Sunday, 3 August 2014

Book Review: Dead in a Mumbai Minute by Madhumita Bhattacharyya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 25 July 2014

Book Review: Private India by Ashwin Sanghi and James Patterson

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Book Review: A Happy Place And Other Stories by Vineetha Mokkil

I just finished reading an excellent collection of short stories by Vineetha Mokkil which goes by the title “A Happy Place And Other Stories”. The strength of a story, any story, whether it be a long novel or a short story, depends largely on the writer’s imagination. A good writer takes the reader to places hitherto unknown, on the wings of beautiful prose. Mokkil does more than that. Mokkil takes her readers to a tall cliff, straps on a pair of wings and forces the reader to take off.


For example, in “A Quiet Day”, we see Ameena, a suicide bomber leaves her house on a snowy day. We are told that her husband and daughter were killed by the army and Ameena is thirsting for revenge. And then? And then nothing. We do not know if Ameena is ultimately successful in carrying out her mission. All of that is left to the reader’s imagination. Similarly, in “In Case of Fire”, we see Gyan rushing home to his daughter Mia’s birthday party, stopping at a mall to buy return gifts for the kids at the party. The party has already begun and Gyan is really running late. His wife Helen has called many times and she is angry. To make matters worse, Gyan gets locked in inside the mall. What happens after that? Mokkil leaves it to the reader to imagine the consequences. In this quest, Mokkil supplies the reader with sufficient information about Gyan and his family. We know that Gyan’s wife Helen is a rich heiress who led a peaceful and happy life at Ann Arbor, USA, before moving to Delhi with her daughter Mia once Gyan decided to take up a teaching job at Delhi University.

Mokkil is very good not just with cliff top exits, but also in mid-journey breaks. She narrates a situation, places you in the midst of some very smooth activity and then, as is her wont, leaves you. Thus in “Baby Baby” we see Vijay, a man in his fifties, expecting a baby with his second wife. Surprisingly, it all goes off well. We can sense Vijay’s worry and tension in wanting to get it all right, since he is estranged from his son from his first marriage. However, Mokkil is soothing from the beginning and we feel strangely comforted by the writer.

In “The Tenant” a widowed mother is lonely after her daughter Priya leaves her on account of her job with Lufthansa. To keep herself occupied, she takes on a tenant who has the same name as her daughter, but with an extra “a” which is meant to bring good luck. Does she get along with her tenant Priyaa? Mokkil has no intention of ever telling us.

A Happy Place And Other Stories” isn’t a collection of entirely feel-good stories. Sadness and tragedy are woven into many of the tales. In “Nirvana” Yashodhara’s pain as Siddhartha abandons her and baby Rahul is beautifully captured. In “A Happy Place”, the story after which this collection has been named, we are introduced to Asha, a maid working in the house of an American couple. Mokkil introduces some tension in the beginning as the wife gets mugged. Yes we know that Delhi is dangerous, but for Asha danger lurks inside the house as well. When the wife is away on a cruise, the husband who works for the US consulate tries to paw her in the middle of the night. Asha’s happy place ceases to be so and Asha is forced to run away.

The Girl Next Door” makes one wonder how quickly one rushes into judgements. In this story, we see some posh people lobby to have a fellow tenant, the girl next door, who possibly works as a commercial sex worker, thrown out of their building. Later on when the narrator Sonia is abducted, the so-called prostitute tips off police and saves Sonia.

For me, the best story of the lot was “Other Lives”. The wife of a well-known Industrialist is arrested for shop-lifting. Since the lady in question is a well-known kleptomaniac, we know that such an incident has occurred before. The detainee has an interesting conversation with female cop as she waits to be released. The cop is respectful since she knows that the lady will be released and released she is. She goes home by foot, back to the same boring life. Does she have a choice to do something for herself? To find out the answer and to read more such stories, please do read this wonderful collection.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Is Shrien Dewani Gay?

