WHISPERINGS FROM BEYOND by Lakshmi Narayan

What an amazing world we live in.

You know someone for almost 30 years, and only now discover the hidden, almost-mystical side to them.

My Mumbai-based friend Lakshmi Narayan has just published her second book (& here’s a link to my review of her debut novel) and what a revelation it is.

“Whisperings from Beyond” is a collection of thoughts, precepts, call them what you will, one for each day of the year, making this a book to keep by your side and dip into regularly.

It was in her introduction to her book that I saw a side of my otherwise down-to-earth, no-nonsense friend, a side I never knew existed.  Couched in her own inimitable style, Lakshmi explains how this collection came to be:

“This collection of “thoughts” has been coming to me on a regular basis from November 2008 to present day.  Where do they ideate from? Is it my alter-ego? I’m your average aunt-next-door, averagely good, averagely bad, averagely intelligent, averagely mixed-up.  So why do these “thoughts” – so unlike my conscious concepts or leanings – bombard me?”

Now that’s the Lakshmi I know! Articulate, no nonsense, and delightfully self deprecating.

It is in this no-nonsense way of hers, that she opens her heart and shares her thoughts with us, explaining that prayer has always been important to her:

“From personal experience I can honestly say that prayer has been the single most motivating factor in my life and it has definitely moved mountains, making the impossible possible.”

The author offers us a thought – more like a short reading – for every day of the year and on opening the book, I turned straight to my birthday reading.

2 September

It is called “Accepting the unacceptable” and the final stanza of Lakshmi’s musing gave me pause for thought :

…If we stop resisting

and go with the flow

soon enough

good will come

out of the bad and

the seemingly bad”

There are thoughts on topics as varied as money, value systems, resisting temptation, negativity…something for everyone, which is part of the appeal of this book.

You can dip in and out, and always find something to make you think.

A good-looking book, attractively presented.

Published in 2017 by Hay House, “Whisperings from Beyond” costs Rs399.

You can order it here, by clicking on the link…but, hey! You all know how to do that without any explanations from me, right?

THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA by VASEEM KHAN

There are some books about India that are just so perfect that reading them is a total & utter joy.

“The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra” is one such book.Vaseem Khan’s novel is an absolute delightful and is so, well, quintessentially Indian, in that it manages to combine gritty police work with a baby elephant, and you don’t even question it for a moment.  Those defining co-existing elements of life in India – the horrors of poverty, the omni-present corruption, the heart-stopping sight of an elephant wandering down the street, the crowds, the noise – all of these find a home in this wonderful, whimsical, endearing novel.

The upright and honest Inspector Chopra has just retired from the Mumbai Police, on health grounds when, out of the blue, he inherits a baby elephant from his uncle.  Inspector Chopra lives in Mumbai with his wife Poppy, a woman he fell in love with the first time he saw her, back in the village, when she was just a teenager.

Inspector Chopra is not looking forward to retirement at all.  Police work has been his life and he dreads the thought of not working to make his beloved city of Mumbai a safer place.

The novel is as much about Mumbai, as it is about the mystery Inspector Chopra finds himself entangled in, despite retirement.

Mumbai is an ever present, noisy, always on-the-go, larger than life presence in the book.  If ever there was a love song to this greatest of Indian cities, it is here in this book about a middle aged cop and a baby elephant.

“Daredevil beggars slept on the ten-inch parapet of the airport flyover, oblivious to the fatal drop on one side and the hurtling traffic on the other.

This is what made Mumbaikers the greatest Indians in the land, Chopra felt.  This belief in their own invulnerability.

…he could not imagine living in a place without the noise and sheer energy that powered Mumbai at all times of the day or night.”

This description, below, of Mumbai in the middle of the night is powerful:

“The truck rumbled through the night-time city, past the trendy bars and the dhabas; past the sleeping beggars and the urchins; past the hand-cart wallah supine on their carts; past the ladies bars disgorging their woozy and satisfied clientele; past the call centres operating on foreign time; past the cows lying down by the side of the road; past the glittering pye-dogs prowling the empty streets, masters once again, if only for a short few hours, of their ancient dominion.”

