AARUSHI by Avirook Sen

Let me start this review by nailing my colours to the mast.

“Aarushi” is a brilliantly written, meticulously detailed, gripping piece of work, and should be read by every single person who cares about India and justice.

This is a book that should be made compulsory reading for every student of law, for every aspiring policeman or policewoman, and for every student of journalism.

For this book holds up a mirror to the first two professions, revealing their flaws and defects and, in parallel, the huge moral responsibility they both bear.

And any student of journalism should be proud to take a leaf out of Mr. Sen’s book –  his research and attention to detail are meticulous, his research is thorough, unbiased and clearly presented.

Reading Avirook Sen’s extraordinary book “Aarushi” is an emotional experience in so many ways. Reliving the horror of the murder of a 13 year old girl is traumatic, even for we the readers.  For anyone who was living in India at the time – May 2008 – the memory of the gruesome murder, the arrest of the child’s father, his release, then the subsequent arrest, trial and the shocking conviction of both parents for her murder –  all those memories are still surprisingly fresh, for this was a sensational case, which had every one of us gripped.

I remember blogging about the case, willing the parents to be innocent.

But the lurid details of wife swapping in Noida, the widely circulated theory that the 13 year old was having a consensual sexual relationship with a middle aged male servant, all of this was fodder to what passes for journalism here in India.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but there you go.

We have a hysterical TV press at the best of times, and this cocktail of sex, murder, servants, wife swapping, golf clubs, locked doors, seemingly unemotional parents (that must prove they were guilty, right? No public hysteria was suspicious, right?)…oh, it was all too good for the TV ratings.  No matter that most of it was hearsay, unproven, salacious tidbits leaked by an irresponsible investigating team.

Don’t believe me?

Well, read this astonishing book, and you soon will.

In the first few pages of the book, we see the police at work.  It is a truly terrifying catalogue of incompetence, to put it mildly.  The words I would actually like to use would not make for polite reading.

Read this extract below, and pray that you never, ever, ever find yourself at the receiving end of such inept, unprofessional, insensitive “policing” :


Mr. Sen writes in a clear, unbiased voice about the chaos and cacophony surrounding the trial of 2 bereaved parents, and though never taking an overt stand, you know where his sympathies lie.  With the dignified, grieving Talwars, rather than the servile, incompetent authorities.

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Unlike the TV anchors going after ratings (and did one of them really dip his hands in red paint to simulate blood on camera?) Mr. Sen attended all the court hearings, quietly interviewed as many of the protagonists as he could, and, in a hugely chilling end to the book, he re-visits and re-chats with the main players once the trial is over, and the Talwars are incarcerated.  Even in jail, bereaved, the Talwars remain dignified.

And if your blood hasn’t already boiled with the parade of self-serving, incompetent police, CBI and lawyers who were let loose on the Talwars, then the conclusion of this fine book will certainly make you angry.  And very, very scared for anyone fighting for justice.

Trust me.

The most frightening interview in the book is the one Mr. Sen has with Shyam Lal, the now retired judge who sentenced the Talwars, and promptly retired a few days after sentencing.



The above is straight out of the realm of buffoonery.  But to be fair, not everyone can speak and write well in English, but why the system allows such a travesty as this is mystifying.

But it is the final moments of the book that should make you sit up and make you very angry:



The only thing I still can’t quite comprehend, even after reading this fine book is this: why?

Why did 2 people have to bear the brunt not only of a personal tragedy of unimaginable horror, but also the full weight of a conniving, incompetent system?

Evidence was withheld, was blatantly tampered with, and yet no-one seemed to be in the least concerned.  The case of the purple pillow is so shocking that you keep wondering if you have somehow misunderstood the implications.  But no.  Evidence was tampered with.  And no-one other than the Talwars seems bothered.  Certainly not the investigative agencies.

If the Talwars had been politicians or industrial giants or CEOs or cricketers or Bollywood stars, you could (with perhaps some justification) claim such a travesty of justice to be a cover up or a vendetta – whatever was appropriate.

But these were 2 ordinary middle class people.  Professionals.  Educated.  Loving parents.  So why the massive all-encompassing travesty of justice?  It can’t surely all have been a self-serving cover-up, with everyone too scared to admit to their mistakes and failures?  So just bluff your way out and compound the situation?  Surely not?

