Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Book Review: "The Bad Boy’s Guide To The Good Indian Girl", by Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra

Everyone knows that girls are of two types, good and bad. Boys too can be good and bad, but they can take a number of shades in between, especially after they become older. This is true in most parts of the world, but all the more so in India where with the “Good Girl” tag is especially sought after.

Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra have come up with a book which has two titles. The official one, “The Bad Boy’s Guide To The Good Indian Girl” doesn’t make too much sense except from the marketing point of view. The alternative title suggested on the back and inside first page of the book, “The Good Indian Girl’s Guide To Living, Loving and Having Fun”, which I assume was the authors’ choice, is much more to the point. I can actually envisage the conversation that must have taken place between Zubaan’s marketing team and Zaidi and Ravindra. ‘But this book has nothing to do with bad boys. In fact, there aren’t any bad boys in the book.’ Never mind’, the marketers tell Zaidi and Ravindra, ‘what do you know about selling books in the tough Indian market? Do you want your book to sell or not?’ It’s obvious that the marketers won, but Zaidi and Ravindra ought to be congratulated for making sure a more relevant name appears on the (back) cover.

If I were asked to name this book, I would have called it “Splendid Stories of Good Indian Girls, Which Can Be Enjoyed By All.” And man, what classy stories they are. Some of them are not more than two pages long and some run to ten pages or more. Each of them is about an Indian girl, mostly good, a few bad and many who are not so good, but manage to get away with it. Zaidi and Ravindra write in excellent unobtrusive prose which is akin to high quality corn flour used in good chicken soup. You don’t really get to taste the corn flour and don’t even think of it much as you gulp down the soup, but without the quality corn flour, the soup wouldn’t be half as enjoyable. Another very good thing about the prose is that though jointly written, it is seamless. If the joint authorship hadn’t been proclaimed on the cover, I would have thought the entire collection was written by a single very good writer.

The stories are interwoven and one gets to meet the characters again as they get older, get married and get on with life. To begin with, in the first few stories, the good girls take a few risks (while having harmless fun), but don’t tarnish their good reputation. Just as I started to wonder if all the stories would be about good girls staying good, one falls down and gets muddied. Soon, it happens again. The stories are mostly set in small town India where the concept of a good girl still strongly holds sway. Reading the stories, I could actually hear the quickening heartbeat and feel the sweaty palm as a good girl boldly spoke to a boy or accepted a lift in a car, almost breaking the rule, but not quite. Even though all stories are set in Northen Indian towns and cities, readers in other parts will have no trouble identifying their locales in these stories.

There were a few things I didn’t like so much about this book. After each story, one stumbles into a page or two (sometimes three) of commentary printed in italics. Some of the interjections in italics were as good as the stories and some served as good epilogues, but at times I found the commentaries to be killjoys, stating the obvious, sort of forcing the horse to drink, having lead it to the water. This book could have done without most of them. Another thing I didn’t like is that these stories have been written solely with the intention of showing the reader what makes a girl good, what society expects from good girls and what good girls can safely do to have fun. Therefore, though many characters in these interwoven stories appear again and again, one gets the feeling of not knowing them well. Almost as if one is given the topping from a chocolate cake and is not allowed to dig in beyond that.

On the whole, this is a wonderful book, one which I highly recommend.

Annie Zaidi is a Mumbai-based journalist whose columns appear in DNA. She also blogs at Known Turf. Smriti Ravindra nee Jaiswal (presumably) hails from Nepal, is a regular columnist for the Kathmandu Post and is currently based in the US.

Update: After I posted this review, Annie Zaidi contacted me by email and clarified that I was completely wrong about the title. The title “The Bad Boy’s Guide To The Good Indian Girl” was the authors' choice and after the publishers expressed reservations, Zaidi and Ravindra decided to add the alternative title, “The Good Indian Girl’s Guide To Living, Loving and Having Fun.” That's a lesson learned for me - to not to jump to conclusions.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Book Review: “Mota Seth” by M. Rishi Kumar

