Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Book Review: “Leadership in the Indian Army - Biographies of Twelve Soldiers” by Major General V. K. Singh

Before I start, let me clarify that Major General V. K. Singh, the author of this wonderful book, is not the recently retired Indian Chief of Army Staff General V. K. Singh. Maj. Gen V. K. Singh has written a few other books about the Indian army and one about India’s intelligence agency, titled - India’s External Intelligence – Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) – which I had reviewed earlier on this blog, with mixed feelings I should add.

Twelve soldiers, each of them a legend in India, are represented in this collection. The author tells us in his preface that these men ‘represent a cross-section of the Indian army. Of the 12, nine are from the Infantry, one each from the Cavalry, Engineers and Signals. There are three Chiefs (Cariappa, Thimayya and Manekshaw); four army Commanders (Nathu Singh, Thorat, Bhagat and Sinha); three Corps Commanders (Sagat, Bakshi and Hanut Singh); one Head of Army (Batra); and one Brigade Commander (Usman). If one were to go by valour, there were seven who were decorated for gallantry. There was one VC (Bhagat); there MVCs (Bakshi, Hanut and Usman); Thimayya and Thorat); one VrC (Bakshi); and one MC (Manekshaw).’ Interesting, all the twelve soldiers were born before India’s independence and all except one of them (Hanut Singh) joined the Indian army before India became independent. I wonder why V. K. Singh didn’t include a few younger soldiers born after the departure of the British, who do not have the colonial shadow hanging over them? Maybe V. K. Singh did not want to talk about serving officers. However, if V. K. Singh could have covered a few not-so-high ranking individuals like Subedar Major Bana Singh who have performed exceptional feats of valour, this book would have been enriched all the more by such an inclusion.

When I started reading this book, I settled in for what I assumed would be a very dry account of the professional lives of twelve soldiers. Instead, I was treated to riveting stories of twelve brave men and their families, the narration full of anecdotes and jokes. More importantly, these biographies serve as markers for India’s military history from the time of the Second World War till the time of Operation Brass Tacks in the mid-80s. Some of the tales that come out of this book are part of India’s military lore and well-known to every aficionado of Indian military history: The first C-in-C of independent India’s army, Cariappa was a pucca sahib who could barely speak Hindi. A strict disciplinarian who always went by the rules, Cariappa retired at the age of 53, like many other senior officers who succeeded him such as Lt. Gen. Nathu Singh who retired at the age of 51 and Gen. Thimayya and Lt. Gen. Thorat who both retired at 55. V. K. Singh asks the very valid question as to why these experienced officers were allowed to retire so early at a time when independent India had requested many British officers to stay on due to a lack of experienced officers in the army. It was Cariappa who supported the proposal that limited the tenure of the Chief of Army Staff and Army Commanders to four years. The author laments time and again that if such a ridiculous rule hadn’t been implemented, India would not have suffered the infamy of its 1962 defeat against China. In a similar vein, the impact of VK Krishna Menon on the Indian defence forces, in particular the army, is mentioned more than once as V. K. Singh sketches the careers of his chosen soldiers. When Thimayya retired in May 1961, Thorat was bypassed though he was the better candidate and the pliable Thapar was made the Army Chief. It was when Thapar was in charge, with Lt. General Brij Mohan Kaul was the Chief of General Staff, that the 1962 debacle took place. An experienced Army Chief (such as Thimayya or Thorat) and his Commanders could have restrained Nehru and Krishna Menon from following their very short-sighted ‘forward policy’ and getting embroiled in a war against China for which they had refused to prepare despite countless warnings.

Practically all the battles in which the Indian army has been involved in since 1947 until Operation Brass Tacks (the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka are not covered) are described in good detail. I particularly liked the description of how Zojila was captured by Thimayya and Kot by Brigadier Mohammad Usman during the 1948 Kashmir War. In addition, we also get to know of many minor military actions and other incidents one normally wouldn’t hear of. We are told that just after partition, 3 Para Baluch, which became part of the Pakistani army, fired 3-inch mortars on a refugee camp of Hindus and Sikhs. On a different note, we learn that Lt. Gen. Nathu Singh put down two army mutinies in Allahabad and Jhansi shortly after India’s independence. Apparently during the 1965 war with Pakistan, the Chinese served India an ultimatum, asking them to vacate their posts at Nathu La and Jalep La. Since Nathu La and Jalep La were only observation posts, the army was ordered to withdraw to its main defences at Lungthu. Lt. Gen Sagat Singh ignored his orders and refused to vacate Nathu La though Jalep La was vacated. India continues to hold Nathu La. Jalep La is held by the Chinese. On yet another note, we read that in May 1972, India launched at attack against Pakistan in an enclave called Thako Chak (in the Chicken’s Neck) which turned out to be disastrous and expensive for India (in terms of casualties). Then there are titbits which aren’t very relevant, but are interesting none the less, such as that Gen. Thimayya’s elder brother was an INA officer taken prisoner by the British at Rangoon.

