THE JEERA PACKER by PRASHANT YADAV

What an extraordinarily good read this book is.

And, rather puzzlingly, what an extraordinarily uneven book it is too.

I dislike crisiticising someone’s writing, because it is such an intensely personal thing, but this excellent book is so uneven in its writing that it could almost have been written by two people – one of them fluent and funny and spot-on descriptive, and the other making silly, sloppy grammatical mistakes.

Take the opening page of the novel, for example:

“How I wish this candle trips over…”

“…sitting on the front counter…”

And then, a couple of paragraphs later:

“All-powerful, all-pervasive sameness this, it drags me in even on my day off…”

See what I mean?

From poor grammar to stunning prose in just a few lines.

I think tighter editing might have done the trick, for I do not for a moment believe that a writer of the obvious calibre of Mr. Yadav would say things like ” I pretend not hearing her” or “a couple of boys touching twenties”.

For a while, I wondered whether the grammatical mistakes were not deliberate, putting poor English into the mouths of his Hindi speaking politicians.

But I fear it might just be sloppy editing

Right, now that’s off my chest, let me rave about a great contemporary Indian novel.

I have mentioned in other reviews, that although the circumstances of reading a novel should not necessarily influence one’s appreciation of the writing, the fact still remains that very often they do.

And so, reading a book like this, living in North India as I do, and with non-stop talk and coverage of  the political shenanigans in the tumultuous, populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in a few weeks – well, Mr. Yadav has painted us a vivid, all too imaginable scenario.  Corruption, internecine fighting, rent-a-crowd, all the elements of North Indian politics are brilliantly reflected in this novel.

The struggle for the Chief Ministership of India’s largest state, the dream of eventually becoming Prime Minister, are the guiding forces of Dada’s life, and his entourage of feckless family, hangers-on, corrupt cops, venal politicians…oh, it is all too familiar and therefore totally believable.

The noise and chaos and dirt and scruffiness that characterises so much of small town north India is perfectly described. You can hear the incessant noise from that traffic jam – actually, sitting in Delhi as I write this, I really CAN hear the racket from the traffic outside, but you take my meaning.

Mr. Yadav writes powerfully and brings his cast of characters to life, from the interesting jeera packer himself with his lovely wife Jyoti, to the Pathan who dreams of riding off into the sunset on his Bullet, to the about-to-retire policeman, terrified of life outside the toadying, protective bubble of official cars and drivers and the saluting deference which he has come to love.

This is a fast-paced, good read, and never for once does it tip over into clichés.  This is India “warts and all” and the ending is a cracker.

Heartlly recommended.

Excitingly, this is a brand new book, published in 2017 and since the year is just a week old, you don’t get much more contemporary than this.

Published by the energetic Fingreprint! (& I do so love that ! in their name)

DVARCA by Madhav Mathur

When and where you read a book should not be an influencing factor in your appreciation of it.  Or should it?

Reading Madhav Mathur’s intriguing novel “Dvarca” in India (where I live), during the worst days of demonetisation, when millions of people found themselves with no access to their own cash, added a definite piquancy, I have to admit.  India in late 2016 – now very early 2017 – is a far cry from the Dvarca of the 22nd century, but I couldn’t help finding disturbing parallels as I read.  Growing intolerance of what are dubbed “minority” religions here (read Islam), the brazen way Hindu-fundamentalist trolls harass people on line, and, of course, the wholesale buying into the demonetisation move, with dissenters being labelled anti-national…again, I repeat, we are, thank goodness, far far away from 22nd century Dvarca.  But it makes you think.

And it’s a chilling thought.

Madhav Mathur’s Dvarca is a world where the (Hindu) state controls every aspects of one’s life, projecting images – literally – of a supposedly ideal world into your head, and monitoring every aspect of your life, from your moment of birth to your place in society. The state is all-seeing, and projects itself as all-knowing and all-caring, and the citizens of Dvarca are expected to follow the dictates of society without any questions.

The parallels with “1984” are telling, but even more frightening, for this is a world where love has been eradicated, where sexual contact is prohibited, and where women are impregnated by the state, at a time of the state’s choosing, with a baby designed for and by the state.  The scene when Jyoti is made pregnant is terrifying – little more than state ordered rape.

I found the book disturbing and thought-provoking, and every time I said “No, don’t be silly, this is just fiction…” I’d remember the millions of people getting up in the winter dark to stand in serpentine queues to try and get access to their own money, and then I’d be even more disturbed.

