SANJAY DUTT by Yasser Usman

Having lived in Mumbai during the tumultuous days of 1992 and 1993, when this most cosmopolitan of Indian cities city lived through anti-Muslim riots and the subsequent bomb attacks, I was naturally intrigued by the story of Sanjay Dutt.

Mr. Dutt, a Bollywood star, and the son of a well-respected, secular politician, was embroiled in the traumatic and violent events after the 1993 attacks, and spent several years in jail as a result.

Yasser Usman’s “Sanjay Dutt” is well-written, well-researched and is an easy read.

The book is as fast-paced as the life of the central figure in his book, Sanjay Dutt.

The original little prince, if ever there was one, born of Bollywood “royalty” and given every privilege in life, Dutt would, we are told, turn out to be a spoiled brat, an entitled child who seems to enjoy breaking rules just for the heck of it.  He is unmotivated at school, drops out of college, and then decides to make it in Bollywood, the son of an iconic Bollywood couple.

Sanjay Dutt has spent much of his life mired in drugs and alcohol, and – to his credit – has never shied away from the truth.  He is known to be a frank, outspoken man, even if the narrative is not always  in his favour and it is clear that the author respects him for this.

Mr. Usman has researched every stage of Sanjay Dutt’s life, but the book reads easily, without any hint of judgment.

We feel that the author probably has a soft spot for his subject, but he never judges him on our behalf.

We are told all the facts of Mr. Dutt’s life and behaviour, and allowed to make up our own minds.

The writer does not try to influence our opinion : Mr. Usman simply shines a light on the conduct and behaviour of a man used to being indulged all his life, and allows us to draw our own conclusions.

I confess to not having been as passionately supportive of Sanjay Dutt as many of my acquaintances were, in those weird, frightening Mumbai days.

Most people I knew were absolutely incredulous that an actor like him, from his background, would have any truck with terrorism.

Most people really wanted to believe Mr. Dutt, when he claimed he had weapons to protect himself because he was half Muslim.

This claim is put forward in the book, but in his even-handed way, the author also recounts the many contacts Mr. Dutt had with the underworld. It is left to us to make our own minds up.

It is a fascinating look at a life of privilege that becomes a life of horror for those who care for Mr. Dutt, a man who inspired affection and loyalty amongst his close circle, though he appears to take this love and loyalty somewhat for granted.

Alcohol, drugs on a terrifying scale, detox, rehab, failed marriages, jail – to use an easy analogy, Mr. Dutt’s life reads a lot like the many forgettable run-of-the-mill Bollywood potboilers in which he acted.

Mr. Usman is not shy of quoting comments over the years, from various people, that suggest Mr. Dutt is nothing worse than immature and impetuous.

That appears to be the general consensus.

He is not considered to be a criminal or a terrorist, which is what he was initially convicted of, but rather a stupid man, who had an unhealthy love of guns, and an equally unhealthy interest in the criminal underworld.

“This incident aptly describes the Sanjay Dutt of those times: an impulsive, immature, egotist junkie.”

An interesting read, and I found it fascinating to flesh out my memories of those traumatic times, with an insight that I certainly didn’t have at the time.

Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of the book by the publishers, Juggernaut Books, but (as in the past) they have scrupulously sent me the book with absolutely no strings attached.

And now you want to read the book, don’t you?

Do.  It’s a cracking good read.

You don’t need me to explain how to order online, do you?  Thought not.

Here you go:

The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail by Chetan Mahajan

 

You don’t really need the backstory, I hope, to appreciate this review, but since it might just put things fully in context, here you go.

Through the twin worlds of Facebook and running, I recently met the utterly charming Chetan Mahajan, author of “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail”. Having chatted (all too briefly) with Chetan, reading his book in 2 long greedy sessions was even more interesting, for this book is his prison diary.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A prison diary.

Just before the recent Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, Chetan posted on a running page I follow on Facebook that he had T shirts to give away, and mentioned that he had run a lot whilst in prison. With such an interesting post, obviously I googled him, and discovered that this well educated, urbane man had been wrongly fully arrested on Christmas Eve 2012, spent a month in jail in Jharkhand, before being released and exonerated of all charges. Thank goodness for us, he kept notes and wrote a prison diary, and it makes for fascinating reading.  It is almost certainly the only good thing to come out of his horrific experience.  He writes from the heart, and doesn’t hide his fear at being jailed, his utter disbelief that this was happening to him, and his expectation that he would be out within a day or so…which stretches to a week…to a month.

