Monday, 26 September 2011

“The Suicide Banker” by Puneet Gupta – Book Review

Stephen Frey runs a private equity firm in the US. Frey also happens to be a novelist. Maybe I should have put it the other way around – Frey is a famous novelist who happens to run a private equity firm. It doesn’t really matter, does it? A former M&A specialist with JP Morgan, Frey has written a series of financial crime novels, all of which have been bestsellers. I have been a long time fan of Frey and often wondered when India would get its first financial thriller, one as good as a Frey novel. Puneet Gupta, a career banker, has written a novel revolving around banking fraud which I believe is the first of its kind in Indian literature. Is Gupta as good as Frey? Or is he even better? It was with a great deal of hope and anticipation that I started reading The Suicide Banker.

Sumit Sharma gives up a comfortable job with the State Bank of India to join Citizen Bank, which Gupta tells us ‘was the leading multinational financier of cars/commercial vehicles in India’. His world changes all of a sudden. He now gets paid a lot more money. He is in a posh world where the toilet looks as good as that in a five star hotel, but the urinal’s flush has a leak that can drench the front of a man’s trousers. Sumit is a victim of the erring faucet just before he is about to be interviewed. Nevertheless, Sumit gets the job and the reader gets to see, hear and touch a typical MNC Bank, the sort which can be found dime a dozen in India these days and one gets to soak up the atmosphere easily. Results (profits) matter and it’s the only thing which seems to matter. Employees are treated as resources and nothing more. Sumit is offered a job in Mumbai, kept waiting for a few days, allocated a position in Goa, one which will start after three months, sent to Pune in the interim and then transferred to Jaipur where an important post has unexpectedly fallen vacant – all of this within a month of joining. The threat of being fired is left dangling, right from day one. ‘To err may be human, but to forgive is not Citizen Bank’s policy.’

There’s always the hint of fraud taking place on a massive scale, even the Prologue describes one, and soon one sees Sumit, in his role as a credit manager, struggling to control the excesses of his fellow bankers. Soon after Sumit joins the Citizen Bank, Gupta introduces his readers to Ind-Credit Bank. Ind-Credit is about to venture into agricultural or rural banking, mainly as a result of pressure from the Reserve Bank of India which wants Ind-Credit Bank to discharge its social obligations like every other Indian bank and serve the poor and marginalised sections of society. Ind-Credit Bank is good at turning conventional wisdom upside down and follows this approach as it makes a foray into agri-banking, under the leadership of Mohit Saxena, a banker with 22 years’ experience with Asian Development Bank. Mohit has even worked with Prof Mohannad Yunnus, the founder of Grameen Bank.

After Sumit completes a year at Citizen Bank’s Jaipur branch, star performer Anupam Arora lands up. Sumit is given a very tough time by Anupam, who will never take no for an answer as he presses Sumit to clear vehicle-loan proposals for his customers. Anupam is a fraudster and Sumit soon unravels his modus operandi after some diligent investigation. Anupam bites the dust, which is to say, he is fired, but moves to another bank at a higher salary. Sumit bags the Citizen Bank star performer award and a promotion. Two months later, Sumit joins Ind-Credit Bank in Mumbai.

Gupta takes us to Sumit’s home and introduces us to his wife Shalini and toddler son Shibu, who is a year and a half old when the story begins. Like many hardworking bankers, Sumit does not get to spend much time with Shalini and Shibu. Shalini used to be a journalist with the Times of India, but she has become a stay-at-home mom. After Sumit joins Ind-Credit Bank in Mumbai, Shalini goes back to work, joining NewsFirst a 24x7 news channel. I didn’t think Shalini’s character has been properly fleshed out by Gupta. Most of the time, Shalini appears to be cross with Sumit for working long hours or for not caring for Shibu. Once she starts working, Shalini is shown to be a career woman who quickly makes it big as a chat show anchor, effortlessly handling discussions on topics such as polygamy. There are a few instances when Sumit manages to spend time with Shalini, such as when they take a holiday in Kashmir, leaving Shibu behind with his grandparents, that we hear the sort of romantic dialogues that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bollywood movie.

We do not hear or see much of Sumit’s move from Jaipur to Mumbai. Was Shalini happy to move to Mumbai? One moment we see Sumit quitting Citizen Bank to join Ind-Credit Bank and the next we see him is at a gala function at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai where top performers from Ind-Credit Bank’s agri-business are given awards. To create a rural flavour, the attire is traditional. Men wear khadi-kurta pyajamas (sic) and women wear cotton saris. The venue has rural and folk paintings on the wall and husk piles, earthern pots, bamboo sticks, lanterns etc. add to the atmosphere.

Sumit does not cease to unravel fraud even after joining Ind-Credit Bank where in his role as head of credit monitoring, he reviews and tracks the bank’s portfolio performance. We see Sumit struggle to gather data from bankers, we see his warnings being disregarded as the agri-business continues to expand fast, setting new records, we see Sumit not getting the support he needs from his boss and we also see Sumit soldier on despite so many handicaps. First Sumit unravels a small fraud, one committed by an employee, Hardeep Desai, who is literally on crutches. Sumit journeys to distant Bhuj to investigate and deliver justice, arm twisting a low level ‘docboy’ to confess in a manner which any Indian policeman would have been proud of. The fraud he uncovers is a victimless one, where neither the bank nor the customer has lost any money. However, Ind-Credit Bank has a policy of zero tolerance towards fraud and handicapped Hardeep Desai is sacked. We don’t see Sumit shedding tears over this incident as he grimly moves on, comforting himself with verses from the Bhagvad Gita suggest that a karma-yogi will do his duty, without attachment, come what may.

