Motorcycle diaries...of a different kind


I guess some people still haven't got over the Raj!

Thoughts on Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows


Whenever an author weaves a novel around historic events such as the Nagasaki bombing, Partition and 9/11, you would expect two things. One, a poignant tale of love in times of strife and conflict follows suit or two, the magnitude of these events is so overpowering that you almost forget the real story. Burnt Shadows does live up to the first expectation but Kamila Shamsie ensures that the magnitude of conflicts doesn’t eclipse this multi-cultural saga.

The book begins with Hiroko losing her fiancé Konrad Weiss to the Nagasaki bombings. Picking up the pieces of her life (along with bird-shaped burns on her back), she travels to Delhi and meets Konrad’s relatives James and Elizabeth Burton with whom she develops a long-lasting relationship. Here, she also encounters Sajjad, the servant of the house who doubles as her Urdu teacher. The year is 1947 and Partition forces Sajjad to migrate. The Hiroko-Sajjad saga travels to Istanbul and culminates in Karachi where their son, Raza Konrad Ashraf, is born and drawn to the Afghan Mujahideen. Meanwhile, unable to bear the India-Pakistan arms race, Hiroko moves to the United States — the same country responsible for shedding “white light” in Nagasaki. And just when Hiroko thought all would be well, the occurrence of 9/11 makes Kim, the Burtons’ daughter, suspicious of Muslims.

Burnt Shadows is a compelling read; one that makes you think about religion, ethnicity and their roles in times of conflict. But that doesn’t mean the novel is preachy. Far from it. Yes, the conversations between characters can be termed as deep, but that only works to the novel’s advantage. And like any work of literature, Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows has its share of fringe characters. Kim, the Burtons’ daughter, is Hiroko’s aide as she ages in New York. There’s Abdullah, Raza’s comrade-in-arms and an irreverent observer of life. His sharp one-liners —“Vegetables can cross the border without paperwork, so you must become a vegetable” — and transformation to a New York cabbie are the subtle strokes on Shamsie’s canvas. How the re-christened Harry (Henry) Burton survives as a CIA operative is another captivating element of the book.

But the real star (and heart) of this book is Hiroko, whose dominating presence in the first half reduces everything else — even the canvas — as a minor player in a major story. Indeed, her trials and tribulations through half a century of conflict is poignant and moving, which is why her presence in the second half is so dearly missed. It’s almost as if Shamsie has deliberately created a vacuum in an attempt to focus on the post 9/11 scenario.

Burnt Shadows is also a book filled with poignant moments. Most notable is the one where Hiroko tears her blouse to show Sajjad the ‘burnt shadows’, explaining why she would ‘never marry’. And instead of being repulsed, Sajjad remarks ‘Don’t you know everything about you is beautiful?’

Another highlight of Burnt Shadows is its narrative tool — using multi-generation stories to tackle contemporary themes. It’s a tough task, considering there are more than one stories to tell. Yet, Shamsie, who peppers the book with Urdu poetry and pre-partition Old Delhi references, pulls it off with remarkable ease that you forget the scale of her canvas. Her latest work is one of those post-9/11 novels which will be a permanent fixture on bookshelves. Comparisons may be drawn to Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake but that would only undermine the brilliance of Burnt Shadows. While Lahiri’s work was a story about a family, Burnt Shadows is the tale of millions who constantly seek answers to an identity born out of conflicts. Every part of this four-part tome asks tough questions: Will ethnicity and race constantly hold identity to hostage? How many lands will one have to travel to find the ‘real’ person? And, most importantly, will burnt shadows be the only sign to remind us of a past? Perhaps another multi-generation novel is the answer. In the meantime, enjoy Burnt Shadows

(You can also catch the book review here)

Book Review: 26/11 Mumbai Attacked


‘This book is an attempt at understanding the enormity of 26/11’ says its editor Harinder Baweja. But haven’t we already understood that enormity, given the 60 hours of non-stop TV coverage and reams of newsprint which covered India’s worst ever terror attack? Don’t we know about the ruthlessness of Kasab & Co. as they ravaged the Chabad House and Café Leopold’s? Have poignant eyewitness accounts been forgotten so soon that they need to be retold in a book? Aren’t we already sick of those ghastly visuals of the Taj and the Oberoi that we need a scene-by-scene recollection of the events there?

