HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA by MOHSIN HAMID

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How many gushing adjectives can one use to describe a wonderful book?

Amazing.

Well written.

Moving.

Realistic.  This book was all of these and more.

All the time I was reading this book,  I kept saying “yes,” simply because so much of it was so familiar.

I live in India. This book would seem to be set in Pakistan.

I live in Delhi and I think this book is meant to be set in Lahore, and so there was so much about the descriptions and the people and the lives described that was instantly recognisable, and there is nothing like feeling a comfortable, knowledgeable insider, to add enjoyment to the reading of a book.

I said that I thought the book was set in Pakistan and that it was probably set in Lahore.

That is because no proper names are used in the book. We do not even know the name of the protagonist – except that since the book is written in the second person, the “you” the writer addresses could well be you the reader/or me the reader. So “you” does not have a name, and people are referred to throughout by a descriptive tag that never changes nor evolves over the decades covered in the book. The pretty girl of the early chapter remains the pretty girl despite age and frailty…but I will not spoil the end, worry not.

Mr. Hamid is a staggeringly good writer (clever sounds almost condescending) and his talent fizzes through the book.

Firstly the way he used the second person without ever alienating you the reader/me the reader. It sounds so natural that you go along with his conceit. His descriptions of the countryside, the city, the country (which could be Pakistan, could be India) are perfect. I caught myself, time and again, saying “yes, that is exactly the way x, y, or z happens/looks/sounds” even though we are not entirely sure where the book takes pace. Now if that isn’t fabulously brilliant writing, I don’t know what is.

Mr. Hamid uses the format of a self help book, and each chapter contains a new message for “you” the reader.

Education, love, work, family, religion, bureaucracy – the writer skilfully steers we the readers through all the different chapters of life, and as “you” climb your way up and out of grinding rural poverty into middling commercial success, there is a chapter of advice to accompany “you” on the journey.
If I am making a bit of a hash of describing the technique, please rest assured it is clever and slick and also endearing. The writer is omniscient, but always sympathetic and never critical of you/me/we the reader(s).

Plus he is just such a brilliant writer.

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One of the most dazzling pieces of writing for me is in the opening chapter of the book when “you” travel on the top of a rickety bus from the countryside to a town.

 

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What writing…

Mr. Hamid has an infallible eye for the people of the subcontinent.

The man described below may well be power walking in Lahore, but I have seem so many of his fellow walkers here in Delhi :

 

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Or this lady: reading this made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, having experienced similar behaviour at first hand :

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My uneasiness at the matriarchal behaviour continued as I read more, almost squirming because I have witnessed such moments :

 

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This is literally a countryside-dirt-poor-rags-to-polluted-but-big-city riches story, and it all hinges on certain crucial decisions and opportunities afforded to “you,” such as education :

 

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You/we/the reader gets a chance that the siblings do not have and so life takes a different direction.

This book is a great read, it brilliantly captures the chaos and conflict of the sub-continent.  And it is fun.

And, for this reviewer at least, the innovative writing style “works” so much better than “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”

Shabash.

Thoroughly recommended.

 

Published in 2013 by Penguin, the hardback sells for Rs 499 in India.

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TANTRA by ADI

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What an enormously entertaining read “Tantra” is. Haven’t had so much good old-fashioned reading fun in years.  Honestly.

I am not into fantasy fiction, nor am I into vampires, and yet this book –  which has them all in spades –  kept me hooked until the rather puzzling end…I sense a sequel.  Hurray!

Meet the Delhi you/we never knew existed.  I live here, for goodness sake, so I should know…

This is a Delhi where vampires and guardians battle for control of the city, and for the safety of its citizens.  A Delhi full of tantric and sattvic rituals, and of course, full of the more instantly recognizable Delhi types such as this specimen our heroine meets in a bar :

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Ah yes, Anu, our heroine.  Introducing Anu Aggarwal, a tough NRI professional vampire killer, who moves from New York to Delhi, to try and avenge the gruesome death of her boyfriend, Brian.