The agri-business at Ind-Credit Bank seems to be doing exceedingly well and no one has the appetite for bad news. Sumit is accused by his boss of behaving like a ‘jehadi with a suicide jacket’ after he makes a presentation which ruthlessly analyses the credit franchisee model used by the agri-business. ‘Well, I may be a suicide banker, but not a suicide bomber,’ is Sumit’s tart retort to the accusation. Sumit is soon convinced that there is a ‘bubble build-up’ in the agri-business. Self-conviction is, however, a far cry from absolute proof and Sumit doesn’t find many takers for his allegations and his marriage is on the rocks. The only one who reposes some faith in him is Ravi Kant, his ex-boss at Citizen Bank. Encouraged by Ravi Kant, Sumit decides to expose the guilty and save Ind-Credit Bank’s customers. All of which is easier said that done. Ultimately Sumit is forced to rely on subterfuge (which includes breaking the law) to obtain evidence, which he mails to the independent directors on the Board of Ind-Credit Bank. All hell breaks loose. I didn’t like the fact that Sumit broke the law to obtain the evidence which nailed the truth, just as he did in Hardeep Desai’s case. Couldn’t Gupta have found some other way of bringing out the truth? Do please read this novel to find out exactly how Sumit pricks the agri-banking bubble.

Gupta’s writes in the sort of every-day English used by Indian professionals. Jargon of the variety one hears in Indian banking circles is used aplenty in The Suicide Banker. The banking world described by Gupta is 24 carat and authentic. We hear Ind-Credit Bank’s CEO explain how ‘There are times when the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.’ I did end up wishing Gupta’s language were more elegant. The text below is a case in point.

‘How the results look like?’ Mohit had seen the provisional quarterly results yesterday, but knew a lot can change before they are finally released.

How the results look like?’ is grammatically wrong, but this incorrect sentence is acceptable when it is spoken by a banker, one who is not a native English speaker and who has obviously not been hired on the basis of his linguistic ability. However, what follows afterwards is the third party narrator’s language and here, there is no excuse for the faulty English. Faux pas such as this are very common in The Suicide Banker, atleast one every few pages of this 279-page book. The Suicide Banker would have been a much better read if its prose had been of a higher standard. At the very least, the editors could have corrected the obvious grammatical errors.

Gupta uses a few flash-backs which do not work very well and I was left confused. Ind-Credit Bank was introduced and its foray into the agri-business explained pretty soon after the novel began and Sumit had just joined Citizen Bank. This didn’t make much sense, until Sumit suddenly quits the Citizen Bank, for no particular reason, to join Ind-Credit Bank. Gupta tells us that ‘he got an excellent opportunity to join Ind-Credit Bank and he happily accepted it.’ Was it the promise of more money? Maybe, since we later see Sumit get a cubicle for himself. When Sumit joins Ind-Credit Bank, its agri-banking division (headed by Mohit Saxena) is booming. We are told that ‘Everyone at Ind-Credit Bank dreamt of becoming a part of the Agri-Business (caps-sic). With zero defaults and a strong portfolio growth, it was a hot potato with the entire banking industry, boasting of its miraculous success. The team that created the agri-strategy, was intact and reaped the benefits of its success. They got fabulous mid-year promotions, bonuses and ESOPs. As the business grew, the team expanded and by the end of second year, there were about 800 people in the Agri-Business team. Mohit Saxena had done a fabulous job of building this business.

Towards the end, as Sumit gets to grips with the fraud being perpetuated by the agri-business division, I started feeling that Gupta’s description of the toilet at Citizen Bank, one which could be from a five star hotel, but which has a leaky faucet and could drench the front of any user’s trousers, could be an euphemism for the state of India’s private sector banks. Citizen Bank is an MNC Bank, but interestingly, Gupta never tells his readers if Ind-Credit Bank is also an MNC Bank. We only know that it is a leading private sector bank.

If Gupta hasn’t done a good job in sketching Shalini’s character, he makes up for that with his depiction of the various bankers and their clients who form part of this story. For example, we get to meet Tulsi Ram who is a client of Citizen Bank and holds a job as the head clerk at a government school in Rajasthan. We are told that Tulsi Ram runs a transport business, one which consumes most of his time. Nevertheless, Tulsi Ram manages to get to his school 4 times every month, always on a Thursday when the local transport market is closed. Tulsi Ram unfailingly charges a 2 per cent commission for processing the salaries of his colleagues at the government school.

Sumit might be a diligent credit officer, but he is not without his prejudices. ‘No girls in my team,’ Sumit has instructed his sub-ordinates. Gupta tells us that Sumit believed ‘girls were slow at work, felt ill at will, wouldn’t stay late and worst of all, they couldn’t be scolded. Handling women staff had been a tricky issue for him.’ However, when a sub-ordinate Alex Stuart requests him to hire his cousin Annie Mathew, Sumit agrees. Annie is shown to be a non-descript girl who works hard and keeps a low profile. Annie’s position in the Bank is not exactly clear, though it appears to be that of an intern or a trainee. Sumit encourages Annie to enrol for a part-time MBA. Pretty soon after Annie joins his team, we find Sumit liking Annie more than would be normal in the given circumstances. ‘She looked up and their eyes met. No makeup, Sumit noticed. Hair in ponytail. She was not very attractive, but Sumit found something very feminine about her. He could relate her to a slim, little malnourished, sultry tribal girl’. Pretty soon Sumit and Annie are having a roaring affair.

I didn’t find Annie Mathew’s and Alex Stuart’s characters to be realistic. For one, both are shown to be Marathi speakers! Later it turns out Alex is not Annie’s cousin, but an ex-boyfriend, who still wants favours from Annie. Towards the end, when Sumit needs to collect evidence to uncover the fraud being perpetuated by the agri-business, he enlists Annie’s help and she duly complies. Annie, silent, diligent and obedient, comes across as yet another two-dimensional stereotype.