One of the first things that strike you even before you cross the tenth page of Mota Seth is the refreshing enthusiasm and optimism of the protagonist Roshan Kumar. Roshan hails from a family which, from the various descriptions given to the reader, appears to be well-to-do, but is yet to produce a lawyer. Determined to be the first legal eagle from the House of Kumar, Roshan lands in gritty Mumbai from cozy Bengaluru (where he did his law degree) and starts working for Mistry & Mistry and Michael & Button, one of the leading law firms in Mumbai. Roshan’s attitude is not unlike that of a twelve year old boy-scout – very diligent, very trusting and highly optimistic. Almost exactly when one reaches the middle of the book, one hears Roshan tell his colleagues at Mistry and Mistry of his ambition to make it as a partner. By this time, Roshan has completed more than a year at the firm. ‘Are you mad? they ask him. The reasons rattled out by his colleagues as to why Roshan will not make Partner - nepotism, unwillingness to make changes etc. – hit him hard. Roshan is suddenly devoid of all enthusiasm for working at Mistry and Mistry!

The blurb tells us that Mota Seth is ‘a tale of Roshan Kumar’s journey to become a Mota Seth – Senior Partner of a law firm. It depicts a true story (albeit fictionalised) of the aspirations of a novice in the field of law to become a Senior Partner in a prestigious law firm. Unlike others Roshan has no godfather in the profession.’ The blurb goes on to say that 'Roshan’s experiences are often derived from the author’s own experiences while he was working in two of India’s finest law firms – Mulla & Mulla and Craigie Blunt & Caroe, Mumbai, which is one of the oldest and the largest law firms and AZB & Partners, Mumbai, the fastest growing law firm in India. In this tale the author has tried to amalgamate reality with the lives of several fictional and semi- fictional characters.

Author Kumar has not made any great effort to disguise the names of his characters and those familiar with the leading corporate law firms and senior counsel in Mumbai will immediately recognise many of the firms and senior lawyers who find a place in Kumar’s tale. They are many, starting with firms like Mistry & Mistry and Michael & Button, where Roshan starts his life as a lawyer, the Chambers of Zeenath Tody where Roshan moves to after leaving Mistry & Mistry, Horniman & Gandhi, Tirothamdas, Fakirchand & Sheriff etc. and individuals like Zeenath Tody, Akash Ahuja (a lawyer who works for Horniman & Gandhi and goes trekking on weekends) and the like. One of the best things about Mota Seth is that it is, to a large extent, an authentic description of the life of a junior lawyer in one of Mumbai’s corporate law firms. Since Roshan works for the antique, old world (charm included) Mistry & Mistry (where clerks have unions and get pensions) as well the modern Chambers of Zeenath Tody, which later becomes ZAB & Partners, one gets to know both worlds.

Another very good thing about Mota Seth, especially for non-lawyers, is that many of the minutiae of legal jargon are explained. ‘What’s this Kacha Board, Sarvesh?’ ‘What does this GMS stand for Sarvesh?’ Questions such as these are asked by Roshan (in his usual boy-scout style) and patient answers are given by kind souls nearby.

If you thought Mota Seth was all about law and lawyers, you would be dead wrong. Roshan meets pretty damsel Shobana, shortly after he fights off a couple of drunks who attack him outside a pub. Rather, Shobana pulls up alongside him in a black Merc – yes, she is rich as well. Soon one finds Roshan making love to Shobana. They host a Holi party (bhang and all), go trekking with Roshan’s friends and soon it is time for Shobana to go off to Seattle. Roshan misses Shobana and takes to heavy drinking. His work suffers as a result. Do Roshan and Shobana get back together? Do read this book to find out.

Roshan does very well at the Chambers of Zeenath Tody, which later expands to become a partnership and is named ZAB & Partners. However, he isn’t too happy with certain things there and moves to Chennai where he joins the Chambers of Senior Advocate Anand Karkare. Once again, Roshan is found to be reliable and hardworking and good work flows his way. Old friends in Mumbai send him transactional work, which he takes on in addition to his court appearances. He starts making good money, as much as he made at ZAB & Partners. Finally, Roshan sets up his own law firm, in Chennai, which he calls the intellectual capital of India. I haven’t heard anyone else refer to Chennai thus, but a google search did lead me to this website which does.

