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.

MATABELE DAWN by SAAD BIN JUNG

Saad bin Jung, the author of the recently published “Matabele Dawn” is a friend, a state of affairs that can sometimes make reviewing a book a rather tricky exercise. Treading the fine line between friendship and truth.  That kind of dilemma.

No such dilemma here.

Saad is a well known, shout-it-from-the-rooftops lover of Africa, and the bush, and wildlife, and the great outdoors.

Since we left South Africa nine oh-so-long years ago, there hasn’t been a day when I didn’t pine for the bush, or for the excitement of being on safari.  So the wonderful depiction of Africa that is the Matabele half of this book resonated completely.  Loved it.  Saad’s descriptions bring Africa to vivid life:

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In his book, Mr. bin Jung has two narratives, of Africa and India, that are generations apart, yet intertwined.

Both stories are also partly “out of Africa” and “out of India” in that they are stories of children of mixed marriages, and of mixed faiths, of foreigners living and loving and dying in different continents, far from their home.  Two men are born, decades apart, into chaos and disorder, into worlds of danger and change, and it is the chronicle of their lives that is “Matabele Dawn.”

Initially, I was a little startled by the very modern speaking voice of some of Mr. bin Jung’s 19th century characters, but then I thought – what is preferable?  Modern vernacular or a flood of “forsooths and by gads.”

Enjoy this book for the vividness of the language and story, for the enthusiasm and obvious love for two continents that poor forth.

When Mr. bin Jung launched his book this week in Delhi (where I live) the occasion was exactly as one would have expected. Roars of laughter at the stories told by the chief guests (All 3 of them.  Well, why ever not have 3 chief guests if you can?).  Not a moment of pompousness. Just laughter and a love for life.

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The author’s dedication in my book says it all:

“Here’s hoping you enjoy reading this half as much as I enjoyed writing it.”

Published by Rumour books, “Matabele Dawn” costs Rs599 and you can order it right now, by clicking on the link below :

And here is the link to buy the Kindle version :

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?

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GOD IS A GAMER by RAVI SUBRAMANIAN

What a very clever and intriguing whodunnit this book is.  A financial thriller, involving banking (yes, indeed, banking of all things) and gaming and bitcoins and politics and death and love  – and the whole combo makes for a great read.

This is the second book by Mr. Subramanian that I have been asked to review, and one thing is patently clear  –  the writer has got himself a way better editor this time round.  When I reviewed “The Bankster” I commented on the poor editing that did Mr. Subramanians’s fine writing  no favours.

No such issues this time round.

So, the story.  I can’t tell you anthing about the ins and outs of the plot, now can I, since this is, after all, a story involving murder and crime on a massive scale, so any plot spoilers would be, well, just downright criminal.

Mumbai, Washington DC, New York, Goa –  the action shifts between these places, involving a cast of Indians and Americans.  The story unfolds in short crisply written chapters, as we explore worlds that were totally unknown to me before  – the worlds of gaming and of bitcoins.  “God is a Gamer” reveals to us the highest levels of finance and politics, top secret computing and the virtual bitcoin economy.  The story centres around high-level technology, but manages not to baffle the reader.  Take me, for example – I knew next to nothing about gaming and bitcoins –  and yet never felt excluded from the story.  Enough was explained to bring me up to speed, without the storyline being slowed down.  Good writing, if ever there was.

The gradual drawing together of all the different threads in this tangled, dangerous, intercontinental web – politics and romance and computing and terrorism and murder and the FBI and banking – is cleverly done.  But I can’t tell you how or why, or it would spoil a great story.

If I have one teensy weensy caveat, it is that the end seems rushed.  Throughout the book, the writer maintains a detailed pace, leading us slowly and carefully ever deeper and deeper into the dark heart of his story, and then all of a sudden, it’s over.  There’s a quick bit of mopping-up in the epilogue, telling us which characters went where and did what and where they ended up, but I felt a bit cheated.  I would much rather have had a longer read, and no quick wrapping up.

But there is one great twist, right at the end.  Really clever.

 

I certainly learned a lot from this novel, because of course I googled bitcoins and TOR and Satoshi Nakamoto.

