Monday, 22 June 2015

Book Review: Death in Mumbai by Meenal Baghel

Neeraj Grover, an employee of Synergy Adlabs, a Mumbai based television content production house was murdered on 7 May 2008. A few weeks later, actress Maria Susairaj and her boyfriend naval officer Emile Jerome were arrested for Neeraj’s murder. Eventually, Emile Mathew was convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and for destroying evidence and is still in jail. Maria Susairaj was sentenced to three years imprisonment for destroying evidence – she was acquitted of any role in the murder - and since she had already served most of her sentence by the time the trial ended, she walked free pretty soon after the sentencing. The murder and the subsequent trial caused a media sensation, especially because the murderers were alleged to have cut up the victim’s body into 300 pieces before partially burning it. There have been a number of movies on this topic, but Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai is the only one book on this topic, at least in English, which has been published by a Tier 1 publisher.

At the beginning of her 230-odd pages book, Baghel gives us a hint of what to expect when she says that ‘large swathes of Mumbai have been ‘reclaimed’, as if the sea were an encroacher against whom a case had been filed and won.’ Baghel devotes as much energy and space telling us about the lives of television executives like Neeraj Grover, television moghuls like Ekta Kapoor and Oshiwara where many aspirants to Bollywood and television live and where Balaji Telefilms and Yashraj Films have their offices, as she does in narrating the story of Neeraj Grover, Maria Susairaj, Emile Jerome and the people who surrounded them in their day to day lives. We even get glimpses of celebrity movie directors such as Ram Gopal Varma!

Neeraj Grover was a Kanpuria, the son of an immigrant from Peshawar. A small town boy who dreamed of making it big, as restless, hardworking and ambitious as they come, a glib talker who was successful with women. Baghel, true to form, takes her readers to Kanpur and walks them through the city which was once called the Manchester of the East before ennui and industrial decay took over. Emile Jerome on the other hand was the son of Malayali immigrants to Mysore, middle-class to the core, educated at good schools such as St. Matthias and Marimala Pass. Jerome was unsuccessful in cracking the IIT entrance exam, but made it to the Naval Engineer’s Course in 2000. After completing his BTech, he decided to join the Marcos, India’s reputed marine commando unit, but was not accepted, more because the Navy did not want to lose an engineer. He however passed a grueling divers course, one in which only 5 or 6 out of 30 odd applicants qualified.

Maria Susairaj was the spoilt daughter of a construction moghul in Mysore, an immigrant from Tamil Nadu. She went to the same school as Emile, but was his senior. Neeraj Grover and Maria Susairaj had a lot in common. They both wanted fame and were willing to take shortcuts. Emile Jerome and Maria Susairaj did not have much in common, other than that they were from Mysore and were Catholics. Did Maria actually love Emile? Most probably she did, since she always introduced Emile as her fiancé even though Emile’s haughty parents had refused to accept her. Why did Maria want to marry Emile even as she flirted around Oshiwara, trying to make her way up the Bollywood ladder? Why did Emile kill Neeraj? Was it an unplanned act carried out in the heat of the moment or was it preplanned? Did Emile and Maria have sex immediately after the murder? Or was it an act of rape? These questions do not have easy answers, but Baghel does not best to provide some in her excellent book. Written in elegant but limpid prose, Death in Mumbai is a riveting read for all those interested in the Neeraj Grover murder.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

An Update From Juba, Republic Of South Sudan

Around three years ago, I had published a letter from my friend Ayak Acol de Dut who grew up in Juba and Khartoum in Sudan, did her law degree from the National Law School of India University and currently lives in Juba, the capital of the Republic of South Sudan. At my request, Ayak sent me an update to her previous letter.

“It is hard to believe that three years have passed since our last interview. And even though it feels as if not much has changed, a lot has.

Soon after the interview I started a job within the petroleum industry where I remain to date. The work is interesting and the industry is very dynamic and is on its way to expand even more in the future.

On a national level South Sudan is going through turbulent political times. In December 2013 war broke out between the Government and supporters of the ex-Vice President following accusations of an attempted coup d’etat. As the conflict spread there was widespread destruction to both life and property. It also caused displacement in parts of the country – there is a substantial part of our population living in insecurity. Oil production was also affected drastically, resulting in a slowing down of the economy. Although Juba has gone back to being peaceful, there are parts of the country where conflict flares up from time to time. At the moment the Government has the upper hand, but it is also engaged in peace talks with the rebels.

As I mentioned, Juba, where I live, has gone back to a new normal and continues to expand. What seems mundane and is taken for granted elsewhere in the world is novel here: new roads, traffic lights, buildings, you name it. When visiting different areas of Juba after an absence of a few months one is constantly surprised by the many changes taking place.

Infrastructure is improving

In spite of the recent war I can say that we have slowly been joining the rest of the world and are striving to be noticed: a South Sudanese troupe performed Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ at the Globe Theatre in London, and Miss South Sudan was crowned Miss Africa and then took fourth position in the ‘Miss World’ Competition, and we are also trying to join the sporting world, among other things. These are small steps but we will get there.

Crowds of people doing traditional dances on the outskirts of Juba during the weekend.

Christmas 2014 celebrations at the Juba All Saints Cathedral.