But, terrifyingly, that seems to be the only conclusion.

If you haven’t already bought this book, then please do so now by clicking on one of the links.  You owe it to yourself.  And to the Talwars.

RUNNING AND LIVING by Rahul Salim Verghese

What a nice book this is, and written by such a nice, unassuming man, too.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know Rahul a little socially, and, of course, “professionally,” through the runs he organises in and around Delhi, where I live.

“Running and Living” is an easy book to read, in the sense that it is written in a chatty, relaxed style, almost as though you were sitting talking to the author himself.

A relatively late convert to running (but not as late as me, Rahul.  I beat you soundly on that score!) Rahul is one of the lucky people in this world who has followed his dream and his new-found passion.  After 25 years, he stepped calmly off the corporate treadmill, and headed straight for a different world.  The world of running.  He started a company “Running and living”, which uses running as a marketing platform for brands, and his company now organises many races around India.

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I read this book in one long, happy sitting, but it is the kind of book that you can dip in and out of – there are chapters about motivation, about the myriad health benefits of running, and also about Rahul’s own experiences, about which he is endearingly frank and honest about his failures.

The chapter detailing the Everest marathon is thrilling stuff.

There are quotations, motivational messages and –  yaay! –  a training plan for running a marathon.

I am a total, unconditional convert to running, but I am sure that any non-runners reading this will easily be persuaded to lace up their shoes and head out for that first, wonderful run.  Just read about the health benefits, and I guarantee you that you will be out there, running.

Why don’t you check all this out for yourself, and order this book now, by clicking on one of the links below:

Published just a few days ago, in summer 2015, the paperback costs Rs399.

Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater

It has been a few years since I re-re-read Alexander Frater’s  “Chasing the Monsoon”, one of those books that so perfectly captures India that it is, well, perfect.

(And yes, what a shockingly inadequate sentence that is.)

I loved this book the first time I read it, when I was fairly new to India.

A couple of decades later, this book is every bit as marvellous and funny and oh-so-beautifully written.  A truly sensational piece of writing.

But this time, my 3rd (or is it 4th?) reading of “Chasing the monsoon” made me very nostalgic, for I fear that the India Mr. Frater describes in such luminous prose is slowly but surely disappearing.

The India of 1987 when he travelled across India following the monsoon was a slower, gentler paced India than the country where I now live circa 2014.  India in 1987 was a country of poor telecommunications (oh, how I remember those days…how well…) of erratic internal flights (oh, how I remember those days…how well…) but of a chattiness and friendliness and generous warmth and slight dottiness that I loved and adored, and now miss.

Mr. Frater travels from Kanyakumari to Cherrapunji, the famed wettest place in earth (though it was dry as a bone when we visited a few years ago) tracking the monsoon as it makes its slow and life-giving way across India.

Mr. Frater wears his obvious scholarship very lightly, seamlessly weaving into his picaresque story snippets of history, lots of personal memories from an extraordinary childhood in the New Hebrides, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of climatology.

He is a man who travels lightly and well. The kind of man one would love for a travel companion. Observant, affectionate, ready to go with whatever flow takes him gradually across India. He clearly loves India, and even the bad moments (usually bureaucracy) bear witness to a resigned shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance.

And what a fabulous cast of characters we meet as we wander across India in Mr. Frater’s company. He meets and chats with and describes people so well, that I was often sorry when his travels took him on and away from such characters who positively leap out of the pages.

My latest reading of this book took place in my home, Delhi, in that week in late June when you pray for the rains. 29 June (the “traditional” day for the onset) came and went, with only a couple of showers, and just as Mr. Frater read the met reports assiduously in 1987, so I found myself reading my 2014 versions with a little more interest than usual, comparing the language.

2014 not looking good this late June, what with the monsoon being in a tailspin…

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I have said in other book reviews that you don’t necessarily have to be in a particular place to enjoy a book, but if you are in situ, then the pleasure is heightened, and the fact that I am languishing in hot, powercut-y Delhi, all of us waiting for the monsoon, made “Chasing the Monsoon ” absolutely perfect.