And finally Shrien Dewani has been extradited to South Africa to face trial!

Almost three years ago when I blogged about Shrien Dewani, extradition proceedings were going on and it was felt that they could go on for many more weeks or even months. Well, they went on for almost three years!

The core question seems to be whether Dewani is gay. This is because unless Dewani is gay, the prosecution will be hard-pressed to find a motive for the handsome, rich Dewani to hire killers to bump off his pretty and young bride.

The allegations about Dewani’s orientation have been swirling around ever since Anni’s murder. Dewani is supposed to have been a regular visitor at a gay fetish club called The Hoist, at Vauxhall. A German male prostitute named Leopold Leisser, who goes by the work name The Master, claimed that Dewani paid him GBP1,100 for three sex ¬sessions in London and the West Midlands.

Just after Dewani arrived in South Africa to face trial, it was reported that Anni Dewani had sent a honeymoon message to her cousin revealing that she had sex with 33-year-old Shrien “five times” in one night. The Police were said to have been left reeling by the text that experts have retrieved from 28-year-old Anni’s stolen BlackBerry. Naturally, if the Dewanis “did” it five times in a single night, it is unlikely that Dewani is gay. I however had my doubts about the genuineness of this report which was attributed to “sources”. Look at it this way: Anni’s text message was reportedly sent to her cousin. If Anni’s cousin had actually received such a text, Anni’s family, the Hindochas, wouldn’t be so hostile to Dewani. The Hindochas have all along been wanting Dewani to voluntarily face trial in South Africa. If the Hindochas thought that the Dewanis were having a normal married life, then they wouldn’t be fighting hard for Dewani to face justice.

Surely enough, a couple of days later, it was clarified that Anni had not sent any such sms. Rather it was stated that Anni had sent her cousin a text message to the effect that sex with her husband wasn’t to her satisfaction.

I wish we had some clarity on how the first report (which made the 5 times in a night claim) came about. The “source” had obviously not considered that if such a claim was made, the cousin who is supposed to have received the text would deny it. Also, how come no one knew that Anni had complained to a cousin about the state of her conjugal relationship with her husband? Of course it is possible that the Hindochas had passed on this information to the Prosecution and this was kept under wraps for use at the trial once Dewani arrived in South Africa. The Hindochas may have been forced to leak this information to counter the earlier insinuation. I just wonder though, when the extradition proceedings were going on, if this information had been made available, wouldn’t it have eased Dewani’s passage to South Africa?

When this trial is over, I hope the authorities in the UK and South Africa carry out a joint investigation to find out the extent of influence exerted over this trial by publicist Max Clifford and if any laws were broken as a result.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Book Review: The Gypsy Goddess, by Meena Kandasamy

If you are one of those Indians who were brought up on a diet of Soviet literature, readily available in India till the early nineties, you would be forgiven for assuming that Meena Kandasamy’s debut novel The Gypsy Goddess was written by a winner of the USSR State Prize in Literature and Arts and published sometime in the late 1970s or maybe even earlier. The subject matter – the massacre of forty odd Dalit labourers and their families by henchmen employed by upper caste landlords - is definitely a topic that would have fitted in within the milieu of Soviet literature. Since Kandasamy is known to be a poet, I had expected something lyrical, but no, Kandasamy adopts the tone (and even authority) of a Soviet era prose writer as she builds a novel around the massacre that took place at a place named Kilvenmani in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur (earlier known as Tanjore) district in 1968. If Kandasamy’s English was anything less than blemishless and beautiful, such an affected pitch/style would have fallen flat, but no, Kandasamy carries it off and one ends up doffing one’s hat in admiration at the end of the novel, which I assume must be a slim volume, since I got through it pretty quickly on my Kindle.