When I met Chetan, he was measured and pragmatic about his experience, saying that he had decided the only way to deal with it was to move on, and that writing this book had helped. I can fully see why, because in it he details not only his own fears and thoughts, his own highs and lows, but also talks a lot about prison life and routine, about the men he met in jail, as well as his thoughts on the Indian justice system. What you have to remember all the way through this book, is that Chetan, along with all the other men, is an under-trial. Someone not yet found guilty. And yet there are men inside who have served way beyond their time. Or what would have been their time, had their cases ever been heard.

Chetan is lucky. He has a dynamic father who rushes to be with him, he has his brother, his brother in law and his wife, who visit, and use their influence as educated, urban, well connected people, to ensure that his life is as comfortable as it can be in a cell. Pity the many men he meets inside who are too poor, or illiterate, and therefore by inference not connected to anyone at all.  They languish in jail, unaware of their rights.

Chetan told me, and is at pains in the book to say that he wasn’t badly treated. No beatings, no feared sexual attacks. By and large, despite being so different from nearly all the prisoners, the latter treated him well, and the prison staff were as reasonable as they are capable of being. His fear and bewilderment as he is arrested and processed and slung into jail is powerful stuff, and I especially enjoyed his description of the first section of the prison where he is housed, with a makeshift temple at one end and a stinky loo at the other. His initiation into prison life and prison hierarchy is fascinating, as he learns about the economics of being in jail. Anything and everything is available.  For a price. Better food, drugs, alcohol, mobile phone – if you have the money outside, you can procure these luxuries inside.

The police and the prison authorities play their part in this economy, skimming off a percentage of everything that is legally brought into the prison, and one imagines, they earn a hefty cut for allowing the illegal stuff in – the drugs, booze, mobile phones.

Mr. Mahajan is a serious runner (remember, I mentioned at the outset that I had read his FB post in connection with the half marathon) and once his family delivers his running shoes to jail, running is one of the ways he keeps fit and stays sane and focused. In the early days, his focus is on keeping up his training for the Mumbai marathon, but as December rolls into January, and it becomes clear that he will not be at the marathon starting line with his beloved wife and fellow runner Vandita, he still continues to run –  in order to think, and to clear his head. His running for choice intrigues his fellow prisoners, and there is speculation that he is a commando. Why else would he run, when he could loll around sleeping?

This book is fascinating because it gives us an insight into a world – please God – that we will never encounter. And that is precisely why “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail” is such a compelling read, because Mr. Mahajan is a PLU. A Person Like Us.  Urban, flawless English, educated, foreign MBA, children, dogs, running – just like any of us…And being imprisoned was as alien and frightening to him as it would be to any of his us.  Without any warning, he is thrust into a world for which he has absolutely no preparation.

His observations on the corruption within the prison system and the sheer waste of the lives of the under trials makes for sobering reading. He laments the fact that these men are taught nothing whilst they are in jail. No skills, no education, nothing. They lie around, sleeping and playing cards, and some of them get religious, but whenever they leave Bokaro Jail they will be as ill educated. untrained, unskilled, unreformed as the day they were arrested.. And, one imagines, as vulnerable and ripe for re-arrest.

Totally recommended.

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If you would like to read “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail” simply click on one of the links below and order :

Oh.  Yes.

The T shirt.

In support of Amnesty’s efforts to help under trials. What else?

Bokaro_8959

 

Bokaro_8961

TAMARIND CITY by BISHWANATH GHOSH

It took me a while to settle into this book, but once I did – what a treat.

“Tamarind City” is the story of a man’s discovery of the southern Indian city of Chennai (though lots of people still know it by its older name of Madras).

Bishwanath Ghosh is a journalist, a Bengali, raised in the north of the country, and at the age of 30  – “single and commitment-phobic” as he describes himself – he decides to move down south to Chennai.  He initially plans to be there for just a few years, to discover the south of the country about which he admits he knew very little.  Ten years on, he is still in Chennai, happy, content, married and by now “an honorary Madrasi”.

“Tamarind City” is the story of this decade of discovery, and is an unabashed love song to his new home.

For Mr. Ghosh is clearly very much in love with a city that moves and speaks and eats and plays to a different rhythm than the harsher, colder, more impersonal north.