And they all exist.

Which makes me wonder, of course, what else and who else also really exists outside the pages of this book…

 

Recommended.

 

Just published by Penguin, the paperback of “God is a Gamer” costs Rs299 (real money, not bitcoins).

If you would like to read the book now, having read this review, it couldn’t be simpler.  

Just click on one of the links below :


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KILLING ASHISH KARVE by SALIL DESAI

I am sent quite a number of books by Indian authors to review, and like everything in life I guess, some are good, some are bad and some are downright indifferent.

And some are, quite frankly, so badly written that I battle to read them.  It is a mistake to think that just because most educated Indians speak fabulous English, that this automatically translates into fabulously well-written prose.

I won’t mention names, but a quick perusal through some reviews on this blog will give you an idea what I am talking about.

And so it was with great delight that I read Salil Desai’s “Killing Ashish Karve”, a murder whodunnit that is flawlessly well-written and is a completely gripping story with twists and turns right until the dying moments of the book.

Now, of course, the trouble with reviewing a murder mystery is that you can (for obvious reasons) hardly discuss the plot in any detail, so suffice it to say that one Ashish Karve is found dead in his car in Pune, and the police now have a mammoth task on their hands, trying to fathom out what happened.  The dead man’s family close ranks, in their own fractious, splintered way, and the police face an uphill battle, to get contemptuous and patronising middle class citizens to co-operate with them.  The desire to hush things up is a leitmotiv running though this novel, making the whodunnit aspect of the story even more intriguing.

I was gripped from the first, clever chapter.

The writer has a wry turn of phrase and is clearly a keen observer of people.  I have rarely read an Indian author who made me smile as much as Mr. Desai did.

We first encounter Senior Inspector Saralkar at his grouchiest :

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This is a man who has little patience for “unadulterated spiritual tripe,” as he grumpily describes his Secrets of Living course, and who is itching to be back doing proper police work.

Some of this police work admittedly involves winding up his long-suffering subordinate officer, Inspector Motkar, who is being driven to distraction by his son’s academic laziness and –  as he later realises – his own softly softly approach to parenting.

Saralkar can be ironic:

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And at times a tad too philosophical for Motkar:

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Mr. Desai has an unerring eye for people, their mannerisms and their verbal (and behavioural) tics:

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We meet a cast of urban characters who are all keenly observed, united only in their desire to keep the police out of every aspect of their lives.  As we are led deeper into the heart of this mystery, we encounter violence, prejudice and anger…but I really shouldn’t delve any deeper, for fear of spoiling the plot of this great read for you.

 

I have only one or two teensy caveats.

1) Why was the original title “The Body in the Backseat” not retained?

2)  I think Mr. Desai could dispense with some exclamation marks.  His writing is strong enough not to need them :

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3)  I would have described Indubai as a “care giver” not a caretaker.  But that may just be an indian English thing.  And it is a totally unimportant detail.

 

Thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Personally recommended.

And if you feel like buying “Killing Ashish Karve” now, after reading this, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link below:

The Himalayan Concerto by John Masters

You shouldn’t have to know a place and/or physically be in a place to enjoy a book, but there really is nothing like sitting in the Himalayas, relishing a book about the Himalayas.

John Masters’ “The Himalayan Concerto” was written in 1975, published in 1976, and purports to take place in 1979, and yet nearly 40 years on is still pertinent and quite alarmingly up to date.

 

Reading this book in Leh, the atmospheric little capital of Ladakh, while acclimatising for a climbing expedition to Chamser Kangri…no, wait, sorry…our climbing permit was refused because of a Chinese incursion over the border into Ladakh…as I was saying, this book about the balance of power in the Indian Himalayas in the 1970s remains as pertinent today as when Mr. Masters wrote it.

Quite alarmingly pertinent, in fact.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about Rodney Bateman, a British composer from a family that has long loved and served in India, but is currently unhappily married to an Indian.  Rodney is trying to write his Himalayan Concerto, about the music that binds the mountains and the adjoining countries, and as he travels the length and breadth of the mountains, he is also trying to sort out his own personal life.  Plus investigating some strange happenings on the Tibetan border for the Indian government.  His cover – travelling to research music –  affords him a degree of freedom to wander and chat, and he willingly undertakes to observe whatever is going on and report back to the Indian authorities.