Kilvenmani is a village where the poor refer to a car as “pleasure”, something poor people in Tamil Nadu did even in the 80s, if my memory serves me right. Gopalakrishna Naidu is the main tyrant in the novel. A father-figure for the landlords of Nagapattinam, this balding, middle-aged man runs the Paddy Producers’ Association and seeks to address the interests of his own class in a manner which reminded me of several characters from a collection of Soviet Armenian Short Stories I read ages ago and which I have reviewed here. As Gopalakrishna Naidu schemes and plots and fights to replace the red communist flags with the yellow flags of the Paddy Producers Association, we the readers gain a ring-side view to the bloody tussle between the proletariat and the exploitative landlords.

In chapter 5 of her novel, Kandasamy publishes a Marxist Party Pamphlet which takes stock of the situation of those times, even as it calls on the workers to unite and fight for their rights. It is an unequal fight, the DMK Party in power has done precious little for the downtrodden and the landless poor suffer extreme hardship and oppression as they seek to obtain basic living wages from the landowning class. The policemen are tools in the hands of the landlords. Kandasamy singles out stalwarts of the Dravidian movement such as Karunanidhi and even Periyar EV Ramasamy for special treatment. We are told that after coming to power with the help of the Communist parties, Karunanidhi boldly proclaimed that the Communists would be crushed with an iron fist. As for the great Periyar, Kandasamy would have us know that “he was angry (about the massacre) and he showed it. There was little else that could be done when the government was actually run by his protégé.” Finally when the Landlords are tried on the scales of Justice, the High Court judges do a better job defending the landlords than even the defence lawyers and acquit them all.

Since The Gypsy Goddess is part story, part communist commentary, one is treated to quotations from individuals like Gramsci and post-modernists such as Derrida. Most of the commentary is a Kandasamy’s monologue, but as I said earlier, she does it well and I have no complaints.

Is Kandasamy a dyed-in-the-wool-communist or is she an open-minded writer willing to consider different points of view? The character Maayi suggests that she belongs to the latter class. Maayi, we are told, is the widow of the village’s witch doctor who once tamed evil ghosts and vampires and chased away devils and demons. When I first encountered Maayi, I assumed that she would be placed under the guillotine by the brave workmen of Kilvenmani. But no, they do nothing of that sort and one sees Maayi comfort the survivors of the massacre.

There were a few things I wishes Kandasamy had done differently. I would have liked to get to know atleast one of the victims much better, at least as well as I got to know Gopalakrishna Naidu. At times, I did wish Kandasamy would get on with the story and stop pontificating, but then, the story of the massacre could have been written in two pages and the pithy annotations make this novel what it is.

Once again, let me reiterate that Kandasamy writes exceedingly well. When describing the fire that wiped out so many innocent lives trapped in an enclosed space, Kandasamy says that “Born without eyes, the fire had used its feet to move. Lacking the forgiveness of water, it had burnt them with blindness and bitterness. So, that morning, the cheri did not carry the roses-and-marigolds smell of death. Only the coppery sick- sweet smell of charred flesh: a smell like nothing else, a smell that was almost a taste, a smell that was meant to be smuggled to the grave. Through the smoke clouds that hung heavier than mist, the police van returned to Kilvenmani to fetch the dead.” Since the official death toll was forty two, the two small babies who were charred to death were “habeas corpses”, Kandasamy proposes. As for the survivors of the massacre, “the police, in love with variety, generously give everyone multiple sections of the Indian Penal Code.

Why the title The Gypsy Goddess? No, I am not going to play spoilsport and give that one away. When you have this book in your hands, you’ll find the answer in Kandasamy’s second chapter.

How does it all end? Does Kandasamy offer the victims even a semblance of justice or does she leave them waiting for a Communist dawn to receive reparations? Remember, this is ultimately a work of fiction and the author does have some freedom in this regard. Go on all of you, whether you are champagne socialists like me or genuine communists or someone just trying to make sense of the extreme poverty one sees in India, rush out and buy this book and read it to find out if the Kilvenmani massacre victims receive some form of closure from Kandasamy.