The most salacious stories in my opinion come courtesy Sam Manekshaw. Apparently Sam used to make disparaging comments about politicians, which landed him in trouble while he was the commandant of the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington. ‘Based on information gathered by informers who were sent by Kaul (Lt. General Brij Mohan Kaul) for this purpose, Army HQ ordered a Court of Inquiry. There were three charges against Sam. The first was that he was disloyal to the country since he displayed pictures of British Viceroys, Governor Generals etc. in his office. The second was that Sam had failed to take action against an instructor who remarked that Indians lacked a sense of perspective and tended to build up personalities out of proportion (the personality here being the Maratha leader Shivaji). The third was that Sam had said he did not want any instructor at the college whose wife looked liked an Ayah!’ I shall not dwell on these charges or their outcome since I am sure you can read this book and find out, but only remind you that these gentlemen belonged to a different era and subscribed to values that were on a much higher plane than those of average men and women.

We know that some Muslim soldiers (such as Mohammad Usman) opted to stay on in India rather than join the Pakistani army. However, I had no idea that any Hindu or Sikh soldier could have opted for Pakistan. Therefore, when I heard that one Teja Singh Aulakh opted for the Pakistani army since his village Narowal went to Pakistan, I was a bit surprised. Later we are told that when Teja Singh Aulakh found that his family members had crossed over to India at Dera Baba Nanak, he opted for the Indian army. V. K. Singh does not tell us if any Hindu or Sikh soldier opted for Pakistan and stuck with such a decision.

Throughout the book, we get to hear how such and such a solider got on or did not get on with politicians. Lt. Gen. Apparently Nathu Singh did not get along with Nehru. Manekshaw got on famously with Indira Gandhi, once even complimenting her on her hairdo. When Indira Gandhi returned from Simla after signing a peace treaty with Bhutto, Sam Manekshaw reportedly told her, ‘Bhutto has made a monkey out of you.’ The Indian army has always stayed out of politics, but politicians have not reciprocated. We are told that Lt. Gen. PS Bhagat was so popular that he could not be superseded and Indira Gandhi had to resort to subterfuge to get him out of the way. She gave Bhagat’s predecessor Bewoor a year’s extension and thereby prevented Bhagat from becoming the Army Chief. Similarly Lt. Gen S.K.Sinha was superseded and Arun Vaidya was made the Army Chief in July 1983.

A majority of the twelve soldiers covered in this book saw action during the Second World War. Some of them like Thimayya served in Korea, Cyprus and Congo as part of UN peacekeeping forces. V. K. Singh does not stop his biographies at retirement. We are given names of children and even grandchildren. Some soldiers took on onerous commitments after leaving the army and performed very well. Many served as ambassadors, such as Lt. Gen. Sinha who served as India’s ambassador to Nepal. After Lt. Gen P. S. Bhagat was made Chairman of the Damodar Valley Corporation in In July 1974, he turned it around. From 45 MW in August 1974, the production rose to 700 MW by October 1974. During the ten months that Bhagat ran the Damodar Valley Corporation, production increased twenty fold. After retirement, Cariappa, Thorat and Sinha stood for Lok-Sabha elections and all of them lost. Cariappa stood as an independent candidate from north-east Bombay, Thorat as a Congress Party candidate from Kolhapur and Sinha as an independent candidate from Patna. V. K. Singh suggests that Sinha would have won, had it not been for vote rigging.

V. K. Singh doesn’t desist from getting really personal. We are told that ‘Sagat was a soldier, but like everybody else, he had his foibles. One of these was his proclivity for affaires de coeur. A burly six-foot-two, he was a handsome man in his prime and women found him irresistible.

At times I found myself disagreeing with VK Singh’s logic. Just after independence, when tribal raiders from Pakistan were threatening Kahsmir, Nathu Singh proposed to Nehru that India should attack Lahore, which would pressurise Pakistan into vacating Kashmir. Nehru (rightly in my opinion) berated Nathu Singh for such a plan. VK Singh says that in 1965 such a plan was approved by Lal Bahadur Shastri and an attack towards Lahore had saved Kashmir from Pakistani aggression. All well, but then 1948 wasn’t 1965. If just after independence India had attacked Lahore, India would have been pilloried in the court of international opinion, if not elsewhere.