She moves in with her aunt, Nina, who provides a recognisable foil to Anu’s other life. Nina wants to marry her niece off. Anu wants to kill vampires.
The scene is set for a downright fun read.

The book is well written, crisp, and fast-paced, and there is an underlying wry humour as fantasy meets the 21st century.

Whoever knew vampires checked their email, for example:

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Like Anu, I knew nothing at all about the tantric arts  –  and I don’t think I could have properly explained sattvic, either, before reading this book – but the author wears his obvious scholarship lightly.

Anu has to learn much about the way not only the tantric world operates, but also how Delhi does :

 

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Poor filing, non-existent back office support – sounds more like a business than a vampire killing unit, but the mission is deadly serious :

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As Anu delves deeper into the occult, and begins to understand the magnitude of the evil forces she is up against,  she even learns to negotiate with her sworn enemies, vampires.  She is a trained vampire killer, but there are times when they are the lesser of 2 evils :

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There is drama, tension, religion, the occult, a love story (that is not concluded in an entirely satisfactory manner, but as I said – I sense a sequel) and there is enough blood and guts to satisfy –  well, a vampire, I suppose.

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Anu is a likeable heroine.  A super-heroine, really, able to do all kinds of amazing things and consumed with an unserving desire to do good.

I like her very much :

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Published by Apeejay Stya Publishing in 2013, the paperback costs Rs 195

 

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THE ACCIDENTAL APPRENTICE by VIKAS SWARUP

IMG_0458Vikas Swarup, known for his hugely popular “Q & A”, the book behind the award winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” has just published his latest novel, and even without the Slumdog hype, this was always going to be a great book.

It is always a little difficult to review a friend’s book, and Vikas is indeed a friend, but I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I absolutely loved “The Accidental Apprentice,” and gobbled it up in record time.

It is a fast-paced book, well-written, with an intriguing storyline –  how Vinay Mohan Acharya, an uber-rich Indian billionaire picks a young Delhi girl out of obscurity, and plans on making her his successor and the CEO of his company?  All Sapna Sinha, a 23 year old shop assistant, must do is pass seven tests to prove she is indeed worthy of becoming Mr. Acharya’s successor.

The book takes us on a journey with Sapna, as she negotiates this new and oftentimes frightening development in her life.  She has a wise head on her young shoulders, yet despite her misgivings about this fantastical sounding plan, she embarks on each challenge with her own brand of honesty and courage and values.

There are two extraordinary things about this book.

One is that Mr. Swarup gets inside the head and the mind and the skin of a young woman and tells her story with an accurate voice.

And the second extraordinary thing is the author’s impeccable sense of timing.

In the aftermath of a brutal gang-rape in Delhi in December 2012 and the consequent soul-searching that the country has gone through, as a nation questions its own moral views, its attitude to women and its apparent unwillingness to help out strangers, Mr. Swarup’s book is beyond timely.  We meet members of a Haryana family, coolly marrying off their daughter against her wishes to a much older man.  We meet would-be rapists.  We meet corrupt policemen.

We encounter apathy and corruption and pure evil, all of which this young woman must fight, and without being overly dramatic, one can almost see Sapna as a symbol for an emerging, socially-aware India.  The India that protested against the gang-rape, despite the water  cannons and beatings of its own government.

Judge for yourself :

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Powerful writing.

I won’t spoil your enjoyment of the book by telling you how Sapna’s quest ends.

But suffice it to say that this book is a page-turner, is so up-to-the-mark about contemporary India, especially Delhi, that is is beyond a piece of fiction.

Personally recommended.

Published in Jnauary 2013 by Simon and Schuster, the paperback costs Rs 350 in India.

If you wish to order the book right now, just click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier.

If you would like to read about the Delhi launch of “The Accidental Apprentice” then just click on the following link. There is even a clip of the author answering some of the rapid fire 20 questions put to him by his interviewer.

THE FISHING FLEET Husband-Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy

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Anne de Courcy’s book is a delightful account of that well-known colonial sport, husband-hunting in India.

Quite.

