This week, New Delhi officially turned 100 years old.

On 12 December 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, in front of maharajahs, rajahs, princes, and thousands of British and Indian citizens, King George V made an announcement that would have major repercussions for India.

The capital city was going to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

And thus New Delhi would come into existence as an imperial city.

Fast forward 100 years, and New Delhi 2011 chose virtually to ignore the centenary.

Mutterings about the rights and wrongs of celebrating imperialism masked the plain fact that the venue for the 1911 Durbar, Coronation Park, is a shambles, renovation work incomplete, deadlines missed.  This is not the place to discuss how a city can be years behind on deadlines, with no outcry and no accountability – but just remember that some projects for the 2010 Commonwealth Games are still languishing unfinished.

So, Delhi, thank goodness for Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal.

They have written a lavishly illustrated book about the 1911 Durbar, which as a stand alone event –  with or without the moral issues of colonialism – deserves to be commemorated.  The Durbar happened.  It is a fact of history. It brought New Delhi into being.  It was an event of long-lasting historical importance.

And more than anything else, it was an utterly fabulous, glorious expression of all that was best in royal and imperial India  –  ceremony, pageantry, clothes, jewels, titles, fanfares – and this lovely book brings out the full flavour of it all.

The authors, both passionate, hands-on historians, do not debate the rights or wrongs of spending a mind-boggling fortune on the Durbar.  They do not  enter into the politics of Delhi vs Calcutta.  They simply recount the amazing, dazzling story of how a dusty area of north India was transformed into a tented city, and became home to one of the most fabulous gatherings ever in India – the first time all the ruling prices came together.

The scale of the Durbar is staggering, even 100 years later :

“A temporary tented city was to be set up, spread over 45 sq miles. It was to last over a week, see around 150 ruling chiefs, feudal lords and zamindars in attendance, along with officials, and witnessed by at least 100,000 ordinary people. The 1911 Durbar was to be the most expensive and the most ambitious Durbar ever organized and, as it happened, over 900,000 pounds sterling were spent on it…

…Spread over 25 sq km, the Durbar Camp was to have 475 separate camps, with a total of 40,000 tents. Each camp was to be a city in itself, with arched entrances, gardens and enclosures. Apart from the King’s Camp, there were provincial camps headed by British Governors or Lt. Governors, camps of the Maharajahs and Princes, and the Government of India Camp.

All the tents were carpeted, furnished, warmed with stoves, and lit with electric bulbs.
Every Indian chief was to have his separate camp, which was like a mini city with all amenities, including a bazaar.

Clear directions were given to officials that nothing be done that was contrary to Indian customs. Cows managed by Brahmans ensured the supply of fresh milk to each camp. separate hospitals, a separate magistrate, and a separate police system ensured the independence of each camp under the overarching control of the British administrators.”

This is the story of a unique event, and the authors tell it with unbridled enthusiasm and love for their subject matter.  There are plans and drawings, articles and ads from the newspapers of the day, bills, receipts, and wonderful, absolutely gorgeous photographs to accompany the story of how the Durbar was conceptualised, planned, and carried out.

The ruling Indian princes needed careful handling, so that there would be no clash of egos in their comings and goings and dealings with the King Emperor.  There were sensibilities galore to be accommodated.  There were logistics on a massive scale to be handled.

And so the days of spectacle and pageantry flowed on smoothly and almost perfectly choreographed.

But there was the occasional headache.

The durbar tent burned down a few days before the event.

Her Majesty the Queen didn’t want the King to ride an elephant in procession – “Elephant Snubbed” was the wonderful newspaper headline.

And then there were problems with the tent for a royal dinner one night :

“The banqueting tent offended against the elements of sanitary science in the matter of ventilation; and it must be added as a warning for future occasions that being very long, very narrow and low, it presented neither a dignified nor an inviting appearance.”

For me, though, the biggest treat in the book is the photography.  Wonderful black and white photos  –  and even a startling, very early colour photo – bring to life the sheer gorgeousness of this extraordinary event.

Delhi, and every lover of history, can thank Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal for this well-written, super well-documented book.

Published by Roli Books and just Rs 495 for an attractively bound hardback.

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this review, nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below :


This fat, distinctly jolly looking book is just crying out to be placed under the Christmas tree, waiting to bring fun and new skills to children of all ages.

Although the target audience is, I suspect, school children and teenagers, there are so many useful skills to be learned from this book that everyone should enjoy leafing through it.

Dilip Mukerjea has already written several other books which teach you how to acquire, in his own words, “brain skills for the 21st century.”  In “Unleashing Genius” the author takes us, chapter by chapter, on a journey where we learn how to remember better, how to solve problems, how to read more efficiently, and all done in a fun, easy way.  There are masses of brightly coloured illustartions, most of them comic-y in feeling, which gives the book more of a child feel than an adult feel, but this reviewer found plenty to think about.