V. K. Singh’s style of description is not only endowed with old world charm, it also comes with the values of those days built in. For example, we are told that ‘Sam is a Parsi and was born on 3 April 1914 in Amritsar. The Parsis are a very small community, found mostly on the western coast of India, especially Bombay and certain areas of Gujarat.’ Good going, I want to say but when V. K. Singh says that ‘Though small in number, the Parsis are a very progressive community, with 100 per cent literacy,’ I do want to ask what correlation could exist between the size of a community and its progressiveness. Similarly when we are told that ‘though a devout Muslim, Usman was a staunch nationalist and apparently had no problem in remaining loyal to his religion as well as his country’, I wanted to ask V. K. Singh if he believed devout Muslims would normally find it difficult to be nationalistic. When I read that during the 1971 war, Sagat tasked the Hunter aircraft, operating from Kumbhigram airfield, to constantly bomb Maulvi Bazar with napalm, I was shocked. A quick bit of fact checking revealed that the use of napalm is not banned per se, but only its use on civilians. More importantly, both India and Pakistan seem to have used it extensively during the 1965 and 1971 wars.

As I have said before, we are talking of a different era with different values.

For the sake of future readers, I am setting out below the names of the twelve soldiers whose biographies find place in this collection:

1. Field Marshall K. M. Cariappa, OBE
2. Lieutenant General Thakur Nathu Singh
3. General K. S. Thimayya, DSO
4. Lieutenant General S. P. P. Thorat, KC, DSO
5. Brigadier Mohammad Usman, MVC
6. Field Marshall S.H. F.J.Manekshaw, MC
7. Lieutenant General R. N. Batra, PVSM, OBE
8. Lieutenant General P. S. Bhagat, PVSM, VC
9. Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, PVSM
10. Lieutenant General Z. C. Bakshi, PVSM, MVC
11. Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha, PVSM
12. Lieutenant General Hanut Singh, PVSM, MVC

This book is a "must read" for every Indian army fan.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

"When The Snow Melts" - Pre-Order Now

Last Friday, I received two advance copies of my new novel When The Snow Melts, which is scheduled to be in stores by the end of this month. Right now, it is available for pre-order on infibeam.

Please read and tell me what you think.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Book Review: Bhiwani Junction – The Untold Story of Boxing in India by Shamya Dasgupta

The Noble Sport, also called boxing, has of late become more popular in India, especially after Vijender Singh won a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Until India’s independence, boxing had flourished in British India. However, after independent India’s leaders decided that engineering, mathematics and five year plans for development were much more important, boxing, like all other sports (other than cricket of course) started to die a slow lingering death. In the last decade or so, things have started to change and Vijender’s Olympic bronze has officially signalled the beginning of a new chapter in Indian boxing.

Sports journalist Shamya Dasgupta has been a boxing fan ever since his youth and his pioneering book on boxing in India is a labour of love, one which would serve as a primer for anyone interested in Indian boxing and boxing in India (they are two different things) and its future prospects. With the panache of a champion lightweight, Dasgupta deals with topics ranging from a history of boxing in India with snippets about various Indian boxing greats, past and present, to an analysis of why boxing has staged a comeback in India, to an enquiry into why Haryana has churned out so many more boxers than any other Indian state to the state of women’s boxing in India. Dasgupta is no armchair commentator – he has been physically present at many of the venues where Indian boxing history was made and where Indian boxers bit the dust, he has joined India’s Chief Coach of boxing, G. S. Sandhu and his trainees for their early morning roll call at the Sport’s Authority of India’s Patiala Centre and he has spent time with many boxers and their families at their residences. The result is that when Dasgupta talks, you hear an insider speak, one who has been holding fort in a corner of the ring, rather than a commentator who has just sauntered into the middle of a bout. Dasgupta’s writing reminded me of Muhammad Ali’s style of boxing – he floats like a butterfly while describing the good stuff and stings like a bee when documenting the abysmal parts.

