saam’s bout of indecision (before he finally makes up his mind) reminded me of Arjun’s dilemma in the Mahabharat. Arjun had Lord Krishna to help him make up his mind. Saam doesn’t have anyone.

By the time Saam is ready to start his crusade, Mumbai has had heavy showers, not of normal rain, but showers of blood. Saam sallies forth with a few companions and Maya. One of his companions is Ara, his half-brother with whom he has a love-hate relationship. The companions are a disparate bunch – some of them like Lalbaal, Moti and Fateh are very strong and powerful and are not mere mortals, but the scholar Fazal is not only human, but also rather frail. Saam has to locate the Kaal Veda if he is to save the world. What follows next is an advanced version of Star Trek, mixed up with a lot of genuinely good original stuff as Lafont stretches his readers’ imagination to unbelievable levels and takes them to the ends of this earth on steeds which have received the Supreme Blessing and are invincible. And when I started to think that I couldn’t possibly take anymore, Saam and his companions take the Ship of Worlds in search of the Kaal Veda for a trip out of the known world, into a different dimension in terms of space and time. During the voyage, they pick up another companion, Lieutenant Goeffery Gordon, formerly of the British Indian army and its Afghan campaigns. The Lieutenant carries an old fashioned Baker carbine. The carbine and the Lieutenant stay loyal to Saam till the end. Some of his other companions don’t.

Warrior moves back and forth in time and as Saam has brushes with the Marathas, the Portuguese and the Colonial British, Lafont demonstrates his mastery over Indian history and mythology. Time and again Warrior reminded me of the Mahabharata, as the demi-god Saam and other immortals and extra-terrestrials battle each other as the earth lurches towards its end. Lafont’s descriptions of battles are impeccable and there are no repetitions, no easy task when the entire 374 page tome is peppered with fights and battles. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the best thing about Warrior is the way it pushes the limits of credulity. For example, while on the Ship of Worlds, Saam is forced to explain Earth and its inhabitants to a being who hails from a place mostly composed of metals and hard minerals, where carbon is a rare and prized element found only in the deep earth. ‘We are carbon-based creatures. On our world, most creatures subsist on a combination of oxygenated water or air, and a complex mix of molecules. We are organic. That is to say, we develop and grow from absorption of basic elements. In time, we grow old and lose out earlier functionality, till we die.

Warrior is what we Indians call paisa vassol. It is pure entertainment and despite a story line vaguely similar to the Mahabharata, does not come with a goody-goody message. I do not want to disclose more and give away the ending and spoil it for other readers, but I strongly recommend this novel to everyone who wants his or her imagination to be taken for a soaring, topsy-turvy, stomach-churning and terrifying ride.

Warrior was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia prize.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Book Review: The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 3: Kurukshetra by Krishna Udayasankar


Kurukshetra is the third and final book in Krishna Udayasankar’s Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy. As was expected and as the book’s title suggests, the Great War takes centre stage and the book is almost entirely devoted to it.

As the war unfolded, I wondered what shape it would take. Would it be a violent ancient battle fought by sturdy men who lived and died violently, battle axes and bows in hand and no technology at play? Or would it involve advanced weaponry, arrows intercepting other arrows, warheads raining death and destruction, involving technology which would not be out of place in the modern day battlefield. As mentioned in my reviews of the first two books in this trilogy, namely Govinda and Kaurava, Udayasankar has mortalised all the characters in the Mahabharata, with the gentle suggestion that those brave and exceptional beings later became legends over the millennia. This approach led me to expect a battle without any shock and awe technology. On the other hand, I remembered that Udayasankar had retained a trump card in the form of Firewrights, the secret order of inventors and craftsmen who created technology which was out of the world, for that day and age. The Firstborns may have crushed the Firewrights, but their technology survives, as do many Firewrights in disguse. We are told that Drona and Ashvattama were Firewrights, as was Govinda Shauri, aka Krishna.

Ultimately Udayasankar treads a fine line on the battlefield, as she keeps her characters very much mortal, but reluctantly gives them occasional access to Firewright technology, which allows arrows to intercept arrows, missiles loaded with black nitre to be launched and poison gas to be deployed. Udayasankar’s approach works well and one is treated to a realistic narrative of an ancient battle involving modern day technology.

The Kurukshetra War has a number of sub-legends such as Abhimanyu’s attempt to enter the chakravyuh and his consequent death, Jayadrath’s death at the hands of Arjuna, Grand Sire Bhisma’s fall, the duel between Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) and Bhim etc. and Udayasankar deals with all of these with elan. I waited for Dharma to say Aswathama Hatha Kunjara, but those exact words were missing in Udayasankar’s realistic narrative, though Dharma does come close to saying those words.

I had never heard the story of Bhagadatta and his war elephant Supratika and I would say that Udayasankar’s execution of this particular sub-story is possibly one of the best sections of Book 3. I could feel the terrible fear experienced by the Pandava line as Bhagadatta’s war elephants charged towards them, but as the great Supratika fell, I couldn’t help, but feel extremely sad. The duel between Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) and Bhim is almost equally good.

During the Second World War, as Nazi Germany baulked at the idea of mobilising its women, the Soviets went all out inducting women not only into factories, but even to the battlefield. The USA and UK followed suit, but to a lesser extent. Udayasankar takes a leaf from the Allied diary and tells that that the Pandavas did the same by enrolling commoners who were not Arya by birth. However, the Pandavas are still vastly outnumbered by the Kauravas and each day on the battlefield depletes their army, whilst the Kauravas take far fewer casualties. Consequently, the ratio of Kauravas to Pandavas is further skewed as the battle progresses.

Were Hidimba, Hidimbi, Ghatotkacha and other Rakshasas really non-humans, ogres or giants as the legends have made them out to be? Not according to Udayasanakar who offers a perfectly rational explanation for the gentle forest dwellers (she calls them Rishasas) who ended up fighting on the side of the Pandavas. Similarly, Udayasankar tells us that the brave warrior Shikhandin (Shikandi) was not a eunuch, but rather the victim of calumny by his ex-wife.

If Panchali walked away with the honours in Book 2: Kaurava, Uttara does the catwalk in Book 3: Kurukshetra. Just like Panchali, Uttara is showed to be a strong female, one who gets her husband Abhimanyu to treat her as an equal and grow to love her. However, Uttara gets on better with demure Subhadra than with strong-willed Panchali. I’ll not disclose any more here, but will leave it to you to read this fantastic book and find out for yourself why this should be so.

Just as in the first two books, almost all characters in Kurukshetra come in shades of grey. Yudhistir or Dharma, as Udayasankar calls him, continues to be an object of derision, though he too shows a few redeeming qualities.

Towards the end, Udayasankar discloses the identity of the Secret Keeper of the Firewrights, which is yet another reason to pick up book 3. Go on, do buy this fantastic book and read it and if you haven’t already read the first two books in this trilogy, do read them beforehand, even though it is perfectly possible to enjoy Kurukshetra without having read Govinda or Kaurava.