Murder With Bengali Characteristics – Shovon Chowdhury – Book Review


MurderWithBengaliCharacteristicsGoodreads blurb: A teacher lies dead in a small village near Calcutta. Since the Chinese took over, things in the Bengal Protectorate have been sliding from bad to worse. It looks like the work of the New Thug Society, whose members are determined to free Bengal from Chinese oppression.

Under Governor Wen, who is confused and slightly weepy, the law and order situation continues to deteriorate. Resurrected members of the Bengal politburo stalk the land, demoralizing all those who thought they were dead. The Maoists are still in the jungle, and remain strangely reluctant to re-integrate with the Motherland. Meanwhile, Didu has escaped, the price of fish is rising, and the Competent Authority, undisputed ruler of India, is trying to start a war with China.

Unimpressed by the rising threat of war, which is none of his business, Inspector Li of Lal Bazaar doggedly pursues his prey. Why is Propagandist Wang so keen that he investigate something else? What are mining magnate Sanjeev Verma and his partner Agarwal up to, and how is Governor Wen involved? Will Inspector Li be able to interview his suspects before General Zhou shoots them all? And why does his ex-wife keep calling, even though her new boyfriend is rich enough to have a duplicate Eiffel Tower in his garden?

Outrageously funny and wickedly imaginative, Murder with Bengali Characteristics marks the return of one of our finest comic writers.

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Now, the truth is that I have been trying for quite a while to get my hands on a copy of The Competent Authority by Shovon Chowdhury, his debut novel which caused quite a stir among the fiction reading community for the theme it dealt with, the excessively dripping satirical overtones in the book and for the general humor with which it dealt with its narrative. And therefore, when his second bookMurder with Bengali characteristics hit the markets, I immediately requested for a review copy of the same from the publishers, who kindly obliged.

But little did I realize that this was a sequel to the first book. Ok, admitted, it is not quite a sequel in the classical sense of the term and can also be read as a standalone novel, but the fact remains that the entire backdrop of this book can be better understood and appreciated only when one has read the first novel. That being said, this is quite a competent (pun intended) book by itself and can also be enjoyed as a standalone novel as well.

In a dystopian future, where parts of India have been nuked by the Chinese and almost the whole of Bengal has been occupied by them and turned into a Chinese protectorate, Inspector Li is confronted with what seems like an open and shut case of murder. Barin Mondol, a small time communist worker is found murdered, strangled with a yellow scarf and a coin is left next to his corpse. The entire crime scene screams loudly as the handiwork of the ‘thugs’. However, for whatever reason, Li is not entirely convinced and gets busy investigating the crime.

With his team of Big Chen, Sexy Chen and Phoni-Babu, he digs deeper into Barin Mondol’s history and tries to unearth possible motives and suspects for the crime. What follows thereafter forms the crux of the narrative which involves multiple characters which are caricatures from popular Bengali culture. As I don’t want to face any defamation suits from any CPI or TMC cadre, I am not naming any of the people on whom these caricatures are based, but suffice to say it will take readers all of ten or fifteen seconds to figure out who the author is talking about when these characters present themselves in the narrative.

While the investigation itself is nothing great to talk about, nor is the motive for the crime, what I found particularly interesting about the book was the fact that the author has pretty much lambasted all of popular Bengali culture, starting from their fixation with the Hilsa and fish in general, to communism, to the Ananda Bazar Patrika, their fascination with sweets, their general outlook towards politics and how general people perceive politics and politicians. As if this wasn’t enough, the author has also gone on to poke quite a bit of fun at some inherently Chinese characteristics such as the Communist Party being the ‘be all and end all’ for all decisions and being completely unquestioned, how the politburo of the Party manages to constantly stay above all decisions made by the Party, and so on.

In a nutshell, this book is a hilarious look at what might happen if we marry Bengali politics and its people with the Chinese version of communism. And suffice to say that there are more than quite a few laugh out loud moments in this book, especially with a lot of witty one-liners which are in the ‘blink and you might miss them’ variety.