Dasgupta lays bare the state of boxing in Haryana and the rest of India and what emerges is a riveting mosaic, one where bright hope mixes with corruption and inefficiency. Haryana has emerged as India’s boxing powerhouse for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the patronage given by the State government. Those who do well are assured of jobs and money and promises made to boxers have been kept. This contrasts sharply with the state of boxing in the rest of the country. Boxing has offered many well-built Haryanvi lads a way out of poverty, giving them much more than they would have got through mere education. The fact that Abhay Chautala, the President of the Indian Boxing Federation, hails from Haryana, hasn’t done any harm either. Dasgupta has an interesting theory for why Haryanvi boxers have done better than say, boxers from Punjab. The answer according to Dasgupta, could lie in their diet. Both Punjabis and Haryanvis are equally well built, but since Haryanvis are generally vegetarians, unlike Punjabis, they tend to be lighter and fit into lower weight categories, something which gives them an enormous advantage in a sport where participants are classified on the basis of their weight.

Just as boxing flourishes in Haryana, with a number of private coaching centres, the most popular and famous being the Bhiwani Boxing Club run by Jagdish Singh, a former boxer, it languishes almost everywhere else, including states like Manipur which has produced a number of champions such as Mary Kom and Dingko Singh. There is a severe lack of infrastructure and little patronage from the state governments. Boxing facilities at reputed Sports Authority of India centres at Bangalore and Bhopal have practically closed down, though the centre at SAI, Patiala, where the national team trains under the tutelage of Chief Coach G. S. Sandhu flourishes. The rivalry between coaches, especially between Jagdish Coach and Chief Coach G. S. Sandhu makes for interesting reading. Both are committed men, one working at the grassroots level and the other training the national team, cogs in a wheel which rumbles along on a rutted track, inching towards Olympic glory.

Dasgupta feels that private sector support is vital if Indian boxing is to be developed and boxers and coaches given a better deal. Citing the excellent work done by the Mittal Champions Trust, Dasgupta suggests that each sport should have one large private sector sponsor in order to make a difference. Reading this, I couldn’t help compare the state of Indian boxing with that of India’s economy. Both have tremendous potential and both suffer from a number of drawbacks, such as lack of adequate infrastructure and government’s apathy and inefficiency. It is the private sector which helped kickstart India’s economy after 1991 and similarly, Indian corporate houses need to play a greater role in sports if India is to catch up with the rest of the world.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Book Review: Kith and Kin – Chronicles Of A Clan, by Sheila Kumar

Three generations of the Melekats are represented in Sheila Kumar’s short story collection Kith and Kin. There’s Melekat Ammini Amma, the Matriarch, her son Balan, daughters Padmini and Leela and a number of assorted grandchildren. The Melekat folks are a breed apart. Hailing from an aristocratic Nair family in northern Kerala, some of them can be arrogant, just as many are down to earth. Good looks run in the family and many Melekats are handsome or extremely beautiful, like Ammini Amma herself or her daughter Padmini. There are exceptions of course, such as Padmini’s daughter Beena. In this modern day and age, they live in various parts of India and travel overseas quite often. Over nineteen delightful stories Sheila Kumar manages to gently suss out the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of this exotic breed, their spouses, partners and lovers, and the reader ends up wanting for more.

The Melekat family believes in its importance and image and takes great pains to maintain it. When Ammini Amma’s daughter Padmini becomes a widow, she is relieved because her tuberculosis afflicted husband had inflicted a great deal of suffering on her. She has a fourteen month old son and a number of older children. Though her husband had imposed a frugal life on her, or maybe because of it, there is enough money to go around for the rest of their lives. Plus she has Saju, her Man Friday who is such a comfort to have around. The family descends for the funeral and later insists that she fire Saju since Saju no longer acted like a servant and it was only a matter of time before people started talking. Padmini tries to resist – 'Does no one care that I need Saju here?' she bursts out. 'Servants are dispensible, They must be dispensible,' is the refrain from the rest of the family. Family pride wins in the end. Saju is sacked, but as he leaves, he utters a couple of sentences which turn the story, Cast In Mourning, on its head.

Yes, a handful of stories in this collection come with a Jeffrey Archeresque twist in the end. These are quite unexpected, especially because these do not seem to be stories with a hidden or surprise ending. Cast In Mourning would have been a good read even without the sudden turn towards the end.

The best thing about Kith and Kin is that Kumar does not make any value judgements. Colours, the story of Beena (Padmini’s daughter and the Matriarch’s granddaughter) is a case in point. Beena’s folks are on the lookout for a suitable boy for her. The first proposal comes in when Beena is twenty-two. Some boys reject Beena and Beena rejects a few, such as one on the ground the man lived in Ghatkopar. Time passes by and not too smoothly. Finally when Beena is close to thirty and her younger brother Amar is already married, she meets a man she likes. Does “tall, dark and handsome who holds a good job in London” reciprocate? Do read Colours to find out. Mind you, the ending doesn’t really matter since the breeze in Sheila Kumar’s farm is gentle, irrespective of the direction.

