A CASE OF EXPLODING MANGOES by Mohammed Hanif

What a pleasure to re-read a book after some 8 years and find it every bit as entertaining.

My Delhi book club was bang on trend when we read this book in late 2008, and I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time.  We all did, I seem to remember.  In the intervening years, the book club has changed its membership totally – the downside of being a “lifer” in a largely ex-pat group –  and in our new avatar we are reading this extraordinarily entertaining book again.

Mr. Hanif is a fine writer, cleverly weaving history with fiction and huge dollops of quirky imagination, to bring us an absorbing story of the last days of the Pakistani President, Zia ul Haq, who was killed in August 1988 when his official plane, Pak One, blew up in flight, killing everyone on board.

What Mr. Hanif has done is take the main protagonists –  Zia, his wife, the American Ambassador, the generals –  and mix them up in a nice masala mix with fictional characters – Under Officer Ali Shigri, the wonderful Baby O, Brigadier TM, and the minor but colourful character of Uncle Starchy.

The novel is an indictment of the growing Islamisation of Pakistan, and the Army in particular, by an unpopular man, who supported the Afghan Muhajaddin and steamrollered his own country along an increasingly Islamic path.

To explain the explosion on board Pak One –  still an unsolved mystery – the author has a case of exploding mangoes loaded onto the plane.  But since we know from the very first moments of the book that the plane will explode  –  well, yes, obviously, we also know that fact from history – there is no plot spoiler, just a zany unravelling of the tangled web of actions and ambitions and treachery that led to the inevitable dénouement.

A great read, with some equally great writing and lots of laugh-aloud moments.

The scene where Zia exhorts his generals to pray before a staff meeting is a gem:

Another great laugh-aloud moment is when Brigadier TM is faced with 200 or so hastily assembled widows for a presidential photo op when Zia will give them alms. How can men search burqa-clad, face-covered, head-covered women?  Especially when the TV crews are already in place.  TM makes an on-the-spot decision that, Presidential photo op or not, there can be no “ninjas whose faces I can’t see,” so all the widows in burqas are ordered to leave the queue. Their loud protests and offers to remove their burqas are ignored and the poor about-to-be-given-presidential-charity widows are unceremoniously bundled off.

Zia ul Haq’s fanatical piety robs Pakistan of some of its Islamic colour and variety:

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The First Lady is a great character.

Supremely disinterested in her husband’s politics, preferring to watch Dallas, looked down on and yet feared by her husband, she rises to the occasion when she sees a photo of her oh-so-pious husband ogling the cleavage of an American reporter:

There are moments that are almost slapstick, such as the black Texan barber trimming the President’s moustache:

There are dark moments, when we encounter the torture and terror that keeps much of the country in line.

But overall, there is a zany streak running through this novel, pushing us on – through the unbearable heat of a Pakistani summer, through a dreadful 4 July party, towards that moment when the case of mangoes explodes.

Read this book to brush up on recent political history, to get a feel for the way Pakistan was, and  – in my case – to yearn to be in that adorable cottage on Shigri Hill, with the clouds drifting through the picture windows and the views of K2.

If you would like to read this award-winning novel, you can order your copy right now.

Just click on the link below.

THE JEERA PACKER by PRASHANT YADAV

What an extraordinarily good read this book is.

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

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

Take the opening page of the novel, for example:

“How I wish this candle trips over…”

“…sitting on the front counter…”

And then, a couple of paragraphs later:

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

See what I mean?

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

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

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

But I fear it might just be sloppy editing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heartlly recommended.

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

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

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.

VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

Gosh.

To think I’d never read an Anne Tyler novel until now.

What an omission.

We chose “Vinegar Girl” to read in our Delhi book club this month, and what a nice read it is, too.

Hmm…”nice”.  Not a very literary word, agreed.

What a fun book.  Is that a little better?

“Vinegar Girl” is a contemporary re-working of “The Taming of the Shrew” with the main character called –  yes, indeed – Kate.

Kate Battista.

To spare you from a listing here of all the clever word-play & references to Shakespeare, just let me tell you that the 21st century Baltimore names are affectionate nods in the direction of their historical counterparts.

