Saturday, 27 October 2012

A Letter From Juba, Republic of South Sudan

My friend Ayak Acol de Dut grew up in Juba and Khartoum in Sudan. She did most of her schooling in Juba before moving to Khartoum in 1984, after the second civil war started. In Khartoum, she studied in an English medium school for two years until her father, a civil servant and diplomat, was posted to India. Ayak moved to New Delhi with her family in 1987. After finishing her high school from the American Embassy School in New Delhi, she successfully took the entrance exam for the National Law School of India University’s B.A. LL.B (Hons) degree programme. On graduation from NLSIU, Bangalore, in 1996, she returned to Khartoum. An ethnic Dinka, she moved to Juba in 2010. Recently, I emailed her to find out how things have changed for her after the creation of the Republic of South Sudan.

Ayak wrote to me thus:

“Although I had a law degree from NLSIU, when I returned to Sudan, it was very difficult for me to join the legal profession as everything was in Arabic, including the bar examinations. There were also components of Sharia law that I would have had to learn (in Arabic) and pass at the bar exam, in order to practice. Since law practice was out of the question at that time, I got involved in the area of Applied Linguistics and ESL and managed to get some qualifications (post-graduate diploma and Masters which allowed me to become a tutor, lecturer and trainer at various points of my life. I taught at a language centre and was also a teacher trainer. Later I was a lecturer at a university and a training officer with the United Nations. I confess that I did not really miss law that much, although my background in it had been handy in teaching legal English to members of the Judiciary and in imparting some training modules when I worked with the UN (peacekeeping) Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).

On top of Jebel Kujur (Mount Kujur), a small mountain on the outskirts of Juba. The urban sprawl in the background is Juba.

Our countries (Sudan and South Sudan) had been at war for twenty-one years. Independence seemed to be the only option for most of the Southern non-Arab population because there had already been several earlier agreements on confederation and autonomous rule, and those had been repeatedly dishonoured. The presence of an Islamic fundamentalist government with a Jihadist agenda made the idea of unity even less attractive. A peace agreement was signed in 2005. A referendum brought separation six years later. During that time I had been visiting South Sudan intermittently, in various capacities, until finally moving here in December 2010.

9 July 2011 - The Dawn of Independence for South Sudan - Celebrations in Juba

9 July 2011 - Ayak with a South Sudan flag on Independence Day in Juba

The independence of South Sudan opened new doors for me, and I saw the possibility of getting back to law. This time, with oil being very much a part of our future as a nation, I got the opportunity to go and do a Masters in Petroleum Law and Policy from a Scottish university. Doing it gave me a chance to participate in some of the post-referendum negotiations (on oil), albeit in a non-official capacity. From April 2011 I have been working as a language specialist for an international educational NGO. I would like to think that it has helped me contribute and make a difference in our new country. 22nd October 2012 was my last day of work as a language specialist.

The legal profession in South Sudan had its groundwork laid out in 2005. The official language is English and not Arabic. Just like Sudan, our laws are based on Common Law, but without a Sharia component. So, I am back in familiar territory. It is quite dynamic and is expanding albeit with the challenges associated with starting up in a new country. The private sector in particular is quite vibrant and with many lawyers returning from the North and overseas involved in it. The good news for me is that I start working with the Energy Sector, in a legal capacity, from next week. The government is working on implementing public/private partnerships that would help build capacities of employees in the Sector. Those of us who are joining are aware that, in many ways, we are going to be the pioneers in this area, and so it is with some anticipation and trepidation that we approach this.

Although the international commentators have been trumpeting all sorts of dire predictions about the future of South Sudan, there is one thing we going for us: people always underestimate us and our abilities. There are some hiccups, but I think that the Republic of South Sudan will be fine. We will just need to put in a lot of work to straighten out things. The government needs to act seriously in carrying out its duties, but the citizens and civil society organisations will have to become tougher and put a lot more pressure on the government to act responsibly. Civil society organisations had played a very big role in the signing of the final peace agreement between the North and the South. They need to reclaim that role.“

Friday, 26 October 2012

A Conversation with an Aquascaping Professional

Recently I had a conversation with Abhik Mazumdar, former Supreme Court and Delhi High Court lawyer who now runs an aquascaping company. Here are some excerpts.

Abhik, at the outset, let me tell you that it is such a pleasure to be able to reconnect with you after over fifteen years. When we met last, in 1997, you were leaving National Law School, Bangalore, all set to make a career as a litigation lawyer in Delhi. And now, you are running India's first specialised aquascaping company! How did this come about?

