BESIEGED by Mahmood Farooqui

Does a reviewer have a moral obligation to finish a book ?

If so, then this review must carry a caveat.  Half way through, mired down by too much information, and  too heavy a writing style, this reviewer abandoned “Besieged”.

The writer has done a hugely impressive job of tracking down and translating hitherto unseen papers from the First Indian War of Independence/Indian Mutiny of 1857.  He has read, translated, catalogued and shared with his reader thousands of letters and fragments of correspondence written by the many people caught up on the side-lines of the epic struggle of the colonial British for domination in India.

There are requests for money for troops, complaints from the very same troops about unpaid wages.  There are requistion orders, legal hassles, reports of blocked drains – no detail of the minutiae of Delhi life in the turbulent days of 1857 is too small to be excluded.

Wherein lies one of the flaws of this impressive scholarly work.  There is almost too much information, and since it is arranged by theme, after a while it gets – sad to say – a wee bit “same -y”.

It is all to easy to be an armchair expert, but this body of material is just crying out to be a novel.

The clichéd “cast of thousands” is already assembled here – administrators, prostitutes, coolies, butchers, the King, beggars, and the delightfully monnikered “loiterers”.  British, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim – all these voices are present, clamouring for attention.

Free all these grumbling, loud, confrontational voices from their strict thematically arranged categories. Jumble them all up. And let the noisy, chaotic story of life in Delhi, on the sidelines of history, emerge.  That, in this reviewer’s opinion, will make a truly marvellous book.

Besieged Voices from Delhi 1857 by Mahmood Farooqui is published by Penguin Viking.  Published in 2010.

The hardback sells in India for Rs 699.

DREAMING IN HINDI by Katherine Russell Rich

An Oprah-validated book, “Dreaming in Hindi” is a fascinating account of a middle-aged American’s woman’s foray not only into India and learning Hindi, but into living in small-town India, and in a joint family to boot.

Part auto-biography, part academic treatise on linguistics and neurology, full of humour and self-mockery, “Dreaming in Hindi” is a fascinating read.  The sort of book that makes this reviewer say, ruefully, “Now, why didn’t I think of that ?”

From New York, where she has survived cancer and being fired from her job, the author travels to India on a free-lance assignment.  Fascinated by the country, she decides to move to India for a year, to immerse herself in the Hindi that she had started to learn back in the USA.

Thus Katherine Rusell Rich –  a clever, intellectual but slightly world-weary New Yorker –  ends up in Udaipur, a pretty (but small)  town in the desert sate of Rajasthan.  On one level, her adventures with language and life, with India and her eccentric fellow language students pretty much follow the path of any classic memoir of living in India.  A good entertaining read, with huge dollops of indiscretion.  This reviewer, for one, would love to know more about Helaena and her Maharaja.

The writer is eager to learn and to adapt to India, and her portrayal of her new home is full of aching love and misgiving, of frustration and hilarity, and above all of deep affection for this new world she is exploring simultaneously on several levels.

What distinguishes this book from any common-or-garden romp through India, is the academic analysis that accompanies her hilarious sorties and inevitable linguistic gaffes.  The author consults neurobiologists, experts in linguistics, and researches the meaning and impact of second language learning, skilfully weaving it all into her narrative.

As we follow her progress through India and into the complexities of the Hindi language, we also learn the whys and hows of thinking in another language.

Make no mistake, this is not a light, fluffy read.  Parts of it are hilarious.  Some parts are slightly coy.  Much of it is intellectual.  It all adds up to a thought-provoking read.

Dreaming in Hindi is published by Tranquebar and sells in India for Rs 395.

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THE GAME by Laurie R. King

What a pleasure to discover a whole new genre of fiction, even though the rest of the world has seemingly known about it for years.

Meet Mary Russell, the fictional wife of the equally fictional Sherlock Holmes.