In a book that is well-written, informative, poignant and often times sad, Ms de Courcy tells us some of the stories of generations of young British women who went out to India to marry.  Or not marry, as the case may be.

During the height of British colonial rule, there were very many more (British) men than there were (British) women in India.  Generations of young men went out to India in search of adventure, of a prestigious career, and also in search of money (though that was often less of a motivator than prestige and a sense of duty, it must be said).

And generations of young women subsequently went out to India, in search of their own version of a career, i.e. a husband.

The British colonial authorities had strict rules on the age at which its servants could marry, and affairs, let alone marriage with Indian women, were severely frowned upon, and so when the ships arrived in India, with their precious cargoes of carefully chaperoned unmarried young women, there was something of a feeding frenzy.  The prize was a bride.  Or a husband, depending which way you look at it.

Through letters and diaries, and accompanied by many glorious old black and white photographs, the adventures, loves and lives of these intrepid young women are told.  They were young, ready to be romanced, and amazingly resilient. Some girls married and settled in cities, but some fell in love with planters or military men in far-flung corners of the country, so off they went to live lives off isolation, adventure and – seen from our cosseted perspective – often downright hardship.

Most of these fishing fleet girls loved their husbands, their lives and loved India.  The biggest sadness in their lives usually centred around their children.  In the early days, babies died so tragically easily, in the unhealthy climate, and lacking as they did medical facilities in the “mofussil” or countryside.

Those children who survived spent their early years cossetted and pampered, until that dreadful day when they were shipped back Home to school.  These are the saddest moments of this lovely book.  Little children are torn from their parents and the sunny, colourful, cherishing country of their birth to be sent away for years to a cold, grey, unfamiliar place called Home.  Except that home is India.

Of course, many children of the fishing fleet couldn’t wait for their miserable English school days to be over, so they could head straight back Home, and thus the long love story with India continued.

A happy, upbeat read, which certainly made this Indian resident slightly ashamed of herself for her occasional moans about Delhi power cuts or poor internet connections.  Most un-fishing-fleet-y.

Recommended.

Published in 2012 by Hachette, the hardback costs Rs 750

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RED JIHAD by Sami Ahmad Khan

“Red Jihad”  is a good story in need of a good editor,

A clever, futuristic plot set in 2014, that sees India and Pakistan almost at war against each other, and then coming together to fight a common enemy, is marred by poor editing.

A writer like Mr. Khan who is a PhD scholar student from JNU and a Fulbright scholar would not – I’d stake my life on it – make the sloppy grammatical errors that pepper this book.

You don’t have to be a linguistic purist to be irritated by these errors, which any decent editor should have picked up :

…pick up cudgels…

He had learned that one should never let a neta not blame people around him, for it was the neta’s pet alibi.  (I have no idea what that means)

Sonar was all he knew, rest everything puzzled him.

The silo was lighted and ready for action.

Grapevine had it that India was…

He knew a lieutenant general who did not make it to a full general only because he had given many under his command. Cardiac arrests.

His biggest achievement in the field of defence was on the verge of biting dust.  “What  else do we know?” the defence minister asked, trying to put the shock behind.  (2 errors in as many sentences –  careless)

The storyline does, thank goodness. carry the reader along, and towards the end of the book I became less irritated by the editing, choosing to ignore it, and much more involved in the unfolding Indo-Pak drama.

The premise is a clever one.

Pakistani Islamic extremists join forces with Indian Naxalites, and together they try and set the 2 traditional enemies at each others throats by launching a nuclear missile.  I won’t spoil too much of the plot for you, as there are many twists and turns along the way – literal as well as metaphorical – as the terrifyingly powerful Pralay (India’s imagined intercontinental ballistic missile) is programmed to jink and twist and turn as it flies across the subcontinent making its lethal target impossible to predict.

You see the drama in that ?

Will it hit an Indian city (Delhi) or a Pakistani one (Lahore) ?

Will India unwittingly nuke its own capital ?

Or will India start a war by unwittingly nuking a Pakistani city ?