The Melekat clan might be ancient, but modern values and ailments have caught up with them. Some marriages are broken, some of the Melekats make unfaithful partners, and some like Ammini Amma’s granddaughter Suvarna seem to be commitment phobic. However, Sheila Kumar never plays judge and all characters receive equal respect for the diversity they represent.

You can’t have a clan like the Melekats without a family home, something on the lines of Tara or Manderley. The sprawling Melekat family house is incongruously named Mon Repos and has an outhouse, called The Retreat. Mon Repos, despite its French name, is a typical Kerala house with mango, almond and chikoo trees, a cowshed with its distinctive smells and lowing animals inside and a tiled brick shed where water was boiled in copper bottomed vats for the numerous oil baths.

I could go on in much more detail – there are nineteen stories in all. However I’ll stop here with a gentle Sheila-esque suggestion that Kith and Kin be added to your reading list at your earliest convenience.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Book Review: The Angel’s Share by Satyajit Sarna

This is the football generation – the kids who turned their back on cricket and swore undying loyalty to the English Premier League, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Messi, Ronaldo etc. They wouldn’t be caught dead playing cricket much less talk about it. In The Angel’s Share, narrator Zorawar Chauhan doesn’t talk about cricket even once other than to say ‘we were the first generation of Indians for whom football was the biggest sport in the world, for whom cricket was the other sport.’ Zorawar’s also appears to be the first generation in modern India to practice free sex and do drugs with such casual abandon. After five years of football, fun and frolic at the National Law School of India University, India’s premier law school, these youngsters go on to join prestigious corporate law firms or go overseas to work or to study further.

When liquor is stored in barrels, some of it will evaporate. This evaporation results in a higher density of sediments, making the leftover fluid liquid even tastier. The ancients who did not understand the reason behind the loss in volume, assumed that angels had taken their share of the stored ambrosia. Did an angel do the same with a barrel full of budding young lawyers when Zorawar Chauhan’s best friend (and room-mate) Sasha Kapur was stabbed to death by a bunch of drunken men? Like Zorawar, Sasha was also about to leave the hallowed portals of NLSIU, on the cusp of becoming a qualified lawyer. Of all the friends Zorawar had, Sasha was the most talented footballer. Zorawar tells us that 'Sasha was just classes above us all. He was effortless, like an animal born to play football. His balance was immaculate. His positioning was perfect. When he was harrying for the ball, he would ruck up his shorts and snarl and dart sideways, eating up space. When he finally committed to the challenge, there was a subconscious calculus that was never wrong. He’d come away with the ball and dribble it out of defence, almost foolishly confident in his ability to find safe passage. .... Sometimes I thought he could be better, because he didn’t really work on his game. There were evenings when I would head out of the door and he wouldn’t come because he wanted to sleep and read, or he wanted to think about a project. Those who have talent given to them, the way Sasha had it, rarely respect the work the average have to put in to get to the same level.'

If Sasha was the angel’s share, the angel took too much, Zorawar tells us.

In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Fowler feels some remorse after Pyle is killed by the Communists, but not too much even though it was Fowler who had tipped the communists off about Pyle’s movements. In The Angel’s Share, Raghav feels remorse for Sasha’s death because he had borrowed Sasha’s car for a trip to the bakery (without telling Sasha about it) and if he hadn’t borrowed Sasha’s car, Sasha would not have run out of petrol on that fateful night when he was marooned near the lake along with Faiza, Malaika and Raghav and 'a Sumo full of men, hungry for women', stopped by. ‘In Raghav’s head, he had killed Sasha as surely as if he had plunged that knife into his throat.

The Angel’s Share is not just the story of Sasha. It is the story of Zorawar and a bunch of his friends and their angst. There’s Raghav, a killer football player, at ease everywhere, who knows how to talk to everyone, acquainted with sex, drugs and rock & roll even before joining NLSIU. Kelkar on the other hand works like a dog and has to try very hard for everything. Amlan is lazy, but his excess pride and delusional self-regard carries him forward. Kiran is the closest to being a normal human being, his porn collection, a curator’s delight. Jennifer, a nice girl from Mizoram, Zorawar’s girl-friend for some time, Kiran’s girl-friend some time later, suffers from extreme lack of confidence, her worries accentuated by mainstream India’s prejudices towards women from the north-east. Seshadri Ramachandran is the class nerd, effortlessly scoring top grades, all set for a Rhodes scholarship, only to falter at the end.

