Monday 27 July 2015

Book Review: Bhangarh to Bedlam - Haunted Encounters by Deepta Roy Chakraverti

For those you haven’t heard of Deepta Roy Chakraverti and her famous mother Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, here’s the plug. Ipsita is a self-proclaimed Wiccan priestess based in India. I assume there aren’t many of those around. Ipsita’s father was a diplomat and she grew up in Canada where at the age of fifteen, she commenced a five-year course studying ancient cultures, rituals, texts and mysticism. At the end of her training, Ipsita opted to practice Wicca, a pagan witchcraft religion which was revived in the UK around 60 years ago. Ipsita is married to Jayanta Roy, an Odissa royal. Ipsita’s daughter Deepta has taken after her mother – she too practices Wicca, but she is also a corporate lawyer.

Deepta Roy Chakraverti has now come up with a collection of twelve “incidents” (I consciously avoid the word “stories”), which are based on her experiences. A trained Wiccan, Chakraverti has used her logical mind, sharpened senses of perception and intuition to analyse her experiences, applying the Wiccan philosophy that there is much more to the world than what is merely seen or heard. A born skeptic, I wondered if I would be able to appreciate Chakraverti’s intuition, perception, clairvoyance and empathy as I started reading the collection. I needn’t have worried. Chakraverti is such a good narrator that she is able to take along all sorts of folks on her boat.

Chakraverti’s experiences commence at Bhangarh Fort, on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, about a hundred kilometres from Jaipur, in the district of Alwar. One of its past rulers, Jai Singh II was a believer in the mystical and he installed a young and beautiful Rani Ratnawati to work her magic and ensure the success of Jai Singh. Ratnawati was adept at the occult arts and a mistress of magic. Under Ratnawati, Bhangarh thrived and resonated with energy and vitality. Ratnawati was able to harness the streams that ran through it in the midst of the desert. Singhia, the prince of neighbouring Ajabgarh, was smitten by Ratnawati, but could not win her heart. His struggle to do so cost him his life. As he died, he cursed Bhangarh that it would become a prison of souls. All who died there would forever be trapped there. Singhia’s curse came true. In 1783, a massive famine overtook Bhangarh and ever since, it has been a deserted township, Chakraverti tells us.

When Ipsita, Deepta and gang visited Bhangarh Fort, they faced a steep climb up to the main fort on a slippery path, but when they reached the top they were rewarded with a stunning view. A set of crumbling stairs took them to the main corridor of the fort. Deepta tells us that she ‘could make out a dull whispering noise. Many presences. Tortured beings, held back in captivity. Trapped within these walls through the distorted workings which were carried on year after year. This fort was a living entity we were intruding upon. And it would not welcome us. We must make our own way.

They did proceed forward. Chakraverti’s narration is gentle, but she keeps her readers on her toes. One believes her as she says that, vibrations of past prayers and rituals seemed to emanate from the rocks and the land. ‘One corner of the courtyard seemed to shimmer and vibrate. We were all aware of the sudden shift in atmosphere and an electric feel in the air. We sat up now, alert and still. As we gazed in the direction, it was almost as if a mist was trying to coalesce and take form. A slim woman, not very tall. Spinning, as in a dance, with her skirt billowing out about her and her veil flowing with the wind. Pale blue, glowing, as if the whole image had been dusted with silver shards. Her arms were held out slightly as she slowed down and stopped. It was a fragile and delicate shadow, with deep-seated sadness within her. She seemed to be seeking something, asking for help, with her arms stretched out in front.

To cut a long story short, Ipsita managed to communicate with the spirit and found out that she was Sooraj Bai, who had been a young dancer in Akbar’s court who had fallen out of favour and banished to Bhangarh. I will not reveal more here, but will leave it to you to read this story for yourself.

For me, some of Chakraverti’s best experieces are set in places I am familiar with – Mumbai and London. The one in Mumbai titled "Who Walks On Marine Drive?” starts off when Chakraverti visits Mumbai on work (as a corporate lawyer). A walk along the Marine Drive results in meeting a peanut seller surrounded by spirits of people who had died suddenly and were looking for someone to talk to. And why would they want to do that? Please read this excellent collection to find out for yourselves.