Click here to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.

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City of Spies – Sorayya Khan – Book Review


CityOfSpies

Goodreads blurb: ‘God was everywhere, but so was the general.’

It is the summer of 1977 and Pakistan swelters in the unrelenting heat. Weeks after her eleventh birthday, Aliya Shah wakes up to the news that there has been a coup d’état, General Zia has taken over the country and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is in jail. Although the shadow of the general and his increasingly puritanical edicts threaten to disrupt their comfortable existence, life goes on for Aliya much as before as she attends the American School in Islamabad. However, when a much loved young boy, the son of the family retainer, dies tragically in a hit-and-run accident, her world is turned upside down, especially when she discovers the terrible secret of the murderer’s identity.

City of Spies is coming-of-age story that explores Aliya’s conflicting loyalties and her on-going struggle to make sense of her world. Set in late 1970’s Islamabad and Lahore, City of Spies is a gripping novel that unfolds over thirty months in Pakistan’s tumultuous history.

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In the recent few months I have had the wonderful opportunity to read a couple of books that highlight the history of Bangladesh, one of India’s lesser known neighbors from the subcontinent. While one of them was a straightforward chronicling of the freedom struggle of the country from Pakistan, the other was a fictional story which used actual historical events in this freedom struggle as its backdrop. Between both these books I now have a fair idea of the history of this relatively young nation. And as if that weren’t enough, I now have had the good fortune of reading City of Spies by Sorayya Khan which gave me an opportunity to learn more about yet another illustrious neighbor of ours, Pakistan.

Using the point of view of an eleven year old girl in 1977, the author presents a picture of Pakistan where political turmoil rules the day with General Zia Ul Haq having taken over control of the country in a coup and the subsequent changes that the country faces in the aftermath. While the story itself deals with the everyday challenges of the protagonist Aliya and her teenage years, the author cleverly uses fiction and narrative plot points to bring out the changes sweeping across Pakistan and the subsequent impact it has on the characters in the story.

An accident which kills the son of one of Aliya’s family servants, the aftermath, the discovery of the person who caused the accident and how it impacts Aliya’s relationship and dealing both with the servant and the perpetrator of the crime form an interesting backdrop to what is primarily a political narrative of sorts. How General Zia, his form of Islam and his whimsical ways of running Pakistan affect the lives of everyday men and women is clearly brought out in the forms of various characters, events and everyday occurrences in the plot itself. And that to me, is where the author succeeds very well.

By using the point of view of an eleven year old girl who is half Danish and half Pakistani, the author also clearly brings out the dichotomy of the dual identity of the protagonist which forms a running thread throughout the narrative. Aliya’s struggles to ‘fit in’ with her friends at school, and ultimate resignation to the fact that she would always remain ‘half and half’ forms an interesting narrative arc which runs throughout the narrative.

In a nutshell, read this book for an incisive look into how human relationships are defined by extraneous circumstances, in this case political upheavals and circumstances and events such as accidents. If you had to read a fictional book set in Pakistan which will give a glimpse into the everyday lives of people who lived there in the late 70s, then this book is a good starting point, for sure.

Click here to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.

The first firangis – Jonathan Gil Harris – Book Review


thefirstfirangisGoodreads blurb: The Indian subcontinent has been a land of immigrants for thousands of years: waves of migration from Persia, Central Asia, Mongolia, the Middle East and Greece have helped create India’s exceptionally diverse cultural mix. In the centuries before the British Raj, when the Mughals were the preeminent power in the subcontinent, a wide array of migrants known as ‘firangis’ made India their home. In this book, Jonathan Gil Harris, a twenty-first-century firangi, tells their stories.