Since this is a whodunit, I won’t spoil the plot by telling you too much about the good Inspector’s investigation, but suffice to say that in the current political climate in India (I live here, by the way) the exposure of corruption at the highest levels strikes a chilling chord.

But it is Baby Ganesh, the rather sad and traumatised elephant that Inspector Chopra inherits, who steals the show.

After the first monsoon downpour which floods the compound, poor little Ganesh is freezing, soaking, and frightened, so Inspector Chopra does the only thing he can – takes the baby elephant up to his apartment, much to the outrage of the battle-axe who likes to think she runs the building.

Poppy rises to the occasion, insisting that Ganesh can and will stay in their flat.  There is one scene that is too adorable, where, after giving the poor shivering creature a hot bath and a massage, they both settle down – Poppy on the sofa, Ganesh on a pile of quilts – to watch a Shah Rukh Khan movie on the telly, happily sharing a bag of banana chips.  A classic moment that makes you fall in love with Poppy.

Ganesh – well, I was already in love with him from the second we met him.

“And then something curious happened.  As the little calf continued to snuffle and sneeze, hunched down inside its quilts, the very picture of misery, Poppy felt her long-suppressed mothering instincts to the fore…suddenly she was overcome by a desire to nurse the baby elephant that her husband had seen fit to deposit inside her home.

“OK, young man,” she said determinedly, “first things first: let’s get you cleaned up.”

Inspector Chopra, despite retirement, is driven to investigate a killing which leads him further and further into the world of corrupt officials and big money. But, while he investigates one crime, he makes a discovery about an event from his own past. (No more, I promise, so as not to spoil your enjoyment.)

This is a great read.  Funny, endearing, and yet also a searing exposé of the seamier side of Mumbai.

This is the kind of book that, as you read, you know, you just know that Inspector Chopra & Ganesh are destined to make a great partnership, and that their relationship will endure – into many more books, one hopes.

I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, which is all ready and waiting.

If you would now like to order this delightful novel – you won’t regret it, pukka – just click on the link below.

Inspector Singh investigates : A curious Indian cadaver by Shamini Flint

Inspector Singh, of the Singapore police force, might just have to look to his laurels.  Courtesy, of all unlikely people, his wife, Mrs. Singh.

In this funny, laugh-out-loud 6th instalment of the Inspector Singh series, we see the Malaysian-Singaporean Sikh going to India for the first time, to attend, of all unlikely things for such an anti-family man, a family wedding.

His wife’s family, of course.

Still on enforced sick leave after his Cambodian escapades, the good detective has no excuse for not attending the wedding of his wife’s first cousin’s daughter.

This is a high-society arranged marriage, a concept alien to Inspector Singh, but not to his good wife:

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Soon after their arrival in Mumbai, there is a suspicious death, and Inspector Singh is plunged headlong into an investigation that includes questioning many of his wife’s family.  As he tramps the dirty streets of Mumbai, lamenting the damage being done to his trademark white sneakers, Mrs. Singh stays close in the bosom of her traumatised family – and becomes, de facto, her husband’s source on the inside.

In her earlier Inspector Singh books, Ms Flint has always used the clever device of an assistant/sidekick/translator who helps the Singaporean policeman on his foreign jaunts.  This local assistant provides the detective (and we the readers) with an insight into a different society, and is the foil against which Inspector Singh views and judges the new country.

Enter Mrs. Singh, a regular visitor to India, a recent convert to the internet and the joys of Google, and now an expert on all things Indian.  She explains the country of which she is uncritically proud to her sceptical, querulous husband, who realises pretty early on that although he may look the part, he is actually 100% foreign.

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Mrs. Singh wants only to prove to her husband that India is modern.  And better than China.

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It is a masterstroke making this thin, sharp-tongued woman her husband’s assistant, for not only does it make for great humour, it also allows us to get to know Mrs. Singh better.

She finally steps out from her husband’s shadow, and becomes a brilliant character in her own right.IMG_9407

Like any first time visitor to Mumbai, the good Inspector is taken aback at the smell, the dirt, the crowds, the noise.

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Other than eating good authentic Indian food, Inspector Singh has very few desiderata.  Avoid Delhi belly and have a ride in an Ambassador car, basically.