Just as in the movies, many times Sumit isn’t around when Shalini and Shibu need him. There is the expected scene when Shibu is ill and Sumit is too busy with his new job at Ind-Credit Bank to help out. In another incident, Shibu’s school takes him on a day’s excursion to the Byculla zoo, but doesn’t bring him back. Shalini desperately tries to reach Sumit on his mobile, but Sumit is out romancing with Annie. Towards the end, after the bad guys have been exposed (with a lot of assistance from Annie) and Sumit leaves Ind-Credit Bank, we don’t get to know if he intends to keep seeing Annie.

Gupta’s prose might be below par, but the various jokes, one-liners and banking anecdotes which litter this novel are not. Here’s a sample: ‘HR might not be the busiest department, but it always pretended to be so.’ Some of the jokes are crude and stereotyped, such as the description of a high performing female banker who is said to have seen more laps than a napkin, but then no one has accused bankers of excessive political correctness.

One of the things I didn’t like about The Suicide Banker was that for someone without much knowledge of Indian banks, many details remain fuzzy and unclear. For example, it isn’t clear what exactly Sumit would be doing at Citizen Bank for quite some time after he starts his new job. At one point, Sumit is referred to as the future branch head for Goa. In Jaipur, he is shown to be the branch manager and yet he seems to be shit scared of Anupam Arora. Didn’t Arora report to the branch manager? The role of a credit manager – to analyse the credit worthiness of a potential client and to recommend a credit limit – could have been explained better at the outset. I am not sure if the average Joe who reads The Suicide Banker would figure out the hierarchies and verticals that characterise the average financial institution. What the heck, it is not even clear if Sumit is, like most credit managers, a chartered accountant. I got the (vague) impression that he is an MBA. One of the best things about industry specific novels like Hotel, Airport, Wheels, Moneychangers etc. (all of them by Arthur Hailey) is that not only are they very exciting, they also explain in a simple manner the workings of a specific industry to outsiders. The Suicide Banker on the other hand seems to have been written by a banker for other bankers, with so many descriptions and anecdotes that would be decipherable only to industry insiders.

One of the best bits about The Suicide Banker is the introspection which Sumit goes through after exposing each fraud and getting a few bankers into serious trouble. The final coup in the agri-business matter, sets a few thousand heads rolling. Sumit is not upset and he (rightly in my opinion) justifies his actions to himself, quoting from the Bhagvad Gita as he does. His only grumble seems to that he doesn’t get any publicity or credit for his actions.

This has turned out to be a longer review than I intended it to be. To sum up, The Suicide Banker is a very authentic description of the Indian banking scene and gives a realistic picture of the various hanky-panky activities some players indulge in to make more money. This is not very surprising since Gupta concedes in the Acknowledgements section that ‘many incidents in this novel are based on real events.’ He further concedes that ‘I am grateful to my ex-employers for providing me with such eye-opening learning opportunities.’ The language used is appropriate for dialogues between bankers, but the third party narrator’s prose ought to have been much better. Instead, it grinds along the same rut as the dialogues, errors, jargon and all. Gupta’s canvass is wide and stretches from the posh Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai to rustic Jaipur. Descriptions of bankers and their clients are very good, but that of the wife and girlfriend aren’t half as good. Despite all this, I would rate this novel as an interesting read, especially for bankers and for those curious to know how bankers make so much money and get away with it.

Is Gupta as good as Frey? No, he isn’t and my search for that un-put-downable Indian financial thriller continues.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

“River of Smoke” by Amitav Ghosh – Book Review

The empire building that took place on such a grand scale from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century went hand in hand with the development and promotion of trade, commerce and industry by the empire builders. Some of the trade and industry that developed during the course of empire building was good. Some were not. The slave trade and the opium trade were two of the most evil trades which flourished in that period. In both these, the empire builders were ably assisted by the people they had subjugated. The slave trade could not have been carried out so efficiently without the assistance of the Arab intermediaries and African slave-catchers. Similarly, the forced cultivation of opium in India, at a terrible cost to the Indian peasantry and the dumping of that opium in China required the active support of many tens of thousands of Indians and Chinese and many of those Indian and Chinese intermediaries grew rich and fat from that evil trade. Many of Mumbai’s philanthropists, well-known names like David Sassoon, Pestonjee Wadia, Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, Jamsetji Tata, were all involved in the opium trade, which was where they made their money before moving on to different things.

The second book in Amitav Ghosh’s historical trilogy on the opium trade, River of Smoke, continues from where Ghosh had left off in the first book, the Sea of Poppies. Some of the characters who were on the Ibis can be found in the River of Smoke, which commences with a setting in Mauritius before moving to Canton which it stays almost until the end. Just as in the Sea of Poppies, Ghosh’s latest offering is crammed with jargon, slang, characters and cross-cultural currents. Europeans might be in charge at Fanqui town, but Ghosh makes sure that subaltern voices are also heard, as loudly as that of their masters. Equally loud and clear is the voice of the Chinese mandarins, especially that of the High Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu, who is sent to Canton with a specific mandate to put down the opium trade which is costing China dear. Ghosh’s respect for Commissioner Lin at times changes to breathless awe and admiration. The novel ends with a standoff between Western merchants in Canton and the Chinese mandarins, which will soon lead to the Opium War (1839-1842).

Seth Bahram Modi, a self-made man and the most successful Parsi merchant in Fanqui town, plays the lead role in the River of Smoke. Bahram transports his opium in the Anahita, a ship built in Bombay by Parsi ship-builders, which Ghosh tells us is a sleek and elegant three-master that regularly outruns the swiftest British and American made opium carriers. Bahram lives life King-size. He eats well, dresses well and can claim to have met Emperor Napoleon along with his Armenian friend Zadig, while Napoleon was imprisoned by the British at St. Helena. Yes, Ghosh takes his readers to St. Helena and the meeting with the Emperor. And unlike other Indians in Canton who carve for Indian food and make a bee-line to Asha-didi’s boat for some curry, Bahram Modi or Barrie Moddie as the Westerners call him, is shown to enjoy all the local delicacies including sugar-cane sweetened caterpillars.