These are just a few of the questions that come to mind as you read 26/11. No doubt, the book is well-researched, meticulous – at times, even poignant – but then it fails to provide any new perspective about those 60 gruesome hours. Chris Khetan pens a moving chapter about the lives of Salaskar, Karkare and Kamte and the void their death has created – not only within their profession but also in their family. But since their better halves and colleagues have already paid their tributes, why would we want to read about it again? During that 60-hour siege, Julio Ribeiro often spoke about the need for police reforms which he articulates yet again in the book. Ashish Khetan meticulously details the Taj and Oberoi crises while tracing the terrorists’ journey from Mumbai to Karachi. Rahul Shivshankar skilfully combines the importance of Chabad House with an account of the carnage that was to unfold later.

Harsh Joshi’s compilation of eyewitness accounts range from anger to horror while Bachi Karkaria informs us how the “like-that-only” spirit is infused in Mumbai’s DNA. Harinder Baweja travels to Muridke – the town which houses the genesis of this attack. Baweja also reminds us of how incompetent Shivraj Patil was as Home Minister because his action (or inaction) delayed the NSG departure by 45 minutes. Facts which we already know – and wouldn’t like to remember.

But that’s just about it in 26/11. Go looking for anything new and you’ll be left highly disappointed. At best, it could serve as a guide to aspiring journalists and political commentators who’d like credible information on the subject. It’ll be found in college libraries and Mumbai’s tourist hotspots. In fact, as I write this, I see copies of the tome on sale at Café Leopold. Another evident but disappointing aspect is the hurry to publish a book just for the sake of publishing. On a subject like 26/11 – which offers immense scope for new perspectives and stories – an edited volume loaded with facts leaves a lot to be desired. In their hurry to be the first to bring out a book, Roli Books has published a stillborn product.

Overall, 26/11 is not a bad read. It’s just that it isn’t too good to buy.

(A shorter version of this review can be read here)

Healthwise Musing!


Just another random, funny sighting in one of New Delhi's hidden parks.

Tehelka As Metaphor: Prism Me A Lie Tell Me A Truth


A shorter version of this piece appears in this week's BusinessWorld magazine.

(Madhu Trehan's image courtesy: Tehelka)

By far, the most widely publicised scandal in Indian political history, Tehelka is a subject that refuses to die down. Reams of newsprint and countless hours of airtime have already exposed how a bunch of journalists - posing as middlemen – could bribe their way into India’s defence establishment. So when you receive a 587 page tome written by a journalist about the subject, you’d expect a preachy research paper trying to justify the scandal. But, its only when you start reading it do you realise that it’s anything but preachy. For its Rashomon narrative brilliantly illustrates the point that truth has many versions which don’t have to always tally.
Simply told, the plotline of the characters’ narration of the roles they played in the scandal and their back stories. Tarun Tejpal, a maverick journalist with India Today, Outlook and Financial Express teams up with protégé Aniruddha Bahal to start a news portal dedicated to “kickass journalism”. Soon, Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra, owners of a stock broking firm are roped in as investors. Bahal is entrusted with the task of heading Operation West End and soon, Matthew Samuel, another maverick from Karnataka with a penchant for hunting stories, is brought on board. Eventually, it was Samuel who would pose as a middleman and film the entire episode. And on March 13, 2001, the Tehelka scandal broke.

Although it runs into nearly 600 pages, Trehan throws in pace, bits of pungent humour and sarcasm which turn this tome into a page turner. Sample this: after RSS trustee R K Gupta boasts about his links with the radical Hindu organisation since 1939, a sarcastic statement follows ‘1939? When he was eight years old he was politically connected with his soul? Trehan also extensively peppers the book with quotes from Byron, Chomsky, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and even the movie Pretty Woman as she attempts to unravel the method behind the Tehelka madness. Chapter titles such as “The Minister’s Last Sigh” and “A Greased Passage To India” are evidently humorous takes on movies and novels

But perhaps the most outstanding feature of the book is its narrative. Trehan’s own observations and analysis – although extensive - only anchor the interviewees’ replies without overbearing them.. Another brilliant aspect is the language which is lucid, straightforward and unpretentious. Big words are carefully avoided and cuss words are reproduced as they are. Most notable is the concluding chapter which – though rhetorical in parts – throws up serious questions about the modern India its citizens are so proud of. Trehan also suggests Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban who blogs about life under communist rule, as a possible role model for India’s youth. However, this doesn’t mean that the novel is bereft of flaws.