There are too many wonderful encounters to detail them all, but I do have my favourites. Such as the naked sadhu who made a century for the West Bengal Water Board. This encounter in the shimmering heat of Deeg in Rajasthan is delicious and utterly delightful :



There are some moments that make you laugh out loud at the sheer dottiness of it all, such as this vignette from Shillong :


It is from Shillong that the author has to make a dash to the airport to leave a restricted area, since his permit is about to run out.  To anyone who has driven in India, this fabulous description will ring a hilarious (but scary) bell :



This is a marvellous book, written with elegance, and I finished it with sadness. I didn’t want the quest to be over.  So it is fitting that one of the very last people we meet in India in Mr. Frater’s company is 75 year old Tom Richmond, who came to India in 1933 and never left :


I cannot recommend “Chasing the Monsoon” too highly.

If you now feel like buying the book (and for Indian readers, it would make perfect monsoon/pre-monsoon reading) then nothing could be simpler. Simply click on the links below:

You can also buy this as an ebook :

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 :



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

The author lets the city speak for itself:



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



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




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 :



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:




“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.


Ursula Bower, author and anthropologist (died November 1988). She lived with the Naga tribesmen and fought against the Japanese in World War II

I read this sadly out of print book a year ago, when I visited Nagaland and became fascinated with the tale of Ursula Graham Bower.  Ms Graham Bower’s “Naga Path” (that is a link to my review, obviously) covers her years in Nagaland, and “The Hidden Land” takes up the story.  Ursula is now married – only just –  and with her husband, Lt. Col Tim Betts, they set off on their new posting, to the virtually unknown, uncharted Lower Subansiri region of Arunachal Pradesh.

Now, let me stop here for a moment and give you some background information.

Ursula and Tim’s daughter, Catriona Child is a friend of mine in Delhi, and we have just returned from an amazing trip together to Arunachal, following in the steps of her parents.  A friend and passionate historian accompanied us, identifying places where Catriona’s parents lived, camped, visited – nothing short of amazing, recreating a journey of over 60 years ago.

So, having read “The Hidden Land” once and found it poignantly sad compared with “Naga Path,” I re-read the book before our trip, and no sooner had I closed the last page, on a frosty morning in the Apa Tani valley, than I turned right back to the first page and re-re-read it.

And that I have never done.  Ever.  Read a book literally back to back.

But so fascinating was it to put faces to names, and to put the exciting adventure that the Betts couple live into perspective, that it made sense to keep on reading this book which is still so fresh that it is hard to imagine that the events in it took place in a very different India.  To read about the men whose families we would meet was both moving and highly emotional.

Ms Graham Bower is still desperately in love with the tribal North East during her years in Arunachal, but their time in the Lower Subansiri district was a trying one, with feuding and sparring tribes to contend with, as well as the couple’s growing anxiety about their future in India after Independence. (I did just say that they lived in a very different India, remember).

Their mission statement would have terrified many a current politician:Untitled 3

And so off they set, to trek into this virtually uncharted land –  the hidden land of the title – in their pragmatic, down-to-earth way.  Supplies were in desperately short supply, in those years immediately after the Second World War.  Porters were hard to find.  They had no idea if the tribes would be hostile.  And the going was physically tough, but from the very start, from the opening paragraph, you are captivated and ready to accompany Ursula and Tim on their big adventure :


The famed Apa Tani valley, a place that captured the heart and the imagination of this intrepid couple still is beautiful, despite “progress” in the form of buildings and traffic and satellite dishes, but to the Betts’ it was literally breathtaking :

Untitled 2Their final departure from this beautiful land, when India becomes Independent, is heart-breaking.

They loved the country with a passion, and the hidden land of the title becomes hidden to them for ever, as they walk out of the Valley for the last time, unable to look back, such is their grief.

This book is a wonderful read.

If you know India and especially the north east it is compelling.

Track it down online – I have added an Amazon link below – and let yourself be swept back to a time when voyages of discovery were literally possible.

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.


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.


Published in 2012 by Hachette, the hardback costs Rs 750

 If, after reading this review, you wish to buy the book, it couldn’t be simpler.  Simply 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.

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

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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.


If ever a book needed to be a biography rather than an auto-biography, it is Simon Mann’s “Cry Havoc.”