The post-modern culture prevalent within the fully residential National Law School does not go too smoothly down local throats. There are occasional fights between NLS students and the locals whom the former refer to as ‘Portuguese’. Nicknaming the locals ‘Portuguese’ is in a way symbolic of how the students treat the problem, brushing it under the carpet. The Angel's Share deals with this conflict delicately, in a very balanced manner. Ultimately when Sasha is murdered, we are only told that the murderers came in a Sumo and not if they were locals. After the murder, when the police arrest the killers and give them the "treatment", Zorawar is unhappy at the use of torture, something so widely used by Indian policemen.

Like many of his classmates, Zorawar Chauhan joins corporate-ville after finishing his law degree. His grades were not spectacular, but the economy was booming and Zorawar was offered a job by Lawrence & Kamraj Associates, a leading law firm in Delhi. The money is good, but Zorawar is soon unhappy. The work which involves capital market securities issues, is mostly clerical and requires very long hours. The distant promise of a partnership is not good enough to motivate Zorawar who soon realises that the relative high pay is a trap since he is enmeshed in a lifestyle which requires him to work harder and suck up to the "system" even more. Zorawar briefly considers switching to litigation, but a chance encounter at a rape trial where a young girl is put through the wringer by a nasty defence counsel who tries to equate multiple boyfriends and a drinking habit with consent, puts paid to that.

Author Satyajit Sarna writes well, exceedingly well, his limpid prose and felicity with words carrying this engrossing story to further heights of reading pleasure. Does Zorawar continue with his job or does he opt out? What happens to each of Zorawar’s friends? Why/How did Seshadri fail to win the Rhodes scholarship? Do please read this excellent novel to find out.

The Angel’s Share is a work of fiction, but for those familiar with NLSIU Bangalore, The Angel’s Share will turn out to be a trip down memory lane. Characters such as history teacher Ms. K. R. Joseph, Josie for short, Ramnatha Reddy who teaches procedure, places such as Surya Bar where cheap booze is available for needy students within walking distance of the NLSIU campus, the clinic in the heart of Bangalore City where a medical examination heralds the beginning of life as an NLSite, Pecos and Nagarbhavi itself, are easily identifiable. I graduated from NLSIU in 1998 and I should confess that I was shocked by the total change in values and behavior, as depicted in The Angel’s Share, even keeping in mind that Zorawar Chauhan and his friends most probably represent a very small fraction of any recent batch of graduates.

Since The Angel’s Share is as much "fact" as "fiction", it is very likely to be treated as entirely "fact" by some readers, though it is supposed to be a work of fiction. This makes me wonder - is it fair for a work of fiction to be based partly on "fact" in a manner that makes it difficult to separate "fact" from "fiction"? Let me use an easier example to illustrate my point. Arundati Roy’s God of Small Things is a work of fiction. However, it is also partly auto-biographical, drawing on nuggets from Roy’s childhood and her family members’ characters, in particular her maternal uncle and her mother who fought a court battle over the partition of the family property. Roy’s maternal uncle appears in God of Small Things in the form of Uncle Chacko and it is not a flattering picture. Was Roy’s depiction of Uncle Chacko a fair and exact portrait of her real uncle? Is Uncle Chacko less nasty than his real-life persona or nastier? We’ll never know and since it is a work of fiction, it would be very difficult (though not impossible) for Roy’s uncle to bring a successful charge of defamation against Roy, even though I am sure that all his friends and acquaintances who read God of Small Things would have recognised him.

In the same vein I wonder, is the portrait of National Law School in The Angel’s Share a fair one? Has it been made rosier in some respects? Or is it an unfair depiction? Are the real-life personae of Josie, Ramnatha, Seshadri, Kelkar, Raghav, Amlan etc. happy at the way they have fared in The Angel’s Share? In any event, the portrayal of corporate lawyers is definitely not flattering, whatever be the element of truth in it. I agree that there are a number of corporate lawyers who work very long hours, don’t get much exercise and "persuade" their juniors to follow suit. However, I know from experience that there are as many who don’t do all that. While reading Sarna’s rant against the "system", I was tempted to ask, didn’t Sarna know what a corporate law firm job entailed when he graduated from NLSIU? Surely the various vacation placements all law students go through would have given Sarna a fair idea of the vagaries of each stream within the legal profession even before he joined Lawrence & Kamraj Associates? There are other clichés too, such as when an Arab client is shown offering to buy the Reserve Bank of India when an RBI approval is needed to proceed with a transaction!