Tehelka’s biggest flaw is its digression into the psychological aspects of the scandal. For instance, Trehan questions the need for married army men to indulge in one night stands. Trehan mixes Gandhi and Greek mythology to deliberate on men’s sexual behaviour but ends up confusing the reader. In fact, beyond a point, this reviewer flipped a few pages to get to the real story as the digression had little relevance. The other major flaw is the editing of this book. Matthew Samuel’s interviews, in particular, were a tad lengthy and beyond a point, the humour got annoying. Yes, the book is a hard-hitting one and very comprehensive. But, the sheer length of its interviews, analysis, quotes and references to movies and books, can leave the reader confused; especially if you’re the sort who reads between long gaps.

Overall, Tehelka… stays true to its Rashomon narrative, factual accuracy and is blazingly blunt. Though out-of-focus, it provided a blow-by-blow account of how brutally a government can misuse State machinery to harass the vulnerable. A gripping tome which is a must-read for, not only budding and practicing journalists, but for anyone interested in the underbelly of politics in India.

Noon With No View


A short review of Sir Gulam Noon's autobiography which I did for BusinessWorld online

The book is a usual autobiography one would expect from a rags-to-riches businessman — replete with movie-style stories, extolling virtues of family unity and exonerating oneself from the scandals one is embroiled in. Add to that, chapters on charitable organisations (the Noon Foundation in this case), views on religion, country and business and you have the ingredients for a perfect autobiography.

With due respect, Noon is a very accomplished industrialist. However, one can’t say the same for his writing skills. He wants to say something yet ends up nothing so he calls the Ambani feud “acrimonious” yet, hails Dhirubhai as “a great entrepreneur”. He admires Tony Blair and his “New Labour” vision but — at the same time — thinks Margaret Thatcher “did a fantastic job”.

Noon gives a blow-by-blow account of the cash-for-honours scam and presents a fairly comprehensive — butmelodramatic — argument in his favour. His views on life in Britain are no different from what is already known — a melting pot of cultures with whose strength lies in its diversity. Noon makes no bones about the fact that he knows people in the corridors of power. In fact, it seems, he is quite proud of this. Sample this: “Prince Charles came straight over to me and said how pleased he was to see me knighted”. A reproduction of Tony Blair’s letter post the cash-for-honours scam is another example of Noon’s name-dropping tendencies. And it doesn’t end there. Photographs in this autobiography show the industrialist hobnobbing with John Major, Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Bahrain, erstwhile Indian royalty, and heads of religious communities. But
Noon With A View has the odd interesting aspects too — especially in its initial chapters.

Gulam Noon
Gulam Noon’s family was a large one comprising half-brothers and half-sisters (his parents married twice) and over half-a-dozen siblings and their respective spouses. His father died young and his brother-in-law took over the business; warming the seat for Noon. And soon after he took over, it seems luck swung to their side and the business became a huge success in the United Kingdom. However, Noon’s foray into business is unusually short and the chapter tracing Noon’s journey as a businessman is covered in just eight pages.

Photographs are used extensively to make up for the loss of words (around 50 of them) and the editing is very shoddy. For instance, the Noon’s hobbies on the cover jacket are thus described “He is a passionate cricket fan in what little spare time he can find”. In the preface, the author writes “The prime motive for writing an autobiography must surely be to record events which otherwise will be lost to posterity.” In Noon’s case it seems, the only motive to write was to clarify his stand on the cash-for-honours scam. The other chapters just seem incidental. How else would you explain a preview of the scam in the first chapter itself? And an abrupt transition to the year 1946 in the same chapter.

Noon With A View is an autobiography which is at best, an excuse to publish a book. Had it not been for the cash-for-honours scam, Noon would probably not have ever written an autobiography. And even if he was so keen on to narrating the story of his life, Noon should have got it ghost-written. It’s an autobiography which will be soon be dubbed as yet another industrialist’s attempt to glorify himself.