Initially, as a non-Indian – and a non-Hindu – some of the more Sanskrit-based words and religious concepts were a bit of a barrier, but with time, they became more familiar.

A good, interesting, thought-provoking read – especially in these disturbing times we live in.

Published by Fingerprint! and if you would like to read this book, just click on the link below.

CACTI CULTURE by Major General C.S.Bewli

This attractive-looking, beautifully photographed book is good-looking enough to be a coffee-table book, while also being a useful reference book that is well-written, and easy to read for a non-specialist.

Sharing his extensive knowledge with the reader, the author begins with basic facts about cacti and succulents, and then explains how to identify, grow, propagate, repot – just about everything the home gardener wants to know.

The book is lavishly illustrated with lovely photographs by Siegfried N. Lodwig – which enabled me to ID some of my own plants, which was pretty good going.

Inspired by Major General Bewli’s book, I’m going to try and make a terrarium in the New Year, cleverly using that unused fish tank we have.

Excellent and useful reference book, published by Fingerprint!

Highly recommended.

AND – since you now all want to buy one of these, now, don’t you? – here are the links to help you get hold of a copy straight away.

http://www.fingerprintpublishing.com/

THE STRONGMAN’S DAUGHTER by Madhuri Iyer

We are living in interesting times here in India, ever since the government decided to wage a high-profile campaign against black money, but – everyone believes – actually aimed at political opposition.  Which means that the just-published novel, “The Strongman’s Daughter” is deliciously bang up-to-date.

For in the character of Vithalrao Narvekar, the corrupt, domineering, larger than life Chief Minister of Goa, we have the perfect example of what is perceived to be wrong with so much of India’s political system.  Money greases the corrupt wheels of governance, the environment is wrecked for profit, money is looted from the public coffers, siphoned off, stashed away…Ms Iyer tells it as it is, making her novel totally credible.

But this novel only has corruption and strongman politics as part of its plot.  Set against all this illegal money and power-play is the 21 year old daughter of the Chief Minister, an idealistic young girl, just graduated, and eager to live life and to love life, on her own terms.

Her father, used to getting his own way in all things, decides that Aditi will enter politics and get married.  And when she refuses both options, all hell breaks loose.

This is a fun read – love story, clash of wills, politics, dirty business as usual –  and all set against the pretty backdrop of Goa, one of India’s most laid back places.

There are some unexpected twists to the story, which I won’t share for fear of spoiling the book for you.

Very enjoyable, although it’s a bit of a sad reflection on the state of Indian politics that you, the reader, feel so familiar with the lies and money and bullying that make up Vithalrao Narvekar’s DNA.  Ms Iyer has him down to a T, the archetypal overweight, calculating politician, trampling over everyone (including his only child) to get what he wants.

A modern Goan love story with a strong political background – great fun.

Published by the young, energetic publishing house of Fingerprint! (with an !), The Strongman’s Daughter costs Rs 250 in paperback.

If you want to order it now, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link…you know the rest!

The Pain Handbook by Dr. Rajat Chauhan

Dr. Rajat Chauhan is a respected figure amongst the Indian running community, and the wider, international community of ultra-runners. A doctor who runs ultra-marathons. A specialist in pain management who has conceptualised and organized one of the world’s toughest ultra marathons, the high altitude “La Ultra” in the Indian Himalayas.

But more than anything else, Dr. Chauhan is respected as a man who speaks his mind candidly, and who believes firmly in plain-speaking and no-nonsense explanations.

Dr. Chauhan’s book “The Pain Handbook, A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain” is a master class in the art of his famed plain-speaking, and throughout this excellent and very readable book, the author strives to explain medical issues in the simplest lay-person-friendly terms.

Dr. Chauhan is a firm believer in the importance of people taking control of their own lives and their own bodies, and of investing in their own health, and not just passively accepting what a doctor says.

In the opening pages of this book, he makes the point forcibly:

“You need this book because you or your loved ones are suffering from pain. Stop outsourcing your problems. You need to solve them yourself. I will help you do it, but you have to participate proactively…It’s your job to be better informed rather than blaming the “experts” years later.”

There you have it: the good doctor’s mission statement. He will help. But you the reader/patient have to participate proactively.

Throughout his book, Dr. Chauhan exhorts his readers to question the doctors they consult, to think, to inform themselves, and above all to move, and to keep moving:

“To do justice to your body, you owe it to yourself to understand it better. It is of no interest to any other party to educate you. It is a waste of time for them.

What’s in it for the healthcare industry to educate you better and reduce their revenues? So, the onus is on you. It’s your body. Know it better.”