These gripping accounts are of healers, soldiers, artists, ascetics, thieves, pirates and courtesans who were not powerful or privileged. Often they were escaping poverty or religious persecution; many were brought here as slaves; others simply followed their spirit of adventure. Some of these migrants were absorbed into the military. Others fell in with religious communities—the Catholics of Rachol, the underground Jews of Goa, the fakirs of Ajmer, the Sufis of Delhi. Healers from Portugal and Italy adapted their medical practice in accordance with local traditions. Gifted artisans from Europe joined Akbar’s and Jahangir’s royal ateliers, and helped create enduring works of art. And though almost invisible within the archival record, some migrant women such as the Armenian Bibi Juliana and the Portuguese Juliana Dias da Costa found a home in royal Mughal harems.

Jonathan Gil Harris uses his own experience of becoming Indian through the process of acclimatizing to the country’s culture, customs, weather, food, clothes and customs to bring the stories of these shadowy figures to vivid life.

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At the outset let me confess that I was extremely piqued by the title of the book and its blurb primarily because most of what I know about Indian history before the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was what I had read in my history books and the occasional Amar Chitra Katha during my younger days. And on the one off instances where I had the opportunity to read up about this fascinating period of Indian history, I was more than taken aback by the interesting set of circumstances that our country found itself in during these days, especially the days before The East India Company and its British employees arrived on the scene here. And it wouldn’t be too much to tell that this book more than satiated my curiosity in this regard, and in the process has kindled a newfound interest in this period of Indian history more than ever before.

While the book itself tries to tell the stories of a seemingly disparate set of individuals with only the common thread of them having settled down in India, the book at its core has India, Indians and more importantly ‘Indianness’ and what it takes to actually ‘be an Indian’ in more than one way. The author very cleverly hooks the readers in by narrating his own initial experiences in India and his own home-grown methods to cope with the country and its effect on his mind and body. And by cleverly using the human body and the travails it undergoes in a new environment as a metaphor for the ‘firangi’ experiences in India, Jonathan Gil Harris goes on to chronicle some of the lesser known foreigners in India.

What follows are my observations about almost all the individual foreigners’ experiences that the author has chronicled in this book, but be assured, no ‘spoilers’ have been given away.

The first two chapters deal with the subtle yet noticeable influence of Indian food and more specifically fruits on the ‘firangis’ Garcia De Orta and Thomas Stephens, while the next chapter deals with three warrior slaves Malik Ayaz, Chinali and Dillanai and their respective stories as to how they found their way into the armies and the hearts of their Indian masters.

The story of Malik Ambar and his contribution to the origins and growth of guerrilla warfare in the North Deccani regions of Maharashtra is the next chapter while the stories of the Naqqash and Javaheri in Jahangir’s court where the firangis exhibited an exemplary knowledge and appreciation of the  fine Mughal arts of painting and jewelry making is quite a nice chapter.

The chapters on the two firangi women, both named Juliana make for interesting reading, although not quite as interesting as some of the earlier chapters. But this is made up by the wonderfully interesting story of Thomas Coryate, who was as much a performer, as a traveler and one of those rare firangis who managed to assimilate as much of the local cultures that he encountered throughout his travels, or ‘travails’ as he termed them.

An interesting character who went by the name Sa’id Sarmad Kashani, who among other things was most notably remembered for the nudity which he embraced for almost the entire second half of his life. This particular firangi’s story has more than enough meat in it to pique the attention of readers who are philosophically and spiritually inclined.

What follows is a small yet interesting story of a firangi pirate king Sebastian Goncalves Tibau from the eastern coastal city of Chittagong in Bengal makes for some interesting reading, especially for those who enjoyed the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies like I did.

The whimsical story of Nicolas Manucci who seems to have harbored quite the ‘racial’ hatred against all non-Europeans but still managed to successfully lead quite a colorful life in India over the course of at least four decades or so. So much so, that he seems to have become more ‘Indian’ than any of the other firangis mentioned in this book.

To conclude, I reproduce one of the last few sentences in this book “one might even say that the authentically Indian can never be identified with a singular trajectory but, rather, has always been a series of interruptions and creative responses to those interruptions” and this, in a nutshell, is what this book is all about; the earliest firangis who came to India for various reasons via various routes but stayed on despite all the interruptions they faced and thrived to become ‘authentically Indian’ which reflects the author’s own life, personality and choices in so many ways.