Bahram makes it to the Committee, the Chambers of Commerce which represents Western merchants in Canton, the only Indian merchant on it. The Western traders who occupy Fanqui town are a colourful lot, dancing with each other and many of them have a close male Friend since western women aren’t allowed into Canton. When they aren’t eating or drinking or dancing, they invoke the principles of free trade to fight the mandarins who try to keep opium out of China. The fact that opium can’t be sold in Britain cut does cut much ice with the merchants who refuse to comply with Chinese laws since “it has been the custom for Fanqui town to govern itself”. Bahram is very much in tune with the Western merchants, though he is man with a heart and does feel guilty about what he does.

At one point, we hear Bahram crib about how India’s ship-building industry was all set to overtake the British, but was then destroyed by the British through protectionist laws. Ghosh doesn’t elaborate on this point and though it makes sense to avoid even more digressions, I was a bit disappointed. It is well-known that India’s textile industry was destroyed by the British who imposed high tariffs on clothes manufactured in India and dumped in India relatively cheap textiles produced by British mills. However, can the same be said for India’s shipping industry which never really made the transition from wooden sailing vessels to iron-clads powered by steam?

In case, you wondered about the name, the River is the Pearl River, which runs through Canton and the Smoke comes from the opium (I guess). Towards the end of the novel when Commissioner Lin confiscates all the opium held in stock by the foreign merchants in Canton, I expected him to burn them and create smoke, but no, he instead has the crates opened, all 20,381 crates worth many hundreds of tons of silver Ghosh tells us, the balls of opium broken, mixed with salt and lime and thrown into water filled trenches, from where they will mix with the waters of the Pearl River. There is no smoke and in case you are worried about the pollution, Commissioner Lin has written “a poem, a prayer addressed to the God of the Sea asking that all the animals of the water be protected from the poison that will soon be pouring in.

What I liked most about the River of Smoke is its clutter. What I didn’t like most about the River of Smoke is also the clutter. In addition to the Anahita, the River of Smoke has another ship, the Redruth which carries a botanist named Fitcher collecting specimens of flowers and plants from Cornwall to Canton. Quite a bit of space is devoted to Fitcher and those around him who spend all their time collecting plant specimens or paintings of plants. Other than Fitcher and the painters, there are a number of characters who are not guilty of the opium trade, but are around anyways. Especially since many of the local Chinese use English names, after a while I got really mixed up about who’s who. A list of characters at the end (or beginning) of the book would have definitely helped.

Ghosh has tried desperately to link the River of Smoke to the Sea of Poppies, but I just couldn’t see the point in starting the novel in a wind-swept corner of Mauritius and then taking us to Canton, where the book stays till the very end of this 550 page tome, when we go back to Mauritius for the last few pages. In the Sea of Poppies, we saw British agents force Indian farmers in the Gangetic plains to grow opium to the exclusion of all other crops, and buy it from them at very cheap rates. However, the opium which Bahram transports to Canton on the Anahita is not opium from Bengal, but freely grown opium from the Malwa which was then ruled by Maratha states such as the Scindias and the Holkars, subject to British suzerainty. It makes sense in a way, since with the exception of a few Bagdadi Jews such as David Sassoon, the Parsees were the most prominent among Indian opium merchants. It wouldn’t have made sense to have Bahram transport Bengal opium, unless he was based in Kolkata and the Parsees trading in opium were all based in Bombay, weren’t they?

I liked the River of Smoke more than the Sea of Poppies which I thought had an unrealistic ending. I found the last hundred pages of River of Smoke to be especially gripping as the tense standoff between Western merchants and the Chinese mandarins went on. However, the River of Smoke ends on a rather tame note. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading the concluding book in this trilogy.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Book Review: “The Secret Of The Nagas” by Amish Tripathi

The sequel to The Immortals of Meluha was released a few weeks ago. In the The Immortals of Meluha, the Nagas had been cast as an evil race, one which helped the bad Chandravanshis carry out terrorist attacks in Meluha. However, Tripathi had also shown the Nagas in a good light in one instance where a Naga terrorist contingent rescues a woman from the jaws of a crocodile. Since the sequel is called The Secret Of The Nagas, I did expect an about-turn on the Nagas and I was not disappointed. The Nagas aren’t evil. In fact, they are downright friendly, helpful and even risk their necks to save people from trouble. We are shown a bunch of Nagas, the same people who carried out terrorist attacks in Meluha, who have now come to Swadweep following Shiva and Sati, take on a group of Magadhan soldiers who are trying to snatch a tribal child from its mother so that the child can be used as a bull race jockey. Yes, ‘bull race’ and not ‘camel race’, in case you wondered.

Shiva is on a quest to avenge the murder of Brahaspati, the Chief Scientist of Meluha, whom he had come to accept as his blood brother. He is sure that the Nagas are to blame for his death. The quest to find the Nagas and make them pay takes him to various parts of Swadweep which is actually a confederation of kingdoms, the richest and the most powerful of which is Branga. Yes, Branga with an ‘r’ and not ‘Banga’ or ‘Bengal’. The Brangas are shown to be rich, technologically advanced and nasty – they actually kill a peacock which triggers a riot, but then Tripathi does his usual above-turn and it seems that the Brangas are suffering from a plague in their own land and peacock blood, when mixed with a paste provided by the Nagas, can save children’s lives. Branga pays tribute to Ayodhya just to get some privacy!