Well, ever since I can remember, I’ve loved fishes and aquariums. My home in Kolkata had numerous fish tanks and a variety of fishes, though my biggest tank was not more than 1000 litres. I used to spend all my pocket money on fishes and on books about fishes. I started doing litigation in the Supreme Court in 1997. I was a junior lawyer in the chambers of a leading senior advocate. When my senior heard that I enjoyed setting up aquaria as a hobby, he asked me to do one for his house. I agreed. Soon my reputation as an aquarium specialist spread by word of mouth

Then in 2001, someone I knew asked me to convert his old Volkswagen Beetle into an aquarium. I took a look and said it wasn’t technically possible – the amount of water that would go in couldn’t be held by car’s window panes. Instead I offered to build an aquarium for his house and quoted an eye-popping figure. Fortunately or unfortunately, my quote was accepted and I couldn’t back out. More and more people heard of me and my work. I continued working as a lawyer, but spent all my free time building aquaria. In 2007, I decided to quit law completely and incorporated the business which is now called Reef and Stream Aquascapes Private Limited. There has been no turning back ever since.

What is it that you do or rather, what is it that Reef and Stream Aquascapes offers its clients?

Reef and Stream is a specialised aquascaping company. We create for our clients, technically correct and aesthetically pleasing aquaria, in almost any shape, size and type. What I mean by technically correct is that, each aquaria we create is based on a specific biotope and is authentic.

Abhik, you are talking to a person who is an aquatic ignoramus. What’s a biotope?

A biotope is an area of uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for a specific assemblage of plants and animals. It is a geographically distinct ecosystem, such as the Nile or the Ganges or the Sunderbans. When we create a particular biotope for a customer, say the Amazon, we recreate that biotope in the most authentic manner possible, complete with the flora and fauna unique to the Amazon.

I got it. So you not only create and install large aquaria in any shape or size, you also populate it with plants and stones and of course fishes from a chosen biotope!

That’s right. Because we create natural ecosystems, with extensive life support systems such as simulated nitrogen cycles, water filtration and treatment plants, the fish do not die out rapidly, very unlike the fate of fishes in most fish bowls with stagnant water.

That’s amazing. I’m sure almost everyone who keeps fishes has to deal with dead fish floating on the top. And you say, the mortality rate of fish in the aquaria you create is very low?


How big is your set up?

I have 17 employees working for me at present.

I’m sure you don’t come cheap.

(Laughs) No, I don’t. In fact, I tell my clients very clearly that my margins are quite high. Each aquaria we build involves at least 30 components and many months of work. I am definitely not in a high volume, low margin business.

Do you see yourself working for overseas customers in the future?

We are already doing that! Currently we are working on a project for a public aquarium in Malaysia, at a place called Kota Kinabalu.

Do you miss appearing in court?

Yes, I do, but there are no regrets. I did not leave law because I didn’t like it. I was doing very well as a Supreme Court advocate, but in life, at times, one has to make hard choices.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

We will continue to build aquaria for homes. I also expect to build more public aquariums, for which we will need a big dose of capital infusion in the none-too-distant future. I might open up some equity in Reef and Stream Aquascapes to venture capital firms for this purpose.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

‘Twas One of Those Days by Sandhya Gorthi

My friend Sandhya Gorthi, nee Krishnan, obtained a B.A, LLB (Hons) degree from the National Law School of India University and immediately set about doing a number of varied things, most of which had nothing to do with the law. Sandhya has acted in plays, worked as a radio jockey for AIR FM and later with Radio Mirchi, written a number of articles of a variety of topics, worked for a corporate communications consultancy and recently she launched her own retail outlets The Shop in Bandra West and Sanctum in Khar West. You can read more about Sandhya from this interview published in a lawyers’ magazine. I met up with Sandhya recently and found out that she was all set to celebrate Sanctum’s first anniversary. I requested her to let me and Winnowed’s readers in on her secret – how she manages to do so many things at the same time. Sandhya gave me a sweet smile and promised to email me something.

The note she sent me a few days later, a description of how she spent her waking hours on Sanctum’s anniversary day, is written in her inimitable style, with a whacky sense of humour, and gives a small hint of the secret behind her success.

‘Twas One of Those Days

6:40 am: Alarm rings. I wake up to find my cat curled over my head which is currently overheated. I slip out to check on the kids - find that they’re already awake, having breakfast and discussing playground politics. I slip back into bed for another few stolen minutes.