What could have become, in the hands of a writer, a rather exciting derring-do, gung-ho type of book about white mercenaries trying to stage a coup in Africa is, instead, a badly written, profanity-laced, confusing story.

Not that I have any sympathy whatsoever with white mercenaries trying to stage a coup in Africa, you understand.

No sympathy whatsoever.

But I used to live in Africa, and was there all during that rather bizarre time when Simon Mann and his band of merry men were captured and put on trial.  Given the South African angle, the fact that the coup-implicated Mark Thatcher was living in Cape Town, the whole drama played out to a slightly bemused African audience, including us.  It was even rumoured, gleefully, in South Africa that Mr.Mann’s Equatorial Guinea coup plot was lifted from Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 thriller “The Dogs of War.”

So I was prepared to be open-minded.

Also, since the copy of the book I read was loaned to me by an old and dear friend of Mr. Mann, I was also possibly prepared to be a tad more sympathetic than usual.

But so alienating was the tone and style of the book, so utterly confusing was the narrative, that any flicker of sympathy was extinguished almost as soon as the book started.

This is his opening page acknowledgment, for goodness sake :


Confused ?

Mr. Mann tries, through his staccato, verb-less, effing and blinding style to portray himself as some kind of ethical saviour of the poor oppressed African blacks.

A word of warning, Mr. Mann mentions race and colour and being white a lot.

This saviour of the poor oppressed African blacks etc etc is how he talks up the previous mercenary coups he led in Sierra Leone and Angola.  Yet the opening sentence of his prologue actually says it all.

“This is about oil. Oil wars. In Africa mostly”


On the dust cover of Mr. Mann’s book is a quotation :

“When I set out to overthrow an African tyrant, I knew I would either make billions or end up getting shot…”


The book goes back and forth between the earlier coups and the preparations for the disastrous coup to Equatorial Guinea.  A straight-line narrative would have helped clear the murky waters of politics, confusing acronyms, top-heavy descriptions of weaponry but Mr. Mann prefers to swing back and forth, rapidly losing the reader in the swirl of events and the random introduction of characters without any explanation.

The one constant in the book is his liberal use of the f word.

No-one is a prude these days, but the f word is not a consistent substitute for vocabulary :

I’ll spare you more quotations.

Mr. Mann sneers openly at the people he meets, be they African politicians :


or potential coup-backers and contacts, be they foreign :

or British :

Nor does he spare his former chum and investor, Mark Thatcher :


His dislike of his former friend knows no bounds :

“Loves to play the officer and gentleman” –  harsh words from Mr. Mann, who tries to shield Mr. Thatcher later on, when he is being interrogated, because –  well, because, Mr. Thatcher has connections :


The book covers in great detail Mr.Mann’s imprisonment in Zimbabwe, where the effing and blinding style gives way  – just a little – to a searingly graphic account of the life he leads in prison.  Mr. Mann is definitely a more sympathetic character in this section of the book, surviving what is clearly great deprivation, cruelty and terror.

And then the book stops.  Just like that.

The Equatorial Guinea part of the book simply doesn’t happen.

One minute he is on a plane on the way there, terrified of facing torture and almost-guaranteed death, and then the next moment he is out, back in England with his beloved Amanda.  Of his trial, he tells nothing.

Why ?  Legal reasons, one presumes.  Must be for the same reason that we never hear about the trial.

I never worked out who the Boss was.  I thought it must be Tony Blair for a while, but am not so sure now.

Perhaps, one day, someone else will write the story of this failed coup attempt and fill in the blanks for us.

“Cry Havoc” is published by John Blake and the hardback costs £19.99.

If you wish to buy it, you can click on the link below to order straight away :



NAGA PATH by Ursula Graham Bower

Ursula Bower, author and anthropologist (died November 1988). She lived with the Naga tribesmen and fought against the Japanese in World War II

Before reviewing Ursula Graham Bower’s “Naga Path”, let me put a couple of things in context, so that I don’t seem to be unfairly partial towards this wonderful book.

The author’s daughter, Catriona, is a friend, and indeed we are in book club together in Delhi. So, yes, I knew a little from Catriona about her mother, but since the former is as well mannered as her mother seems to have been, there is no bragging whatsoever, so I only knew a little.

