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 :

PTDC0051

 

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

The author lets the city speak for itself:

PTDC0035

PTDC0036

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

PTDC0042

 

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

 

PTDC0044

 

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 :

PTDC0038

PTDC0043

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:

 

PTDC0052

 

“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.

Shoes of the Dead by Kota Neelima

Shoes of the Dead
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 :

Untitled4

 

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.

 

Untitled1

 

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

 

Untitled7

 

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

 

Untitled3

 

 

Untitled6

 

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

Untitled5

 

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 :

 

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

DELHI DURBAR by SUNIL RAMAN & ROHIT AGARWAL

This week, New Delhi officially turned 100 years old.

On 12 December 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, in front of maharajahs, rajahs, princes, and thousands of British and Indian citizens, King George V made an announcement that would have major repercussions for India.

The capital city was going to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

And thus New Delhi would come into existence as an imperial city.

Fast forward 100 years, and New Delhi 2011 chose virtually to ignore the centenary.

Mutterings about the rights and wrongs of celebrating imperialism masked the plain fact that the venue for the 1911 Durbar, Coronation Park, is a shambles, renovation work incomplete, deadlines missed.  This is not the place to discuss how a city can be years behind on deadlines, with no outcry and no accountability – but just remember that some projects for the 2010 Commonwealth Games are still languishing unfinished.

So, Delhi, thank goodness for Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal.

They have written a lavishly illustrated book about the 1911 Durbar, which as a stand alone event –  with or without the moral issues of colonialism – deserves to be commemorated.  The Durbar happened.  It is a fact of history. It brought New Delhi into being.  It was an event of long-lasting historical importance.

And more than anything else, it was an utterly fabulous, glorious expression of all that was best in royal and imperial India  –  ceremony, pageantry, clothes, jewels, titles, fanfares – and this lovely book brings out the full flavour of it all.

The authors, both passionate, hands-on historians, do not debate the rights or wrongs of spending a mind-boggling fortune on the Durbar.  They do not  enter into the politics of Delhi vs Calcutta.  They simply recount the amazing, dazzling story of how a dusty area of north India was transformed into a tented city, and became home to one of the most fabulous gatherings ever in India – the first time all the ruling prices came together.

The scale of the Durbar is staggering, even 100 years later :

“A temporary tented city was to be set up, spread over 45 sq miles. It was to last over a week, see around 150 ruling chiefs, feudal lords and zamindars in attendance, along with officials, and witnessed by at least 100,000 ordinary people. The 1911 Durbar was to be the most expensive and the most ambitious Durbar ever organized and, as it happened, over 900,000 pounds sterling were spent on it…

…Spread over 25 sq km, the Durbar Camp was to have 475 separate camps, with a total of 40,000 tents. Each camp was to be a city in itself, with arched entrances, gardens and enclosures. Apart from the King’s Camp, there were provincial camps headed by British Governors or Lt. Governors, camps of the Maharajahs and Princes, and the Government of India Camp.

All the tents were carpeted, furnished, warmed with stoves, and lit with electric bulbs.
Every Indian chief was to have his separate camp, which was like a mini city with all amenities, including a bazaar.

Clear directions were given to officials that nothing be done that was contrary to Indian customs. Cows managed by Brahmans ensured the supply of fresh milk to each camp. separate hospitals, a separate magistrate, and a separate police system ensured the independence of each camp under the overarching control of the British administrators.”

This is the story of a unique event, and the authors tell it with unbridled enthusiasm and love for their subject matter.  There are plans and drawings, articles and ads from the newspapers of the day, bills, receipts, and wonderful, absolutely gorgeous photographs to accompany the story of how the Durbar was conceptualised, planned, and carried out.

The ruling Indian princes needed careful handling, so that there would be no clash of egos in their comings and goings and dealings with the King Emperor.  There were sensibilities galore to be accommodated.  There were logistics on a massive scale to be handled.