Through an entertaining combination of medical information, a little history, case studies and illustrated exercises, Dr. Chauhan tackles three areas of injury and pain management that especially concern him – the back, the neck and the knee.

Our increasingly computer-driven lifestyle, our penchant for video games over outside games, our reluctance to exercise and keep fit, these are the evils of modern society which the author wants us to be aware of and to learn how to handle them.

For the author, moving is a mantra, as is consciously taking control of one’s body and, if needs be, the pain that has possibly driven you to read this book. We need to move our bodies, and we need to be able to articulate our pain and fears:

“You aren’t born a piece of furniture. You moved to be born and you were born to move. More importantly, you can feel and think. There is something that initiates your movement…When you start looking at yourself as a piece of furniture, you cannot blame the doctors for doing the same. You have ceased to exist as an intelligent human being who moves and has feelings, too.”

This book is a great read – the furthest thing from a dry medical handbook you could ever imagine. It is lively, thought-provoking, full of advice and exercises, and above all, it is easy to read. Never once does the author try and blind us with science. Rather he speaks in a friendly, down-to-earth way, admonishing us a little, but always ready with pointers and advice.

For anyone who has had an injury, or who wishes to be better informed about their body, and the need to exercise and keep potential injuries at bay, this book is a must-read.

And now, if you want to order this excellent book, nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below:

PENUMBRA by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Natural cynic that I am, when I read on a book cover a comment like “Make sure you have three clear hours when you pick this book up, because you won’t stop reading till you’ve finished it”, I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction is to mutter, “Yeah right” or something to that effect.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Penumbra” is totally un-put-down-able and I have just spent the last 2 hours, when I should’ve been writing an overdue article, absolutely devouring the book.

And, for the record, totally not guessing whodunit.

So, yes, indeed.  Make sure you have a nice clear afternoon, and settle down and enjoy a cracking murder mystery.

The book is set initially in Calcutta, and then in rural West Bengal, in an almost Agatha Christie-like setting.

A house party gathered for a celebration.

A murder.

Everyone trapped in the house together, isolated by a storm of almost Biblical proportions that brings down the phone lines, cause the power to flicker, makes the roads undrive-able…

At one point in the book I got too clever by half and thought I’d figured it all out.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Again.

I hadn’t a clue, right until the very end.

(And don’t worry, there are no plot-spoilers here.  Wouldn’t do that to you.)

The novel is told in the first person, through the mouth of Prakash Roy, a freelance journalist – and that, possibly, is the only v-e-r-y slight quibble I have with the author.  Prakash’s being a journalist is mentioned throughout the book, but he doesn’t seem to have much investigative get-up-and-go, and is content, rather, to serve as the foil to other people’s deductions.

But it doesn’t detract from him as a character at all  –  which is why I said it was a mere quibble.

Good read.

Good plot.

Thoroughly recommended.

If you would like to buy the book –  and it’s a great read – it couldn’t be easier.

Just click on one of the links below, & you’ll be on your way.

I was sent this book to review by the publishers, Fingerprint!

How to kill a billionaire by Rajesh Talwar

Before we start –  cards on the table time.

I was sent “How to kill a billionaire” by Juggernaut, to test and review their new app for reading on your smartphone.  Click here to read my review in my other blog.

But boy oh boy, did ever I make a good choice when I picked this title out from a list Juggernaut kindly gave me to chose from (ouch – that’s a pretty ugly sentence).

“How to kill a billionaire” is an absolute cracker of a read, and I loved it from start to finish – I didn’t work one whole afternoon, ignoring my computer and a pile of editing, in order to finish this gripping book.

And what a clever book it is too.  You are told the facts of the crime almost at the outset, but it is the unravelling of the where’s and why’s and how’s that grips you.

I am (I like to flatter myself) by and large a nice person, so there won’t be any spoilers here.  Pukka.

But since the blurb says, upfront “When a billionaire’s son goes missing after a young girl commits suicide…”, you know from the outset that it’s going to be a book about dissecting a crime and its repercussions.  And that is as far as I’m going to go, otherwise I really will spoil the book for you.

The setting is “Thirty Thousand Courts” in Delhi, and it took me a page or two (e-page, I suppose one should call them) to twig.

Thirty Thousand Courts = Tis Hazari.  (Yeah, I’m quick like that.)

The descriptions of the cramped, squalid offices where so much of Delhi’s legal work is done are excellent and I learned some legal odds and ends along the way :

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Did not know cross examination was so crucial.