And who has programmed Pralay anyway ?  Who has unleashed this weapon on truly terrifying magnitude ?

Should old enemies trust each other as they both try to handle this disastrously explosive situation ?

Living in Delhi as I do, I enjoyed the futuristic touch, peeking into how my city and government will look in 2 years. We will have a new PM (and it is NOT whom you think, which is reason enough to cheer!)  and we will have learned how to queue.  This, I have to admit, I found fantastic in every sense of the word.

A disaster has been declared in Delhi.  Evacuation orders have been issued, and I quote :

“There were long but well-managed queues as hastily recalled DTC bus drivers came running in their pyjamas, and sped the jam-packed buses away…”

Hmm…well-managed queues in Delhi, just 2 years from now…page 137 if you don’t believe me.

Joking aside, “Red Jihad” is interesting, it’s a good page-turning read –  though I could have wished for a less complicated timeline, jumping back and forth as it does between India and Pakistan, minute by minute.  And watch out for the underlined dates which, as the writer explains in a footnote, “imply action having taken place in the past rather than during the linear timeline of events.’

Combining the forces of Jihadis and Nazalites is clever and thought-provoking.

I look forward to Mr. Khan’s next book.

Published by Rupa, the paperback costs Rs 295.

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The Householder by Amitabha Bagchi

Reading Amitabha Bagchi’s “The Householder” against the backdrop of the ongoing India Against Corruption protests taking place in Delhi at the moment made the book doubly enjoyable.

While we are all being subjected to daily revelations of the levels of loot and corruption at the top echelons of power in India, this book acts almost as a prelude.  As a prequel, to use that ugly but useful word.

We are not dealing with the Robert Vadra stratosphere here, but we do see that right down at the bottom of the food chain, corruption and bribery are all part and parcel of doing business in India.

The book tells the story of one Mr. Naresh Kumar, a lower-middle-class government employee in Delhi.   He lives in simple government-provided accommodation, as befits a lowly civil servant.  Mr. Kumar is the “gatekeeper” for a bureaucrat, Mr. Asthana.  Naresh Kumar sits literally outside his boss’s plush office, deciding who can and cannot get access to the great man.  As such, Mr. Kumar needs to be sweetened and persuaded by the supplicants, and so, slowly and steadily over the years, Mr. Kumar has feathered his own little nest.  Nothing on the lavish scale of his boss, of course, but for a simple man, Naresh Kumar has done well by himself and his family.

He keeps his head down, hides his wealth, which is why that Rs 30,000 sofa from a shop in Ghitorni is a bone of contention.  His wife Arti is unduly proud of it and likes to boast a little about how expensive it was. Naresh warns her that telling her friends and envious neighbours how much is cost will only invite speculation.

Naresh’s late colleague, Harkirat, on the other hand was scrupulously honest and was known never to take a bribe.  Naresh helped his widow Pinki get a job in his office and the two of them lead a close companionable working life.  Naresh is possibly a little too fond of Pinki, but keeps his thoughts and feelings to himslef.

There are several stories interwoven in the novel.

We meet Naresh’s newly married daughter Seema, whose mother-in-law frets increasingly about her inability to produce a grandchild, and takes her frustration out on the poor girl.  Her son Ashok, already a more powerful man than his father-in-law is caught between his mother and his young wife, and his attitude to the latter makes him one of the book’s more interesting secondary characters.

Naresh’s son Praveen gets way out of his depth in the world of Delhi sleaze, but he survives, and we see how even a little bit player like him can work the system.  Some poor innocent will take the rap for his boss’s crime and Praveen sees no problem with this.

Pinki, the level-headed loyal widow, steers a clear, moral path through the book, kindly rejecting two men who love her, out of loyalty for her late husband, Harkirat, who is a minor character in his own (absent) way, his inflexible honesty serving as a foil to everyone else’s behaviour.

Corruption is the leitmotiv for this book which brings vividly to life the world of lower middle class Delhi colonies, with their cheek-by-jowl flats, their dusty communal gardens, and the endless hanging around and waiting on people that is necessary to get anything done.

