SONIA GANDHI by RANI SINGH

I was beyond excited to get my hands on a preview copy of the biography of the leading political figure in India.  Living in Delhi, as I do, we hear and read about Sonia-ji (and Rahul-ji) day after day.  Their every move is reported upon, usually in breathless, uncritical prose.  Yet very little is actually known about them, beyond the bare, essential facts.

So I had high hopes from this biography.  I wanted to better know the woman who is de facto in charge of the country where I live.

Alas, these hopes were dashed.

This is not a book that is going to tell you much you didn’t already know about Madam (as the Indian press often describes her) and that is precious little in itself.  This book will better serve the reader who is not fully immersed in India, as your reviewer is.  For such a reader, this slightly rose-tinted walk through Sonia’s life and times in India will, no doubt, be interesting.

Rani Singh has meticulously researched Indian contemporary political history, which is an integral and indispensible part of the Gandhi story.  Daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, who was herself the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minster of India.  Married to Rajiv Gandhi, who would “succeed” his mother as PM, when she was assassinated, Rajiv himself was killed in 1991.  Politics was the life-blood of the family into which she married, a young Italian girl, whose French was better than her English in the early days of her marriage.

It is true, no question about it, that to go from a traditional, small-town, middle-class Italian background to being the leading political figure in the world’s largest democracy is no mean feat. It is no mean feat at all.

It is true, no question about it, that Sonia Gandhi has had more than her fair share of tragedy, which she has borne with dignity.

But after reading the biography, which was not an authorised one, and so the biographer did not actually meet Mrs Gandhi, I am no closer to understanding Sonia-ji, a woman who says very little, but whose actions have far-reaching implications for all of us living here.

The earlier chapters of the book, covering the years when Sonia and Rajiv met in England, their marriage and their first years in India have more than a hint of romantic prose about them.

“In an instant, Sonia’s and Rajiv’s destinies has changed, and a new dawn was breaking in their lives”  –  that kind of thing.

But then, to be fair, there are tantalising little glimpses into her life.

We learn that a politician gave her a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

We learn that on a holiday in the Lakshwadeep Islands, Rajiv and Rahul “often dressed in blue-and-white nautical-style beach wear.”

We even find out what flavour of juice they both drank at a reception in the late 1980s (coconut water for her, lime juice for him, by the way)

But what we never get is anything that defines Sonia other than a reflection of her husband, a keeper-alive of his legacy, and as a devoted mother to two children (adults now) who are always described in glowing terms.  The people to whom the biographer spoke have nothing but praise for Sonia.

The very fact of dynastic politics goes largely unquestioned :

“Though many circles are unhappy with the concept of dynastic leadership, it is a worldwide phenomenon, and dynastic heirs are deeply conscious of the preservation of values as assets.”

This is from the epilogue, when Ms Singh looks at Rahul, who may well take over from his mother.  And thus another generation of the same family may well be in charge of the country’s political future.

Read the book to get up to speed on Indian politics.  It’s an easy read, pleasantly written.

But what you will not really learn, sadly, is anything really new about Sonia Gandhi.

I know that I wanted to find out what really makes this enigmatic woman tick, but she remains as much as an enigma.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, the hardback costs $26

If you wish to buy this book, it’s very easy – simply click on the link below to order it :

 

WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS ? by KATE ATKINSON

Have you ever had That Moment when you see a book and say “Oh, this sounds good. Who is this author? Never heard of him/her,” and everyone else in the room stares at you as though you were from the dark ages ?
I had one of these moments a couple of months ago when I spotted Kate Atkinson’s “When will there be good news?” on a friend’s bookshelf.  She looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and pity, and promptly gave me the book to read.

How on earth could I have missed the wonderful writing of Ms Atkinson all these years, and a fellow Yorkshire-woman to boot ?

“When will there be good news?” is a skilfully and beautifully nuanced novel, with dark brooding themes, bringing Scotland and northern England to life in front of you, in dark, wintery brushstrokes.

The writer weaves together the lives, both past and present, of her characters, in moments that make you want to weep, others that make you fear for their lives, and many moments of pure laugh-aloud joy.

The ex-soldier-turned-ex-cop Jackson Brodie is the central pivot of the book, a man of integrity and honesty, a man capable of great love and tenderness, but one with heavy emotional baggage that he cannot offload.

