THE MANDALA OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Jamyang Norbu

Ever wondered what happened to Sherlock Homes, after he fell over the Reichenbach Falls and was presumed drowned ?

The only clue generations of Sherlock Homes fans had were two meagre sentences beginning “I travelled for 2 years in Tibet…”

Jamyang Norbu’s clever, well-written novel fills in these missing 2 years, thanks to a cache of documents which were in the possession of a well-known Bengali scholar who goes by the name of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee.

Yes. The very same.  Hurree Chunder Mookerjee of “Kim” fame.

The tone for this fun, light-hearted book is set in the preface, when the author tells us how he came upon Hurree’s documents, which a retired tea-planter in Darjeeling had found hidden in a wall that fell down during an earthquake.  The tea-planter is the great grandson of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee –  and from this moment on, the line between fact and fiction has been so skilfully blurred, that you do not know quite where it lies.

What ensues is a clever fusing of two worlds and two great characters, who then set off on an exciting adventure together in Tibet.  No reviewer ever wishes to spoil the pleasures of a great read,  by revealing too many details, but suffice it to say that Holmes’s arch-enemy and bitter rival, Moriarty, is also a character in the book.

There are so many period details, and references and anecdotes that from time to time you catch yourself believing in the whole adventure.  Of course, why shouldn’t Hurree Chunder and Sherlock Holmes have met up ?

You read how irritated Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is with the flippancy with which “one Mr Rudyard Kipling, late of the Allahabad Pioneer” coined the term the Great Game, which he feels isn’t respectful enough to the diplomatic work of the Ethnological Survey…And it’s at that point that you realise you have been caught in a web of great skill.

The combination of Conan Doyle + Rudyard Kipling, set against the backdrop of mysterious Lhasa makes for a winning formula.

 

“The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes” is published in India by Harper Collins and is priced at Rs 250.

It’s a great read, and if you feel like buying the book now you have read this review, then just 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 :

BESIEGED by Mahmood Farooqui

Does a reviewer have a moral obligation to finish a book ?

If so, then this review must carry a caveat.  Half way through, mired down by too much information, and  too heavy a writing style, this reviewer abandoned “Besieged”.

The writer has done a hugely impressive job of tracking down and translating hitherto unseen papers from the First Indian War of Independence/Indian Mutiny of 1857.  He has read, translated, catalogued and shared with his reader thousands of letters and fragments of correspondence written by the many people caught up on the side-lines of the epic struggle of the colonial British for domination in India.

There are requests for money for troops, complaints from the very same troops about unpaid wages.  There are requistion orders, legal hassles, reports of blocked drains – no detail of the minutiae of Delhi life in the turbulent days of 1857 is too small to be excluded.

Wherein lies one of the flaws of this impressive scholarly work.  There is almost too much information, and since it is arranged by theme, after a while it gets – sad to say – a wee bit “same -y”.

It is all to easy to be an armchair expert, but this body of material is just crying out to be a novel.

The clichéd “cast of thousands” is already assembled here – administrators, prostitutes, coolies, butchers, the King, beggars, and the delightfully monnikered “loiterers”.  British, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim – all these voices are present, clamouring for attention.

Free all these grumbling, loud, confrontational voices from their strict thematically arranged categories. Jumble them all up. And let the noisy, chaotic story of life in Delhi, on the sidelines of history, emerge.  That, in this reviewer’s opinion, will make a truly marvellous book.

Besieged Voices from Delhi 1857 by Mahmood Farooqui is published by Penguin Viking.  Published in 2010.

The hardback sells in India for Rs 699.

CALL ME DAN by Anish Trivedi

This début novel of Mumbai-based Anish Trivedi is well-written, sharply-observed, and a great read.

The main character, Gautam, is a 30-year old lower middle-class young man, still living at home with his parents and sister.  Their life is frugal, traditional and distinctly joy-less. To his parents’ despair, Gautam doesn’t have what they term a real job, for he works in a call centre.

At work, in the world without time-zones, Gautam morphs into Dan.  Dan is witty,  rather the young man about town.  Dan drinks, which Gautam certainly wouldn’t.  Dan is cosmopolitan, a bit of a flirt.  Dan is, well, quite different from Gautam.

Anish Trivedi successfully brings both voices to life, steering his character(s) through surburban life, through the grind of work and daily commuting, through love’s ups and downs, through family dramas.

The author is a keen observer of social mores.  Seeing Dan interacting with Sondra, his foreign female colleague –  all blonde hair and throwaway lines – we watch as “Dan” wings it through water-cooler moments with her, making mental notes to himself to google the words he doesn’t understand, without ever missing a conversational beat.  His need to learn, to widen his horizons, to keep the veneer of sophistication in place is finely noted.

The prejudices in suburbia are finely chronicled by the author.  Michelle, Gautam’s long-suffering girlfriend, is a Christian and automatically perceived by his family to be unsuitable.  To be fair, Michelle’s family is equally unenthused by Gautam. Gautam’s best friend Naseer is a Muslim, much to his parent’s dismay.  Anish Trivedi sketches this world of petty prejudice and mistrust without ever falling into clichés, and we wince with discomfort at the un-PC world Gautam/Dan inhabits, while acknowledging just how horribly true to life it all is.

A fun read.  An affectionate portrayal of a hero trying to be more than the sum of his parts.  And an utterly delicious cameo of the station chai-wala.

CALL ME DAN was published in August 2010 by Penguin, and costs Rs 250.

If you would like to buy the book, nothing could be simpler.  Just click on the link below :