6:50 am: Can’t put off the inevitable. Coffee and newspapers followed by some discussion on pocket money (it’s pay day) and canteen coupons. I also realize that one of my sons has an assessment today and as I revise spellings (that he’d promised me he’d learnt the previous afternoon) I am amazed that he’s not worried by the fact that he can spell ONE out of the twelve words correctly.

7:50 am: The kids are off to school, I wave to them standing at the bus stop, but they don’t notice me; they seem to be trying to strangle each other. It’s Sanctum’s first anniversary and it’s going to be a great day! I jump into an auto rickshaw after chatting with a couple of senior citizen buddies and head off to my mixed martial arts combat class.

8:50 am: As I huff and puff, I can’t help feeling that my combat stance is more like a Kathakali stance. A boxer I clearly am not. Mercifully the class ends at 9.

10:00 am: I’m dressed, breakfasted and ready. Have also managed to take a couple of vendor and press calls in the meanwhile. I’m in red heels but have decided to carry my flip flops too as I’m a bit wobbly after my Kathaka…I mean boxing class.

11:30 am: We have a Sanctum cake, snacks, orange balloons and all of our team assembled. Our senior most team member, Subhashji cuts the cake and the kids on the team start bursting the balloons. I have a dreadful startle reflex and this just eggs them on further. I make a short speech thanking them for being so supportive and explaining our journey ahead. They do look at me like I’m a little crazy, but they are not wrong.

The next 7 hours pass in a blur of emails, phone calls to vendors and press, placing orders, sending our celebratory newsletter and planning our numerous upcoming exhibitions. Several people drop by, call or email to congratulate us. I feel happy that we have so many well wishers. It makes me more determined than ever to do better in the year to come.

In the midst of this, Sushil, who does our housekeeping and photography (he’s superb) reminds me to eat lunch. I snap at him as I do every day that I’m 37 years old and don’t need to be reminded. He doesn’t bat an eyelid and I realize sheepishly that it’s almost 3 pm and I haven’t eaten. I try not to do this, but I can see why Sushil pops into my office to remind me all the time. Time flies when you’re having fun! And this is fun for me.

I have also remote controlled the administering of medicine to my dog, arranged for the water filter repairman and plumber to visit. I hear Subhashji chuckling at my appalling Hindi as I explain the problems over the phone. My kids have a jar to collect Rs 5 coins for every mistake I make in my Hindi. They’ve informed me they’re aiming straight for a Tata Nano.

I have also arranged for some kids to come over to our house for a sleepover. It is Friday.

7:00 pm: I was hoping to leave the store by now, but I have some vendor payments and accounting due for my other store. I figure the kids won’t miss me since their friends are over, and my husband has an office do to attend. I finish up that work (not the fun part, but thank God for online banking).

8:30 pm: I have made it on time for a celebratory dinner with my girl friends. I’m the first one there and I love the few moments of quiet. I stare straight ahead, smiling but unseeing. Stillness is bliss. We wrap up reasonably early and my husband leaves for home too as he wants to celebrate this day with me. Again I feel so blessed.

11:30 pm: Sridhar (my husband) and I are discussing my big plans for Sanctum. He summarizes my ‘achievements’ over the year against many odds. It’s strange to hear, because to me, I just did what I had to do to keep my staff employed and my rent and bills paid.

12:15 pm: I’m about to go to bed, but my cat wants to play (she’ll scratch me and keep me up all night if I refuse). Luckily my dog’s at a sleepover (yes, you read right). I read my book with one hand and shoot the laser light with the other; Mea chases after the moving point of light like the untamed predator she is, showing no signs of slowing with 11 ½ years behind her.

Finally, a few quiet moments of reflection and gratitude, and then it’s good night…

P.S.: …only to be woken up 4 hours later by my older son. He’s agitated and holding his ear. I know he doesn’t complain about small things but I can’t see what’s troubling him so much. We’re at the casualty department at a nearby hospital – I call ahead and have carried reading material and snacks (this would our 7th or 8th visit there since the kids were born, so we’re all pros now). At 5:45 the ear surgeon pulls out a large, still alive moth from my son’s ear. We make some moth jokes and head home to 4 worried kids (I had completely forgotten during the day that my college going niece was staying with us, in addition to son #2 and the two sleepover guests).