There are too many about-turns in the book and after a while, you sort of start expecting Tripathi to go back on everything he says. Parshuram the bandit, who once beheaded his mother, isn’t what he appears to be. Plus he had a very good reason for beheading his mother. Even though Mount Mandar has been destroyed, the Meluhans do have a backup factory for the production of Somras. Anandamayi, the Chandravanshi princess, had seemed to be a vamp, but then she starts showing character and intelligence and actually wins over Parvateshwar, who had taken a vow of celibacy almost two hundred years ago! I wasn’t particularly surprised when I found out that Sati is related to the Nagas and finally, when towards the end someone who until them had seemed to be irreproachable and above suspicion falls to the dirt, I wasn’t particularly surprised. Do please read this book to find out more.

Tripathi continues to show the people of Sapt Sindhu to be technologically advanced. The Brangas’ ship-building skills are exceptional and the locks which the Brangas have built on the Ganges can beat the best in today’s world. Temples seem to work as transmitters, sending out radio waves which travel at the speed of thought. No, they are thoughts and not radio waves. Actually, I can’t explain this properly and will leave it to you to read the book and find out. Tripathi also elaborates on the competitive exams which allow anyone to become a Brahmin. Now it turns out that even non-Brahmins can take a competitive exam and become a Vasudev (a temple priest).

Tripathi’s language has not improved or changed much in The Secret of The Nagas. There is abundant use of words such as a ‘brutal’ and ‘vicious’. For example, while describing the battle of Madhumati between Shiva’s gang and Bandit Parshuram’s thugs, we read that ‘he clearly wanted brutal close combat’; ‘Parshuram charged. Followed by his vicious horde’; ‘....brought his battleaxe up in a brutal swing’; ‘The formidable axe severed through a part of the hide covered bronze shield’; ‘Shiva pirouetted smartly to avoid a vicious stab from one of the bandits......’ If one got a rupee every time Shiva pirouetted smartly to avoid a stab or a blow, or someone stabbed brutally or viciously, one would read The Secret of the Nagas for free! I exaggerate a little bit, but not much.

Just as for The Immortals of Meluha, reconciling oneself to and accepting history as rewritten by Tripathi, is key to enjoying The Secret of The Nagas. With his second book, which is as good or rather, maintains the same standards as The Immortals of Meluha, I would say that Tripathi has established himself as a bestselling author who can write in English and still connect with the common man, one as good as Chetan Bhagat.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book Review: “The Immortals of Meluha” by Amish Tripathi

A story set in 1900 BC which revolves around Lord Shiva wouldn’t be my usual cup of tea. I bought the The Immortals of Meluha solely because it’s been on the bestsellers chart for so long and I was curious to know why.

I don’t claim to be an expert either on Indian history or India’s epics and myths, but I have a basic idea of all of these. None of this helped while me reading the The Immortals of Meluha which re-writes India's ancient history in a very innovative manner. To start with, Lord Shiva, the hero of the novel, is shown to be a marijuana smoking immigrant from Tibet and an excellent fighter to boot. Meluha, the land of the Suryavanshi people, sends a team of soldiers to persuade Shiva and his tribe, the Gunas, to move to Meluha. Why do they do so? Because they are looking for a savior and Shiva with his blue throat is the Neelkanth. Why does the almost-perfect Meluha need a savior? Because it faces a threat from the lazy and evil Chandravanshi people, who occupy the neighbouring country Swadweep. The Swadweepans are aided by the evil Nagas.

Tripathi’s creation Meluha covers the entire North-West of the Indian subcontinent, stretching from Gujarat in the South to Kashmir and Afghanistan in the North, Punjab in the East and Sindh in the West. Swadweep is composed of the North East, with Bengal, Assam and most of the Gangetic plain. In the Immortals of Meluha, one keeps meeting people and places that sound familiar. There’s a famous city in Meluha called Harriyappa and another called Mohan Jo Daro, on the banks of the mighty Indus. Mohan Jo Daro apparently means “Platform of Mohan”, and is named after the great philosopher-priest Lord Mohan.

Tripathi tells us that Lord Manu is considered to be the progenitor of civilisation by all the people of “India”. Yes, Tripathi frequently uses the word “India” for the land called Sapt Sindhu, which holds Meluha and Swadweep. Apparently Lord Manu lived 8500 years before the story’s timeline (1900 BC). He was a prince in a land south of the Narmada, called “Sangamtamil.” We are told that Sangamtamil was the richest and most powerful country in the world. Lord Manu’s family, the Pandyas, had ruled that land for many generations. By Lord Manu’s time, the Kings of Sangamtamil had lost their old code of honour. 'Having fallen on corrupt ways, they spent their days in the pleasures of their fabulous wealth rather than being focussed on their duties and their spiritual life. Then a terrible calamity occurred. The seas rose and destroyed their entire civilisation.' Lord Manu had expected the calamity and he led a few followers to the northern higher lands in a fleet of ships. After reaching safety, Lord Many gave up his princely robes and became a priest. Tripathi tells us that the term for priests in India, “pandit”, is a derivation of Lord Manu’s family name “Pandya”! As a result of the flooding which destroyed Sangamtamil, various minor streams north of the Narmada became massive rivers – namely the Indus, Saraswati, Yamuna, Ganga, Sarayu and Brahmaputra. Lord Manu forbid anyone from going south of the Narmada where, at the time of this story, only the evil Nagas live. The land north of the Narmada came to be called Sapt Sindhu (since it had seven rivers).

Nagas, we are told by Tripathi, are a cursed people born with hideous deformities because of the sins of their previous births. Deformities like extra hands or horribly misshapen faces. They have tremendous strength and skills which makes them useful fighters. They are not allowed to live in Sapt Sindhu.