It is a long time since a novel has made me laugh out loud, and that’s always such a lovely feeling, and “Vinegar Girl” is, indeed, a fun, clever, witty read.

Kate is prickly, a bit galumphing, and resigned to her uneventful life as a teaching assistant in a pre-school.  She has her moments though –  I love the scene where she tells a class of four year olds that pasta smells like wet dog:

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I won’t plot-spoil, but Pyotr Shcherbakov is a cracker of a character from the second we meet him :

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Pyotr’s language, both his use thereof and his pronunciation, is a delightful leit motiv running through the book:

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He constantly quotes proverbs from his country, much to Kate’s exasperation:

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Pyotr absorbs language greedily, especially idioms, and in one scene when everyone else eats burgers, he orders a complicated chichi meal :

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A clever, fun read.

If I have one reservation, it is the Epilogue.  A wee bit too twee.  But that really is a small reservation

Do yourself a favour and read “Vinegar Girl” –  and if you want to order it right now, couldn’t be easier – just click on the link below:

FIXING YOUR FEET by John Vonhof

Before I start, let me tell you that running has changed my life.  In so, so many ways.

Such as?
Well, one of them being that winning a book called “Fixing your feet’ in a competition organised by a local Delhi running group made me as pleased as punch.  Because now I could look up blackened toenails and pronation and how to treat blisters…oh sorry, is this too much information?!

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Since starting running 2 years ago, my feet have become of major importance to me, if that doesn’t sound silly –  a blister or a sore toe means no running.  End of story.  Miserable day….all you runners out there know the feeling.

So I cosset my feet now way more than I ever did my pre-running days.

And, of course, my feet look terrible, compared to pre-running days.   All those blackened toe nails.

This book is, therefore, a perfect reference book.  I have dipped in and out of the relevant chapters, and will keep it handy for any future aches and pains.

The book is published in the US by Wilderness Press and costs $18.95.  It was originally published in 1997 and has been reprinted many times over the years.

Should you wish to order it now, you can do so now by clicking on one of the links below.  Couldn’t be easier.

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.

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.

 

CAPITAL by Rana Dasgupta

There are, just now and then, books that are so wonderful, so well-written, so utterly, totally readable that you revel in them and dread their ending.

I have just finished reading one such a book, the beautifully written “Capital” by Rana Dasgupta.

“Capital” tells the story of 21st century Delhi, which happens (now) to be my hometown, my forever home. But this is a book that will resonate with anyone interested in the psychology of a city, presented and told in a chatty, non-judgemental, almost picaresque fashion.

Mr. Dasgupta moved to Delhi with the millennium and has seen the city change hugely over the intervening years, both literally and metaphorically. (I moved here permanently in late 2005 and have lived through immense changes, not all of them positive).
But back to “Capital”.

Mr Dasgupta takes to the streets of Delhi and as he explores he talks and, most importantly for we the readers, he listens. People talk and tell him about their lives and he shares their interactions. He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t preach, he listens.

To follow Mr. Dasgupta as he explores this city is to catch oneself saying, over and over again, “Yes, of course, that is EXACTLY what I feel/think/see/smell/hear…”

He has an unerring eye and ear for this city.

Take this vignette as he goes to meet 3 people in a hospital, who have horror stories of the unscrupulousness of the Indian medical system, where doctors push expensive tests and procedures on vulnerable, desperately worried family members :

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Contemporary Delhi summarised in a couple of paragraphs, right down to the microwaved muffins.

The author lets the city speak for itself:

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I drive past just such a front-ripped-off building in Moti Bagh every day, on my way to the park where I run and walk my dogs.  The only difference is that there are no desks and calendars left on these particular expose walls, just faded paint as the sawn off houses gaze blankly out at the Metro construction towering over them.

Mr. Dasgupta has a wonderful knack of picking up on every visual clue this city has to offer, as he tries to understand (and in the process explain) its complicated and often selfish psychology

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“Too democratic and open for their tastes…”  Indeed.  As he goes on to explain, Delhi embraces “utter unintelligibility within its own population.”

