Saturday, 31 March 2012

Book Review: The Newsroom Mafia by Oswald Pereira

The fourth estate is supposed to be a force for good, acting as a check on the other three estates, the legislature, executive and judiciary. However, when corruption has seeped into the three official organs of the Indian government, should the media be any different?

Veteran journalist Oswald Pereira’s novel the Newsroom Mafia is a thriller which pits a police chief, Supercop Donald Fernandez (aka Don) against Mumbai’s underworld don, Narayan Swamy. As the deadly fight unfolds, we get to see the nasty underbelly of journalism, one where many journalists are either on the payroll of the mafia don or are working for the glorification of the Supercop. In any event, unbiased journalism and factual reporting are in definite short supply.

Narayan Swamy has a number of allies, some of whom are leading politicians and journalists. Clever lawyers, accountants and stock brokers working for the mafia don make sure that he is able to build up a ‘clean’ business empire which runs parallel to the criminal one. Supercop Don, who reminded me of retired IPS officer Julio Rebeiro, too has a few good men on his side, such as his able assistant Rane and the narrator Oscar Pinto who is a reporter who works for The Newsroom, India’s most prestigious and reputed newspaper. Oscar Pinto is always hungry for scoops and thirsty for large pegs.

One of the best things about the Newsroom Mafia is that none of the characters are entirely good or entirely bad. Even mafia don Swamy has a good and charitable side to him just as the good cops have their weaknesses. The narrator is not your regular hero – in addition to a weakness for spirits of the bottled variety, Oscar Pinto commits a massive goof-up right at the beginning of the novel, one which seriously tarnishes the reputation of The Newsroom.

Like any good thriller, the Newsroom Mafia does not suffer from a lack of steamy scenes. The very attractive Stella Kutty, yet another bent journalist, takes care of that and more than one good man succumbs to her charms.

On the flip side, at times I found Pereira’s writing style a bit ‘flat’ at times, with ‘telling’ more than ‘showing’, which can take its toll since the novel runs to almost 260 pages. An easy read in a single sitting, the Newsroom Mafia definitely ain’t. However, because Pereira keeps the suspense rolling and because the reader is always kept guessing, the pages do keep turning.

The ending was at a tangent and tone very different from what I had expected. I will not divulge more and risk spoiling the story for you. Do please read this exciting thriller for yourself and find out more.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Book Review: Songs of Blood and Sword by Fatima Bhutto

Fatima Bhutto’s younger half-brother Zulfi was born in Damascus on 1 August 1990. At that time, Fatima’s father, Mir Ghulam Murtaza Bhutto was in exile in Damascus, trying to organise resistance against the Zia-ul-Haq regime. Fatima tells us about a particular morning, a few weeks before Zulfi was born, sometime around early July 1990. Eight year old Fatima is being woken up by her father, Murtaza. ‘Hurry up, Get up. Get up!’ Murtaza yells and runs out of the bedroom. Fatima gets up and drags herself out of her room. As soon as she goes through the door, Murtaza dumps a bucket of water on her. Fatima bursts into giggles, as she stands in the doorway near her father who is holding the empty bucket. Many months later, on a lovely spring afternoon, Murtaza takes his family to lunch at the Elba Hotel. Fatima’s friend Nora goes along. Nine year old Fatima has been dressed by her Syrian stepmother Ghinwa and is wearing nice shoes and little earrings. As they walk past the Elba’s elegant swimming pool, Fatima notices a mischievous gleam in her father’s eye and warns him off with a sharp ‘don’t’. After lunch as Fatima walks back with her friend Nora, Murtaza distracts Fatima with a ‘Fati! Look!’, picks her up and hurls her into the water. Fatima is furious, but Murtaza laughs his trademark Khe Khe Khe laugh. An angry Fatima tries to extract a promise from Murtaza that he will not throw her into a pool till she is fourteen. ‘But Fatushki, what if I am not alive then?’ Murtaza asks. Fatima bursts into tears.