A champagne coloured BMW series 7 pulls out of bungalow No. 204 opposite the Besant Nagar Beach in Chennai and wades into the city traffic on Sardar Patel Road. The occupant is wearing a grey pinstripe Versace suit, a crisp white shirt, a dark navy blue printed tie with Hugo Boss shoes and black Oakley shades. He is checking his email on his Blackberry while glancing at his Omega black dial chronograph, before making a call to his secretary to check his appointments for the day.’ No prizes for guessing who we are talking about. Yes, Roshan has arrived as a Mota Seth. His services are so much in demand that his former boss Zeenath Tody calls him up to request him to make time to meet a client since ‘the only lawyer who could save them was Roshan.

There are a few things I didn’t like about Mota Seth. My most pressing grumble is that I expected a story where a lawyer without the right connections fights his way to the top of a prestigious law firm in Mumbai and becomes a Mota Seth. A law firm in Mumbai it had to be and it could not be any other city. After all, when Roshan asks in the beginning of the book ‘what does Mota Seth mean?’ in his innocent boy-scout style, he is told ‘Among the Solicitor fraternity in Mumbai, normally a senior partner is addressed as Mota Seth.’ I sort of felt cheated when it turns out that Roshan becomes a Mota Seth, albeit by setting up his own firm in Chennai. I doubt if a Partner in any Chennai law firm is called a Mota Seth. Also, Roshan Kumar is not a fighter, a quality one would expect in a Mota Seth. Articled clerks at Mistry and Mistry are entitled to take six months’ study leave to prepare for the Solicitors exams held by the Bombay Incorporated Law Society (a non-statutory body, more like a guild, a hangover from the British era where the three Presidency towns had Barristers and Solicitors. Currently Bombay is the only Presidency town which continues this tradition. To call oneself a Solicitor in Bombay, one needs to pass the very tough exams held by this society). More Catholic than the Pope, Roshan opts to take only three months off. When he flunks his ‘Sols’ for the first time, as many do, he doesn’t take them again. Kumar doesn’t tell us if Roshan messed up because he had taken only three months to prepare instead of the normal six months. Roshan runs away from Mistry & Mistry as soon as he finds out that he wouldn’t easily make Partner there. Roshan runs away from ZAB & Partners too, though ZAB & Partners is a firm which is shown to have a number of partners who rose up without godfathers or connections by sheer dint of their hard work, solely because he does not like the politics there. In the last twenty pages of the book, Roshan quits ZAB & Partners, moves to Chennai, works for Senior Advocate Karkare, makes a name for himself and sets up his own firm. Too easy and too fast, I thought, as if Kumar suddenly realised after 165 pages that Roshan was nowhere close to becoming a Mota Seth and he had to quickly do something about it.

Another big drawback in this book is that Kumar does not flesh out any of his characters other than Roshan. For example, there’s Bhawick who chews paan during office breaks and goes pub-hopping with his girlfriend in the evenings. Even Roshan Kumar as a character is not consistent. Most of the time, he is diligent, hardworking, sober and unquestioningly obedient, putting up with very, very late nights (which usually end at six in the morning) and still finds time to go jogging in the mornings. He too chews paan during office breaks – presumably to give Bhawick some company. Then he does a sudden flip-flop and one sees him getting drunk, making love and shirking work. The two facets of Roshan presented by Kumar just don’t gel.

Kumar writes in simple English, the sort used by the average Mumbaikar. At times, he switches from past tense to the present. Many of the phrases used are quaint and not necessarily grammatically correct – sentences like ‘keep a check on your wallet and the file’, ‘take Sarvesh with you and take an orientation of the High Court building,’ ‘nobody is a born learned’– but these only add to the ‘context’ and ‘character’ of the book as a whole. Kumar doesn’t hesitate to make his characters, especially Roshan, speak in Hindi (sans any translation in English), which in a way enhances the ‘atmosphere.’ There are a number of typographical errors and even more grammatical ones. However, for these, I’ll lay the blame at the door of the editors at Pustak Mahal, the publisher.

On the whole, a good book, one worth spending time and money (Rs. 125) on.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

“When Mira Went Forth And Multiplied” by Shinie Antony - Book Review

What happens when "Bridget Jones’s Diary" is written in prose that is comparable to Catch 22’s? A little over three years ago, when I reviewed Antony’s short story collection “Séance on a Sunday Afternoon”, I had found it simple, stark, rapid and at times vulgar. In her latest work When Mira Went Forth And Multiplied, Antony’s prose has matured and mellowed like vintage wine. The sharpness of tongue, the extra-ordinary ability to appreciate minutiae, the quick turn of phrase not unlike an excellent swordsman flicking his wrist to score a direct hit, the astounding ability to mention unmentionables with a deadpan expression, they are all there, but in a much improved form.