He opens his story with his long train ride across India, travelling down south from a freezing foggy Delhi, gripped by miserable wintery weather, to the heat of Chennai :

 

 

I said at the outset that I found it a little difficult to get into the book.  It was really just the opening chapter or two, as Mr. Ghosh settles into his otherwise lovely narrative.  Some of his reflections on the train are at stylistic odds with his otherwise well-written and easy-to-read prose :

 

As are his reflections on the mobile phone, of all things :

After this, the narrative flows.

Mr. Ghosh’s approach to his story is to take the reader along with him, as he walks and rambles through his new home.  As he gradually gets to grips with the city, so do we.  His time line is ours.  His narrative is not linear, but follows his own voyage of discovery.

We do, however, start with a necessay chapter on the history of this city, which is fascinating and bolsters the claim on the book cover – “Where modern India began.”  Armed with this background and perspective on a city that has never quite glowed with the popular brilliance of Delhi, Mumbai or the johnny-come-lately Banaglore, we learn about Carnatic music and the food of Tamil Nadu.  We learn about temples and factories and slums and the beach, about the close intertwining of politics and films, but all at a delightfully relaxed pace.

By the end of the book, you can almost feel yourself slowing down to a Chennai rhythm, one where tradition and progress sit side by side.  Although that sounds like the ultimate cliché about a city, Mr.Ghosh discovers that is the truth.  Modernisation may have changed much of his beloved Chennai even during his time there, but this is still a city where classical singers have the status of rockstars.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and learned a lot about a city that I have visited, but a long time ago.  Whenever I go there again, as well as packing this delightful book, I shall also join one of the Sunday morning heritage walks, as the author does.

I love the way he puts the Chennai/Madras equation in perspective :

 

When the guide on that early walk around the historic heart of Chennai speaks ruefully about the lack of heritage conservation, you feel the author’s approbation :

 

 

Madras, Chennai –  call it what you will, this city is the star of the book, and a very loveable star it is too.

 

 

Published by Tranquebar in 2102, the paperback costs Rs 295 and if you wish to buy it, simply click on the link below :

 

 

A good read.  Recommended.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!

The Naga Queen by Vicky Thomas

“The Naga Queen” by Vicky Thomas, a biography of Ursula Graham Bower, has recently been published by The History Press.

When I reviewed Ms Graham Bower’s own wonderful book, “Naga Path” a couple of months ago, I began by stating that I am a friend of her daughter Catriona Child, here in Delhi.

I wanted the disclaimer – well, it wasn’t a disclaimer as such, more a piece of information –   but whatever the semantics, I wanted the connection known before, so that undue favourable bias wasn’t suspected to have been shown.

This is not the case here.

The exciting, swashbuckling-with-permed-hair adventures of an extraordinary young woman living in a remote tribal area of India during the dying days of the Raj and through the drama of the Second World War  – what more could a biographer want ?

Vicky Thomas has written a biography of Ms Graham Bower that was authorised by the family, and indeed she was given full access to family papers and photographs.

But I fear that justice has not been done to what is a potentially fabulous story.

Ursula writing about her life and her adventures comes to life in a flash, so vivid is her prose, so strong her descriptive powers, so wicked her sense of the ridiculous, so positive her outlook.

For me, sadly, the only added value of this book was that Ms Thomas had access to Ms Bower’s private letters, which are crackling with life and energy : reading them was the real pleasure of this book.  Listening to Ursula tell her own story in her own words.

Having read, in close succession both “Naga Path” and “The Hidden Land”, I found sections of this biography familiar, yet oddly diminished.

Ms Graham Bower in her own words :

Ms Thomas :

 

And is Nagaland actually a small country ?  Wasn’t the last time I looked.

 

Published by The History press, the hardback costs £18.99.

If you wish to buy the book, just click on the link below  :

NAGA PATH by Ursula Graham Bower

Ursula Bower, author and anthropologist (died November 1988). She lived with the Naga tribesmen and fought against the Japanese in World War II

Before reviewing Ursula Graham Bower’s “Naga Path”, let me put a couple of things in context, so that I don’t seem to be unfairly partial towards this wonderful book.

The author’s daughter, Catriona, is a friend, and indeed we are in book club together in Delhi. So, yes, I knew a little from Catriona about her mother, but since the former is as well mannered as her mother seems to have been, there is no bragging whatsoever, so I only knew a little.

Then, in December, I went to Nagaland for the first time, to the Hornbill Festival with one of my oldest and dearest friends from Oxford, Jane, who had read the book as a teenager, and dreamed of going ever since. In fact, it was “Naga Path” that inspired Jane to go to Nagaland, and I went along for the ride, as it were.