Many, many centuries before Shiva arrived on the scene, when Lord Brahma was in charge of affairs, people could become Brahmins only through a competitive examination process. Later caste became rigid and hereditary. It was Lord Ram who straightened things out. He introduced the Maika system, which reminded me of Plato’s proposals (never implemented) regarding communal living where children are to be brought up in common nurseries. Under the Maika system, all pregnant Meluhan women must travel to a camp when they are ready to deliver babies. Children are brought up in the Maika without knowing who their parents are. At the age of 15, a comprehensive exam is held, on the basis of which castes are allocated. After such allocation, there is one more year of training, this time, caste specific. Children are then adopted by parents from the caste allocated to them at the Maika. We get to know that under this fantastic system, over time, the percentage of high castes actually went up. At the time of this story, the Maika system continues to flourish, with the only difference being that the rulers and nobles have stopped putting their children in the Maika. In addition to the Maika, Lord Ram also created the Rajya Sabha, the ruling council, consisting of all Brahmins and Kshatriyas of a specific rank.

Meluhan women are free and have all rights. The prime minister of Meluha is a women, as is the doctor who tends to Shiva and his people as they arrive in Srinagar from Tibet. Sati seems to embody the ideal Meluhan woman, bold, fearless and beautiful. Some women even make it as Kshatriyas through the Maika system.

Meluha is so very technologically advanced. New immigrant Shiva is awestruck to find that its cities are built on elevated platforms. Shiva’s bathroom has ‘a magical device on the wall to increase the flow of water’ and a ‘strange cake like substance that the Meluhans said was a soap to rub the body clean.’ Meluhans live for hundreds of years, because they drink Somras, which is mass produced at a place called Mount Mandar. The Meluhans have numerous plantations for the Sanjeevani tree, since it is a crucial ingredient in Somras. Tripathi’s description of the manufacturing process for Somras reminded me of a nuclear reactor. We are told that manufacturing Somras generates a lot of heat and that a lot of water is needed during the processing to keep the mixture stable.

At Shiva’s wedding, water from the Saraswati is shown to be diverted into a channel which is shaped liked a Swastika. Filters inject a red dye into the water as it enters the channel and just as efficiently remove it as it flows out. We are told that Swastika means ‘that which is associated with well-being.’

First of a trilogy, The Immortals of Meluha’s plot is very basic and revolves around the tussle between Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis who are numerically superior to the Suravanshis and resort to cowardly “terrorist” attacks to weaken Meluha. Suryavanshis always fight by the rules. They would never stab in the back or strike below the knees. Somras, made available to all Meluhans, is what makes Meluha strong. The Chandravanshis too have knowledge of Somras, but they are unable to mass-produce it. Many decades before Shiva’s arrival, the Chandravanshis had managed to cause the Saraswati to dry up, leading to war, which the Meluhans had won. You see, the most important ingredient for Somras is the water from Saraswati, which comes from the confluence of two mighty rives, the Sutlej and the Yamuna. So the Chandravanshis diverted the course of the Yamuna (Tripathi doesn’t tell us how, but assures us that it can be done) so that instead of flowing south, it started flowing east to meet the Ganga. The Suryavanshis went to war with Swadweep over this and routed the Chandravanshis. Yamuna’s course was restored. The terms offered to Swadweep were liberal, too liberal, we are told. When Shiva arrives, the Saraswati is still drying up and the Meluhans aren’t sure why. Swadweepans outnumber Meluhans who keep having fewer and fewer children as their life-style keeps improving. Tripathi’s comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of the Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis, the liberal use of the word ‘terrorist’ and derision at the easy terms offered to Swadweep after its defeat, reminded me of the India and Pakistan rivalry and the Islamic terrorist angle.

Shiva irons out the few creases that exist in near-perfect Meluha. The Vikrama system, which even Lord Ram had endorsed, is the main object of Shiva’s fury. Vikramas are those who suffer ill-fate in life, such as having a still born baby. Sati is a vikrama and can’t attend yagnas. When she does, a nasty man called Tarak objects, forcing Sati to challenge him to an "agniparksha", which merely means a duel within a ring of fire, to be fought till one fighter dies. Does Sati survive her agniparisksha? Do read this book to find out.

Tripathi’s descriptions of the various fights Shiva gets embroiled in are good, but not that good. Almost all of them take place when Chandravanshis launch cowardly terrorist attacks with the help of Nagas. After an explosion destroys Mount Mandar (the place where Somras is mass manufactured), the Suryavanshis declare war on Swadweep. Swadweep has a large army which is a million strong, though many of its soldiers are conscripted. The Meluhan army is only a hundred thousand strong, but it is fully professional and Kshyatriya to the last volunteer. Further, Meluha’s advanced war machines cannot be taken across the rugged border. Shiva suggests new tactics and weapons. The first is a human ram, composed of men forming a tortoise like shell using their shields. This one’s taken straight from the Roman army’s field manual or maybe the Romans who came later copied it from Meluha. Then Shiva designs the trishul, which Tripathi tells us has the effect of three spears. War elephants are ruled out as being too unruly – you never know whether they will charge forwards or backwards. And finally Shiva comes up with a brilliant idea – archers! Archers who can rain a shower of arrows on the enemy! The Meluhans had apparently stopped using bows and arrows as they developed more advanced technology, but they see merit in Shiva’s idea, since they cannot take their long range catapults to Swadweep.

Shiva allows a Vikrama called Drapaku (who used to be a highly decorated soldier before bad-luck made him a Vikrama) to form a contingent of Vikrama soldiers to fight the Chandravanshis. Not everyone is happy, but Shiva’s order has to be obeyed. Once the battle beings, Meluhan soldiers are about to be caught in a pincer between two wings of the numerically superior Swadweepans. A battle akin to that at Thermopylae takes place Drapaku marches off with 5000 men who then hold the Chandravanshis off in a narrow defile. Most of the 5000 men die.

Shiva is not shown to have any supernatural powers, through towards the end one sees him deflect arrows with his sword. For the main battle with the Chandravanshis, Shiva has the Meluhan army arranged in a bow formation. Before the battle begins, Shiva explains to the already-egalitarian Suryavanshi soldiers that 'Har Har Mahadev' means each and every Suryavanshi is a Mahadev. This war cry further energizes the Suryavanshis who destroy the Swadweepans and sweep into Ayodhya, their capital city.