When Mira Went Forth And Multiplied is chick-lit. Any doubt on that score is washed away shortly after the novel begins when Mira’s friend tells her ‘You know what’s sadder than saying I do to the wrong guy? Saying I don’t to the right. Bad girls are the new good girls, haven’t you heard?

Just like Bridget Jones, Mira is also in search of man and suffering as she looks around. We are told in Antony’s inimitable style that, ‘she grew pale and uninteresting, ate poorly and ailed deep in her heart, her hymen alone healthy as a horse.

When Mira prays, she asks, ‘Give me today my daily man.’ Or nightly. She wasn’t picky about the timing, Antony tells us.

When Mira finally has her affair, or rather a one-night stand, it is with much married Samundar Shah – Sam for short. Sam is henpecked and under pressure from various sides to have a baby with his wife Delta. When we hear Sam’s mother Leela-ben solicitously ask him ‘Is the baby juice going into her baby maker? we are left in no doubt that Leela-ben is worried that Sam and Delta haven’t got certain basics right.

Sam is not only henpecked, but is also a cuckold. His conversations with Delta are usually very entertaining.

‘Did you notice I’ve cut my hair shorter?

He smiled fondly. How could anyone cut their hair longer?

After a pause, she again turned to him with a determinedly zany smile, ‘Remember the first time you kissed me?’

‘Do you mean the first time we kissed or the first time I kissed you?’ Having had to take the lead in matters intimate from time immemorial with her, Sam always made it a point to record levels of participation.

‘What’s the difference?’ she asked losing some of the zany.

‘The first time we kissed, you kissed me,’ he pointed out triumphantly.’

After the one-night stand, Sam disappears and Mira pines for him, until she decides to take revenge. Mira’s actions result in Mira becoming very close to Delta and Leela-ben since they are all interested in Sam’s welfare. I would rather not say anything more and give away the plot, but do please read this fantastic book and find out how it all ends.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

12 August, 6:30 p.m., Reliance TimeOut, Bandra West, Please Do Come

My second novel (When The Snow Melts), a spy thriller, will be released in a few months from now. As a prelude to it, I am part of a panel which will discuss 'Nail-Biting Thrillers and High Brow Literature' at Reliance Time Out, Hill Road, Bandra West, Mumbai from 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. on 12 August. All are invited. Do come!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Extradite Shrien Dewani

When it was reported that pretty young bride Anni Dewani had been murdered while on honeymoon in South Africa, I was still in the UK, busy winding up to return to India, after having been away for over 8 years. I remember the overwhelming feeling of sympathy I then had for the handsome groom Shrien Dewani, a man I could identify with and feel sorry for. A week or so later, the contrarian shocking reports started coming in. It was alleged by the South African police that the entire car-jacking was ‘fixed’ by Shrien who wanted his bride bumped off. I remember feeling shock and revulsion. How could a man, any man, let someone carry off his wife to be killed? My mind boggled at that very thought. However, once that idea had been floated, I could not dismiss it, though I did still think the chances were that Shrien was innocent. I mean, why would a wealthy Briton want to kill his wife? He could divorce her, if he wanted to, couldn’t he?

Shrien hired publicist Max Clifford to fight some of his battles. This left a very bad taste in the mouth. Why wouldn’t an innocent man boldly face a trial in a court of law? Granted South Africa might not have the same standards as the UK, it was still inconceivable that someone facing such charges wouldn’t want to clear his name at an open trial. Instead Shrien was doing his best to avoid his extradition. South African jails are a nightmare, his lawyers claimed. He would not receive a fair trial, they alleged. Handsome Shrien would be raped as soon as he sets foot inside a South African jail, his publicist trumpeted. The South African government’s case was not helped by its National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele calling Shrien a ‘monkey’.