Click on the following link to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link].

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Disclaimer: The publishers offered me a review copy of this book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

The Black Hill – Mamang Dai – Book Review


TheBlackHill_SmallGoodreads blurb: Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the action takes place in the Northeast—the region that spreads from Assam to Arunachal today. The East India Company is seeking to make inroads into the region and the local people—in particular the Abor and Mishmee tribes—fear their coming and are doing all they can to keep them out of their territories.

The author takes a recorded historical event—the mysterious disappearance of a French priest, Father Nicolas Krick in the 1850s and the execution of Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe for his murder—and woven a gripping, densely imagined work of fiction around it. And, even as the novel tells the story of an impossible journey and an elopement, it explores the themes of the lure of unknown worlds, the love people have for each other and their land and the forces of history.

Gimur, a girl from the Abor tribe, runs away with Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe, and they settle down on his land near the Tibetan border. Father Krick’s attempts to reach Tibet to set up a Jesuit mission are foiled repeatedly by the local people not because of any personal animus towards the priests or their work, but because they feel—rightly—that once the priests come, the British, with their guns and their garrisons will follow.

The story revolves around events in Gimur’s and Kajinsha’s villages and is also seen from the point of view of Father Krick, a gentle, intelligent man, devout but no bigot, whose determination to reach Tibet no matter what the cost, impacts tragically on all those who encounter him.

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The book begins with Gimur and her fellow villagers in Mebo being wary of the rumors of the Britishers making inroads into their territories and in this troubled backdrop, she finds herself being drawn to Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe. Breaking all conventional cultural norms of the time, she falls in love with him and elopes with him dreaming of a better future where she doesn’t feel constrained by all the rigidities of the traditions and customs that her Abor tribesmen have forced upon her all her life so far. Theirs is a passionate love which knows no boundaries and pretty soon they are happily married and settled down in Kajinsha’s village.

In the meantime, Father Krick, from faraway France lands on the shores of India with the sole intention of establishing a prefecture in Southern Tibet and spreading the message of the Lord there. Although he is quite aware that previous attempts to do so have been met with extreme hostilities and even violence on the part of the locals who would not even allow foreigners to set foot on their land, let alone establish a religion there, he is not dissuaded and is driven by this dream of his. To get to Tibet though, he has to pass through Abor and Mishmee territories and he sets off on this journey with nothing but hope and faith in the Lord to help him succeed.

Set in a time when tensions were at their highest between the various tribesmen among themselves, their distrust and hatred for the common enemy, the foreigner, the narrative of The Black Hill takes us readers through a wonderfully poignant tale of love, loss, faith and ultimately the human nature of endurance. Mamang Dai makes complete use of her knowledge of local traditions and customs to weave a wonderful tapestry of plot points which involve Gimur’s love story, her flight with Kajinsha, Krick’s first journey to Tibet through hostile territory, and the various tragedies that all three characters face in the course of their lives over the next two to three years.

Some parts of the narrative are especially haunting and will linger around in readers’ minds for a long time after the book has been read, and this to me, is why this book will hold a special place in my heart. The fact that the author chose to highlight the human aspects of the characters’ lives while momentous events unfurl around them is what makes this book eminently memorable. The author has resisted the temptation to make this a book about the colonial foreigners gradually making inroads into the hills and taking control and instead has chosen to set the stories of her protagonists in this melee, and it works wonderfully well in this book. The

Click here to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.

The Colonel Who Would Not Repent – Salil Tripathi – Book Review


TheColonelWhoWouldNotRepentGoodreads blurb: ‘Salil Tripathi brings together the narrative skill of a novelist and the analytical tools of a political journalist to give us the story of a nation that is absorbing, haunting and illuminating.’ Kamila Shamsie, author of A God in Every Stone.