In between my tears, I shouted at my father. ‘Fourteen isn’t far. Of course you will be alive. You have to live till I am a hundred! I wiped my nose on his shoulder. Papa kissed me and continued to rock me. ‘I hope so,’ he said.

Fatima turned fourteen on 29 May 1996. A few months later, on 20 September 1996, Murtaza was killed in a police shootout in Karachi. The fatal shot was fired at point blank range into Murtaza’s jaw when Murtaza (nursing bullet wounds) was being driven to a hospital in a police vehicle. The vehicle was at that time very close to Murtaza’s house and Fatima tells us that she heard that fatal shot.

At the time of Murtaza’s murder, Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan and she was already married to Karachi playboy Asif Ali Zardari. Fatima firmly believes that Asif Zardari and to a lesser extent, her aunt Benazir were behind the pre-planned execution of her father. Songs of Blood and Sword runs to 470 pages (including its end notes, references and index) and the entire book, though it begins even before Grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, is an attempt to explain how and why Murtaza was killed. The events on the evening of 20 September 1996 which led to Murtaza’s murder are covered at the beginning of the book and later towards the end in greater detail. On the whole, I would say that Fatima has built a reasonably plausible case to show that Murtaza’s killing was a pre-planned execution. A few of the men who were with Murtaza that night survived the shooting and their testimony sounds credible. There are a few odds and ends which don’t fit in. For example, we are told that two policemen, who were later rewarded with awards and honours and elevated to very high positions, shot themselves in the foot and leg to make it appear to be a shootout rather than a one-sided attack on Murtaza’s party. I find it difficult to believe that any policeman would shoot himself to make a false encounter look genuine. I also couldn’t understand why someone would fire into Murtaza’s jaw rather than his forehead or chest. Also, if the murder was well planned, the fatal shot should have been fired from a distance to make it appear as if it was a part of the shootout. Also, the fact that Murtaza was taken by the police to a hospital where he died on the operating table tilts the balance a little bit away from Fatima’s avowed belief, though Fatima tells us that due to road blocks in place at that time, prompt medical assistance was not likely.

When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arrested, Benazir and Murtaza were both studying at Oxford, while Shanawaz was studying in Switzerland. Zia-ul-Haq released Zulfikar after a few weeks and Zulfikar launched a whirlwind campaign against the military regime, rallying crowds and garnering support. Murtaza and Shahnawaz returned to Karachi and helped their father in his campaign. When Zulfikar was re-arrested, the sons, at their father’s instruction, fled overseas and started to lobby for Zulfikar’s release, travelling to various countries and meeting many a Head of State. Fatima tells us that if the US wanted to, it could have saved Zulfikar Bhutto. A single word would have been enough. But the US didn’t. Many years ago when Zulfikar was in power, his socialism and non-alignment had irked Henry Kissinger so much that Kissinger had apparently promised to make a horrible example out of Zulfikar.

Murtaza met Della Roufogalis, a Greek beauty, in London sometime in May 1978. Della was also lobbying – for the release of her husband, General Michael Roufogalis who was serving a life sentence. General Roufogalis had been the head of the State Information Department, the most dreaded department in military ruler Papadopolous’s regime. A change of regime saw him being carted off to jail. The romance between Murtaza and Della is described in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mills and Boon novel, with numerous rendezvous and trysts in exclusive hotels and night clubs all over the world. I was reminded of Judith Krantz’s novel Princess Daisy where Stash Valensky, a rich Russian prince living in exile romances Francesca Vernon, an Italian actress. It goes without saying that neither Della nor Murataza was particularly successful in obtaining the release of their respective loved ones. Fatima makes Murtaza sound very earnest in love and in fighting for his father’s release, and I was sure he was all that, but to a neutral third party, he doesn’t appear to be doing the right thing as he chases the much married Della across the world, madly in love with her, as his father and General Roufogalis languish in jail.

