A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee

What a fabulous book “A Rising Man” is.

And what a prodigiously talented writer Mr. Mukherjee is. 

A murder mystery set in Calcutta in 1919, this is an absorbing page-turner from the very word go.

From the first moment you meet the narrator, Captain Sam Wyndham and his endearing deputy, Sergeant “Surrender Not” Banerjee, you know –  you just know – that this is a duo that was meant to be.  And that they will have many more adventures together.

Sam Wyndham arrives in Calcutta, emotionally drained after the horrors of World War 1.  He has seen such dreadful sights and experienced such loss, that his view of Calcutta, and India, and his fellow Brits is understandably jaundiced.  Sam is not a believer in the supremacy of the British in India, and he is a rare, compassionate man in a system that discourages such emotions, especially towards Indians.  

“There’s a special arrogance to be found in the Calcutta Englishman, something you don’t find in many other outposts of empire.  It may be born of familiarity.  After all, the English have been top dog in Bengal for a hundred and fifty years, and seemed to consider the natives, especially the Bengalis, as rather contemptible.

Sam doesn’t like Calcutta that much, nor does he buy into the whole colonial grandiloquence that has fashioned this city on the humid banks of a river.

“I set foot on the soil of India on the first of April, 1919.  All Fool’s Day. It seemed appropriate…

Pitching up in Calcutta for the first time without the assistance of drugs is not a pleasant experience.  Of course there’s the heat, the broiling, suffocating, relentless heat.  But that’s not the problem.  It’s the humidity that drives men mad…

Calcutta – we called it the City of Palaces.  Our Star in the East.  We’d built this city, erected mansions and monuments where previously had stood only jungle and thatch.  We’d paid our price in blood and now, we proclaimed, Calcutta was a British city.  Five minutes here would tell you it was no such thing.  But that didn’t mean it was Indian.

The truth was, Calcutta was unique.”

Calcutta is an integral part of this novel, both its geography as well as its social mores.

Take Dalhousie square, for example.  On his first visit to the iconic Writer’s Building, Sam passes Dalhousie Square with its fenced-off pool:

“Dalhousie was too big to be elegant.  At its centre sat a large, rectangular pool the colour of banana leaves.  Digby had mentioned that in the old days, the natives would use it for washing, swimming and religious purposes.  All that stopped after the mutiny of ’57.  Such things were no longer to be tolerated.  Now the pool stood empty, its bottle-green waters shimmering in the afternoon sun.  The natives – the ones we approved of, at any rate – now suited and booted in frock coats and buttoned-down collars, hurried around it…signs in English and Bengali warning of stiff penalties should they be tempted to revert to their base natures and go for a dip.”

No sooner has Sam arrived, than he is tasked with solving the murder of a British official.  The authorities want the murderer to be found as quickly as possible, mainly to show that the British cannot be trifled with, but Sam’s training as a Scotland Yard detective is somewhat at odds with the British agenda.

In “Surrender Not” Sam finds an intelligent, eloquent, impeccably spoken, well-educated assistant, and their relationship of trust and mutual respect is definitely at odds with the prevailing climate in Calcutta.

Surrender Not is an intriguing character, a perfect foil for Sam, who has to pick his way through the class and colour-ridden minefield that is colonial India.

There are moments when you, the reader, are embarrassed by the sheer crassness of the colonial Brit:

“Digby laughed. “you see what srt of people we’re dealing with here, Wyndham!  That’s the vanity of the Bengali for you.  Even the bloody coolies lie about their age!”

Banerjee squirmed.  “If I may, sir, I doubt vanity has much to do with it.  The fact is, the railways impose a policy of retirement at the age of fifty-eight.  Unfortunately, the pension provided to native Indians is generally too meagre for a family to live on.  By lowering their ages on the forms I beleive the men hope to work for a few years more and thus provide for their families just that little bit longer.”

Sam also has to pick his way through the tortuous relationship both the British and the Indians have with Anglo-Indians such as Annie Grant, a young lady who handles the sneering insults at her mixed race with great dignity.  She, of all people, has no illusions about the nature of colonial rule in India:

“I’m sorry”, she said…It’s just that I’ve seen it happen.  Nice middle-class chaps from the Shires, they come out here and the power and the privilege go to their heads.  All of a sudden they’re being waited on hand and foot and being dressed by a manservant.  They start to feel entitled.”