I hadn’t quite joined the book-Jane-read-as-a-teenager and Catriona’s-mother dots, until the three of us all met in Kohima for the Festival.

I have just finished reading “Naga Path”, while holidaying in Assam, appropriately enough, and can quite understand how such a well-written, derring-do story would capture any teenager’s imagination. It captured mine, I can tell you.

Now for the facts.

Ursula Graham Bower arrived in India as a young woman, a pretty debutante who developed a passion and an unflinching love for the Naga people, in what was then Assam.

Ms Graham Bower lived for years in the late 1930s/early 1940s amongst the Zemi tribe, as an anthropologist but also as a mentor, and, for some, a reincarnation of one of their legendary heroines.

And thus the legend of the Naga Queen came into being. Ms Graham Bower seems never to have traded on the adulation and devotion of her beloved Zemi tribe, living with them in harmony, affection, occasional irritation, and much humour.

The author’s descriptive prose is little short of intoxicating, making the reader see the serried ranks of hills going on into the horizon, and smell the fire and dust and smoke. Her love for the land and the people is palpable in her writing, which is almost a love-song to the Nagas.

Ms Graham Bower’s writing makes you fall in love with the Zemis in the way she did. We meet a cast of characters whom she describes succinctly and affectionately, pointing out their foibles, their worries, their problems, with great humour and respect.

She never once patronises the Nagas, who were (for those who may not know it) head-hunters. Far from it, she is quick to point out the intelligence and wicked sense of humour of the Nagas.

One of the most delicious episodes in the book is the account of how her inseparable companion and mentor Namkia (“the old sinner”) gets himself space on the otherwise crowded train to Calcutta. Namkia stands there, resplendent in his red cloak, telling the initially packed compartment about how, during hard times, he and his wife had agonized over which of their children to kill and eat, finally deciding on the baby.

“it really was exceptionally good, most tender – boiled with chillies”

By the end of the story, Namkia is alone on the train bench, and he “spread out his bedding and slept in comfort, at full length, all the way to Calcutta : and every time a fresh entrant approached him with a hint to move over, the rest of the carriage said, as one :”Look out ! Man-eater!” and Namkia turned slowly over and murmured :”Now the last time I tasted human flesh__________”

Ms Graham Bower’s story gets more and more fascinating, since at the outbreak of World War II she becomes part of V Division, gathering information on the Japanese movements on the far north-eastern flank of India. Although the story is fascinating, this is perhaps the least compelling part of the book, since there is an awful lot of technical detail, and far less of the colour and passion of the early days.

Throughout this section of the book, the author down-plays the risks involved in her wartime work, of the dangers and discomforts in which she and her Naga companions lived. Risk of capture, torture, death at the hands of the Japanese is not mentioned, and whatever discomforts she talks about is all done in an almost breezily cheerfully stoic style. No whingeing or complaining for Ms Graham Bower.

Rather, what comes across is the good humour and resilience of this young woman leading her Naga scouts through the countryside, intelligence gathering for the Allies, in difficult terrain, with minimal supplies, and in horrid weather.

Having just read Fergal Keane’s magnificent “Road of Bones” about the siege of Kohima, one can only begin to imagine the real risks the author ran, but which she almost glosses over.

The end of the book, which came far too quickly for my liking, introduces us to her husband, and describes their delightfully impromptu marriage, following what can only be called a super-whirlwind courtship and engagement. Ms Graham Bower’s Nagas approved of her choice, and the descriptions of the ceremony they hold for the newly wed couple, as befits the woman they consider their daughter, is as moving and romantic a piece of writing as you could wish to read.

A wonderful book, which other than a few archaic terms, is as much of a joy to read today, as it was for my then teenaged friend Jane.

The only sad part of this review is the fact that this wonderful book is out of print. But do track it down in a library or from a second-hand book-shop.

It will fire your imagination, I guarantee.

SONIA GANDHI by RANI SINGH

I was beyond excited to get my hands on a preview copy of the biography of the leading political figure in India.  Living in Delhi, as I do, we hear and read about Sonia-ji (and Rahul-ji) day after day.  Their every move is reported upon, usually in breathless, uncritical prose.  Yet very little is actually known about them, beyond the bare, essential facts.

So I had high hopes from this biography.  I wanted to better know the woman who is de facto in charge of the country where I live.

Alas, these hopes were dashed.