Call it nostalgia, but I love the idea of a foreigner, but one who is known to love India, being co-opted to  – well –  spy for India.  This is a world of climbing, and fishing, and camping, and Kashmiri houseboats, and little private planes dropping off supplies in the highest most unreachable parts of the Himalayas.

That world has long since gone, but the charm of this story remains bang up-to-date, with its twists and turns and politics and downright “old fashioned” adventure.  Mr. Masters writes about Chinese incursions into India, and the Maoist threat in Bengal, and Pakistani sabre rattling…yes, 40 years down the line, open the Indian papers and what do you get?

A good old nostalgic read for a way of life that has gone, and yet…

 

PRIVATE INDIA by Ashwin Sanghi and James Patterson

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

I was so looking forward to reading and reviewing this book.  I have read one of Mr. Sanghi’s books (click here for the link to my review of The Krishna Key) but to my shame (well, I imagine it is to my shame…) I have read nothing of Mr. Patterson, but the hype around the book made me confident that there would be a non-stop amazing storyline and drama galore.

But it was not to be.

This book read and felt like the collaboration it is. Trying to please two readerships at once can’t be easy, and it shows. There is lots of fairly straight to the point gritty stuff about Mumbai for we Indian residents, and then fairly prosey bits about the British colonial era and the Thugee cult and the criminal tribes – all for the firang readers, I image, but the 2 styles sit ill together.

I can’t really imagine the average Mumbaiker waving a Rs50 note as an incentive to a cabbie to get him to the Asiatic Society quickly so he can look up a reference book about Durga Puja…wouldn’t they just google it on their smart phone?

I imagine the short sentences and the even shorter chapters are designed to build up a feeling of urgency, as the staff of Private India try to catch a serial killer who is on the loose in Mumbai.  But all the choppiness, and teensy chapters, and switching of narrator’s voice, just made me feel there was too much superficial drama without much substance.

We have a pretty standard cast of Indian characters as imagined for a foreign readership, I presume – intrepid private detectives, corrupt cops, gangsters, god men, celebrity hairdressers, betel-chewing prostitutes, yoga teachers, Bollywood star – pretty much everyone a foreigner might well imagine should people the crowded streets of Mumbai.
Very few normal folk, though.  You know, the normal people who would google something rather than dash through the streets to a colonial era library, waving a spare Rs50…
And for all that Mumbai is the backdrop to this whodunnit, the city doesn’t somehow feel all that real. Although the killings take place in the lead up to Navratri (a major Hindu festival), somehow the noise and the crowds, and yet again the sheer noise, and the bustle and 24-hour crowdedness of Bombay never take centre stage. Rather we dash around from one locale to the other, without really getting to grips with Bombay. I think the city could have been a fabulous character in her own right, rather than the stereotypical backdrop.

The opening chapters are exciting.  Ditto the concluding chapters. But there’s a great big saggy-bordering-on-repetitive-section in the middle of the book that deserves to be pepped up.

Conclusion?  “Private India” is a fun read, nothing more.

And for me there was an undeniable sense of disappointment that the hype and the collaborative writing have not risen to the occasion.  This book could have been super, but it falls short.

 

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If you would like to order this book, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on any of the links below and order it online.  Go on, it’s worth a read!


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Korma Kheer & Kismet by Pamela Timms

First things first.

Disclosure time.

Pamela Timms is a friend, we are in 2 book clubs together in Delhi, and over the last few years, I have heard much about this book over the course of many happy book club evenings.
We even went on one evening ramble in Old Delhi together, a couple of years ago, where I somehow managed to garland myself instead of the local politician we met in the street. But that’s another story, and definitely not one of my finest moments. (Hey, someone in the street gave me a garland, but didn’t tell me the bloke hanging around expectantly was a politician…)

Also, let me state for the record, that I am the polar opposite of Pamela. Can’t bake or cook to save my life, and am not hugely “into” food, at all to be honest.  And yet I devoured this book in one greedy sitting.  Seriously, I started this lovely book in the morning, hardly broke for lunch, and finished it mid-afternoon, as the heavens opened over Delhi, and the blessed monsoon rain poured down.