I wasn’t too impressed with Tripathi’s story-telling style, which I thought dragged a bit at times. However, after the march into Ayodhya, I changed my mind. No, it was not just the sudden arrival of the Swadweepan princess Anandmayi who is beautiful, raunchily dressed and is so very different from Meluhan women in that she is so politically incorrect. Do read this book, which suddenly became much more interesting at this point, to find out more.

Tripathi uses modern day terminology while telling us his tale. For example, immigrants (such as Shiva who arrived from Tibet) are taken to a “Foreigners Office” where they are met by an “Immigration Executive” who tells them that he is to be a ‘single point of contact for all issues while you are here.’ The immigrants are kept in “quarantine”, just in case they are carrying something infectious. The doctor who examines them is a great believer in the “field-work experience programme.” Much later, we see Shiva having a "breakfast meeting" with the ruler of Meluha. At one place, a soldier is address as "private" which made me wonder if I was reading a war novel with American GIs in it.

At times, Tripathi’s modern lingo doesn’t gel with the story, which also has its share of Sanskrit. When Shiva woos Sati we hear him think ‘Say yes, dammit!’ Later when Shiva is puzzled by Sati’s reactions, he thinks ‘what the hell is going on.’ Later Shiva thinks ‘he had to impress her.’ I tried to compare the Immortals of Meluha with Ashok Banker's Ramayana series, but stopped. Banker's Ramayana series transports you to the time when Lord Ram lived. The Immortals of Meluha is set in today's world and the ambience is not very different from that of a college cultural festival.

Immortals of Meluha is not the first novel to use modern day terminology to narrate an ancient tale. Setven Pressfield’s The Afghan Campaign did the same for Alexander the Great’s campaign in the land now called Afghanistan. However, I didn’t find Tripathi to be half as good as Pressfield.

In order to enjoy Immortals of Meluha, one has to accept Tripathi’s rewriting of history Every fiction writer has the licence to do what Tripathi has done. However, some of Tripathi’s statements in the foreword to the book made me wonder if Tripathi has approached this book strictly as a work of fiction. Tripathi asks us, ‘What if Lord Shiva was not a figment of a rich imagination, but a person of flesh and blood? Like you and me. A man who rose to become godlike because of his karma. That is the premise of the Shiva Trilogy, which interprets the rich mythological heritage of ancient India, blending fiction with historical fact. This work is therefore a tribute to Lord Shiva and the lesson that his life teaches us.’ I’ll say no more, but will leave it to you to judge for yourself.

Tripathi won’t be the first (or last) author to attempt rewriting history. A couple of years ago, I read the first four books of quintet by the famous secular/left wing writer cum activist Tariq Ali who is based in the UK. All four books sought to tell the story of how Islamic Empires rose and fell in a non-Eurocentric manner. The first one, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, is set in Granada after the Re-Conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Book of Saladin is about, well, Saladdin, and is narrated by Ibn Yakub, a Jewish scribe retained by Saladin to pen his memoirs. The Stone Woman, the third book in Ali’s Islam Quintet, is set at the turn of the twentieth century as the six hundred year old Ottoman Empire slowly flickers out. Tariq Ali’s fourth novel The Sultan of Palermo revolves around the world renowned cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi who lived in the twelfth century and served the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. All these books are fictionalised history. In The Book of Saladin, we are introduced to two crusaders, who did exist. Ali tells us that one of them attacked Mecca and desecrated it, surely a very serious charge. At one point, crusaders did harass pilgrims to Mecca, but to say a crusader attacked and desecrated Mecca is too serious a charge. Why does Ali get carried away so much? I don’t know. Maybe he felt that making crusaders look more evil and ruthless than they were would help negate the bias against Muslims in today's West.

I got the feeling that Tripathi has written India’s history, the way he would like it to have been – where there were no migrating Aryans fighting with the Dravidians, one which gives all Indians a shared and common heritage, which every modern-day Indian can be proud of. This isn’t a bad ambition, but then why didn’t Tripathi give the evil, deformed and misshapen Nagas some other name?

The second book in this trilogy has been released and I have just placed an order for it. There are number of reasons why I want to read it. You see, it is not really clear why a small contingent of Nagas and Chandravanshis have been attacking targets in Meluha. Was it simply to cause terror or were they trying to abduct someone? Also, it is possible that the explosion at Mount Mandar was the result of an accident or at the very least was not orchestrated by the ruler of Swadweep. Also, are the Chandravanshis as evil as they were initially made out to be? True, they are not as organised as the Meluhans, and each Chandravanshi is an individual, very different from each other, unlike the Meluhans who all seem to think alike. And finally, are the Nagas really that evil? We did see a group of Nagas rescue a woman from the jaws of a crocodile, even as they wrought mayhem in Meluha. Maybe there is something more to the Nagas than meets the eye.

On the whole, I would say that Tripathi is a good story teller, on par with someone like Chetan Bhagat and just like Bhagat, his stories would be even better if the narration could be improved.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Book Review: “Last Man in Tower” by Aravind Adiga

Actually, it ought to have been Tower ‘A’. You see, the Vishram society has two towers, A and B, and considering Adiga’s love for detail, I’m surprised Adiga didn’t specify the tower in his title. It’s in Tower A that almost all the action takes place and Masterji, as retired school teacher Yogesh Murthy’s neighbours address him, makes his last stand.