The first chapter “The Brain” leads naturally to a chapter on “Memory Boosting” and then “Mind Mapping.”  It was when I read the section on meeting people, that I realised that the author is definitely writing for all ages, since everyone of us can benefit from useful tips on how to meet and greet people for the first time and, most importantly, remember their names afterwards.  The trick is, apparently, to repeat the person’s name and to look for an outstanding feature on their face “to make them effortlessly recognisable’

We learn about the Major System for numbers, which was developed as far back as 1648 by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein, but is here explained with cartoons and fun mnemonics such as shining frisbee and pregnant goalkeeper.  In a world where increasingly we all have long lists of pin numbers and log in codes to remember, tricks to help are always useful.  By the end of the section on recaling numbers, the author has helped the reader remember a 20 digit sequence, which should safely see us all through the most complicated of on-line log ins.

There’s a cute memory test which the author tells us is for adults.  It’s the recipe for a Singapore Sling.  We are supposed to memorise it for 5 minutes, and see if we can recall it a day, a week, a month and even a year later.   He then converts the recipe, using the Major System for numbers, to help recall what it takes to make the perfect cocktail – 30ml Gin becoming 3 mice, and 15ml Cherry Brandy becoming a towel.  yes, I know, it sounds as though I;ve had too many Singapore Slings, but it will all make sense once you learn the mnemonics.

From working the brain and the mind, the author moves onto reading dynamics, which help people to read faster and more efficiently.  As Dilip Mukerjea says in this chapter “The people who get ahead in the Information Age are those who are able to assimilate large chunks of information accurately and swiftly.”  Even if you have always thought you can’t draw, the chapter on Creativity will soon rid you of any artistic inhibitions you might have by teaching you how to draw circle doodles.

I got slightly carried away when reading my review copy of the book, when I came across 6 pages in the middle of a chapter that were printed upside down and back-to-front.  “Ah,” I thought, “a new learning technique.  A new way of viewing problems” – but I hink the banal truth was that those 6 pages were nothing more than printed upside down and back-to-front !

Conclusion?  A fun book for youngsters which will be read with equal enjoyment by their parents.

And the recipe for a Singapore Sling is…?

Published by Westland, this big far-larger-than-usual paperback costs Rs 1195.

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


“The Habit of Winning” is a self-help motivational book but with a distinct Indian masala twist, which will most definitely appeal to the Indian reader.

Prakash Iyer has written an easily readable, crisply written book, divided into handy bite-sized chapters.

He draws on his years in corporate management to pass on his own tips for success, for self-actualisation, for motivation, all done in a concise, snappy style.  He uses the technique of a story-teller, making each of his points about positivity, perserverance, confidence building via a story or an anecdote.  Each short chapter has its own piece of advice, which is then summarised in a one or two sentence conclusion, almost like a mantra you can memorise and carry with you.  There is a variety of stories, each one forming a chapter : inspirational anecdotes about the likes of Ratan Tata and Winston Churchill, Gandhi-ji and a newer icon, Michelle Obama, about NBA basketball players and even the legendary story of Dastur Neryosang Dhaval, who led the first group of Zoroastrians to India in AD 755.

With his cosmopolitan mix of stories, some Indian-themed, some are global stories, and some are personal anecdotes, Mr Iyer keeps reiterating his mantra that everyone can become a winner.

There is a nice story about the legendary Michale Phelps, who won eight gold medals for swimming in the Beijing Olympics.  After an injury in 2007, we learn how this determined, focused young man continued to practise in the pool, despite having his arm in plaster. Unable to swim using his arms, he worked especially hard on his leg muscles. Analysis of his 7th gold medal win, by the heart-stopping 1/100th of a second’s margin over his rival (poor fellow, by the way) would show that in the final 5 metres, Phelps’ super strong leg actions clinched the race and the gold medal.

The moral of this ultimate feel-good story is clear : “When you are down and in trouble keep fighting. Don’t give up.  Keep kicking.”  Literally.

A story like this is easy to relate to, and it’s also easy to extract Mr. Iyer’s message.

I particularly liked Mr. Iyer’s own personal story about flying kites as a 6 year old little boy in Jaipur.  He loses his kite because he doesn’t tie a knot around the tin of Cherry Blossom shoe polish which he uses to wrap his kite string around.  Rather endearingly, he tells us that he didn’t actually know how to tie a knot at that young age.  He uses this anecdote as an illustration of how to handle people in a team –  just as you (apparently –  I didn’t know this) make a kite fly higher by pulling it towards you, so you let people working for you soar, by pulling them towards you with care and interest.

If it doesn’t sound odd, one of the things that I like about the book is the fact that the chapter are short and to the point.  You can dip in and out of the book, read one or two chapters, and then take time to think them over.