As regards the future, especially given the problems South Sudan is going through the question may be posed as to whether I still feel optimistic. The answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ South Sudan is on a very steep learning curve and is going through major growing pains but it is also a big learning process. We are optimistic that the rounds of peace processes bear fruit.

Small-town Juba

Beautiful Juba

To translate the words of a song by one of our popular singers Emmanuel Kembe: ‘We are all in one boat, moving forward. Our boat is a bit rickety, but it is still moving forward.’

June 2015

Friday, 5 June 2015

Book Review: “Flood of Fire” by Amitav Ghosh

I had pre-ordered Flood of Fire almost three months ago and last week Flipkart delivered the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy to me. I had liked the first one, Sea of Poppies and the second one, River of Smoke, a lot more. Flood of Fire turned out to be good very good in fact, a better than even the River of Smoke.

Like the first two books in the trilogy and not unlike most of his works in the last fifteen years, Ghosh uses his fiction as a vehicle for history narration. His subaltern version that is. Mind you, I am not complaining. The Ibis trilogy is, just like the Glass Palace, a devastating critique of colonialism and Ghosh makes his point very well. In the Flood of Fire, the British are determined to open up China for opium trading, just as Commissioner Lin Zexu does his best to keep opium out. At first, Lin believes that the opium traders do not have the backing of the British government, but his illusions are soon dispelled. The best thing about the Flood of Fire is that most of the characters are likeable, even if they are British soldiers like Captain Mee or businessmen like or shipman turned opium trader like Zachary. Shireen, the wife of the late Bahram Mody is especially likeable, though she travels to China in the hope that the British government would be able to, through the use of force, compel the Chinese government to pay reparations of opium confiscated from his husband’s storehouses. They are all part of a grand design as the story moves along and the great capitalist enterprise is unleashed.

Ghosh’s sympathy for 19th century China shines throughout the novel. He also makes a case to show how common Chinese people who once lived in India, like Asha didi, developed deep and lasting bonds with India. He relishes characters like Neel who easily transcend cultures and makes friends with the Chinese Compton. Chinese authorities seem to treat their Indian prisoners relatively well. The use of Chinese words such as “barbarian” to denote foreigners is shown to be, not a problem with the Chinese or their language, but the result of mis-translation by European scholars who have an axe to grind. On the other hand, the East India Company’s armed forces openly promote and support the caste system. Indian soldiers are given inferior weapons and lesser pay. When fighting in China alongside the Cameronians, racist taunts and harassment are routine. As Havildar Kesri Singh ruminates on such inequities and looks on the Chinese soldiers fighting them with respect (for their dedication to their cause and the opportunity they have, unlike him, to fight for something they hold dear), one gets the feeling that Ghosh has transplanted a modern day man into the body of a humble soldier who lived around 170 years ago.

At one point, Ghosh tells us (wistfully) through Taranathji, the Tibetan monk that the Gurkha King Rajendra Bikram Shah had proposed to Beijing that the Chinese and Gurkhas should launch a joint attack on British forces in Bengal. However, it was against Beijing’s policy to makes alliances with other Kingdoms. And in any case, the Qing did not entirely trust the Gurkhas. I am not sure how historically accurate Ghosh is in this context since google couldn’t throw any light on this, but I think the rest of the novel is kosher.

In a manner which Bollywood would have been proud of, Ghosh brings together in China a number of characters we had met in the previous two books the trilogy. Thus we once again meet colourful characters such as Serang Ali, Baboo Nob Kissin, Paulette, Zadig Beg, Deeti etc. However, the Flood of Fire is a lot more realistic than the previous two books, even in such aspects.

Most of the characters fit their stereotypes, but with Zachary Reid, Ghosh plays God and does an amazing job as the innocent and hardworking carpenter is transformed into something else. I do not want to disclose more and give away the story – please read this novel and find out for yourself.

I knew that armies of yore were accompanied by drummer boys and fifers as they marched into battle, but did not really believe that any civilised army would intentionally and unnecessarily put young uns in harm’s way. The drummer and Fifers in Flood of Fire are nice lovable characters, in particular Raju and Dicky and yes, they do accompany troops to the battle field, put themselves in harm’s way and some get killed! I’ll not dwell any more on this point, other than say that Ghosh has done a splendid job in portraying the world of drummers and fifers.

Some of Ghosh’s observations in this novel are really profound and meaningful. After observing British Indian troops rout imperial Chinese soldiers, Neel is mighty impressed. “Thinking about it later, he understood that a battle was a distillation of time: many years of preparation and decades of innovation and change were squeezed into a clash of very short duration. And when it was over, the impact radiated backwards and forwards through time, determining the future and even in a sense, changing the past, or at least the general understanding of it.

Ghosh liberally sprinkles his 600 odd page tome with Bhojpuri and Chinese phrases. I thought the occasional Chinese phrase made sense, but the Bhojpuri didn’t since the characters who emitted those Hindi-like words speak only Bhojpuri and I didn’t see the point in the random phrase. It was as if Ghosh had done his research and collected those phrases and didn’t want to waste them.

On the whole, Flood of Fire is a good read and one I would recommend to anyone interested in historical novels.