Miss Russell has to be one of the most charming derring-do heroines a reader could hope to meet. Young, short-sighted and a feminist long before her time, in “The Game” Mary and her husband set off for India on the trail of… ?

Well, who else but Kim ?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, naturally.

This delicious detective novel cleverly weaves the lives of two fictional greats together, with just enough literary detail that occasionally you catch yourself wondering “What if..” and “Could they really…”

Mary is the driving force in the novel, and is a hugely attractive heroine, putting up with all the cloak-and-dagger-y stuff that life with Sherlock Holmes (and Kim) demands.

“The Game” is her story, her adventure,  and her good-natured sense of humour drives the exciting plot along, though her love, respect and trust in her husband are clearly the mainstay of her life.  To see the great Sherlock Holmes in love with a charming young woman is to see one of fiction’s greats through a different lens.

India of the early 1920s is brilliantly brought to life, in all its avatars.  From colonial Delhi, to fly-blown villages and caravanserai, to the fabulous but troublesome kingdom of Khanpur, our intrepid heroine (and her husband) travel in search of Kim, who is by now middle-aged.

Of course he is.

Jimmy, the hugely rich but hugely bored Maharajah of Khanpur is brought to brilliant life, his intelligence, charm and sense of grievance making him a compelling, increasingly worrying figure.

This literary tour-de-force is charming, fun, and a genuine page-turner.  You really don’t want the book to end, whilst simultaneously longing to find out what happens.

 

“The Game” is published by Allison & Busby and costs £7.99.

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THE DOUBLE COMFORT SAFARI CLUB by Alexander McCall Smith

The eleventh novel in the delightful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, “The Double Comfort Safari Club” takes the reader on yet another series of sleuthing adventures across Botswana, with the charming, compassionate, and very traditionally built Precious Ramotswe.

With his elegant and affectionate prose, Alexander McCall Smith evokes the sights and sounds, the smells and the dust, and the very essence of Botswana. People are kind and considerate. They retain their traditional values – and their traditional build – and never lose sight of their village origins. There is a palpable sense of community and compassion in the world of Precious Ramotswe – values that have been lost in many other seemingly more developed parts of the world.

“The Double Comfort Safari Club” features two of the secondary characters whom we have met over the preceding books.

Poor Phuti Radiphuti – soon to marry the clever Grace Makutsi, or so we hope – meets with an accident.

And the woman we all love to hate, the scheming, shameless “arch-Jezebel” Violet Sephotho (who could only manage 50% in the final exams of the Botswana Secretarial Ciollege) shows her true colours. And she is certainly no shrinking Violet.

This novel also travels further afield, out of Gaborone, Botswana’s dusty, friendly, low-key capital city, and off to Maun and the Okavango Delta.

Alexander McCall Smith has done more to put Botswana on the literary map than anyone else, and his unerring ear for dialogue and his obvious love of Africa and her people, all combine to make this eleventh novel in the series every bit as charming as the earlier books.

“The Double Comfort Safari Club” is published by Little Brown and costs £12.99

THE CASE OF THE MAN WHO DIED LAUGHING by Tarquin Hall

The second book in what one hopes will be a long series of Vish Puri detective novels, showcases the author’s love and obvious affection for India, especially Delhi, and his eye for the wildly off-beat.

The man who died laughing really did.

At the Laughing Club on Rajpath.

And from this dazzling opening, the author takes us on a journey through Delhi, up to Rishikesh, back to Delhi and into the world of god-men and magicians, via that timeless Indian middle-class institution, a kitty party.

Tarquin Hall is at his best when observing the speech and mannerisms of middle-class India.  He has an infallible eye (and ear) for Delhi and her noisy, boisterous people. So well does he describe this world of aspiration and show, that you can feel those uncomfortable sofas at Mrs. Arora’s in GK II, during the fateful kitty party.

Vish Puri, India’s self-styled Most Private Investigator, sets out to solve a series of bizarre murders, while his long-suffering wife Rumpi and his formidable mother Mummy-ji turn super-sleuths as well, and solve their own crime in their own inimitable way.