On April 4, 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged on the orders of Zia-ul-Haq. Was Zulfikar Bhutto really hanged until dead or was he tortured to death? Fatima would have us believe that it was the latter.

After Zulfikar’s death, his children reacted in different ways. Benazir and her mother Nusrat Bhutto shuttled between house arrest and jail for a few years. Zulfikar’s sons Murtaza and Shahnawaz started to organise resistance against Zia’s regime. Apparently Zulfikar had commanded his sons to avenge his impending murder. Fatima tells us that Della told her that she had read Zulfikar’s last letter to Murtaza ‘go to Afghanistan. Be close to your country. If you do not avenge my murder, you are not my sons.’ Murtaza and his younger brother Shahnawaz lived in Kabul for many years, under the protection of Soviet puppet Najibullah. Later, they moved to Damascus. It was while they lived in Kabul that Murtaza broke off his affair with Della. Very soon Murtaza and Shahnawaz got married to Afghan sisters Fowzia and Rehana. Fowzia is Fatima’s mother, but after Murtaza and Fowzia got divorced, Fatima chose to be with her father and even now considers her step-mother, Murtaza’s second wife Ghinwa, to be her mother. Murtaza’s resistance movement Al Zulfikar does not seem to have achieved much or at least Fatima does not tell us much about any successes it may have had. There is a mention of an attempt to shoot down Zia-ul-Haq’s plane, Pak One, with a shoulder to air missile, but that attempt failed.

Fatima keeps references to her biological mother Fowzia to a bare minimum. There are few details of Murtaza’s courtship of Fowzia, which happened at the same time as Shahnawaz’s courtship of Fowzia’s sister Raehana. We are told that Fowzia and Raehana came from a diplomatic family, that Raehana was a Mujahiddeen supporter, that Fowzia was pregnant with Fatima when she married Murtaza and that Najibullah tried to stop the weddings on account of the Mujahiddeen connection. The brothers had a joint wedding reception as they married the sister duo, dressed in khakhis and keffiyehs. Murtaza and Fowzia separated when Fatima was only three. We don’t really get to hear a coherent reason why Fatima doesn’t want to have anything to do with her biological mother, even after her father’s murder or why Fatima has to say that she is ‘scared, frightened even, of my biological mother’.

The struggle between Benazir and Murtaza for the Bhutto legacy started when they were both very young. Both siblings were at Harvard and later Oxford at the same time. Benazir was the aloof, haughty and proud one, always conscious of being a Bhutto and wanting her two younger brothers and younger sister to toe her line. Obviously Murtaza too wanted to be Zulfikar’s heir, though Fatima doesn’t spell it out in as many words. Rather, she says that Murtaza deferred to his elder sister until their ideological differences became too great for them to work together, which happened after Zulfikar’s execution. In Murtaza’s eyes, Benazir was wrong to start participating in the democratic process, something she started doing even before Zia-ul-Haq died. Fatima remembers the conversation. ‘What do you mean, “take part”? Papa said, almost shouting. “You are willing to be Zia’s Prime Minister’. To an outsider, it seems obvious that Benazir did the right thing by taking part in the democratic process rather than fight to oust Zia-ul-Haq, but Fatima genuinely finds so much wrong with so many of Benazir’s actions that at times one gets the feeling that Fatima is nitpicking. Relations between Murtaza and Benazir worsened after Benazir married Asif Ali Zardari.