The extra-ordinary child Reggie is a delight.  Bright, resourceful, a little terrier of a girl who deals with drama and poverty and loss and death, with wisdom and common sense way beyond her years.  She manages her buffeted-about life with a wonderful wry humour.  She is the type of girl you would love to have watching your back.

How these two meet is as dramatic an encounter as you could wish.  Reggie saves Jackson’s life.  We know it.  She doesn’t.  Nor does he.

The object of much of Reggie’s devotion is the beautiful, charming Dr. Hunter (and The Baby, of course) for whom she works as a nanny.  Dr. Hunter (and The Baby) inspire fierce love and loyalty from Reggie.  When Reggie ropes in the injured Jackson Brodie to search for Dr Hunter (and The Baby) when they go missing, they form a mismatched but oddly affectionate team, bickering and quarreling, but both as intelligent and committed as the other.

Another link in all their lives is the senior detective Louise Monroe, trapped in a marriage she is surprised to be in, still baffled by the crockery and the cutlery, the crystal and the jewellery – all the trimmings that come with marriage to a rich man, who clearly loves her –  he must do, poor man, since he puts up with a lot of downright bolshie behaviour from his driven, single-minded wife.

Louise knows Jackson, she also knows Dr. Hunter,  and she also knows Reggie a little, and as their lives become ever-more intertwined, the plot hurtles on like a speeding train…but they would be to give away too much.

Read this marvellous book for the story, which is compelling, with some unexpected twists and turns ; for the characters who are totally endearing.  Reggie is a firm favourite.  Ms MacDonald is a beautifully drawn portrait of a dying woman trapped in a declining mind and body, surrounded by leather-bound Classics and mounds of unwashed dishes and mouldy food.

A wonderful, wonderful book.

“When will there be good news?” is published by Doubleday and the hardback costs £17.99.

If you feel like buying the book, after reading this review (and it is a fab read) then simply click on the link below :

 

A LETTER OF MARY by Laurie R. King

Of all the delightful novels in the Mary Russell series, Laurie R. King’s “A Letter of Mary” is perhaps the most tender and romantic, bordering at times on sensuous.  In this book, we see at work the love that unites the young, clever, courageous Mary Russell and her much older, equally clever husband, one Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

The author’s craftsmanship and skill are displayed to dazzling effect in this novel, and from the moment we read the author’s preface, we are plunged headlong into a world of mystery, adventure, suspense, and her trademark inter-mingling of fact and fiction.

Or would that be fiction and fiction ?

What we have to remember, of course, is that Laurie R King is only transcribing manuscripts that she was sent in a trunk, many years earlier – the stage is thus set, and another delicious adventure starts.

This novel takes place entirely in England, though the Palestine Mary and her husband visited in an earlier adventure (“Oh Jerusalem”) is as integral part of the story as is the utterly delightful Dorothy Ruskin, whose brief appearance in the early chapters lights up the book, and drives the mystery from there on.

Mary Russell is as likeable and admirable a heroine as one could wish to meet.

Young, but wise beyond her years. Clever, but rather bored with her arcane academic word at Oxford.  Tall, short-sighted, staunchly independent and feminist, very conscious of her Jewishness in an otherwise era of muscular Christianity, and utterly devoted to her older, and very famous husband.

Mary has to do a lot of detective work on her own in this book, much of it deathly boring, and she bemoans the fact that the writings of Dr. Watson “give the overall impression of the detective leaping into the fray, grasping the single most vital clue in an instant…There is little indication of the countless hours spent in cold, cramped watch…all are passed over with a laconic reference to the passage of time. Of course, Watson was often only brought in at the end of a case, and so he missed the tedium. I could not.”

We encounter a different side of Sherlock Holmes in this novel – he is more openly affectionate towards his delightful young wife, and worries dreadfully about her when she must go into a tricky situation to help with their murder investigation.

There are enough twists and turns in this clever book to keep the reader enthralled, as we encounter the other Mr. Holmes –  the clever brother Mycroft, who blushes easily at some of his young sister-in-law’s teasing, and the young Inspector Lestrade, and a whole host of characters, both savoury and decidedly unsavoury.

Another great read from the pen of a witty, clever author.

Even the title is very clever.