 

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As we accompany this erudite and, I suspect, eminently likeable man through his meanderings, we meet some extraordinary characters, from the hugely talented Manish Arora to mega-rich tycoons to slum dwellers to ex-drug dealers –  and these meetings are not at all clichéd, despite what that list might perhaps imply.

Each conversation is fascinating and gives us insights into so many aspects of this city –  medicare, water shortages, arranged marriages, the drug habits of the city’s rich youngsters, the callousness of the government – but all told without any hint of passing judgment, no ranting, no preaching.

If indeed Mr. Dasgupta has an agenda, it is simply to get to grips with this ever-burgeoning city, and try and explain it to us.

There are moments of pure lyricism :

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Any of you who have seen an elephant wandering the Delhi streets will know this rush of love.

I had my own elephant moment just 2 days ago.

Driving to drop my cook’s child at her 12th grade exams at a centre too far away for her to go on her own, I saw arrogant Delhi at its worst.  Cars blocking the access road to the exam centre, drivers staring unseeingly ahead refusing to move to let other cars through, cars slewed everywhere on the broken down pavements, rubbish, mud –  the whole unlovely selfish Delhi cityscape.  I dropped the child, wished her luck and cursed (and, yes, honked) my way back through the horrific traffic.

And then I saw an elephant calmly eating whatever little municipal vegetation survives in mall-infested south Delhi.  And my anger went.  I stopped the car (yes, yes, parking properly) and went to talk to the mahout and took photos of the lovely creature who came and snuffled me with her trunk.  I patted Aarti and drove off feeling Delhi wasn’t perhaps that bad after all.

So, yes, I share the author’s rush of love for the ellies lumbering through our streets.

 

The author rarely shows his irritation, but loud-voiced Aarti in the hospital café manages to get to him.

And then a page later, he made me cry, when he lets her tell her own story of losing her husband:

 

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“She is so Delhi.  It drives me crazy.”

This could be the hashtag for this wonderful fabulously well-written, fabulously readable book.

Do yourself a favour.  Buy it and read it, whether you know Delhi or not, whether you love Delhi or hate it.
This is a book I cannot praise highly enough.

 

And in a “so Delhi” touch, you can, of course, order the book right here, through me…

 

 

Published in 2014 by Fourth Estate, the hardback costs Rs 799.

The Sea of Innocence by Kishwar Desai

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I first discovered the talented author Kishwar Desai and her eminently likeable heroine Simran Singh, in “Witness the Night” which I reviewed in 2011.  So I was thrilled to be sent a copy of Ms Desai’s latest novel “The Sea of Innocence” and asked to review it.

Simran Singh really is an engaging heroine and in this bang up to date novel – it takes place over New Year 2012/2013 with the horrors of the Dec 16th Delhi gang-rape case as a leitmotiv – we meet our feisty, middle-aged, smoking, drinking, slightly overweight heroine as she holidays in Goa.

Now, I haven’t been to Goa in aeons –  well, in about 22 years – so that means that it will have changed out of all recognition.  20 years in post liberal-economy India usually means a major change and –  dare I say it –  not always for the better.  So the Goa I knew –  sleepy, very few tourists, one restaurant worth its salt, 2 good hotels –  is, I know, hopelessly out of date.

Simran goes through the same experience :

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I fully empathise.

But, my word, the Goa of “The Sea of Innocence” is an edgy, not very nice place at all.  Beneath the holiday veneer of beach shacks and playing on the beach, of swimming and buying sarongs, there is a seething underworld of drugs, sex, gambling and worse.  Ms Desai brings this parallel world out of the shadows and into the limelight with devastating force.

Simran and her adopted daughter are in Goa for their Christmas and New Year break, with a brief to relax, unwind and spend some quality time together, but events soon overtake them.  Simran, in her role of social worker (and pretty smart investigator) becomes embroiled in a murder case that leads her deeper and deeper into the murky underbelly of Goa.

Ms Desai is an accomplished writer and the story grabs you by the throat from the very first sentence, and  the pace and suspense never let up until the closing paragraph.  Obviously I am not going to be a spoil sport and reveal too much of the plot and certainly not the ending, but there were twists and turns that caught me unawares right until the final pages, making this an addictive read.