Satyajit Sarna, the author of The Angel’s Share, graduated from National Law School in 2008. In September 2007, Alyosha Kumar, a final year NLSIU student was stabbed to death in Nagarbhavi, not far from NLSIU’s precints. It’s not too difficult to draw the conclusion that the character Sasha Kapur is based on Alyosha Kumar, though in real life Alyosha would have been a year senior to Satyajit. Sarna admits as much in the first chapter where he says, ‘If there were a way to tell this story fairly, I’d barely show up. I’d skim around the edges like a fruitfly, landing briefly on the scene and then buzzing away. And even if I was witness only to a little of his story, a handful of years, I feel bound to give testimony, because at times, I was the sole witness.’ Even though The Angel’s Share is as much a diatribe against the legal profession as it is about Sasha and Sarna ends his book by saying thus: 'I think of Sasha often and I will think of him yet. But I have now drifted beyond what he could teach me. By the telling of this story, I now feel free of the need to keep him as my oracle beyond this point, I must find my own way. And therefore, here ends my testimony. This is what I saw and this is my truth. You may think that there are things I have exaggerated, or concealed, that maybe I have said too much. You may imagine that I have perjured myself in the telling. If I have, it is no matter of yours. The truth of it lies only between me and the angel.'

Fair enough Satyajit, all the best to you as you tread new paths, go hiking in the Himalayas and make new plans! Sasha/Alyosha, may you rest in peace.

Update: It has been clarified that Satyajit Sarna and Alyosha Kumar were classmates at NLSIU. They were also roommates throughout, except for the first year. In The Angel’s Share, Zorawar Chauhan and Sasha Kapur are roomies from year one.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Book Review: The Missed Call by Sidharth Oberoi

The setting, a Delhi school – The Presidency Convent. Enter Ms. Natasha Malhotra, a spoilt young girl from a broken home. Natasha is pretty and has it all, but a rival emerges, in the form of Ananya. Natasha, Ananya, Yuvraj (Natasha’s ex-boyfriend), other boys such as Rana, are wont to make out in dark corners of libraries and sleep around, as many Indian youngsters do these days. Natasha is the sort of spiteful girl who cannot accept a loss without plotting her revenge against someone even if it was all her fault. When she was much younger, she had planted a load of porn in her classmate Shreya’s bag.

Natasha has a fall, in the middle of the hall, so to say. As she looks for revenge, she has the honest and good Shreya by her side, counselling her and holding her back from harming herself. A prestigious science quiz competition sees Natasha, Shreya and the rude Vicky thrown together in the same team and they are forced to cooperate and work together. Is Natasha able to channel positive energies and comes out smiling or does she slip into a vortex of hatred and anger? You'll have to read this easy-to-read novel to find out.

Sidharth Oberoi doesn’t exist. Two individuals - Durjoy Dutta & Nikita Singh – have ghost written The Missed Call. Durjoy Dutta is one of the two co-founders of Grapevine India.

To be honest, I did not like The Missed Call, which is the second book in Grapevine India's "Backbenchers" Series. The quality of writing is much lower than Chetan Bhagat’s first novel – Five Point Something. In terms of story-telling skill, Sidharth Oberoi is nowhere close to Bhagat. The Missed Call’s story seems to be one written on the back of a tissue and later fleshed out to cater to a perceived market for simple populist fiction written in basic English. Having said that, I'm sure there are folks out there who will like The Missed Call for its simplicity, in both style and substance.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Book Review: Eaten By The Japanese - The Memoir of an Unknown Indian Prisoner of War by John Baptist Crasta

John Baptist Crasta, the author of this amazing book, was British Indian soldier who fought in the Second World War in the Malayan theatre, was taken prisoner by the Japanese, endured horrific atrocities, but survived to tell his fascinating tale. On his return to Bombay, John Crasta continued to serve in the army until his retirement. He married Christine, a Mangalorean girl in 1947 and they had four children, one of whom Richard Crasta went on to join the Indian Administrative Service and later migrated to the United States and became a full-time writer, publishing books such as The Revised Kamasutra, Impressing the Whites; Beauty Queens, Children and the Death of Sex, and What We All Need.

John Crasta’s story-telling (as edited by his son Richard Crasta) is succinct and to the point. Eaten By The Japanese does not go much beyond one hundred pages and that includes essays by the author’s son Richard Crasta on his relationship with his father, the problems he faced in getting this book published and the reception it faced. After being taken prisoner by the Japanese, John Crasta had to make a choice – whether to join the Indian National Army which was being set up by leaders like Captain Mohan Singh and Rash Behari Bose or to stay loyal to his oath. We are told that coercion and even torture were used to force Indian PoWs to join the Indian National Army. Despite that, many like John Crasta refused to join up. Did John Crasta’s religion have anything to do with his decision? I wondered. This question is not specifically addressed in this memoir, but the fact that out of a total of sixty five thousand prisoners, only twenty five thousand volunteered for the INA sort of suggests otherwise. John Crasta says that the average Indian jawan did not wish to be unfaithful to the British after having served them for many years. One gets the impression that those who signed up to the INA did so more to escape the brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese than anything else.