Nusrat Bhutto sided with Murtaza as he campaigned for a seat on his return from exile, fighting against his sister's PPP. Loyalty to the leader of the clan is one of the key attributes of a feudal society and Fatima celebrates the loyalty shown to Murtaza and his family by various die-hard Bhutto supporters. Was Benazir entitled to take over Zulfikar’s mantle? Fatima doesn’t think so, especially after Benazir reversed so many of Zulfikar’s policies, in particular his policies of non-alignment and socialism. Though Fatima doesn’t spell it out as such, one gets the distinct feeling that Fatima believes Zulfikar’s politicial lineage ought to have passed only through his eldest son and his descendants. In Fatima’s eyes, her Syrian stepmother Ghinwa who can’t speak Urdu has a greater right to the Bhutto lineage than Benazir! One of Fatima’s biggest grouses is the use of the Bhutto name by Benazir and Zardari. Also, there isn’t a single reference to Fatima’s cousin Bhilawal Zardari Bhutto in the entire 470 page book. I am sure that Fatima doesn’t consider him to be a Bhutto.

Fatima tries to keep her narration neutral and unbiased and she succeeds to a large extent. However, her descriptions of her grandfather Zulfikar Bhutto and father Mir Murtaza Bhutto are a wee bit too flattering. Neither man is shown to have a single blemish, though Fatima does concede that Zulfikar was wrong to have cracked down so hard on Balochi nationalists. Combined with Fatima’s anger towards Benazir and Asif Zardari, such a partisan account at times sounds like a diatribe.

Other than Murtaza’s murder, there are two other events detailed in Songs of Blood and Sword which fascinated me. One was the death and possible murder of Murtaza’s brother Shahnawaz. Fatima tells us that she grew up believing Shahnawaz’s wife Raehana was responsible for Shahnawaz’s death in France. However, Fatima suggests that now she thinks it is possible Shahnawaz was killed at Zia-ul-Haq’s behest. The second event which piqued my curiosity was the hijacking of a PIA aircraft by one Salamullah Tipu and two other hijackers. The hijackers demanded the release of 55 prisoners, most of them PPP activists. Since the hijacked plane ended up in Kabul where Murtaza was living at that time, Murtaza ended up interceding for the release of the passengers. Fatima rightly says that the hijacking turned out to be a good excuse for the military regime to clamp down on the opposition. Fatima tells us that ‘Salamullah Tipu, in time, began working openly for the Pakistan government. His role in leading the hijacking operation didn’t seem to stand in his way at all.’ I believe Fatima’s claim that Murtaza was not involved in this hijacking at all.

Fatima might have lived a substantial part of her life in Damascus, but doesn’t seem to have suffered much on account of it. We are told that the Sheraton in Damascus was almost a home and there never seems to have been a shortage of money. This is not very surprising since the Bhuttos have been for many generations one of the richest families in Pakistan, though I did find it interesting that even after Zulfikar’s execution, Murtaza and Shahnawaz never lacked for money.

As expected, Songs of Blood and Sword comes with so many anecdotes about the Bhuttos and the rest of Pakistan. The best (and most hilarious) story is how when Zulfikar Bhutto decided to marry the Persian (and Shiite) Nusrat against the wishes of his Sunni family, he managed to find a Maulvi after so much trouble, only to have to turn him away because he was a Sunni Maulvi and Nusrat’s family wanted a Shiite Maulvi and they had so much trouble getting hold of a Shiite Maulvi. There is another story of how just after Murtaza landed at Harvard, he dumped his suits and shoes into the washing machine, expecting them to come out neatly pressed. Period! I will say no more.

Fatima’s Songs of Blood and Sword are the songs of Pakistan. There is unbelievable arrogance, pride, anger, extreme pain and suffering, excruciating agony and fear for the future. Hope is also in short supply. Despite the numerous and obvious flaws in Fatima’s personality, this reader ended up with a huge amount of sympathy for this brave lady who suffered so much at so young an age.

Monday, 19 March 2012

How did Prabhakaran and his family die?

How did Velupillai Prabhakaran die?
How did Mathivathani Erambu die?
How did Duwaraka Prabhakaran die?
How did Balachandran Prabhakaran die?