Between March and December 1971, the Pakistani army committed atrocities on an unprecedented scale in the country’s eastern wing. Pakistani troops and their collaborators were responsible for countless deaths and cases of rape. Clearly, religion alone wasn’t enough to keep Pakistan’s two halves united. From that brutal violence, Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation, but the wounds have continued to fester. The gruesome assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s charismatic first prime minister and most of his family, the coups and counter-coups which followed, accompanied by long years of military rule were individually and collectively responsible for the country’s inability to come to grips with the legacy of the Liberation War.

Four decades later, as Bangladesh tries to bring some accountability and closure to its blood-soaked past through controversial tribunals prosecuting war crimes, Salil Tripathi travels the length and breadth of the country probing the country’s trauma through interviews with hundreds of Bangladeshis. His book offers the reader an unforgettable portrait of a nation whose political history since Independence has been marked more by tragedy than triumph.

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For somebody who prides himself on knowing more than quite a bit of current affairs, this book was a revelation in the sense that it opened up a whole new neighborhood in the form of the history of the formation of East Pakistan and subsequently the birth of Bangladesh to me. In fact, this book was so good that it managed to change my entire point of view on the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 as well.

Dealing with topics such as the birth of Pakistan, the influence that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman managed to exert on the whole of East Pakistan, the issues that East Pakistan had in terms of its cultural and regional identity being at loggerheads with West Pakistan all the time, the political upheaving that the Pakistani elections of 1971 caused, the author Salil Tripathi provides us with a fairly unbiased view of how the Bangladeshi crisis was aggravated in the first place. I personally found this portion of the book to be very revealing in that it helped me get a broader understanding of the political dynamics of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the subsequent challenges that East Pakistan faced in terms of integrating with the larger and more influential West Pakistan. It also clearly highlighted how the West played ‘big brother’ to the East only on paper when the reality was that it clearly detested the East for more reasons than one.

The next portion of the book goes into great detail as to how the West initiates Operation Searchlight in March’71 which sets in motion a large chain of events over the next 9-10 months of the year in which armed conflict, its consequences on the larger populace of East Pakistan, the intervention of the Indian Armed Forces in the conflict and the subsequent declaration of independence of East Pakistan and the birth of a new nation Bangladesh is chronicled in great detail.

The book goes on to discuss war crimes such as rape and genocide rampantly committed by the West Pakistani army and its sympathizers and its impact on the overall Bangladeshi people. The fact that most of these crimes and its perpetrators are still unpunished and operate with impunity in national politics is something that still rankles the victims’ families and remains one of those inconvenient truths that the government tries to hide under the carpet. Chronicling various incidents and victims’ stories, this book presents quite a vivid picture of how armed conflict in any region of the world leaves behind volumes of untold stories of what is usually termed ‘collateral damage’ by governments and armed forces. A reading of this portion of the book simply goes on to highlight the severe impact that armed conflict in any part of the world has on the common man and his life who invariably is caught in a crossfire which is not his own making in most cases. The futility of violence as an option to resolve issues is yet again brought to the fore in this portion of the book.

The book finally ends chronicling the recent political developments in Bangladesh over the last two decades where the two prominent women politicians (both daughters of men who played significant roles in the liberation of the country) have ended up ensuring that the ‘politics of vendetta’ takes precedence over more pressing issues such as development of the nation itself.

What struck me as important and critical about this book was the fact that more than anything else, the East Pakistanis felt isolated from West Pakistan primarily due to the fact that they were not allowed to continue to live in harmony with the Bengali culture that they had followed all these years. A culture which assimilated Hindu, Muslim, Chakma and various other tribal faiths, beliefs, gods, goddesses, food and language was suddenly forced to adhere to strictly Islamic ideals and this, more than anything else, led to a whole lot of ‘bad blood’ both literally and figuratively between the Western and Eastern parts of Pakistan. In my opinion, this was yet another example where narrow minded politicians used religion, language and culture as weapons to achieve their personal goals of coming to power and staying there for as long as they possibly can. I wonder if today’s politicians of the region (and even the world over) will ever learn lessons from these episodes from history.

You can purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.