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Ambassadors, alas, are not to be part of his Mumbai experience :IMG_9401

The plot is a clever one, keeping us guessing until the very last pages, and the ending is unexpected.  But then, Ms Flint’s endings always are.  What a clever writer she is.

I happen to know Mumbai pretty well, having lived there for several years, and so can attest to the veracity of the writer’s observations and descriptions.

What an accomplished story teller Ms Flint is, putting her finger so easily and yet so firmly on the pulse of India :

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The matching turbans and Nehru jackets are not unique to Mumbai, and up here in Delhi (where I live) they are very much a definite “statement” way of dressing.  Ms Flint is spot on.

 

Another great read, an exciting whodunnit, an exuberant foray into India and weddings and religion and progress and poverty.

And, of course, we get to spend more time with Mrs. Singh.

As I said at the outset, the good Inspector might just have to look to his laurels.

 

If you would like to buy the book, you can do so now, by clicking on the link below:

GOD IS A GAMER by RAVI SUBRAMANIAN

What a very clever and intriguing whodunnit this book is.  A financial thriller, involving banking (yes, indeed, banking of all things) and gaming and bitcoins and politics and death and love  – and the whole combo makes for a great read.

This is the second book by Mr. Subramanian that I have been asked to review, and one thing is patently clear  –  the writer has got himself a way better editor this time round.  When I reviewed “The Bankster” I commented on the poor editing that did Mr. Subramanians’s fine writing  no favours.

No such issues this time round.

So, the story.  I can’t tell you anthing about the ins and outs of the plot, now can I, since this is, after all, a story involving murder and crime on a massive scale, so any plot spoilers would be, well, just downright criminal.

Mumbai, Washington DC, New York, Goa –  the action shifts between these places, involving a cast of Indians and Americans.  The story unfolds in short crisply written chapters, as we explore worlds that were totally unknown to me before  – the worlds of gaming and of bitcoins.  “God is a Gamer” reveals to us the highest levels of finance and politics, top secret computing and the virtual bitcoin economy.  The story centres around high-level technology, but manages not to baffle the reader.  Take me, for example – I knew next to nothing about gaming and bitcoins –  and yet never felt excluded from the story.  Enough was explained to bring me up to speed, without the storyline being slowed down.  Good writing, if ever there was.

The gradual drawing together of all the different threads in this tangled, dangerous, intercontinental web – politics and romance and computing and terrorism and murder and the FBI and banking – is cleverly done.  But I can’t tell you how or why, or it would spoil a great story.

If I have one teensy weensy caveat, it is that the end seems rushed.  Throughout the book, the writer maintains a detailed pace, leading us slowly and carefully ever deeper and deeper into the dark heart of his story, and then all of a sudden, it’s over.  There’s a quick bit of mopping-up in the epilogue, telling us which characters went where and did what and where they ended up, but I felt a bit cheated.  I would much rather have had a longer read, and no quick wrapping up.

But there is one great twist, right at the end.  Really clever.

 

I certainly learned a lot from this novel, because of course I googled bitcoins and TOR and Satoshi Nakamoto.

And they all exist.

Which makes me wonder, of course, what else and who else also really exists outside the pages of this book…

 

Recommended.

 

Just published by Penguin, the paperback of “God is a Gamer” costs Rs299 (real money, not bitcoins).

If you would like to read the book now, having read this review, it couldn’t be simpler.  

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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 Child of Misfortune by SOUMITRA SINGH

From time to time I am sent books for review, and so many times I have to choose my words oh so carefully, when writing my review. No-one want to be intentionally cruel or harsh, but some of the current fiction coming out of India is truly way below the mark.

And then you have a novel like “The Child of Misfortune”.

What a pleasure. What a treat. What a great read.

Soumitra Singh has written a genuine page-turner, a gripping novel about choice, about friendship and about end-games. This book takes us from Leh to Srinagar to Mumbai to London, as this sweeping adventure unfurls over many years.

I loved the book from the start, and not just because it involved Ladakh, one of my most favourite places on earth.