In May 2009, the bodies of Prabhakaran’s wife Mathivathani Erambu, his daughter Duwaraka and second son Balachandran were recovered from near the Nandikadal lagoon. At that time there were so many theories regarding their deaths. At first, it was reported by DBS jeyaraj that it was possible that Prabhakaran and many of his associates had consumed cyanide and also triggered off a huge explosion that destroyed their bodies. Later, it was announced by the Sri Lankan government that Velupillai Prabhakaran had been shot dead by the army as he and senior leaders Soosai and Pottu Amman sought to flee from the encircling Sri Lankan army in an armour plated ambulance. The rumours flew thick and fast. It was said, with some credibility, that Prabhakaran had been betrayed by an insider, captured alive and shot dead, execution style.

Dushy Ranetunge, a Sri Lankan journalist based in London, had at that time taken the view that Prabhakaran and his entire family had been executed by the Lankan army.

Now Channel IV has came up with the second part of its documentary on the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka and it has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that Prabhakaran and his second son Balachandran, age 12, were captured and executed by the Sri Lankan army. Apparently 12 year old Balachandran had been sent out with five bodyguards to surrender. Instead, he was taken prisoner, interrogated, forced to reveal his father’s whereabouts, made to watch the execution of those five bodyguards and then executed. Based on information provided by Balachandan, Prabhakaran himself was later captured and killed by a single shot to the back on his head from close range. Do watch the second part of the Channel IV documentary on the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka. About 29 minutes into the documentary, the bit about Balachandran comes up, followed by some information about Prabhakaran’s execution.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Should India support the UN resolution on Sri Lanka?

I have in the past blogged many times about Sri Lanka and the LTTE, calling on international support for the Sri Lankan government as it fought the LTTE. I wrote open letters to Hilary Clinton in her role as the US Secretary of State and to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. I even wrote to the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa giving a few words of advice on how to defeat the LTTE. I wrote a short story inspired by my hatred for LTTE’s forced conscription of child soldiers. My anti-LTTE and pro-Sri Lankan government stance was motivated primarily by the thought that it was (and still is) important to maintain the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. I also hated the LTTE for its suicide bombing tactics, for conscripting children, for having killed Indian soldiers on a peacekeeping mission and for having murdered Rajiv Gandhi.

I was happy when the Sri Lankan forces fought the LTTE to a bloody finish. I was happy that the megalomaniac LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed, though a bit uncomfortable by the thought that he might have been executed in cold blood. I wondered how Prabhakaran’s wife Mathivathani Erambu, his daughter Duwaraka and second son Balachandran who was then 12 years old, died. Did Prabhakaran kill his wife and children in order to prevent them from being captured by government soldiers and paraded in front of cameras, I had wondered. Or did they voluntarily commit suicide? The thought that any of them would have been killed in cold blood by Sri Lankan soldiers after being captured, did not even cross my mind. I even wrote an article opposing a call by the Times of London to boycott Sri Lanka.

My disquiet turned to unease when Channel IV came up with its first documentary on the killing fields of Sri Lanka. It became crystal clear that many of the accusations levied against the Sri Lankan government by the Tamil Diaspora and its other detractors were true. The Sri Lankan government had intentionally targeted civilians, when there was no military need to do so, using heavy caliber howitzers to concentrate fire on a no-fire zone where civilians had been instructed to gather. Then came the second part which not only reiterated all that had been proved beyond reasonable doubt in the first part, but also showed that Prabhakaran’s second son Balachandran, age 12, had been taken alive and then shot five times in the chest at very close range. Balachandran had been sent out with five bodyguards to surrender. Instead, he was taken prisoner, interrogated and forced to reveal his father’s whereabouts, made to watch the execution of those five bodyguards and then executed. Prabhakaran himself was later killed by a single shot to the back on his head from close range.