This is not a book that is going to tell you much you didn’t already know about Madam (as the Indian press often describes her) and that is precious little in itself.  This book will better serve the reader who is not fully immersed in India, as your reviewer is.  For such a reader, this slightly rose-tinted walk through Sonia’s life and times in India will, no doubt, be interesting.

Rani Singh has meticulously researched Indian contemporary political history, which is an integral and indispensible part of the Gandhi story.  Daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, who was herself the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minster of India.  Married to Rajiv Gandhi, who would “succeed” his mother as PM, when she was assassinated, Rajiv himself was killed in 1991.  Politics was the life-blood of the family into which she married, a young Italian girl, whose French was better than her English in the early days of her marriage.

It is true, no question about it, that to go from a traditional, small-town, middle-class Italian background to being the leading political figure in the world’s largest democracy is no mean feat. It is no mean feat at all.

It is true, no question about it, that Sonia Gandhi has had more than her fair share of tragedy, which she has borne with dignity.

But after reading the biography, which was not an authorised one, and so the biographer did not actually meet Mrs Gandhi, I am no closer to understanding Sonia-ji, a woman who says very little, but whose actions have far-reaching implications for all of us living here.

The earlier chapters of the book, covering the years when Sonia and Rajiv met in England, their marriage and their first years in India have more than a hint of romantic prose about them.

“In an instant, Sonia’s and Rajiv’s destinies has changed, and a new dawn was breaking in their lives”  –  that kind of thing.

But then, to be fair, there are tantalising little glimpses into her life.

We learn that a politician gave her a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

We learn that on a holiday in the Lakshwadeep Islands, Rajiv and Rahul “often dressed in blue-and-white nautical-style beach wear.”

We even find out what flavour of juice they both drank at a reception in the late 1980s (coconut water for her, lime juice for him, by the way)

But what we never get is anything that defines Sonia other than a reflection of her husband, a keeper-alive of his legacy, and as a devoted mother to two children (adults now) who are always described in glowing terms.  The people to whom the biographer spoke have nothing but praise for Sonia.

The very fact of dynastic politics goes largely unquestioned :

“Though many circles are unhappy with the concept of dynastic leadership, it is a worldwide phenomenon, and dynastic heirs are deeply conscious of the preservation of values as assets.”

This is from the epilogue, when Ms Singh looks at Rahul, who may well take over from his mother.  And thus another generation of the same family may well be in charge of the country’s political future.

Read the book to get up to speed on Indian politics.  It’s an easy read, pleasantly written.

But what you will not really learn, sadly, is anything really new about Sonia Gandhi.

I know that I wanted to find out what really makes this enigmatic woman tick, but she remains as much as an enigma.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, the hardback costs $26

If you wish to buy this book, it’s very easy – simply click on the link below to order it :

 

A ROUND-HEELED WOMAN by JANE JUSKA

Well, you live and you learn.

Intrigued by the title, I found out that to describe a woman as “round-heeled” implies that she is, well, an easy lay.  A whore.  But absolutely not the delightful Jane Juska, who uses the expression with her witty tongue very firmly in her well-bred cheek.

This quite extra-ordinary book chronicles a single lady in sort-of-late-middle-age in her quest for, well, for sex.

She is quite straight-forward about her aims and her methods.

She places an ad – a rather clever literary one, admittedly, in a rather clever literary magazine.

She meets the men who answer it.

And she has sex.  Or she doesn’t.

She falls in love.  Or she doesn’t.

She makes friends. Or she doesn’t.

But most importantly of all, she has great fun (and some good sex, too) and sparkles her way through the whole picaresque adventure.

If her family was shocked when she embarked on her adventures, goodness knows how they felt when this best-selling book was published, nor of the stage adaptation.  For Jane Juska pulls no punches in her descriptions of the male anatomy, nor her lust for it, but it is actually all done so un-pruriently that the book is a delight.

Oh, and in case you don’t believe me about the meaning of the title, I Googled it :

ROUND HEELS noun (chiefly U.S. slang): Rounded heels that allow the wearer to rock backwards easily; usually transferred and figurative implying the inability to remain upright, as in an incompetent boxer or sexually compliant woman; hence ROUND-HEELED adjective; round-heeler noun.

There you go.  You live and you learn.

 

Published in 2003 by by Villard, New York, the paperback sells for $15.

If you want to buy the book after reading this review –  and it is a fun read –  then simply click on any of the links below :