The suspected rape of a young British girl – not Scarlett Keeling, though this poor child is referred to many times in the novel – takes place against the backdrop of sea and sun, whilst back in Simran (and this reviewer’s) home town, Delhi, the city explodes in cold, wintery anger at the horrors of December 16th :

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Though the topic is grim, the story has many moments of lightheartedness and the descriptions of Goa are great fun.

Ms Desai  –  through Simran –  often compares the Goa of January 2013 to the Goa that she (and I ) knew 20 odd years ago.  Compared to the hidden ruthlessness of Goa circa 2013, the Goa of ageing Western hippies like Stanley seems positively innocent.  Guitar strumming under a banyan tree and smoking joints in the forest seem benign compared to the tawdriness of offshore floating casinos.  And yet how freaky those self-same hippies seemed 20 years ago…

Stanley, who lives in an apparent drug induced haze most of the book, is shown to be more than aware of the ravages of what passes for progress in India :

 

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A good read.

Thoroughly recommended.

And, yet again, let me repeat what I said in my review of “Witness the Night” –  I do like Simran Singh very much indeed.

Published in late April 2103 by Simon & Schuster, the paperback costs Rs 350 in India.

Now, having read this review, if you would like to but the book, nothing could be simpler. Just click on any of the links below :

Shoes of the Dead by Kota Neelima

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I was sent a copy of “Shoes of the Dead” and asked to review it, and so let me start this review by saying a big thank you to blogadda.com.  Thanks to them I have just read a fabulous book, and have discovered Kota Neelima, an author who is an amazingly talented writer and story teller.

This novel is a piece of committed, erudite and yet 100% gripping writing about the contemporary political and social scene in India.  Ms Neelima explores with equal skill and dexterity the corridors of power in Delhi and the ground realities of the tragic, ongoing phenomenon in India of farmers’ suicides.

With poverty-driven suicides as the central topic of the novel, “Shoes of the Dead” is never going to be a light fluffy read.  Instead it is robust, riveting and heart-breaking at times.

(Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the plot).

You are engaged from the opening page, as you are led deeper and deeper into the web of political machinations that try to extract self-serving political benefit from the deaths of desperate men. The author clearly knows her way through the bureaucracy and the murky world of politics in India, and the quality of her writing and story telling bears this out.  What is impressive is that her descriptions of life in the rural cotton belt of Mityala district are every bit as compelling.
The narrative moves seamlessly between the manicured lawns of grave and favour Lutyens bungalows in New Delhi and, in stark contrast, the parched infertile farm land of what she terms “South Central India”

What I especially liked about Ms Neelima’s writing is that she never once reduces any of her characters to a stereotype, even though they are all there – the political Mr Fix It, the son with a sense of deep entitlement, the ruthless moneylender, the honest farmer.   In the hands of a less gifted writer, these men might have become 2 dimensional stereotypes, but in Ms Neelima’s skilful hands, they leap from the page, fully fleshed out, believable characters.

I loved the book, was deeply moved by the ending (which I absolutely didn’t see coming) and as an exposé of the manipulation of well-intentioned poverty alleviation schemes, “The Shoes of the Dead” cannot be bettered.

Ms Neelima’s writing is elegant and a pleasure to read :

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She has her finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary Delhi, sharing with her readers the incongruous sight of unbelievably expensive cars staying in low gear because of the mind-numbing traffic.  Just this last week, this reviewer saw a bright orange Lamborghini stuck in the mother of all traffic jams for such a long time that everyone (reviewer included) was hopping out of their equally immobile cars to take photos of said OTT car.

 

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The writer observes the manipulative, cynical workings of the New Delhi political machine with cool insight :

 

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And she is equally eloquent about the dashed hopes of those born into poverty :

 

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Her description of desperately poor patients waiting at a government hospital is moving in its sadness :

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Thoroughly recommended.

 

Published in 2013 by Rainlight by Rupa, the nice looking hardback is priced at Rs 495.

 

As I said earlier in this review, the ending took me by surprise, and I closed the book both sadder and wiser.  This is a well written, good read.  What are you waiting for ?

You can buy the book right now, by clicking on one of the links below :

 

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