Mr. Talwar writes well and cleverly, and through the voice of his main protagonist, we get a glimpse of life in the cramped, seedy, corrupt-but-functioning world of Thirty Thousand Courts:

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I also learned a little more about Indian food –  how have I never eaten a “fain”, in all my years in India?

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As the story unfolds, over tea and “fain” and sometimes kebabs and whisky, the lawyer talks to Lord Patel – and to we, the reader – explaining what happened, and no, don’t worry, I am not going to tell you & spoil what is a truly great read.

100% recommended for both Indian and overseas readers.  Since Lord Patel, to whom the narrator directs his story, is a foreign based Indian, who has supposedly lost touch with some of the ground realities of living in India, the narrator often explains things to him – a boon for readers who may not know India intimately.

Click here to read an interesting Q&A with the author.

To read this gripping novel, first download the Juggernaut app onto your smartphone if you don’t already have it, then download the book.

AARUSHI by Avirook Sen

Let me start this review by nailing my colours to the mast.

“Aarushi” is a brilliantly written, meticulously detailed, gripping piece of work, and should be read by every single person who cares about India and justice.

This is a book that should be made compulsory reading for every student of law, for every aspiring policeman or policewoman, and for every student of journalism.

For this book holds up a mirror to the first two professions, revealing their flaws and defects and, in parallel, the huge moral responsibility they both bear.

And any student of journalism should be proud to take a leaf out of Mr. Sen’s book –  his research and attention to detail are meticulous, his research is thorough, unbiased and clearly presented.

Reading Avirook Sen’s extraordinary book “Aarushi” is an emotional experience in so many ways. Reliving the horror of the murder of a 13 year old girl is traumatic, even for we the readers.  For anyone who was living in India at the time – May 2008 – the memory of the gruesome murder, the arrest of the child’s father, his release, then the subsequent arrest, trial and the shocking conviction of both parents for her murder –  all those memories are still surprisingly fresh, for this was a sensational case, which had every one of us gripped.

I remember blogging about the case, willing the parents to be innocent.

But the lurid details of wife swapping in Noida, the widely circulated theory that the 13 year old was having a consensual sexual relationship with a middle aged male servant, all of this was fodder to what passes for journalism here in India.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but there you go.

We have a hysterical TV press at the best of times, and this cocktail of sex, murder, servants, wife swapping, golf clubs, locked doors, seemingly unemotional parents (that must prove they were guilty, right? No public hysteria was suspicious, right?)…oh, it was all too good for the TV ratings.  No matter that most of it was hearsay, unproven, salacious tidbits leaked by an irresponsible investigating team.

Don’t believe me?

Well, read this astonishing book, and you soon will.

In the first few pages of the book, we see the police at work.  It is a truly terrifying catalogue of incompetence, to put it mildly.  The words I would actually like to use would not make for polite reading.

Read this extract below, and pray that you never, ever, ever find yourself at the receiving end of such inept, unprofessional, insensitive “policing” :

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Mr. Sen writes in a clear, unbiased voice about the chaos and cacophony surrounding the trial of 2 bereaved parents, and though never taking an overt stand, you know where his sympathies lie.  With the dignified, grieving Talwars, rather than the servile, incompetent authorities.

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Unlike the TV anchors going after ratings (and did one of them really dip his hands in red paint to simulate blood on camera?) Mr. Sen attended all the court hearings, quietly interviewed as many of the protagonists as he could, and, in a hugely chilling end to the book, he re-visits and re-chats with the main players once the trial is over, and the Talwars are incarcerated.  Even in jail, bereaved, the Talwars remain dignified.

And if your blood hasn’t already boiled with the parade of self-serving, incompetent police, CBI and lawyers who were let loose on the Talwars, then the conclusion of this fine book will certainly make you angry.  And very, very scared for anyone fighting for justice.

Trust me.

The most frightening interview in the book is the one Mr. Sen has with Shyam Lal, the now retired judge who sentenced the Talwars, and promptly retired a few days after sentencing.

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The above is straight out of the realm of buffoonery.  But to be fair, not everyone can speak and write well in English, but why the system allows such a travesty as this is mystifying.

But it is the final moments of the book that should make you sit up and make you very angry:

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The only thing I still can’t quite comprehend, even after reading this fine book is this: why?

Why did 2 people have to bear the brunt not only of a personal tragedy of unimaginable horror, but also the full weight of a conniving, incompetent system?