Then, in December, I went to Nagaland for the first time, to the Hornbill Festival with one of my oldest and dearest friends from Oxford, Jane, who had read the book as a teenager, and dreamed of going ever since. In fact, it was “Naga Path” that inspired Jane to go to Nagaland, and I went along for the ride, as it were.

I hadn’t quite joined the book-Jane-read-as-a-teenager and Catriona’s-mother dots, until the three of us all met in Kohima for the Festival.

I have just finished reading “Naga Path”, while holidaying in Assam, appropriately enough, and can quite understand how such a well-written, derring-do story would capture any teenager’s imagination. It captured mine, I can tell you.

Now for the facts.

Ursula Graham Bower arrived in India as a young woman, a pretty debutante who developed a passion and an unflinching love for the Naga people, in what was then Assam.

Ms Graham Bower lived for years in the late 1930s/early 1940s amongst the Zemi tribe, as an anthropologist but also as a mentor, and, for some, a reincarnation of one of their legendary heroines.

And thus the legend of the Naga Queen came into being. Ms Graham Bower seems never to have traded on the adulation and devotion of her beloved Zemi tribe, living with them in harmony, affection, occasional irritation, and much humour.

The author’s descriptive prose is little short of intoxicating, making the reader see the serried ranks of hills going on into the horizon, and smell the fire and dust and smoke. Her love for the land and the people is palpable in her writing, which is almost a love-song to the Nagas.

Ms Graham Bower’s writing makes you fall in love with the Zemis in the way she did. We meet a cast of characters whom she describes succinctly and affectionately, pointing out their foibles, their worries, their problems, with great humour and respect.

She never once patronises the Nagas, who were (for those who may not know it) head-hunters. Far from it, she is quick to point out the intelligence and wicked sense of humour of the Nagas.

One of the most delicious episodes in the book is the account of how her inseparable companion and mentor Namkia (“the old sinner”) gets himself space on the otherwise crowded train to Calcutta. Namkia stands there, resplendent in his red cloak, telling the initially packed compartment about how, during hard times, he and his wife had agonized over which of their children to kill and eat, finally deciding on the baby.

“it really was exceptionally good, most tender – boiled with chillies”

By the end of the story, Namkia is alone on the train bench, and he “spread out his bedding and slept in comfort, at full length, all the way to Calcutta : and every time a fresh entrant approached him with a hint to move over, the rest of the carriage said, as one :”Look out ! Man-eater!” and Namkia turned slowly over and murmured :”Now the last time I tasted human flesh__________”

Ms Graham Bower’s story gets more and more fascinating, since at the outbreak of World War II she becomes part of V Division, gathering information on the Japanese movements on the far north-eastern flank of India. Although the story is fascinating, this is perhaps the least compelling part of the book, since there is an awful lot of technical detail, and far less of the colour and passion of the early days.

Throughout this section of the book, the author down-plays the risks involved in her wartime work, of the dangers and discomforts in which she and her Naga companions lived. Risk of capture, torture, death at the hands of the Japanese is not mentioned, and whatever discomforts she talks about is all done in an almost breezily cheerfully stoic style. No whingeing or complaining for Ms Graham Bower.

Rather, what comes across is the good humour and resilience of this young woman leading her Naga scouts through the countryside, intelligence gathering for the Allies, in difficult terrain, with minimal supplies, and in horrid weather.

Having just read Fergal Keane’s magnificent “Road of Bones” about the siege of Kohima, one can only begin to imagine the real risks the author ran, but which she almost glosses over.

The end of the book, which came far too quickly for my liking, introduces us to her husband, and describes their delightfully impromptu marriage, following what can only be called a super-whirlwind courtship and engagement. Ms Graham Bower’s Nagas approved of her choice, and the descriptions of the ceremony they hold for the newly wed couple, as befits the woman they consider their daughter, is as moving and romantic a piece of writing as you could wish to read.

A wonderful book, which other than a few archaic terms, is as much of a joy to read today, as it was for my then teenaged friend Jane.

The only sad part of this review is the fact that this wonderful book is out of print. But do track it down in a library or from a second-hand book-shop.

It will fire your imagination, I guarantee.