Along with the mystery of who has committed the two murders he is investigating, Sam gets a crash course in the current political climate in India, mainly through the interesting character of Benoy Sen, a patriot, an intellectual and exactly the kind of Indian to infuriate the colonial overlords, and – not surprisingly – interest Sam, even though he does get exasperated by him:

“This isn’t a political discussion,” I said. “Just answer the question.”

Sen laughed, thumping his hands down on the table.  “But it is, Captain!  How could it not be? You are a police officer,  I am an Indian.  You are a defender of a system that keeps my people in subjugation.  I am a man who seeks freedom.  The only type of discussion we could have is a political one.”

God, I hated politicals.  Give me a psychopath or a mass murderer any day.  Compared to a political, interrogating them was refreshingly straightforward.  They were generally all too eager to confess their crimes.”

“A Rising man” is a wonderful read.  A murder mystery, wrapped up in India a century ago, and introducing a detective duo that one hopes will return quickly to solve another crime.

Unstintingly recommended.  (And, by the way, neither Mr. Mukherjee nor his publisher, Vintage, know that I blog)

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:

ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

What an unusual book “Eligible” is.

Unusual because it is an undoubtedly clever book, whilst being simultaneously rather obvious, and yet overall the book is totally compelling, because you “know” all the characters in the book.

So well.

So, so well.

You “know” the plot.

You “know” how it will end, for Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia…Bennet.

Quite.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know and love the Bennet family, and who doesn’t know exactly how their lives will pan out?

Except this Bennet family does not live in early 19th century England, but 21st century Cincinnati, and therein lies both the cleverness and the slight clunkiness of the plot.

Transposing a family of largely dependent young women and their mother who is anxiously looking for husbands for them, to 21st century middle America is an interesting literary conceit, but it doesn’t always seem as though these sisters are actually living in Cincinnati in 2013.

Despite the use of sms‘s and Google, there is a slight slowness to the rhythm of their lives, as they go for months without contacting people because of a misunderstanding, or elope (oh yes!) and when Mr. Darcy bows…well…

All through this 21st century re-imagining of “Pride & Prejudice” I kept waiting for the moment when Elizabeth Bennet would make a wry aside about their famous precursors. I kept expecting a joking insider reference to life imitating art, or some such, but it didn’t happen.

And for me, that was one of the weak spots in this otherwise entertaining novel.

Clever though it is to re-imagine the Bennet girls as yoga teachers and journalists, it might have been almost cleverer to have written a book about 5 sisters who were NOT named Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, and leave us to guess.

Mr. Bingley, Caroline Bingley, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins – they all appear, under their “Pride & Prejudice” names, and it is all just a wee bit too obvious.

Which is why Jasper works so well as a character. Unlike the other characters, whose role was announced by their name, you have to work out who Jasper is, and there is one clever clue half way through the book – & I’m thrilled to say I’d guessed before then, but I am a bit of “P&P” fan-girl.

There is a lovely re-imagining of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and it was moments like Liz’s meeting with the veteran octogenarian feminist writer Ms de Bourgh, that made me wish that the talented Ms Sittenfeld had re-imagined her characters a little more.

Jasper also doesn’t follow the exact path Jane Austen set out for him, which is part of the success of his character, and along with that of Ms de Bourgh’s cameo appearance, it made me feel that had “Eligible” been based more loosely on “Pride & Prejudice,” it would have been even more of a fun read.

Because it is, undoubtedly, a fun read, but had the author made us guess a little more about her Cincinnati versions of these fictional greats, I think “Eligible” would have been very, very clever as well as just fun.

There is no famous opening line, and the closest we get to it is when Mrs. Bennet says of Mr. Collins:

“He’s a lawyer in Atlanta and he’s very active in his church. If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.”

Well played, Ms Sittenfeld. Super well played.

Of all the characters in the book, it is Mr. Bennet who pays the most homage to his 19th century avatar.

Take, for example, this delicious exchange:

“ “Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?”

Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

If Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet had met a nurse in hospital, this is, one feels, exactly how he might have spoken.

A good read, and I must confess, one that got more engrossing the tackier the 2013 version of their lives became. There are no balls at Netherfield, no cotillions, but there is croquet and lashings of reality TV.

Fun, and the end is totally as it should be.

If you would like to read “Eligible” now, then it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link below, & you’re all sorted.

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.