I found it unbelievable when I read that some of the PoWs who refused to join the INA were tortured. John Crasta says that a camp called Separation Camp was created where non-volunteers, especially officers who didn’t volunteer, were put to extreme hardship. Many died. Subedars Sher Singh and Fateh Khan were in charge of Separation Camp. ‘High ranking officers who refused to have anything to do with the INA were thrown into it without clothing or food, made to carry heavy loads on their heads, and to double up on the slightest sign of slackness. They would be beaten by sweepers, the infamous Nimboo having been put in charge of them. They would be caned, beaten and kicked. Various other devices of torture, perhaps copied from the Germans, were introduced. Many people died in that camp. Others were removed to a hospital, only to die a slow death. Some others, not being able to ber the hardships, agreed to “sign” and were released.

The Japanese tortured the prisoners – beat them for no reason, overworked them, gave them little food and drink, provided little or no medical care even for those seriously ill. I found John Crasta’s descriptions of being transported by a cargo steamer from Singapore to Sourabaya in Java and from Sourabaya to Rabaru in New Britain via Palau to be the most horrendous of the various horrible things described in this book – the extremely cramped conditions, the lack of food, the pitiful amount of water, the disease outbreaks, the beatings and the inevitable deaths – except for the cannibalism of course.

The Japanese practised cannibalism. John Crasta tells us of a specific instance when two men of the 13th Pioneer Company, Budhu Mistry and Giana Mistry, who had complained of illness, were given injections by the Japanese which killed them both within a couple of hours. They were buried immediately but the same evening the Japanese ordered the bodies to be dug out, had the arms, thigh muscles and livers cut out from the corpses, cooked and ate it. Well, those men who were eaten were atleast dead. There were many instances of live men having flesh gouged out of their bodies and thrown away to die in agony, even as their flesh was cooked and consumed.

Reading a kindle edition of the book, I was forced many times to switch off the kindle and put it away, only to come back to it almost immediately afterwards. I finished the entire book in one sitting. How does one reconcile Japanese treatment of PoWs during the Second World War with modern day Japan, which though it is yet to apologise for its behaviour in as comprehensive a manner as the Germans, is a very peaceful nation which is at the forefront of technological innovation and is in many respects a model nation? In his essays on Rediscovering his Father and the Political Incorrectness of Truth which follows the main novel, Richard Crasta quotes Pico Iyer who is married to a Japanese woman and lives in Japan. Iyer says that ‘in Japan today, Indians are the lowest of the low.’ Why should it be so hard for the Japanese to issue an apology to all the Indians who were abused and manipulated, and to their children and descendants? Crasta wonders. I guess the first step would be for the Indian government to seek such an apology. As far as I know, the Indian government hasn’t sought one.

After the war, Indian public sentiment was understandably on the side of those who joined the INA. The British didn’t dare punish the mutineers. After independence, those Indian soldiers who fought on the side of the Japanese were feted and rewarded while those like John Crasta were consigned to the dung heap of anonymity. The sympathy and support for INA soldiers is so prevalent even now that John Crasta’s son Richard Crasta found it very difficult to find takers for his father’s story. Crasta tells us (quite rightly in my opinion) that if for any reason the Japanese had conquered India, they would most likely have treated Indians as slaves – such was their contempt for Indians. It is interesting to note that when after independence Nehru asked General Cariappa to get the Indian army to absorb the former INA men, he refused saying it would be the end of the army in India since the soldiers who refused to fight on the Japanese side considered the INA soldiers to be turncoats.

Richard Crasta’s essays on Rediscovering his Father and the Political Incorrectness of Truth beautifully captures his relationship with his father. As a young man, Richard Crasta had little respect for the humble soldier John Crasta who insisted on cycling everywhere, wearing clothes which were not exactly haute couture. This attitude changed as he grew older and started to appreciate the extent of pain experienced by his father as a Japanese PoW. When Richard Crasta took a lot of trouble to have his father’s manuscript printed as a book, it was as much a form of atonement for his previous indifference and disrespect as it was to help his father tell his extra-ordinary story.

An excellent read, especially for those interested in the Indian National Army and the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war.