I refuse to believe that the soldiers who pulled the trigger on 12 year old Balachandran, his sister Duwaraka, his mother Mathivathani Erambu, and Prabhakaran himself would have done so without clear instructions from the top. And it had to be the very top, from President Mahinda Rajapaksa and/or his brother and the Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. No Sri Lankan soldier would have executed such important prisoners without direct orders from the top of the pyramid. Most probably, the Lankan government felt that if any of Prabhakaran’s children were left alive, they could be a rallying point for supports of Tamil Eelam sometime in the distant future. However, such cold blooded executions by a democratically elected government just cannot be condoned.

The UN resolution calling on Sri Lanka to probe abuses during the civil war will not be supported by many countries like China and Pakistan. If one looks at India’s recent track record in Sri Lankan matters, India too will not support this resolution, just to make sure that Sri Lanka doesn’t move any closer to China. If the UN resolution is passed for any reason, it will garner even more support for the Rajapakse brothers within the Sinhala community. Many years down the line, if the Rajapakse brothers lose power and if some other party comes to power, there is a possibility that those who ordered the execution of 12 year old Balachandran may be brought to book. However, this is a very remote possibility.

I can’t think of a single geo-political or strategic advantage India would gain by supporting this UN resolution. Despite that, there are certain things which just cannot be condoned and I earnestly hope that India supports this UN resolution and that sufficient votes are cast in its favour.

Monday, 12 March 2012

‘Chez Vous’ Says Au Revoir to Cosmopolitan Mumbai

A week ago, an email from Frederic dropped into my inbox. Usually Frederic’s emails have details of a deal or something new at the Chez Vous. This one however was very different. It announced out of the blue, “As you might have heard ‘Chez Vous French Bistro’ is now closed. Although we are sad as it an end of an era for us, we are also very excited to have opened now ‘Ché Bar & Grill’. ‘Ché Bar & Grill’ is now opened to public.”

Having eaten at most of the top restaurants in Mumbai, I thought that the Chez Vous was Mumbai’s finest French Restaurant. Atleast it was the most authentic. I haven’t been to the Chez Vous more than five or six times and so I can’t call myself a regular at the Chez Vous. It didn’t have a grand exterior. Rather, on the outside, it was as grimy as the rest of the neighbourhood at Churchgate. However, the interiors were plush and more importantly, the food, was out of the world.

Why did Chez Vous close down? One of the attachments to Frederick’s email has the details.

Sic “Despite the good response we got at the beginning & a good list of regulars, it became slowly and surely obvious to us that ‘Chez Vous French Bistro’ was not a winning format in Churchgate in Mumbai in 2012. Few but very powerful reasons led us to this change:

First we heavily use imported products in all our dishes (mostly French wines & French cheeses). With the business closure of few of our suppliers, it became difficult to have a steady & reliable supply. We had to spend more & more time everyday to source cheeses, duck liver & other fine products. We understood very early that this was absolutely not a scalable business model. In addition, most of these ingredients carry a 450% import duties that pushed us to have a fine dining pricing with then a very limited target audience. Who value to spend three times more money for a cheese platter with Roquefort blue cheese than for a platter with a regular Cheddar or Emmental? Who value to spend as much as 1500/- for 120g of duck liver whereas they can have a great starter, main & dessert for the same price. Beyond the price, how many people even understand what duck liver is.

Too few people in fact in Mumbai in 2012 to make us a living.

‘Chez Vous French Bistro’ was the first pure stand alone French restaurant in Mumbai with goes with its chances & its risks. The good thing is that we got a lot of people to come & visit in the first place. The minus is that after having welcomed 25,000 guests in 15 months, after having talked to each of them, got their feedbacks, we slowly understood how for most of people here French cuisine was just too much outside of their comfort zone. We had to face it. Today’s exposure on French cuisine is low. Although we see that more & more people are willing to try new things, the trend is still timid & definitely too slow to maintain a pure high quality French restaurant. If most of people are opened to experiment with food, they are not willing to pay that much for something that they don’t know about. We came to know that also. After having spent now almost 2 years in Mumbai, we also noticed that most of Continental Fine Dining restaurants that make money serve all exactly the same type of food & dishes (pizza, pasta, risotto…). What we saw initially as a business opportunity was in fact the rule of the game in the local industry. We came to the conclusion that taking culinary risks & deliver high quality food was pointless unless people first and foremost understand it & then can afford it. Finally being located in a premise where the previous restaurant used to sell burgers at 100/- & in an area with a very important of vegetarian didn’t help us.