 

Published in 2012 by Fourth Estate, the hardback costs Rs 399.

A good read.

Recommended.

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TAMARIND CITY by BISHWANATH GHOSH

It took me a while to settle into this book, but once I did – what a treat.

“Tamarind City” is the story of a man’s discovery of the southern Indian city of Chennai (though lots of people still know it by its older name of Madras).

Bishwanath Ghosh is a journalist, a Bengali, raised in the north of the country, and at the age of 30  – “single and commitment-phobic” as he describes himself – he decides to move down south to Chennai.  He initially plans to be there for just a few years, to discover the south of the country about which he admits he knew very little.  Ten years on, he is still in Chennai, happy, content, married and by now “an honorary Madrasi”.

“Tamarind City” is the story of this decade of discovery, and is an unabashed love song to his new home.

For Mr. Ghosh is clearly very much in love with a city that moves and speaks and eats and plays to a different rhythm than the harsher, colder, more impersonal north.

He opens his story with his long train ride across India, travelling down south from a freezing foggy Delhi, gripped by miserable wintery weather, to the heat of Chennai :

 

 

I said at the outset that I found it a little difficult to get into the book.  It was really just the opening chapter or two, as Mr. Ghosh settles into his otherwise lovely narrative.  Some of his reflections on the train are at stylistic odds with his otherwise well-written and easy-to-read prose :

 

As are his reflections on the mobile phone, of all things :

After this, the narrative flows.

Mr. Ghosh’s approach to his story is to take the reader along with him, as he walks and rambles through his new home.  As he gradually gets to grips with the city, so do we.  His time line is ours.  His narrative is not linear, but follows his own voyage of discovery.

We do, however, start with a necessay chapter on the history of this city, which is fascinating and bolsters the claim on the book cover – “Where modern India began.”  Armed with this background and perspective on a city that has never quite glowed with the popular brilliance of Delhi, Mumbai or the johnny-come-lately Banaglore, we learn about Carnatic music and the food of Tamil Nadu.  We learn about temples and factories and slums and the beach, about the close intertwining of politics and films, but all at a delightfully relaxed pace.

By the end of the book, you can almost feel yourself slowing down to a Chennai rhythm, one where tradition and progress sit side by side.  Although that sounds like the ultimate cliché about a city, Mr.Ghosh discovers that is the truth.  Modernisation may have changed much of his beloved Chennai even during his time there, but this is still a city where classical singers have the status of rockstars.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and learned a lot about a city that I have visited, but a long time ago.  Whenever I go there again, as well as packing this delightful book, I shall also join one of the Sunday morning heritage walks, as the author does.

I love the way he puts the Chennai/Madras equation in perspective :

 

When the guide on that early walk around the historic heart of Chennai speaks ruefully about the lack of heritage conservation, you feel the author’s approbation :

 

 

Madras, Chennai –  call it what you will, this city is the star of the book, and a very loveable star it is too.

 

 

Published by Tranquebar in 2102, the paperback costs Rs 295 and if you wish to buy it, simply click on the link below :

 

 

A good read.  Recommended.

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POOR LITTLE RICH SLUM by Rashmi Bansal & Deepak Gandhi

For a book covering such a potentially “difficult” subject as Mumbai’s Dharavi – reputedly Asia’s largest slum – “Poor little rich slum” is surprisingly easy to read. That has a lot to do with the way the book is written and presented.

The book is divided into bite-sized chapters, so you can, potentially, dip in and out, though I read it at one sitting.  The writing style is über-simple. Very short sentences. Very, very short sentences. Many of them not, technically and grammatically, sentences at all.

Enough  – it’s catching.

The short snappy style works, in a certain journalistic way, but if I have one complaint about this otherwise very worthwhile and readable book, then it is that the authors possibly overdid the short, snappy style.  A little more attention to grammar, much more attention to redundant punctuation, and I think the book would have been improved immeasurably.  It seems foolish to alienate a reader from a gripping story with sloppy grammar.