And so the days of spectacle and pageantry flowed on smoothly and almost perfectly choreographed.

But there was the occasional headache.

The durbar tent burned down a few days before the event.

Her Majesty the Queen didn’t want the King to ride an elephant in procession – “Elephant Snubbed” was the wonderful newspaper headline.

And then there were problems with the tent for a royal dinner one night :

“The banqueting tent offended against the elements of sanitary science in the matter of ventilation; and it must be added as a warning for future occasions that being very long, very narrow and low, it presented neither a dignified nor an inviting appearance.”

For me, though, the biggest treat in the book is the photography.  Wonderful black and white photos  –  and even a startling, very early colour photo – bring to life the sheer gorgeousness of this extraordinary event.

Delhi, and every lover of history, can thank Sunil Raman and Rohit Agarwal for this well-written, super well-documented book.

Published by Roli Books and just Rs 495 for an attractively bound hardback.

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

RED SUN by Sudeep Chakravarti

What does one do, as a mere reader, when a book so profoundly shakes you up, frightens you even ? Review it, in the fervent hope that more people will thereby read it.

It’s not much of a contribution to one of India’s most alarming social problems, but if one more person reads this disturbing book, as a result of this review, then this reviewer will feel a little vindicated.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s book “Red Sun. Travels in Naxalite Country” is not an easy read, not easy at all, but in this reviewer’s opinion it is an essential read. Essential for anyone who cares about India, who cares about the poor, or who is interested in how a healthy, noisily democratic political system can consistently fail so many of its people.

“Red Sun” should be read by any citizen or resident of India, by each and every urban India who sees the ever increasing traffic and profusion of malls and Americanized fast food joints as proof that India is shining, that India has arrived, that India –  the much touted world’s largest democracy – is now well and truly out there, a global figure to be reckoned with.  Read this and reflect.

The book is not an easy read because the subject matter is uncomfortable, shocking and profoundly unsettling.  The author, a former journalist, spent years researching and living with the disaffected poor who support –  actively or tacitly –  the Naxalism, one of the biggest extreme left wing movements on the world, India’s home grown Maoism.

The Naxalite movement began in 1967 in a village called Naxalbari, which means that for over 40 years the simmering discontent and grinding poverty that launched the movement are still there, unaddressed by the politicians who govern India Shining from the safety and prosperity of far-away New Delhi.

What Sudeep Chakravarti delivers is a dense, scholarly book, that is sometimes written in a slightly breathless journalistic way, and other times packed with facts and figure and statistics –  all of them disturbing.

Take this paragraph in the introduction to the book :

“There is little debate that the spread of Maoist influence is at its core the consequence of bad governance – or plain non-governance – and crushing exploitation in the world’s next superpower. There have been instances in Bihar and Jharkhand where illiterate tribals have been told that they own just six inches of their land ; what lies below the six inches belongs to others : the state, the local trader, the local moneylender – now established via-media for mining interests. Such reality makes the congratulatory data and conclusions about today’s India, much of it true, seem a little hollow.”

What follows is an account of the author’s years of travelling in these far-off almost forgotten parts of India.  He interviews politicians, social workers, local officials, and the people themselves, the very people so let down by their government that they have little choice but to turn the other way when Naxals raid their villages.

As a reader, oftentimes you have to work hard to remember the many acronyms that are scattered throughout the book, to piece together the bits and pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle of local politics and administration, and to remember who the various players in this complex book are – many of Mr.Chakravarti’s sources are referred to only by their initials.

There is hardly a day goes by without a report in the Indian press about someone dying at the hands of Naxalites, another village being attacked, another family devastated.  Read this powerful, alarming book and you will better understand why.

RED SUN is published by Penguin/Viking and the hardback costs Rs 495.

You really should read this book, if you want to understand the nature of the threats facing contemporary India.

Do yourself a favour.  Buy it and read it.  Couldn’t be easier – just click on the link below :