I also love his chapter titles, some of which entice you to read them simply because they are so quirky sounding : “Who stole my cookies ?”  “Lessons in survival from frogs and Phelps.”  “Don’t change your rabbit.”  And my personal favourite : “Catching fish with strawberries and cream.”

A feel-good read.

Published by Penguin, “The Habit of Winning” costs Rs 299.

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


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 :



What I want to know is, how did Mr. Parker get away with writing such an utterly gripping, but desperately naughty book as this ?

How is he not being hauled up for libel or slander or whatever it is that famous people do, when they are publicly described as – and I quote –  ” egomaniac: ; traitor ; twat “ ?  Kevin Pietersen, take a bow.

No seriously, how does Mr. Parker do it ?

I have sat in the Kruger Park, these last 3 days, riveted by this brilliant book about a country I love dearly –  reading a book that, well, that title tells you everything you need to know, really.

I used to live in South Africa, so although not a Saffer, I know the country pretty well, and this book had me enthralled.

It is a beautifully written romp through colonial stuff-ups (Bartle Frere, take a bow) and recent-ish politicians –  that would be you, ex-President Thabo Mbeki (who was “my” President, so I know exactly where Mr. Parker is coming from).

I cheered  –  sort of – when I read Mr. Parker’s section about Dr Death, the infamous Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.  That wretched woman was Health Minister when I lived in this glorious country, and to think that she told the hundreds of thousands of AIDS victims who died on her watch to eat beetroot…well, it’s fitting that she is part of this Rogues Gallery.  It’s the least she deserves.

It obviously helps if you are a Saffer, or know the country well, but this book is nevertheless a master class in elegantly-written character assassination.

I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite, out of such a deliciously horrid cast of characters.

I couldn’t.

I really couldn’t…

…well, OK, since you insist…

Sepp Blatter ?

Sol Kerzner ?

Hansie Cronjie (that’s because I had to explain to my children why he was crying on TV)

Steve Hofmeyr ? (that’s just because)

OK, if I can only quote only one out of these 50 stuffer-upperers as my absolute favourite, then is has to be Julius Malema.

Read this absolutely delicious intro and I dare you not to rush out and buy the book, Saffer or not :

“Julius Malema’s a fat little man. How he got fat is obvious.  He’s fat because he’s got lots of government-tender money and has no class whatsoever, and  the classless rich always get fat.”

Quite takes your breath away, doesn’t it ?

I love this book, and am giving it as Christmas pressies to those of my South African friends who may (God knows why) not yet have read it.

Published by Two Dogs, the paperback costs R 169.00

I’m going with 10/10 for chutzpah.

Well worth buying –  which you can easily do, by clicking on the link below :





“Kipling Sahib” by Charles Allen is a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look into the Indian part of Rudyard Kipling’s life, those relatively few years he spent in India, but which marked him for life.

And for literature.

Charles Allen brings to this book all the detailed yet seemingly relaxed research of every single book he writes about his beloved India.  He is a writer who wears his scholarship easily.

A writer who loves India, writing about a writer who loved India, and a reviewer who lives in and also loves India, obviously makes India an essential part of this review. And the country is there, in all her noise and confusion and contradictions, especially when seen in the Victorian context.

The book traces the life of “Ruddy’s” parents, Lockwood and Alice Kipling, and their arrival in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865. Rudyard was born in Bombay and loved the city of his birth instinctively, and the sights and smells and sounds of those early childhood years would colour his imagination for ever.

Over 30 years later, he would write of Bombay with obvious affection :

“Mother of cities to me,
For I was born at her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.”

It was in this happy, protected world “between the palms and the sea” that Ruddy and his younger sister Trix lived the cosseted life of all colonial children – slightly ignored by their parents, doted on by their Indian servants, and allowed to run wild.

Allen paints a portrait of British India, and its strict hierarchy, into which the Kiplings never quite fitted in –  neither parents nor their clever, talented, but rather unconventional son.  This sense of not quite fitting in colours so much of Rudyard Kipling’s writings –  both poetry and prose – and explains the fascination he always had with the Tommy, the underdog, the outcast, the other side of the imperial British coin.

Pitifully few letters of Rudyard’s have survived, somehow managing to escape the ruthless holocaust of his later years, which saw papers, letters, drafts, scraps –  all the tools on which a biographer depends – being burned by the author and his wife.
And he was such a prolific letter-writer, which makes their absence more keenly felt.  But Allen painstakingly and skilfully weaves the few letters that survived, with those sent to Rudyard, with newspaper reports, and with diaries, to give the reader a lively, colourful glimpse into India, and how it affected the young Kipling.

Being sent back Home – i.e. to cold, dreary England – at a very early age had a lasting effect on Ruddy and his sister Trix.  They hid the truth about their brutal school from their parents, and went for years never seeing their family, let alone the heat and noise and colour of India, which both children missed so badly.