The book is fun, sharply observed and a good read, though possibly not quite as focused as the excellent first novel, The Case of the Missing Servant.

One hopes to see more of Vish Puri’s eccentric team of employees in the sure-to-follow third novel, and perhaps a little less of the Puri’s rather tiresome in-laws.

The book is published by Hutchinson and costs Rs 550.

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THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT by Tarquin Hall

India finally has her own Precious Ramotswe.

Her own home-grown, uncomplicated, tell it as it is private detective.  Punjabi by nature, by appetite and by his larger than life personality.

Meet Vish Puri, resident of Gurgaon, chilli-grower, Sandown-cap-lover and solver of crimes in Delhi.

Vish Puri is a clever, intuitive detective, of that there is no doubt, but like all of us, he has his flaws.  He snacks unhealthily behind his wife’s back, resisting all attempts to lose his nickname “Chubby”.  And he tends to underestimate Mummy-ji, his formidable retired-headmistress-mother.

Tarquin Hall takes us on a murder hunt to Jaipur, via the portals of the Delhi Gymkhana Club, and through the roads and markets of Delhi.

From snooty memsahibs who have no idea of their servants’ surnames – “I never asked, Mr Puri. Why should I ? She was just a maidservant after all” – to desperately poor tribal villages in Jharkand, we follow Vish Puri and his crack team – Tubelight, Flush and the ever resourceful Facecream – as they set out to solve the death of Mary, the poor tribal whose surname wasn’t worth knowing.

Tarquin Hall has a delightful, infallible eye for modern Delhi life, with its aspirational wannabes, its floodlit golf courses, and with the clash between old and new money. The book is fun, a good read, and brings the life and language of Delhi to vivid, noisy, colourful life. You can almost taste those greasy chilli pakoras that India’s Most Private Detective so relishes.

The Case of the Missing Servant is published by Hutchinson and costs £11.99

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CALL ME DAN by Anish Trivedi

This début novel of Mumbai-based Anish Trivedi is well-written, sharply-observed, and a great read.

The main character, Gautam, is a 30-year old lower middle-class young man, still living at home with his parents and sister.  Their life is frugal, traditional and distinctly joy-less. To his parents’ despair, Gautam doesn’t have what they term a real job, for he works in a call centre.

At work, in the world without time-zones, Gautam morphs into Dan.  Dan is witty,  rather the young man about town.  Dan drinks, which Gautam certainly wouldn’t.  Dan is cosmopolitan, a bit of a flirt.  Dan is, well, quite different from Gautam.

Anish Trivedi successfully brings both voices to life, steering his character(s) through surburban life, through the grind of work and daily commuting, through love’s ups and downs, through family dramas.

The author is a keen observer of social mores.  Seeing Dan interacting with Sondra, his foreign female colleague –  all blonde hair and throwaway lines – we watch as “Dan” wings it through water-cooler moments with her, making mental notes to himself to google the words he doesn’t understand, without ever missing a conversational beat.  His need to learn, to widen his horizons, to keep the veneer of sophistication in place is finely noted.

The prejudices in suburbia are finely chronicled by the author.  Michelle, Gautam’s long-suffering girlfriend, is a Christian and automatically perceived by his family to be unsuitable.  To be fair, Michelle’s family is equally unenthused by Gautam. Gautam’s best friend Naseer is a Muslim, much to his parent’s dismay.  Anish Trivedi sketches this world of petty prejudice and mistrust without ever falling into clichés, and we wince with discomfort at the un-PC world Gautam/Dan inhabits, while acknowledging just how horribly true to life it all is.

A fun read.  An affectionate portrayal of a hero trying to be more than the sum of his parts.  And an utterly delicious cameo of the station chai-wala.

CALL ME DAN was published in August 2010 by Penguin, and costs Rs 250.

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