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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The Perfect Murder by H.R.F.Keating

Re-reading “The Perfect Murder” was every bit as delightful the 3rd time round, as it was the first.

Yes, of course I knew whodunnit, but the writing and the scene setting and the use of language in the book are all so delicious that you read it as much for the writing as for the story.

This book is a truly dazzling literary tour de force once you know that the author had never, ever been to India when he wrote the book.  And yet Bombay (it was, back then) springs to loud, noisy, colourful life in front of your eyes.  The characters are 100% credible, the language is spot-on, and you marvel at how perfect (no pun intended) the depiction of one of the world’s great cities is.

And Mr. Keating had never visited.  Not once.

This book is the first in what would become a long, delightful series, and in it we meet the dogged, determined, definitely put-upon Inspector Ghote, from the Bombay CID.  We meet his feisty wife Protima, their beloved son Ved, and an array of characters as lifelike, as dodgy, as suspicious, as likeable as you could wish to meet.

My old, battered paperback, dating from my first trip to Bombay was published by Hamlyn, and cost the then princely sum of £1.10p though the book was first published in 1964.

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

 

The Sheriff of Bombay by H.R.F.Keating

After a bout of reading good but rather heavy book club books, I felt like some mental time out.

But, for no particular reason, I wanted Indian mental time out, and so it was with a feeling of great relaxation that I re-read H.R.F Keating’s “The Sheriff of Bombay.”

I have long been a fan of the delightful Inspector Ghote novels, and this book does not disappoint.

Can there be a more likeable detective than the slightly put upon, scrupulously honest, solidly middle class Ganesh Ghote ?  Inspector Ghote strides his way through the crowded noisy streets of Bombay, circa early-1980s, solving crimes in his own low-key intuitive way.

This is Bombay before it became Mumbai.  Before mobile technology.  When victorias could still be seen on the streets.

When I got to know and love the city, incidentally, which is why (I suspect) I have always had a weakness for these books.

In “The Sheriff of Bombay”, Inspector Ghote must solve a series of murders.  A prostitute from the notorious Falkland Road “cages” has been murdered, and Inspector Ghote suspects the murderer to be none other than the high-profile, popular, likeable Sheriff of Bombay.

As we follow the twists and turns in the plot, and meet an aging film star, the Svashbuckler (sic), we plunge with Inspector Ghote into the sordid underbelly of Bombay in pursuit of a serial killer.

Lovely writing, bringing to life one of the world’s most fabulous cities, before it became 21st-century-fied.

 If you wish to  buy this delightful book, nothing could be easier.  Just click on the link below :

 

 

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS by KATHERINE BOO

There have been few books that have moved me as much as this extraordinary book by the Pulitzer prize winning journalist Katherine Boo.

It is a stunning read, and one that every thinking Indian should read –  well, not just Indians, everyone who has a heart and a conscience should read it, but to Indians it will have a special resonance.  And it should be mandatory for everyone in Mumbai.

Ms Boo chronicles the lives of some of the dwellers of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, close by the airport but a lifetime apart from the world of travel and hotels and leisure as it is possible to imagine.

As a respected, award-winning journalist, Ms Boo invested years in this book, visiting the slum so frequently that the inhabitants soon ceased really noticing her as an outsider.  They all had their tragically difficult lives to get on with, scraping together every paise they could find to try and keep body and soul together, so there was little time for sitting and staring at a foreigner.

And so, for years, Ms Boo visited, talked, watched, observed, interviewed, recorded, filmed, checked, cross-checked –  and then some.

And the result is this amazing expose of life at the bottom of the pile.  Literally, since we meet scavengers, children who collect rubbish for a living.  We meet people who have a just-about home – rickety huts next to mounds of sewage.  Life doesn’t get much worse than in Annawadi.

Ms. Boo’s narrative is quite simply extraordinary, when you realise (and this is not a plot spoiler, by the way) that her book is not a work of fiction, but 100% pure fact.  Everyone of those slum dwellers, corrupt officials, bribe-taking policemen, venal nursing staff –  every man jack of them exists. And is named.