When he eventually returned to India, as a fledgling journalist, Ruddy was by then a teenager, on the cusp of manhood. His family then lived in Lahore, in the hot plains of the Punjab, and the young man set about re-discovering the land of his birth.  He inherits the sense of social exclusion that dogged his parents, never quite feeling fully at ease in British India, while simultaneously subscribing to many of its views.  Many of Kipling’s writings, read in the cold, harsh light of 21st century PC thinking, are shockingly xenophobic, but Kipling did no more than echo the views of the society in which he lived.

Rudyard Kipling emerges from this book as a fully-rounded man, at times very likeable, at times not so likeable at all.  He is brilliant but flawed, arrogant and insecure, and above all, never fully at ease in society.  “Kim” and the “Jungle Books” are just the most famous results of this feeling of not quite fitting in, of abandonment, observing one’s own society from the outside.  It is with a sense of pleasure that we learn that Alice Kipling called her infant Ruddy “little friend of all the world.”

In conclusion, a small personal aside : what strikes the 21st century reader of “Kipling Sahib”, especially if an Indian resident, is how some aspects of the country have changed so little.  The country that the Victorian Kiplings inhabited was as noisy, engaging, often maddening, sometimes frightening, and, sad to say, as insanitary then as now.

Just one example.

Here is Charles Allen quoting a history of Bombay by J.M.Maclean, who was writing before the senior Kiplings arrived in India, but he could well have been writing about India in 2010 :

“All round the island on Bombay was one foul cesspool, sewers discharging on the sands, rocks only used for the purposes of nature…To travel by rail…was to see in the foreshore the latrine of the whole population of the Native Town.”

“Kipling Sahib” is published by Little, Brown and sells in hardback, in India for Rs 795.

If you wish to buy the book, now you have read this review, just click on the link below.

Couldn’t be easier.

RED SUN by Sudeep Chakravarti

What does one do, as a mere reader, when a book so profoundly shakes you up, frightens you even ? Review it, in the fervent hope that more people will thereby read it.

It’s not much of a contribution to one of India’s most alarming social problems, but if one more person reads this disturbing book, as a result of this review, then this reviewer will feel a little vindicated.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s book “Red Sun. Travels in Naxalite Country” is not an easy read, not easy at all, but in this reviewer’s opinion it is an essential read. Essential for anyone who cares about India, who cares about the poor, or who is interested in how a healthy, noisily democratic political system can consistently fail so many of its people.

“Red Sun” should be read by any citizen or resident of India, by each and every urban India who sees the ever increasing traffic and profusion of malls and Americanized fast food joints as proof that India is shining, that India has arrived, that India –  the much touted world’s largest democracy – is now well and truly out there, a global figure to be reckoned with.  Read this and reflect.

The book is not an easy read because the subject matter is uncomfortable, shocking and profoundly unsettling.  The author, a former journalist, spent years researching and living with the disaffected poor who support –  actively or tacitly –  the Naxalism, one of the biggest extreme left wing movements on the world, India’s home grown Maoism.

The Naxalite movement began in 1967 in a village called Naxalbari, which means that for over 40 years the simmering discontent and grinding poverty that launched the movement are still there, unaddressed by the politicians who govern India Shining from the safety and prosperity of far-away New Delhi.

What Sudeep Chakravarti delivers is a dense, scholarly book, that is sometimes written in a slightly breathless journalistic way, and other times packed with facts and figure and statistics –  all of them disturbing.

Take this paragraph in the introduction to the book :

“There is little debate that the spread of Maoist influence is at its core the consequence of bad governance – or plain non-governance – and crushing exploitation in the world’s next superpower. There have been instances in Bihar and Jharkhand where illiterate tribals have been told that they own just six inches of their land ; what lies below the six inches belongs to others : the state, the local trader, the local moneylender – now established via-media for mining interests. Such reality makes the congratulatory data and conclusions about today’s India, much of it true, seem a little hollow.”

What follows is an account of the author’s years of travelling in these far-off almost forgotten parts of India.  He interviews politicians, social workers, local officials, and the people themselves, the very people so let down by their government that they have little choice but to turn the other way when Naxals raid their villages.

As a reader, oftentimes you have to work hard to remember the many acronyms that are scattered throughout the book, to piece together the bits and pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle of local politics and administration, and to remember who the various players in this complex book are – many of Mr.Chakravarti’s sources are referred to only by their initials.

There is hardly a day goes by without a report in the Indian press about someone dying at the hands of Naxalites, another village being attacked, another family devastated.  Read this powerful, alarming book and you will better understand why.

RED SUN is published by Penguin/Viking and the hardback costs Rs 495.

You really should read this book, if you want to understand the nature of the threats facing contemporary India.

Do yourself a favour.  Buy it and read it.  Couldn’t be easier – just click on the link below :

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.