The book is written by 2 authors, but you wouldn’t know it.  There is a consistent, unified style and the short chapters are linked by good photographs by Dee Gandhi.  In the blurb, we are told that Dee Gandhi practises “no price-tag” photography, which sounds interesting.  Certainly the photos are sympathetically shot and with obvious care not to exploit the subjects.

The book sets out to tell some of the stories of Dharavi, in the voices of the people who live there.  There is a liveliness and fluency about many of these tales, and one can easily picture the speaker, and imagine being there with the authors, as they listen to stories of poverty and hope, of deprivation and ambition, all set against the backdrop of such a densely packed slum.

The voices are powerful, their stories moving and yes – let me say it – inspirational.  This isn’t a soppy feel-good book, far from it, yet the stories of success and drive and determination shine through so that you do feel moved when reading.

The authors start their discovery of Dharavi on a guided tour, led by a resident, wondering whether poverty tourism is an acceptable concept or not.  For the record, having done a similiar tour in Delhi, I think such tours do more good than harm.  Peoples’ eyes are opened – the authors are living testimony –  and the fact that such tours inevitably prompt people to discuss what they have just seen, and how to help, can only be for the good.

They are taken first to see businesses that operate out of Dharavi, where they soon realise that work must, and does, go on, regardless of the tourists and visitors standing and watching, for the whole thing about Dharavi is the palpable need to survive, to work, to earn, to eat.  Of all the stories we hear from the Dharavi residents, that told by Jameel in Chapter 6 “Factory of Dreams” is such a stand-out feel good story about someone who really has succeeded, against all the odds, that you want to cheer when he tells you that Priyanka Chopra’s secretary called him to order shoes for the Bollywood star.

It’s almost a clichéd made-for-Bollywood moment, except that it’s true and heart-warmingly so.

We meet an amazing teacher determined that the children of Dharavi must learn English, so as to help them try and get a better future.  We meet food vendors and social workers, a foreign acupuncturist and people teaching rag-pickers how to play music.  The scope and vibrancy is as overwhelming as the poverty and litter and stench that the authors battle, as they plunge ever deeper, meeting some of the slum’s amazingly resilient inhabitants.

This can’t have been an easy book to research or to write, but the authors’ skills lie in making it a relatively easy read.  You are not inundated with facts.  You are not guilted-out.  You are, however, left inspired and impressed by the people who live in Asia’s largest slum.

Published in 2012 by Westland, the paperback costs Rs 250.

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The Naga Queen by Vicky Thomas

“The Naga Queen” by Vicky Thomas, a biography of Ursula Graham Bower, has recently been published by The History Press.

When I reviewed Ms Graham Bower’s own wonderful book, “Naga Path” a couple of months ago, I began by stating that I am a friend of her daughter Catriona Child, here in Delhi.

I wanted the disclaimer – well, it wasn’t a disclaimer as such, more a piece of information –   but whatever the semantics, I wanted the connection known before, so that undue favourable bias wasn’t suspected to have been shown.

This is not the case here.

The exciting, swashbuckling-with-permed-hair adventures of an extraordinary young woman living in a remote tribal area of India during the dying days of the Raj and through the drama of the Second World War  – what more could a biographer want ?

Vicky Thomas has written a biography of Ms Graham Bower that was authorised by the family, and indeed she was given full access to family papers and photographs.

But I fear that justice has not been done to what is a potentially fabulous story.

Ursula writing about her life and her adventures comes to life in a flash, so vivid is her prose, so strong her descriptive powers, so wicked her sense of the ridiculous, so positive her outlook.

For me, sadly, the only added value of this book was that Ms Thomas had access to Ms Bower’s private letters, which are crackling with life and energy : reading them was the real pleasure of this book.  Listening to Ursula tell her own story in her own words.

Having read, in close succession both “Naga Path” and “The Hidden Land”, I found sections of this biography familiar, yet oddly diminished.

Ms Graham Bower in her own words :

Ms Thomas :

 

And is Nagaland actually a small country ?  Wasn’t the last time I looked.

 

Published by The History press, the hardback costs £18.99.