A new day begins!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Book Review: A Song For I, by Chandrima Pal

A Song For I
is a musical extravaganza wrapped in pink. Written by young (but very experienced) journalist Chandrima Pal, A Song for I is the story of Ira, a young and pretty girl born to Himadri Shekhar, a sitar maestro and his pretty wife Kamalini, who died soon after Ira was born. Himadri had wanted a son pretty badly and after Ira’s birth and Kamalini’s death, Himadri runs off. Ira is brought up in Muchipada, apparently the last surviving village in Kolkata, by her aunt Mrinalini, who hates Himadri with a vengeance, and her grandparents.

When Ira comes of age, the story takes a sudden Bollywoodish twist and Ira expresses a wish to meet her father, a wish which is granted by Himadri, who by then lives in Mumbai. Father and daughter get along reasonably well, though Ira is not as keen on playing the sitar as Himadri would have liked and her musical training seems to have been far below Himadri’s expectations. When Ira meets Vishnu who sings, plays the guitar, and occasionally takes drugs, and falls in love with him, we expect to see her get into a fight with her sitar playing father. Nothing of that sort happens, though Vishnu manages to persuade Ira to try LSD. Ira seems to have the rare talent to mix Indian and Western music and ethos seamlessly and enjoy them both. Soon we see Ira and Himadri making a joint appearance on stage at a music festival and any resemblance to a Bollywood tear-jerker comes to an end. No, I’m not going to divulge any more. Please read this beautiful novel to find out.

Author Chandrima Pal comes from a musical family. Her website tells us that “her father Pandit Barun Kumar Pal, a noted Indian classical musician who has been the force behind the Ravi Shankar Centre in New Delhi, is a disciple of the sitar maestro. Her grandfather gave Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia his first All India Radio gig. Her uncle toured with George Harrison and played with everyone from S D Burman to Kalyanji Anandji. New generation sitar virtuoso Niladri Kumar is her first cousin.” Chandrima’s exceptional knowledge of and love for music is reflected in almost every page of this novel, which is littered with snippets of musical lore and trivia, a treat in itself.

One of the exceptional things about A Song For I is the way it bridges various divides. The chasm between traditional Indian music played by Himadri and the pop music played by Vishnu and his gang is effortlessly plugged by Ira. Chandrima Pal is as much at home while describing Muchipada and the folks who live there, as she is in describing Mumbai or Paris. Just as the author’s depiction of Ira, Vishnu and their friends conveys their youthful gusto and verve, her portrayal of Ira grandparents and father carries an antique stamp of authenticity. Chandrima Pal easily holds her readers’ attention till the end, when many family secrets come tumbling out.

A Song For I
has been published by Amaryllis, which recently brought out my second novel, When the Snow Melts. Its MRP is Rs. 495, but you can buy it for a lot less from Flipkart and Infibeam.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Book Review: Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu

Imagine a school in Punjab run by the military, meant to educate its wards so that they gain admission to the prestigious National Defence Academy (NDA), a stepping stone to becoming an officer in the Indian armed forces. Imagine the turbulent mid-80s, which saw Operation Blue Star in Amritsar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. This is the setting for Amandeep Sandhu’s second novel, which is based on his own experiences while studying at a military school.

The (fictional) military school at Jassabad where Sandhu’s narrator Appu is based, is not a very nice place. Outwardly there is discipline and calm as the students prepare to join the NDA, but inside there is turmoil. When the novel begins, we hear Appu and his classmates, the senior most students in school who have just entered class twelve, being told that they will not be allowed to discipline their juniors. The age-old system where seniors controlled, guided and punished juniors has been disbanded on account of the fight that took place just before school broke up between Appu’s batch and the one immediately senior to them. There is a palpable sense of anger and a feeling of injustice. Appu and his classmates had put up with harsh punishment from their seniors, which usually involved a mix of sodomy and corporal punishment, solely because they believed they would at some point have the right to do to their juniors what was done to them.

Operation Blue Star is a huge shock for the Sikh community. Appu is a Sikh who has shorn his tresses. Many of Appu’s classmates are Sikhs. Even the non-Sikhs are upset by Operation Blue Star. Many Sikh students openly express support for Khalistan and some even join the ranks of the militants. Appu no longer feels so proud of studying in a military school, when the Indian army is seen as an enemy of the Sikh community, but he stays on for a variety of reasons, one of which is that Appu’s folks would be forced to reimburse the free scholarship given to him if he were to drop out before graduation, something they can’t afford to do. Many of Appu’s Sikh friends like Lalten are no longer keen to make it to the Roll of Honour, that is, join the NDA.