Evidence was withheld, was blatantly tampered with, and yet no-one seemed to be in the least concerned.  The case of the purple pillow is so shocking that you keep wondering if you have somehow misunderstood the implications.  But no.  Evidence was tampered with.  And no-one other than the Talwars seems bothered.  Certainly not the investigative agencies.

If the Talwars had been politicians or industrial giants or CEOs or cricketers or Bollywood stars, you could (with perhaps some justification) claim such a travesty of justice to be a cover up or a vendetta – whatever was appropriate.

But these were 2 ordinary middle class people.  Professionals.  Educated.  Loving parents.  So why the massive all-encompassing travesty of justice?  It can’t surely all have been a self-serving cover-up, with everyone too scared to admit to their mistakes and failures?  So just bluff your way out and compound the situation?  Surely not?

But, terrifyingly, that seems to be the only conclusion.

If you haven’t already bought this book, then please do so now by clicking on one of the links.  You owe it to yourself.  And to the Talwars.

RUNNING AND LIVING by Rahul Salim Verghese

What a nice book this is, and written by such a nice, unassuming man, too.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know Rahul a little socially, and, of course, “professionally,” through the runs he organises in and around Delhi, where I live.

“Running and Living” is an easy book to read, in the sense that it is written in a chatty, relaxed style, almost as though you were sitting talking to the author himself.

A relatively late convert to running (but not as late as me, Rahul.  I beat you soundly on that score!) Rahul is one of the lucky people in this world who has followed his dream and his new-found passion.  After 25 years, he stepped calmly off the corporate treadmill, and headed straight for a different world.  The world of running.  He started a company “Running and living”, which uses running as a marketing platform for brands, and his company now organises many races around India.

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I read this book in one long, happy sitting, but it is the kind of book that you can dip in and out of – there are chapters about motivation, about the myriad health benefits of running, and also about Rahul’s own experiences, about which he is endearingly frank and honest about his failures.

The chapter detailing the Everest marathon is thrilling stuff.

There are quotations, motivational messages and –  yaay! –  a training plan for running a marathon.

I am a total, unconditional convert to running, but I am sure that any non-runners reading this will easily be persuaded to lace up their shoes and head out for that first, wonderful run.  Just read about the health benefits, and I guarantee you that you will be out there, running.

Why don’t you check all this out for yourself, and order this book now, by clicking on one of the links below:

Published just a few days ago, in summer 2015, the paperback costs Rs399.

Autobiography of a Mad Nation by Sriram Karri

What an interesting book this is.

A criminal and political whodunnit that takes place in contemporary India, and at the very highest levels – we meet the President of India in the opening moments of the book, and yet leaves us puzzling over the nature of the crime, the motives for it and indeed who really carried it out, right up until the final pages of the book.

The novel opens with great panache and style, as the President shows his trusted confidant and the former head of the Intelligence Service, Dr. Vidyasagar, a plea for clemency he has received.  A mentally unstable young man, Iqbal, has been beheaded in Hyderabad and the author of the letter, Vikrant, is the convicted killer, who actually called the police to confess.  Now on death row, he writes to the President asking not for clemency but for justice.  He says he has proof as to who really killed Iqbal.  And he sends the proof to the President, whom he refers to as the People’s President.

This is perhaps the moment to say that one of the things I enjoyed about this book was trying to guess who was who, for the very nice, compassionate People’s President is never named per se, but there are enough clues for me to venture a suggestion – the still very popular former President A.P.J.Abdul Kalam.  Even if I’m wrong, while reading reading this novel, I imagined our fictional President to have the same genial face and kind, gentle nature of President Kalam.

I was sent this book for review by the publisher, Fingerprint!, but the problem with reviewing a whodunnit is that you really cannot reveal too much of the plot, for glaringly obvious reasons.

Suffice it to say that the first section of the book is seriously gripping, as Vidyasagar, racing against time (for the clock is ticking down both to the end of the President’s term of office and Vikrant’s execution) has to figure out whether or not Vikrant is a killer and if not, who was Iqbal’s murderer and why on earth would Vikrant have confessed to such a crime?

I am not going to spoil the plot for you, worry not.

The second part of the book consists of a long and very detailed flashback, and as you read it, you slowly begin to put together some of the pieces of this complex jigsaw puzzle of a book.

But not all of them, which means you start the third and final section sort-of-beginning-to-understand some things, and not understanding others at all.

Which is why this is a good read right until the very last paragraph.

Recommended.  Loved the first part, which is gripping and mystifying at the same time.

To buy the book right now, all you have to do is click on one of the links below.