I hadn’t liked Adiga’s first novel The White Tiger all that much. What I didn’t like about it was the very idea that Balram Halwai, a semi-educated, self-made man and a murderer would write a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, cribbing about India. Last Man in Tower is a better book. Much, much better. The prose is just as good and the story is a lot more interesting with a half-decent plot. I wouldn’t call the plot very original. In these days of globalisation, there are so many stories of men and women who refuse to be evicted, to make way for a shining glass and steel builing or a factory. However, Adiga takes this very basic plot much beyond a mere last stand.

Adiga loves details. He doesn’t give his reader any choice in this matter. Anyone who manages to complete the Last Man in Tower cannot help but acquire a wealth of knowledge about Mumbai and its building societies. However, Adiga’s prose and story-telling ability takes Last Man in Tower to a higher plane. Consider this:

'South Mumbai has the Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building, but the suburbs built later, have their own Gothic style: for every evening by six, pillars of hydro-benzene and sulphur dioxide rise high up from the roads, flying buttresses of nitrous dioxide join each other, swirls of unburnt kerosene, mixed illegally into the diesel, cackle like gargoyles, and a great roof of carbon monoxide closes over the structure. And this Cathedral of particulate matter rises over every red light, every bridge and every tunnel during rush hour.'

Adiga gets you to meet his characters up and close, front and back, inside and outside, from above, helicopter view as well as from a hovercraft, and finally from below, using one of those mirrors stuck at the end of a long stick used to check under cars for bombs. Adiga shoves his characters into your face and forces you to swallow. At times, you wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to let you observe the character from some distance and maybe get up close just once and walk away rather than force you into a close hug. Nevertheless, you get to know each of the major characters and some of the minor ones as well. Last Man in Tower is a study in human nature and since it revolves around middle, middle-class Mumbaikars living in a dilapidated building being offered an extraordinary sum of money (250% of the market value) to move out of their flats to make way for a very posh building, you end up with a fascinating insight into how the human mind works when confronted with forces of greed, avarice and ego. ‘You should always be thinking, what does he have that I don’t have? That way you go up in life. You understand me?’ Mr. Shah advises a young lad who has recently arrived in Mumbai.

Yogesh Murthy, aka Masterji initially decides to not move out mainly because his closest friends in Tower A, the Pintos, do not want to leave. Mrs. Pinto is blind and she is petrified at the idea of having to leave familiar surroundings and go elsewhere. Masterji’s opposition to the exodus soon turns into something else, in the face of popular support for the scheme and a demand from people who respected him till then, that he too agree to move out.

The occupants of Tower A are less well-off than those in Tower B. Flats in Tower B are larger and better maintained and of course they are to be paid more than those in Tower A. However, it is in Tower A that Mr. Shah’s offer to pay 19,000 rupees per square foot arouses greater excitement. They all need the money for various things and since they are being paid so much more above market value, they will have enough to buy a decent house and a handsome amount leftover to pay for their dreams. The only catch is that the acceptance of the offer has to be unanimous. If even one individual objects, the generous offer made by the Confidence Group will not translate into money.

Why does Masterji keep objecting even after the Pintos give in? Even after handbills denouncing him make an appearance and those who respected him till then start boycotting him? Masterji has old students who are now in eminent positions who will fight for him. Or will they? Did they really like him all that much or did they merely respect him? After all, even his only son does not seem to like him much. The bait dangled by Mr. Shah and his left-hand man Shanmugham are so tantalising that Masterji’s neighbours become vicious in their campaign to get him to agree.

What can make a man change his mind and agree to move away from memories of his wife who died a year ago? A job-less teenager with a hockey stick and some empty threats? A man sitting on the footpath outside, merely keeping a watch on all his movements? Human shit smeared on the outside of the front door?

Will Masterji give in or will he force Mr. Shah to go away? Masterji is not fighting for more money. He is only, to quote a minor character in this novel, an American journalist with a goatee living in Mumbai, ‘making a statement against unplanned development’. Adiga keeps you guessing till the end.

Adiga likes to break down stereotypes, at the risk of eating into his realistic capital. Mr. Shah, the villain of the book, is shown to enjoy not only his booze, as many Gujarati businessmen in Mumbai do, he also enjoys fish and prawns and crabs, very unlike the average Gujarati businessman. We see him entertain one of the inhabitants of Tower A at a Mangalorean sea-food joint at Juhu (which incidentally doesn’t have many places serving non-vegetarian food since it is a Gujarati locality). We also see him serve meat and fish and liquor at his Malabar Hill home, something unthinkable for a Gujarati, who are by and large, vegetarians. One of Mr. Shah’s competitors is one Mr. J. J. Chacko. I haven’t heard of any Keralites among the leading builders in Mumbai, but then, I don’t claim to be an expert.

There was only one detail, one tiny detail in the whole 419 page book which I thought was outright wrong. Since Adiga is a stickler for detail, this error sort of stands out. Mr. Puri, an accountant, commutes from Tower A to Nariman Point. Tower A is in Vakola and Adiga tells us that Mr. Puri’s commute involved – ‘auto, train, change of train at Dadar and then a shared taxi from Victoria Terminus to Nariman Point, from where he would call Ramu, to enquire about the state of the Friendly Duck’s health that day.’ My question is, if Nariman Point is the final destination, the change at Dadar should be to the Western Line which gets one to Churchgate. Nariman Point is much closer to Churchgate than to Victoria Terminus. Also, wouldn’t it make better sense for Mr. Puri to get to Santa Cruz by auto and take the Western Line to begin with, and avoid the need to change at Dadar? I mean, this error is inexplicable for an author who has dedicated this book to (I’m not making this one up) “my fellow commuters on the Santa Cruz-Churchgate local line”. I sort of take this omission personally since I commute on the Western Line daily to get to work at Nariman Point.

I really liked Last Man in Tower though I can’t say I enjoyed it. It is not a book meant to be enjoyed, though it is actually unputdownable. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins a Booker. I mean, this one’s twice as good as The White Tiger.

In case you want to sample Adiga’s prose, some of his short stories can be found online.