Sandhu’s descriptions of ragra (punishment), often by the school leader, stretched the bounds of my horror and incredulity. Even now I am not sure if the stories of whipping, flogging and caning with belts, buckles and sticks resulting in injuries that require hospitalisation are/were commonplace in any military school anywhere in India. However, where Roll of Honour scores is its excellent depiction of the heartache brought about by Operation Blue Star and the subsequent assassination and riots, the break-down of trust between the Hindu and Sikh communities and the questions of loyalty it created for the Sikh community in India.

Operation Blue Star is compared to an act of sodomy by a person in power against someone younger, vulnerable and under the care of the perpetrator. Towards the end, we see a fight-back by the victims at the military school. Can the same be said of the people of Punjab who have been put to the test by military action against Sikhism’s holiest shrine? Amidst so much turmoil, Appu has an additional complication. He is close to Gaurav, a boy junior to him and they find comfort in each other's arms. Does the relationship stand the test of those turbulent times? Please read this excellent book to find out.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

An Interview With Neerja Mittersain

Recently I met with Neerja Mittersain, formerly a consultant with KPMG and PwC and now an entreprenuer running Gourmet Company, an online retailer of exotic and gourmet food products. Here are a few excerpts from my conversation with Neerja, published with her permission.

Me: Neerja, what exactly is Gourmet Company?

Neerja: Gourmet Company is one of India's first online retailers of gourmet foods. Till recently, gourmet foods such as exotic teas, coffees, cuisine ingredients etc. were available only in metros through stores such as Natures Basket and more recently through FoodHall and other specialty gourmet stores. However, we noticed that the demand for gourmet foods and exotic cooking ingredients existed across the country. With increasing popularity of food channels and international cooking shows such as MasterChef, people across the country want to experiment with cooking at home - however availability of ingredients is an issue. This is where the idea of Gourmet Company emerged from - we are striving to bring quality ingredients, teas, coffees & more to everyone who demands it across the country!

Me: How did you end up starting such an exciting venture?

Neerja: Gourmet Company started off as a hobby and a way to indulge my creative side while I was still working as a business consultant. I started it with my mother as a gifting business which specialized in unique gourmet gifts. These became extremely popular and recognizing the demand for these products across the country, we launched the online store in January this year.

Me: Tell me a bit about yourself.

Neerja: I am a finance professional by training. I did an MSc in Accounting & Finance from the London School of Economics. That was in 2005-2006. After that I spent 3 years at KPMG, followed by 1.5 years at PwC - I was part of the strategy consulting team at both places - I worked on commercial due diligences, building business plans, strategic advise on market entry plans etc.

Me: What are your hobbies?

Neerja: I am an introvert and love spending time with my family and close friends whenever I am not working. I also love sports and play squash or go running everyday - it keeps me sane (a very shy smile).

Me: What would you have done if you hadn't started Gourmet Company? Did you give up something to start Gourmet Company?

Neerja: When I graduated from college, coming from a business family, I was expected to join the family business. However, I somehow never thought of myself as someone who wanted to run a business or be part of a family business. I decided to study finance at the London School of Economics after which I joined KPMG as a business consultant, as I said earlier. As late as last year if someone had asked me what I see myself doing five years hence, I would have probably said "consulting". But as they say, never say never - and a hobby and creative outlet soon turned into love, and I decided to leave my consulting career to do something I loved every minute of. It was an extremely difficult call to leave a traditional career that was going great and a salary paid promtly every month, to start something new and untested, but now in retrospect I think it is one of the best decisions I have made. I am currently working 18, sometime 20 hour days and loving every moment of it. (another smile)

Me: Wow! Do you have any partners or are you on your own?

Neerja: Gourmet Company is set up as a private limited company. As I said earlier, I started Gourmet Company with my mother. I handle the products whereas my mother runs the gifting side of the business.

Me: Where's your office located?

Neerja: Nariman point.

Me: How many employees does Gourmet Company have?

Neerja: Four, not including my mom and me,

Me: Do you have a warehouse or more than one warehouse? Where are they?

Neerja: We have a warehouse in Mumbai currently - as we expand, we will set up warehouses in other key cities.

Me: Where do you procure your supplies from? Are your products mainly imported?

Neerja: 90% of the portfolio currently consists of imported products sourced from around the world. However, we are keen on promoting Indian products especially those made by social enterprises or cottage industries or even private homes. We have a range of honeys and health products from such enterprises in India and are hoping to increase this as a percentage of our total portfolio.