Now the rumours say that Shrien is gay and was forced into this marriage. There are other stories that Shrien had paid sex with male prostitutes. His family forced him to marry Anni and would not have allowed him to divorce her. If true, it might show a motive for wanting to have his young bride killed.

Shrien is said to be suffering from acute stress and depression. He certainly looks like he is. But then, anyone in his position would be depressed and stressed, wouldn’t they?

The extradition hearings are still going on. Tomorrow, 10 August 2011, yet another hearing will take place. A decision on whether to extradite him to South Africa could be given tomorrow. However, it is likely that the extradition hearings could go on for many more weeks or even months.

I hope that Shrien is extradited to South Africa and given a fair trial. Anything short of that would be a travesty of justice. I mean, the British government has signed an extradition treaty with South Africa. If conditions in South African jails are so bad and no one gets a fair trial out there, would such a treaty have been signed? To say that Shrien should not even be extradited and put on trial in South Africa would be to question the UK-SA extradition treaty itself.

In light of the publicity this case has generated, I also hope that Shrien is not harmed while he is an under-trial in South Africa.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A Review

The first sentence of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, makes you wonder for a moment if you are reading a detective novel or a crime thriller.

'In a damp fourteen-by-twenty foot laboratory in Boston on a December morning in 1947, a man named Sidney Farber waited impatiently for the arrival of a parcel from New York.'

No, Farber is not waiting for the delivery of a pistol fitted with a silencer. The parcel turns out hold a few vials of yellow crystalline chemical named aminopterin, shipped to Farber’s laboratory in the slim hope that it might halt the growth of leukemia in children. No wonder, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2011. Authored by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born doctor based in the United States, The Emperor of All Maladies tells the story of cancer from the time of the ancient Egyptians and Persians till the present, a gripping tale which makes the reader want someone somewhere in this world to find a cure for this malady which has befuddled physicians since time immemorial.

Mukherjee writes well. Very well. What could have been a boring narrative of banal events is transformed by Mukherjee into a series of exciting events that hold the reader’s attention. There are numerous stories of cancer patients and doctors who fight the good fight against this so-far-unconquered disease, each of which is interesting on its own. If the prologue starts with Carla Reed, a thirty-year old Kindergarten teacher from Ipswich, a mother of three who woke up with a headache, the book ends with Germaine who was hit with a rare type of gastrointestinal cancer, made a brilliant recovery and then suffered a relapse. Mukherjee does not tell us if Carla or Germaine made it, just as he does not tell us when he expects a cure to be discovered.

Cancer is not something new or modern. Our ancients knew of it. Atossa the Persian queen suffered from what was most probably breast cancer and had a slave excise her tumour. No, don’t worry, when Mukherjee describes the excision, it sounds a lot better than when you read it here.

Mukherjee’s book is descriptive. When Mukherjee is not describing an experiment or a victim’s pain, he is still describing something else. For example, when telling us about the commencement of a set of trials in a Swedish town, Mukherjee tell us:

Perched almost on the southern tip of the Swedish peninsula, Malmö is a bland, gray-blue industrial town set amid a featureless gray-blue landscape. The bare sprawling flatlands of Skane stretch out to its north and the waters of the Øresund strait roll to the south. Battered by a steep recession in the mid-1970s, the region had economically and demographically frozen for nearly two decades. Migration into and out of the city had shrunk to an astonishingly low 2 percent for nearly twenty years. Malmö had been in limbo with a captive cohort of men and women. It was the ideal place to run a difficult trial.

The only flip side to this brilliant book which uses American spelling is that it is a bit too long. I mean, Mukherjee writes well and there isn’t a single anecdote which isn’t interesting, but after 300 pages, I realised that I still had 172 pages to go and almost buckled. I did carry on though and I am glad I did, but future readers should remember that they are signing up for a marathon when they start this book. A long and exciting marathon, which at times looks as if it will never end - just like the fight against cancer.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Getting Off A Virar Fast At Borivali

A few months ago, I had written a short story called “Getting Off A Virar Fast At Borivali” and submitted it to the Urban Stories Competition 11 jointly run by Landmark and Grey Oak.

In early July, I found that my story had made it to a long list. Now I find that it has made it to the final short-list and will appear in an anthology (called Urban Shots Crossroads) in December 2011. Click on this link and see row 16 in the US Crossroads section for my name and the title.