And I loved every second of the book.

The content, the writing, the descriptions –  everything is just perfect.
“Khorma Kheer and Kismet” is way way more than “just” a book about Old Delhi street food.  It is a celebration of India, of living in Delhi (the good bits as well as the not so good bits) and it is written with exquisitely beautiful nuanced prose.

Pamela is not just a lover of all things culinary in Old Delhi, she is also a lover of Old Delhi in its entirety, of the sights, the sounds and the people, all of which she brings to life without ever once falling into cliché-dom.  She is also very practical and realistic about her favourite part of India:

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Pamela writes well, wearing her obvious scholarship lightly, as she leads us through her own journey to India, to her despair at the ex-pat bubble she is condemned to inhabit, and how she breaks through into the gritty, grimy, dirty, spicey world of Old Delhi.  She leads us on a picaresque journey through the cramped and oh-so-hot lanes and by-lanes of the old city, as she tries out new dishes, meets people, tries to winkle their recipes out of them, makes friends, and ends up spending many, many happy hours as far away from the south Delhi ex-pat scene as it is possible to get.

Read this delightful book to get a flavour of Old Delhi street food –  literally and metaphorically, since she includes recipes at the end of each chapter –  and also to let yourself be transported to a world of sensory overload and crowded lanes and generous hospitality.

 

If I have one teensy complaint, it would be that the black and white photos do no justice whatsoever to the richness of the writing.  I would rather have had simple drawings than indifferent photos.  But that is really a very small quibble.

 

The book has just been published, in hardback, by Aleph and costs Rs 395.

If, after reading this review, you would like to order the book online, nothing could be simpler.  Just click on one of the links below.

 

Totally and enthusiastically recommended.

 

The Child of Misfortune by SOUMITRA SINGH

From time to time I am sent books for review, and so many times I have to choose my words oh so carefully, when writing my review. No-one want to be intentionally cruel or harsh, but some of the current fiction coming out of India is truly way below the mark.

And then you have a novel like “The Child of Misfortune”.

What a pleasure. What a treat. What a great read.

Soumitra Singh has written a genuine page-turner, a gripping novel about choice, about friendship and about end-games. This book takes us from Leh to Srinagar to Mumbai to London, as this sweeping adventure unfurls over many years.

I loved the book from the start, and not just because it involved Ladakh, one of my most favourite places on earth.

There are two main, rivaling protagonists in this novel – Amar and Jonah, who meet as teenage boys at a smart school in Mumbai, and theirs is a strange relationship from the start : a desperate rivalry between 2 intelligent boys to be the brightest, the fastest, the smartest. Amar is reasonably chatty and communicative, and therefore easy for we the reader to understand and empathise with. Jonah, the taciturn, white-haired, pale-skinned boy from Pondicherry is altogether different. Intense, hardly speaking enough even to be described as mono-syllabic, he is a distant almost menacing figure from his teenage years. There is something disturbing about this boy.

I cannot (and would not) reveal the plot. It is too much of an exciting read to divulge, but suffice it to say that it encompasses a global quest, in the good old-fashioned Good vs Evil scenario (OK, I’ll tell you a bit – drugs and terrorism figure largely, as does the amazing technology with which we live today).

When the plot shifts to London I still enjoyed the story, but just a fraction less than the Indian sections, which I found super well-written. But that is hardly a valid point. Am just saying.

The book is well-written and fast-paced, though I think Mr. Singh’s editors have failed him from time to time. Again, nothing major, just a few grammatical errors that I doubt a writer of this calibre would have made.

Published in 2104 by Times Group Books, the paperback sells for Rs 350.

 

Great read.

Personally recommended.

If, after reading this review, you would like to order the book, it couldn’t be easier.
Simply click on the link below:

 

And be sure to take time to visit the website www.soumitrasingh.com for news and views about the book.