After the ninth experience, Chakraverti suddenly takes us to London. Which shouldn’t have been a big surprise since Chakraverti studied law (as an undergraduate) at King’s College, London University. The first London “experience” is at Harrods and involves Princess Diana. As everyone knows, Diana’s lover (and the man who died with her in the tragic car crash) Dodi Fayed’s father owns Harrods, which has a small memorial to Diana, including the wine glass she drank from before setting out on her last journey. We are told that ‘She stood there, her face so close to the glass as to be pressed to it, while one palm rested on the glass, as if trying to touch the chalice within through the layers of separation. She was tall and the folds of her pale blue dress fell gracefully around her. Her sandy golden hair touched her shoulders and moved slightly as she seemed to rub her cheek against the glass of the case. Her silhouette looked so familiar.

The second London experience, The Night Of The ‘Soul Bell’ turned out to be my favourite for various reasons. For one, the settings were very familiar. Chakraverti is in the final year of her law degree at King’s College London, a place which I am very familiar with, having taken a couple of King’s College courses for my Masters Degree in Law from London University. Famous pubs such as Wig and Pen, Knights Templar, Chancery Lane, The Royal Courts of Justice, the Church of St. Mary le Strand, Bell Yard – all very familiar places! The spirit in this instance happens to be an interesting character named Mrs. Lovett, who was in love with Sweeny Todd, a serial killer. The reason why Mrs. Lovett’s pies tasted so good is revealed to us during the course of the story. No, I’m not going to give away the secret. You’ll have to read this excellent book for yourself to find out.

Ipsita Roy Chakraverti has written the Forward to this book and she explains that ‘Wicca was originally a woman-oriented craft invoking the Mother Goddess and Her powers.’ Maybe for this reason, most of the spirits with whom the Charavertis connect are women. The female spirits we are introduced to (Sooraj Bai, Shyama Pallavi, a widow who was abonded and left to die, a Persian female scholar in Lodhi’s court who was most probably poisoned to death, Princess Diana, Mrs. Lovett, Eliza Josolyne – described below) are all strong characters who are timeless and admirable even by modern day standards.

How do the Chakaverti mother-daughter duo manage to be so clairvoyant and connect with spirits? Chakraverti gives us a clue when describing her experiences at Konark when she could hear loud chattering which was not the cry of birds, Chakraverti says, ‘I closed my eyes. An old practice. When one of the senses is not enough to lift the veil, one reaches for the others, which can go beyond the tangible. I willed my consciousness to explore. Like invisible fingers, probing beyond, going past the cement and glass of the building, beyond the drooping green branches and the stillness. The elements responded, and I could feel the strength of the red gravelly soil, and the quick heartbeat of the rocks and stones, which lay scattered at every step on the path to the nearby sun temple. The moist leaves and patches of grass sagged and gave way easily to my search. But there was something just beyond the foliage which was aware of my presence. It was watchful and hesitant.

Chakraverti’s narration is not a plain vanilla description of her experiences. There is a fair amount of science and analysis thrown in. She quotes diverse authorities such as Issac Newton who toyed with the occult and the black sciences. When detailing her experience at Indira Gandhi’s house at 1, Safdarjung Road, which has been turned into a memorial, where she feels Indira Gandhi’s spirit and sees two figures from behind, a short-haired woman and a kurta-clad, heavy-set younger man, she quotes Marcel Vogel, a research scientist from IBM’s San Jose Research Centre, in order to back up her theories about crystals and their power to retain memories.

Though I call myself a rationalist, I was able to enjoy the book and at times even wished I were a teeny bit less left-brained so that I could appreciate Charaverti’s experiences better. Once I totally failed to make the final connection. This happened in the final experience which is based in Bedlam (the place where the famous old mental asylum was located), after meeting yet another spirit, Chakraverti does some limited digging around and declares that the spirit was none other than Eliza Josolyne, a domestic help who was admitted to Bedlam at the age of eighteen. Now how did Chakraverti decide that its Eliza Josolyne’s spirit that she met a few weeks earlier? There is no mention of any out of the world communication to such effect. Never mind, that was one minor hiccup. On the whole, Bhangarh to Bedlam is an excellent read irrespective of whether you are psychic or clairvoyant or clairaudient or clairsentient or something in between or none of these.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Book Review: Captain Hawk by SJ Garland

1823. Singapore. The East India Company is at the height of its powers. The Indian mutiny is many decades away in coming. Singapore is a sleepy piss-pot slum on the tip of the Malay Peninsula which has been recently colonised by Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles on behalf of her Majesty, a place which crawls with soldiers, sailors, taverns, pirates and traders, not to mention women of ill repute and easy virtue. Enter Nathaniel Hawk, the progeny of the celebrated Captain Sebastian Hawk, one of the most famous sailors in the employ of the East India Company Captain. Nate is your typical prodigal son. Though talented enough to be one of the best sea captains in the British navy, Nate has chosen a life of gambling and adventure on terra firma. When Nate arrives in Singapore to spend Christmas with his father, he has no intention of changing his lifestyle. Fate however has other plans for Nate who never gets to meet his celebrated Father. Seb’s ship Diligence is attacked and destroyed by a so-called ghost ship and Seb seems to have met a watery grave.