After 15 months of operation and despite a decent business & good feedbacks from the public, we realized that we got it wrong. So we had to change something.”

And so, the ‘Chez Vous French Bistro’ has been replaced by the ‘Ché Bar & Grill’ which will play latino music and serve pizzas, pasta, burgers, giant hot dogs, fish & chips, chicken wings, fajitas, tortillas etc. A few French items are to be mercifully preserved: crab, steak frites, steak chateaubriand, fish Meunière. The pricing is to be on par with Colaba eateries such as like Café Mondegar and Café Churchill.

Maybe in around 10 years’ time when Mumbai becomes genuinely cosmopolitan, someone might read this post and laugh out loud. I hope so anyways. In the meantime, I wish Ché Bar & Grill and Frederic all the very best.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Book Review: The World Beyond by Sangeeta Bhargava

I am a die-hard fan of historical novels, especially when the history involves war. In fact, I like novels with a realistic war setting so much that I don’t mind even if some romance is introduced into the story, though I would normally be happier without such complications. Gone with the Wind is one of my all-time favourites, and I really enjoyed M. M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon which is a historical romance set during the time of the 1857 revolt. Given this, I did not hesitate to order a copy of Sangeeta Bhargava’s The World Beyond, a historical romance which is also set in the time of the 1857 War of Independence, as soon as I heard of it.

The story of an English girl’s love for Salim, the son of the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, The World Beyond has a simple story line, functional prose, authentic settings and suspense. Until I reached the last chapter of the novel which runs to over 350 pages, I did not know if the ending would be a la Romeo and Juliet or the Merchant of Venice.

Bhargava’s strength lies in the fact that she is at home in Lucknow, with its nawabs and zenanas and architecture and Mughalai cuisine and culture and its British residents. Events such as the those leading to the 1857 uprising and policies such as Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse are seamlessly interwoven into the narrative. Bhargava does not hesitate to utilise her fiction writer’s licence to the fullest extreme. There are tiger hunts (with Salim hunting and killing a man-eater) and an elephant fight held to honour Salim, which Salim calls to an abrupt halt because Rachael doesn’t like the idea of killing animals.

There are a few cons to this novel. At times I found myself wishing that Bhargava would use more flowery prose for a novel of this nature, which is as much if not more romantic, as it is historical. Also, I thought that The World Beyond was a wee bit too one-sided in its description of atrocities during the fighting that took place. Almost all the despicable acts are committed by the British, though Bhargava does admire them for withstanding the siege of the Residency. Except for Rachel, all the Brits in the story are cruel and nasty and racist.

The various characters in the story, ranging from Rachel’s father to Salim’s wet nurse don’t have any trouble communicating with each other. I guess, this is essentially because Salim has learned his English in Calcutta and Rachel has lived in India all her life. I did once in a while, such as when Salim’s wet nurse goes to meet Rachel’s father with a formal marriage proposal, expect an interpreter to pop up and translate or have someone or the other throw up his hands in exasperation at his inability to get what the other is saying. However, nothing of this sort happens. Everyone understands everyone else and towards the end I reconciled myself to such a blissful state of affairs.

As I have mentioned above, the best thing about The World Beyond is that Bhargava keeps one guessing till the end whether Salim will survive the fighting and marry Rachel. The reader’s agony intensifies when Salim is taken prisoner and is punished very harshly. I will not divulge more and play spoilsport. Please do read this book to find out how it all ends.