If you wish to buy the book, just click on the link below  :

BRAVE DRAGONS by JIM YARDLEY

Before I even start writing the review – disclosure time.

I am in book club in Delhi with the author’s wife, Theo.  So I am not totally impartial, especially since we were all privy to some of the labour pains involved in the final stages of this fascinating book.  I cyber-followed Jim’s book tour earlier this year with great interest, and we ladies of book club were all happy that Theo could join him for part of it.

Secondly, I am not in the least a sports fan, know absolutely nothing about basketball, and have never even watched a single match, not even on TV.

So, I approached this book from a different perspective, to be honest, much more intent on the culture clashing promised on the title page than the ins and outs of basketball.

Right.

Review time.

First things first – loved the look and the feel of the book – a nice hardback, and those slightly uneven, rough-cut pages were reassuringly solid and real, if that makes any sense.

Mr. Yardley – oh what the heck, may I call you Jim ? –  so Jim Yardley, clearly a basketball fan of serious note, used to live in China, where he was the foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

His book chronicles the ups and downs and oftentimes downright bizarreness of a not very good Chinese basketball team that employs an American coach.

Culture clash doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The author spends lots of time with the team and the looser entourage of translators, coaches, and trainers in the unattractive, gritty, highly polluted industrial city of Taiyuan.  He stays in Taiyuan, he travels with the team throughout China, and is clearly both a sounding board and a listening post for both the Chinese and the handful of Americans caught up in the world of the “Shanxi Brave Dragons.”

Jim Yardley’s approach to the story of the Brave Dragons, the sometimes hapless team whose fortunes form the core story of the book, is to chat around and about the subject of basketball and the games, and then through this prism, introduce us to background sporting history, his thoughts on Chinese politics, and his wry, often hilarious observations of Chinese society.

It was the latter that made the book for me.

Sure, I was happy that the Brave Dragons ended the season ranked 10th (surely not a plot spoiler ?) but the whole sporty aspect of the book didn’t enthuse me as much as the author’s often beautiful writing about China.

You see, the trouble for me with the basketball bits was, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really follow the nuances.

Some of it was almost impenetrable :

 

 

 

 

I have no idea what an alley oop dunk is, but it does sounds amazing, I have to say :

 

Where Jim Yardley is unsurpassed is when he describes the China in which he lives, a country evolving every day, eager for change yet sometimes afraid of it. Anxious to understand American culture and oftentimes failing totally –  which is more than can be said for most of the American players who appear disinterested by China and the Chinese, intent only on money and winning the game their way, and with no interest whatsoever in trying to learn any of the language of their host country.

The author’s descriptions of the smoky, dirty, noisy city of Yaiyuan bring the place to life, warts and all :

He has a fine eye for people, both their appearance and their conversation.  Garrison Guo  –  a translator –  is one of the nicest people in this cast of amazing characters and from the first moment he walks into the pages of the book, I was hooked :

A soufflé of 1970s hair –  now how gorgeous a description is that ?

 Guo’s English is good, and this is – amazingly –  why :

We presume Garrison didn’t learn English the “Crazy Emglish” way :

 

There is a certain amount –  no, correction – lots of linguistic tangles, but these are so well handled by Jim Yardley that you laugh along with the Chinese players, never laugh at them.  The author writes with a sensitive helping hand.  The hilarious “groove” moment is a case in point :

 

Jim Yardley is equally perceptive when it comes to his fellow ex-pats, closel guarding their hard-earned China expertise :

During a noisy taxi ride along shockingly awful roads with Garrison, the latter asks Jim Yardley a question.  The author’s answer is, in essence, the explanation of why he wrote the book :

 

These cultural tangles, the author’s attempts to understand them himself and then explain them to us are the backbone of this funny, informative look at politics, economy, history –  and, of course, his beloved basketball –  alley oop dunks included.

 

The hardback edition of “Brave Dragons” was published by Knopf in 2012 and sells for US$ 26.95

If, after reading this, you would like to but the book, simply click on the link below :