There are two main, rivaling protagonists in this novel – Amar and Jonah, who meet as teenage boys at a smart school in Mumbai, and theirs is a strange relationship from the start : a desperate rivalry between 2 intelligent boys to be the brightest, the fastest, the smartest. Amar is reasonably chatty and communicative, and therefore easy for we the reader to understand and empathise with. Jonah, the taciturn, white-haired, pale-skinned boy from Pondicherry is altogether different. Intense, hardly speaking enough even to be described as mono-syllabic, he is a distant almost menacing figure from his teenage years. There is something disturbing about this boy.

I cannot (and would not) reveal the plot. It is too much of an exciting read to divulge, but suffice it to say that it encompasses a global quest, in the good old-fashioned Good vs Evil scenario (OK, I’ll tell you a bit – drugs and terrorism figure largely, as does the amazing technology with which we live today).

When the plot shifts to London I still enjoyed the story, but just a fraction less than the Indian sections, which I found super well-written. But that is hardly a valid point. Am just saying.

The book is well-written and fast-paced, though I think Mr. Singh’s editors have failed him from time to time. Again, nothing major, just a few grammatical errors that I doubt a writer of this calibre would have made.

Published in 2104 by Times Group Books, the paperback sells for Rs 350.

 

Great read.

Personally recommended.

If, after reading this review, you would like to order the book, it couldn’t be easier.
Simply click on the link below:

 

And be sure to take time to visit the website www.soumitrasingh.com for news and views about the book.

THE BANKSTER BY RAVI SUBRAMANIAN

 

The blurb on the cover of  Ravi Subramanian’s 5th book “The Bankster” talks of “the John Grisham of banking”.

Like John Grisham, Mr. Subramanian certainly knows his facts and figures in his appointed area of expertise, that’s for sure. So there is that much in common with Mr. Grisham.

But what Mr. Subramanian desperately needs is a better editor.

Shoddy, sloppy editing marred what is otherwise a deeply researched, complex tale of banking skullduggery on a massive scale.

I didn’t count, but  (and I think I’m correct) every time the author wrote “at least,” this is what we got :

 

That is just downright poor editing, and unworthy of someone of Mr. Subramanian’s obvious intelligence.

The novel ranges between Mumbai, Vienna, Kerala and Africa, with 3 stories running parallel. The Mumbai sections are far and away the strongest, which is hardly surprising, since the author was a banker for 20 years and lives in Mumbai, so there was an intensity and authenticity about the Mumbai sections.  The Mumbai voices rang true.

Mr. Subramanian’s attention to banking detail is impressive, and you never for a moment doubt the accuracy and the authenticity of the plot.  Banking scams happen the world over, that we all know, and the plot of “The Bankster” unravels a complex tale of financial deceit on a truly massive, deeply embedded scale.

The Kerala story, about a nuclear power station and the manipulative politics of protest, is touching, but it was only in the final paragraphs that I joined the dots.  Perhaps I am a little dim, but a few pointers would certainly have helped me.  As it was, I spent most of the book wondering why and when and where Kerala and Mumbai would intertwine.  It ultimately makes total, satisfying sense, but only in the dying seconds of the book.

The same can be said of the African section, though those dots were joined for me in the Vienna part of the story – I obviously can’t tell you the ins and outs of the plot, otherwise the intricate storyline of “The Bankster” will be spoiled for you.  Suffice it to say that, once again, I could have wished for the African section to be a tad stronger.

But the Mumbai sections can’t be faulted for their painstaking attention to detail, which is why they are faster-paced and dominate the book.  There is something enthralling about reading a novel that purportedly took place earlier this year –  all those dates and times at the beginning of the chapters bringing the action ever closer certainly make things exciting.

Technology plays a large part in the book, which is only natural given the way banking has evolved, and so most of the young bankers in the story use their mobiles and laptops and iPads and iPhones and Blackberries and voice mails as seamlessly as we, the readers, do.

And I also fully understand that the author needs to make sure all his readers are up to (technological speed) especially when technology is vital to the plot, but just occasionally the otherwise natural style of writing faltered :

 

 

This sounds more like a technical note, rather than a natural dialogue, which is a shame.

Ditto the supposed conversation below :

 

 A good read.

A clever, intricate plot.

But a plea to the publishers, Rupa – please, don’t let poor editing mar good writing.

Published in 2012 by Rupa, the paperback of “The Bankster” costs Rs 250.

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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 :

 

 

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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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.