Me: How do you deliver orders placed online? Do you use third party couriers?

Neerja: In Mumbai we have our own delivery team who turn around on the same day. We have logistics partners such as Blue Dart, Fedex etc. for outside Mumbai deliveries.

Me: What future plans for Gourmet Company?

Neerja: The online store has received a tremendous response. What is heartening is that we are now retailing our products in more than 45 cities and towns across the country including places such as Dimapur in Nagaland. We are focusing on having a curated collection of gourmet products based on feedback from our customers in terms of what they like, what they don't and what they'd like us to keep. We see this as our key differentiator.

We are currently focusing on not just bringing the best quality gourmet foods to consumers but also to educating consumers on different types of foods, ways to incorporate ingredients into their everyday cooking etc. Another extremely exciting project that we are working on is our own range of foods that we are aiming to launch in early December. This will include a range of products including peanut butters, mustards etc. We believe that India can produce world quality gourmet products and our range will focus on using local ingredients to produce high quality products that we are sure will be as good as or better than other imported brands in the market.

Me: Your own range of foods! Have you decided on the brand?

Neerja: The brand is under wraps till its launch in December.

Me: Would you be open to VC funding for Gourmet Company?

Neerja: We have seen interest from venture capital firms and will be looking at this early next year.

Me: Fantastic! All the best Neerja!

Book Review: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

Much before Narcopolis made it to the long list for the Booker Prize, I had added it to my reading list. However, it took me a while to find time to actually read this brilliant piece of writing which has now been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2012.

Jeet Thayil, the author of Narcopolis, needs no introduction to Indian readers. One of India's best contemporary poets, the son of reputed senior journalist TJS George, Thayil spent his childhood in Hong Kong, New York and Mumbai. Thayil's late wife Shakti Bhatt, a very well-known and popular figure in literary circles, used to run Bracket Books. Narcopolis is Thayil's first novel.

Narcopolis is set in Mumbai, fondly referred to as “Bombay” by Thayil, who I gather had a drug addiction during his youth, a part of which was spent in Mumbai. Narcopolis is mainly about drugs and drug addiction and Thayil has his readers hooked from Page 1, though the story doesn’t move fast. Rather, the reader is in a state of bliss, perfectly happy with the languid pace of narration, presumably not very different from the experience of a drug addict. We meet Dimple, the pretty hijra who works as a prostitute and later prepares pipes for patrons in Rashid’s opium den. Dimple seems to be contended, despite her aches and pains, thanks to the excellent opium she has access to at her work place. Rashid, the owner of the popular and internationally acclaimed opium den, seems to be a decent chap. All seems to be well with the world.

Then things start deteriorating in the opium den and in the rest of Mumbai. Heroin makes an appearance and all the opium users switch to it. They can’t really say No, since heroin gives them a much bigger kick. It also ruins them – their health and their wallets. Rashid knows that he is a fool to give in to heroin, but is unable to resist either. The introduction of heroin coincides with sudden change in Mumbai’s landscape. Terrorism and fanaticism make and appearance. Riots takes place for vague reasons. Mind you, all of this happens as Thayil’s characters and readers are in a drug-induced trance, so one takes one a vague notice, till things get really tough towards the end.

Thayil’s Narcopolis is very realistic and gives the reader a feel of the Mumbai of the 1980s. Much of it is set in the areas in and around Grant Road, adjoining Kamatipura, places which are undergoing rapid change even as I write. The use of Hindi words such as randi and garad and casual mention of sodomy, both varieties – with and without consent - only add to the authenticity. Just as Narcopolis is realistic, it is also unrealistic and flips over details which certain discerning readers (like me) would expect to find. For example, when Mr. Lee, one of the most interesting characters populating this novel, escapes from China to India, he merely requisitions a jeep and drives over to India. At one point, we are told that Dimple is from the north-east, though I don’t think there are many Hijras in Mumbai who are from the North East. Dimple doesn’t seem to have money worries at all.

The narrator Dom Ullis, a Syrian Christian Nasrani from God Own’s Country, makes a limited appearance at the beginning of the novel and later towards the end and doesn’t trouble the readers much, except for an obligatory reference to the Syrian Christian community’s love for the caste system.

To sum up, Narcopolis is a very good read and in my view, it is a deserving candidate for the Booker. Since I have read only one other book amongst the six shortlisted, I can’t say how good a chance it has for the prize which is to be announced on 16 October 2012.