This book pushes reporting about poverty and corruption in India to a whole new level.

And throughout this compelling, albeit oftentimes heart-breaking chronicle, you never for a moment glimpse the presence of the writer, Ms Boo.  She does not insert herself into the narrative for even a fleeting moment.  She sits, listens, observes and lets the children and adults of Annawadi do the talking.

And how they talk.  Here is the ambitious Asha, who sees politics as the way out of the desperate poverty of the slum :

 

 

Her dutiful daughter Manju, the girl hoping to be the first female graduate from the slum, studies hard, though often not really understanding everything she is being supposedly taught.  So she “by-hearts” everything :

 

Asha is the ultimate pragmatist, banking everything on the success of her daughter, for who she has words of advice :

 

The inhabitants of this appalling slum lead equally appalling lives of deprivation and degradation, tempered by a weary awareness that there may well be a better world out there.  It’s just not for them.  They see the airport and the airport hotels and the flashy cars, but always through the prism of what rubbish and garbage this brave new glittering world may leave behind for them, the bottom of the social pile.  The rag-pickers and scavengers.

 

 

I have to say that after reading this sensational book, I look at the filth and rubbish that lies all around my Delhi neighborhood with a slightly different view.  I loathe the rubbish.  But then again, I would, wouldn’t I ?  It is a blight for me, not a business opportunity.

I found the criticism of the Cooper Hospital amazing, because 20 years ago, when I lived in what was then Bombay, I had to take the illiterate, non-Hindi-speaking wife of one of my Nepalese staff there for some unidentified stomach complaint, which our local GP couldn’t identify.

When I went to admit her, I nearly died.

A waiting room full to busting with hundreds of poor Indians, row after row after row, all waiting patiently.  One tiny hole behind a thick grille into which you had to contort yourself to speak.

Everyone told me “They are closed for lunch”.

But, I hate to admit it, I played the foreign card.  My woman was writing in agony, as were many other people in the waiting room, by the way.  People were bleeding too.

I marched right to the head of the queue, to the quiet, weary smiles of everyone else waiting –  why are Indians so consistently polite to foreigners ? –  and when the person behind the thickly grilled window said, in Hindi, “Closed,” I played my second card.  That’s the one where I pretend I can’t speak any Hindi, and act appallingly stupid to boot, not understanding basic hand gestures and facial expressions.

I’m not proud.

So I walked behind the counter, pushed open his cubicle door, and insisted my poor Nepalese lady got admitted.

Eventually they did admit her, mainly to get rid of me, I suspect, because I just stood there talking louder and louder, until she was taken to the ward.

I remember we had to provide all medicines and food, and I also remember throwing a scene at the state of the bed-sheets, making them strip the filthy many-times-used ones and put clean ones on for her.

So clearly some things haven’t changed in 20 years.

I’ve told this Cooper Hospital story many times over the years, but never has it resonated the way it did when reading this book.

When the poor of Annawadi die, there is little reason to pay them any more attention in death than in life :

 

There isn’t an aspect of the world about them that doesn’t seem to exploit the poverty and lack of status of these slum-dwellers.  The police, NGOs, hospitals, social workers, even Sister Paulette –  they all abuse or ignore these people.  I loved the vignette of the Congress party workers delivering manhole covers, just before the elections –  and then promptly taking them back for use in another slum.

Do yourself a favour and read this amazing book.  It’s not always an easy read.  Beautifully written, incisively observed, but the subject matter is searing and uncomfortable at times.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” (the title is delicious, once you understand what it means) is published by Hamish Hamilton and the hardback costs Rs499.

I’m going with 10/10 for an amazing read.  Thoroughly, unconditionally recommended.

If you would like to buy the book right now, nothing could be easier – simply click on one of the links below.

KIPLING SAHIB by CHARLES ALLEN

“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.