Since Great Britain is at odds with the Dutch, Nate’s initial suspicions fall on the Dutch and it is easy to hate the Dutch sailors in Singapore who had no love for his father, especially Captain Jacob Collaart. An uneasy truce prevails in the far-east between the British and the Dutch and there’s actually a moratorium in place, while a treaty is being negotiated back in Europe.

Once Nate starts the hunt for his father’s killers, he realises that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. The captain of the so-called ghost ship is a master of his craft and the first battle results in the sinking of the Falcon and the death of Buck, its captain. Worse is yet to come. The battles bring back to Nate the ghosts of his previous battles, nightmares he had run away from.

Garland has done an excellent job in conveying the touch and feel of those times. Research, she has positively carried out and Captain Hawk is definitely a period drama. However, Garland’s characters are not stereotypes from Victorian times. Human beings tend to be the same everywhere, across time and geographies and Garland’s characters, as they go about discharging their roles in humid 19th century Singapore, lie, cheat and betray. They are also at times kind and considerate and loyal. Some of Garland’s female characters play a significant role. For example, the much married Maggie loves Masters and Cornelius too. Charlotte Carstairs, who is in love with Edward Bishop, is the narrator of a big chunk of the novel and definitely a woman of substance. When the novel begins, we find that Charlotte’s father William Carstairs has taken a big gamble by not insuring his cargo ship, the Navarch and lost, when the Navarch is sunk by the ghost ship. Edward and Nate are good friends and as the novel progresses, Edward dies. But hold on, Nate doesn’t automatically step into Edward’s shoes, no. Garland doesn’t make it any easy for Nate and that’s all that I’ll say here.

Singapore is a cruel place where brothel-keepers use their own daughters as merchandise and towards the end Nate realises that good and evil are all mixed up. Individuals who he thought were above suspicion are definitely clothed in grey and the answers are not always to his liking. I’ll end here rather than give away the story, but if you are a history fiction buff, like I am, Captain Hawk is a helluva read. Do go for it.

A special thanks to SJ Garland for sending me a pdf copy of her novel.

The book:
Captain Hawk by SJ Garland
Publisher: Maple Kakapo Limited
Published: May 2015
ISBN: 978-0473319236
Pages: 308
Price: $13.00

The Author:
SJ Garland hails from Vancouver Canada and has travelled widely. Currently she lives in Singapore. Garland enjoys skiing, cooking, rugby and sampling wines from around the world. Garland specialises in historical fiction.

Thursday 16 July 2015

On International Driving Permits

Many years ago, as I prepared to leave for the UK to pursue my higher studies, I was advised to get myself an International Driving Permit. It will allow you to drive in the UK, I was told. I wondered how any authority in India could issue a permit which allowed an Indian citizen to drive in another country. Later in the UK, I found out that foreigners can drive for a year from the date of their arrival on the strength of the driving licence issued by their home countries. The UK did not care whether the Indian driving licence was an ordinary Indian driving licence or an International Driving Permit issued by an Indian authority.

The above is true of most English speaking countries. They do not differentiate between a standard driving licence and an International Driving Permit. Why then do so many people spend money in acquiring an International Driving Permit before venturing overseas?

International Driving Permits are issued under an international convention which allows member countries to issue such permits for use overseas. The idea is to facilitate residents of one state to drive in another, until they are settled in the new state.

I did a quick survey and found that in the UK, New Zealand, most states of the USA, most states of Australia, Canada etc., a standard driving licence will suffice, provided it’s in English. Even in Germany, an International Driving Permit is not required if the licence is in English. Which means, Indians can drive with an Indian licence. On the other hand, in places like Japan where local policemen would have problems deciphering a driving licence written in English, an International Driving Permit is required.

I’m told that even in a developing country like the Philippines (where English is widely used), Indians can drive using their Indian driving licences for three months from the date of arrival, after which they need to get a local driving licence. If you are travelling to Manila, don’t waste your time and money on an International Driving Permit. Your Indian licence will do.

In Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates, visitors need an International Driving Permit to drive. The IDP must be accompanied by the Indian licence. Once a visitor has been issued a UAE resident visa, a UAE driving licence is required. In Saudi Arabia too visitors need an International Driving Permit to drive and can do so only for 3 months. The IDP must be accompanied by the Indian licence.

Go on then, before investing time and money in acquiring an International Driving Permit, do find out if it is really required. In most cases, it is not. Your ordinary driving licence will suffice.

You better read this, if nothing else: This blogpost is not meant to be legal advice and don’t you come to me looking for compensation if you rely on the stuff above and make a fool of yourself. Please move your arse and verify the facts for yourself. Also, I am generally a lazy bum and am unlikely to update this shit even if the facts change.

Thursday 2 July 2015

Book Review: The Orphanage for Words, by Shinie Antony

What’s common to Chetan Bhagat and me? We are both fans of Shinie Antony, the author of a number of novels and short story collections such as Kardamom Kisses, Barefoot and Pregnant, Why Don’t We Talk, Séance on a Sunday Afternoon, When Mira Went Forth And Multiplied etc. and who I believe has edited Chetan Bhagat’s recent literary endeavours. Antony’s most recent book, The Orphanage for Words, is a collection of short stories, all of which revolve around ‘loss’. something which Antony suffered when her father passed away not so long ago. The chapter titled ‘Fathers’ is a touching account of her father’s last few days and was previously published, with minor differences, in the Hindu. At the end of ‘Fathers’, Antony tells us that she is used to confiding everything in her Dad. She tells him everything! Naturally, the book is For Dad.

Even though the theme of The Orphanage for Words is totally different from Antony’s previous books, it is easy to recognise the Antony girl. 'I need common sense, she thinks desperately, as if ordering a drink. One Common Sense, please. On the rocks, with ice, lots and lots of ice.' Later towards the end of the story as she breaks up with her lover, the Antony girl bravely decides that ‘she is going to ace it, the business of being an ex.’ In another story and in another world, the jilted female lover concludes that ‘the next time, if there was a next time, there would be a safety net – of a formal engagement and parental blessings-when it came to men. Perishables like love and lust are best refrigerated in marriages. She would play the game society’s way. That way, when he fled they would chase after him and club him to death’. Antony does not use a moral meter as her protagonists, mainly women, have affairs, abortions, suffer cheating husbands, express desire, display lust, scream, cry and get on with life. She is mildly amused, Antony is, as she looks at her characters on the moving travellator, unashamedly put on public display for the whole world to see.

Cancer is a sure fire way of suffering a loss but Antony’s cancer victims are survivors. In Hair, when Afreen Khaala or Afri-ka loses all her hair as a result of the chemo, her sister, the narrator’s mother, strokes and kisses Afri-ka’s hairless head in order to comfort her even though she never liked the vegetable stir-fry which Afri-ka made. It is unclear who is more traumatised – Afri-ka or her sister. However, in Breasts, the cancer victim is braver, even utilitarian. Her breasts are ‘like small trusting things not made for this world. Like secrets told before their time. With veins like baby skies under the skin.’ Such breasts can salvage a situation.

What happens when a woman undertakes a 24 hour journey to meet with a former teacher, one she had an affair with, now suffering from Alzheimer’s? Is she entitled to assume that her former lover, one she almost had a baby with, remembers the kiss she had initiated many, many years ago? Is she right in thinking that as a nineteen year old ugly duckling she had possibly initiated the affair with her 46 year old teacher who was only being kind to her?

Oh! And in case you thought The Orphanage for Words is all about women in various stages of undress, that’s not true. There’s a girl who has an accident and dies (and goes on to narrate her own story) and a dog which falls out of a multi-storey and also dies (and is hugged by a boy who I assume loved it). An old man loses a lot of skin on his feet and ends up inconveniencing his daughter-in-law who is all set to go out that evening. Actually she does go out and the old man’s son takes him to the hospital. Because, in Sandeep’s own words, it’s his job, not his wife’s. Why should others spoil their day on account of Sandeep’s father?

In The Orphanage for Words, loss never seems to cause sharp piercing pain which kills. The Antony girls and other protagonists are too brave and strong to die on account their loss. The agony is more of the lingering kind, the one which gets worse as some of the memories fade, a few random ones get stronger and as one struggles to remember. Antony is so good with her prose that hours or even days after one puts down The Orphanage for Words, her words return to haunt her victims, the knife twisting in the wound as one considers yet another permutation or combination amongst so many vague possibilities.

Do read The Orphanage for Words for Antony is unique among Indian writers and The Orphanage for Words is easily her best. Till date.