A Letter of Mary (1997) is published by Bantam and the paperback costs $6.99.

Do read the book.  It’s a gem.  If you want to buy it right now, nothing could be easier.  Just click on one of the links below :

KIPLING SAHIB by CHARLES ALLEN

“Kipling Sahib” by Charles Allen is a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look into the Indian part of Rudyard Kipling’s life, those relatively few years he spent in India, but which marked him for life.

And for literature.

Charles Allen brings to this book all the detailed yet seemingly relaxed research of every single book he writes about his beloved India.  He is a writer who wears his scholarship easily.

A writer who loves India, writing about a writer who loved India, and a reviewer who lives in and also loves India, obviously makes India an essential part of this review. And the country is there, in all her noise and confusion and contradictions, especially when seen in the Victorian context.

The book traces the life of “Ruddy’s” parents, Lockwood and Alice Kipling, and their arrival in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865. Rudyard was born in Bombay and loved the city of his birth instinctively, and the sights and smells and sounds of those early childhood years would colour his imagination for ever.

Over 30 years later, he would write of Bombay with obvious affection :

“Mother of cities to me,
For I was born at her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.”

It was in this happy, protected world “between the palms and the sea” that Ruddy and his younger sister Trix lived the cosseted life of all colonial children – slightly ignored by their parents, doted on by their Indian servants, and allowed to run wild.

Allen paints a portrait of British India, and its strict hierarchy, into which the Kiplings never quite fitted in –  neither parents nor their clever, talented, but rather unconventional son.  This sense of not quite fitting in colours so much of Rudyard Kipling’s writings –  both poetry and prose – and explains the fascination he always had with the Tommy, the underdog, the outcast, the other side of the imperial British coin.

Pitifully few letters of Rudyard’s have survived, somehow managing to escape the ruthless holocaust of his later years, which saw papers, letters, drafts, scraps –  all the tools on which a biographer depends – being burned by the author and his wife.
And he was such a prolific letter-writer, which makes their absence more keenly felt.  But Allen painstakingly and skilfully weaves the few letters that survived, with those sent to Rudyard, with newspaper reports, and with diaries, to give the reader a lively, colourful glimpse into India, and how it affected the young Kipling.

Being sent back Home – i.e. to cold, dreary England – at a very early age had a lasting effect on Ruddy and his sister Trix.  They hid the truth about their brutal school from their parents, and went for years never seeing their family, let alone the heat and noise and colour of India, which both children missed so badly.

When he eventually returned to India, as a fledgling journalist, Ruddy was by then a teenager, on the cusp of manhood. His family then lived in Lahore, in the hot plains of the Punjab, and the young man set about re-discovering the land of his birth.  He inherits the sense of social exclusion that dogged his parents, never quite feeling fully at ease in British India, while simultaneously subscribing to many of its views.  Many of Kipling’s writings, read in the cold, harsh light of 21st century PC thinking, are shockingly xenophobic, but Kipling did no more than echo the views of the society in which he lived.

Rudyard Kipling emerges from this book as a fully-rounded man, at times very likeable, at times not so likeable at all.  He is brilliant but flawed, arrogant and insecure, and above all, never fully at ease in society.  “Kim” and the “Jungle Books” are just the most famous results of this feeling of not quite fitting in, of abandonment, observing one’s own society from the outside.  It is with a sense of pleasure that we learn that Alice Kipling called her infant Ruddy “little friend of all the world.”

In conclusion, a small personal aside : what strikes the 21st century reader of “Kipling Sahib”, especially if an Indian resident, is how some aspects of the country have changed so little.  The country that the Victorian Kiplings inhabited was as noisy, engaging, often maddening, sometimes frightening, and, sad to say, as insanitary then as now.

Just one example.

Here is Charles Allen quoting a history of Bombay by J.M.Maclean, who was writing before the senior Kiplings arrived in India, but he could well have been writing about India in 2010 :

“All round the island on Bombay was one foul cesspool, sewers discharging on the sands, rocks only used for the purposes of nature…To travel by rail…was to see in the foreshore the latrine of the whole population of the Native Town.”

“Kipling Sahib” is published by Little, Brown and sells in hardback, in India for Rs 795.

If you wish to buy the book, now you have read this review, just click on the link below.

Couldn’t be easier.