Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Case of Missing Servant

'The Case of Missing Servant' is a decent detective novel by a British writer Tarquin Hall. This was my first detective novel based in India and in that way it was interesting. The author has tried to create a Sherlock Homes kind of character named, Vish Puri, who wears a Sandown cap and occasionally twirls his well curled up moustache. Somehow the character reminded me of Karamchand, an Indian detective played by gifted actor Pankaj Kapur on Doordarshan long time back.

The best part about the book is that it is based in India and majority of it in Delhi. Also, despite of the fact that the writer is British, he seems to have captured very minutely the nuances of India, particularly of Delhi. The scene that comes to my mind is when the driver of Vish Puri asks for direction of certain sector in Noida from a pizza delivery guy and the way the driver tells the directions is hilarious and can only happen in India (something to the effect of, near that park, besides that paani ke tanki and it goes on and on). Also, the characters in the book are extremely relate-able esp. nosy Mummy ji.

The area where the book falters is the ending which could have been more crisply written. There were a lot of loose ends esp. the motive of the culprit. Also, there were a couple of parallel stories going on which didn't add anything to the actual story.

Overall, the book is a light read that has the potential to become India's Sherlock Holmes kinda series but hopefully the next adventure of Vish Puri will do justice to that expectation.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dark side of India

I was reading the article "The great Indian darkness" by Grace Boyle, who has traveled from London to Bangalore to work on a project by Greenpeace about climate change and how it is affecting India. The article reminded me of my Engineering days in a small village of Mailoor in Karnataka. The village is adjoining the city of Bidar which is known for its Bidri Handicraft and is a pilgrimage site for Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Mailoor village is one of the poorest places I have seen in India and that in a state which is boasting itself as the IT hub of India. Infact, most villages around Bidar (which is one of the biggest district of India) are extremely poor. The level of poverty can be judged by the fact that I met a person there who once boasted to me that he had bribed a police constable 50 paisa, which he had gladly accepted and this was less than 10 years back. In a city like Bangalore even a beggar won't accept this small token of money.

The article by Grace Boyle took me back to the darkness of the villages in that district of Karnataka . I am not sure if anything has changed in these nine years but there is hope as in the article Grace mentions that even though villagers (which she visited) do not have electricity they do use mobile to keep in touch with their children who live in bigger cities. If only we can find a mobile application that can light these villages out of darkness.

PS: I had written a previous article "Stench of Poverty" about a train ride through the same district.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Slumdog Brothers

As I was reading an excerpt from Gurcharan Das's new book, "The Difficulty Of Being Good" about the epic battle between two brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani, it reminded me not only of the battle between Pandavas and Kauravas as written in the article but also two brothers I met during my trip to India. My cousin from US was also visiting and we were looking for a coffee shop in Noida after dinner. As we were wandering around, two kids tried selling us roses maybe assuming we were a couple with the usual punchline, "Bhaiya, Didi ke liye gulab le lo". Instead we went to the MacDonald's, got couple of burgers and called the two of them. I gave the bag of burgers to one of the kid and said, "Yeh tum dono ke liye hain".

As soon as I left the bag, I grabbed it again and told the kid holding the bag that I will take one of the burgers out right now and give it to the younger one, obviously realizing what-if the older one runs away after we are gone leaving the younger one hungry. As I was taking the burger out, the older kid said, "Yeh mera bhai hain, main isee hee doonga". Realizing my dog-eats-dog-world hypothesis, I gave the bag back to the older one but still told him to give the burger infront of me.

Battle of the Kauravas and Pandavas (pic courtesy:

There is a very good chance that the older kid would have given the burger to the younger one even if I had not insisted on it but if the mother of Mukesh and Anil had not intervened, would Mukesh had given Anil's share to him?

Yes, its the dog eats dog world out there but the dogs may not be from the slums every time.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Story of a refugee

These days I am reading Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi. The book is a perfect read during a time when country is preparing for elections. The book is a story of India's democracy and how it came to its fruition, right from partition to the creation of our consitution to the first elections to the present Great Indian Tamasha that our elections have become. As I was reading a chapter on refugees who came to India from present day Pakistan, it reminded me of the story of a refugee that I knew very well, my Nanajee (Grandfather).

My Nanajee was a shop-owner in a small village in the Rawalpindi district of West Punjab (present day Pakistan). These were the times when Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were living in harmony and infact inter-religious marriages between Hindus and Sikhs were very common. My Nanajee was a Hindu and he married my Nanima who was a Sikh. The story about their marriage goes like this. One day my Nanima's father came home from a marriage and told my Nanima's mother that he has arranged my Nanima's marriage during the wedding. When my Nanima's mother asked him, who the boy was, he replied "I didn't see him, only saw his back, he was wearing a turban and the turban looked very good" (Punjabi Hindus also used to wear turban during those times although different in style from Sikhs, something like Balraj Sahini wore in the movie Waqt). My Nanima's mother was horrified at hearing this but somehow went along. My Nanajee and Nanima got married and my Nanima still hadn't seen the man whom she had married as she was in a ghoonght all this time.

We would often ask Nanajee about their Honeymoon and he would always tell the same story to the amusement of all kids. He went to the room where Nanima was sitting, picked her up and took her to the rooftop. As he put her down on the mat on the rooftop, he gave her a jar of honey and said, "Ek reeya tuhada honey and uhh reeya moon, tusi manao honeymoon tee main chala sone" (Here's your honey and that's your moon, you celebrate honeymoon and I am going to bed)

My Nanima was one of the sweetest person and never asked my Nanajee for anything in her life but so was his love for her that he decided that all his sons and daughters will grow up as Sikhs. This was his gift to my Nanima for all the love and joy she had given him (even though the conventional wisdom of that time suggested that children took the religion of their father). If this is not the greatest love story then what is.

Then 1947 happened and suddenly Hindus and Sikhs from Western Punjab (and Muslims from Eastern Punjab) were told to leave their lives behind and go to the other side of the border.

(pic courtsey:

My Nanajee like most people didn't believe that partition would succeed. How can one day someone draw an invisible line and call it a border. But things were getting worse day by day, thousands of people were being butchered on both side of the border. My Nanajee decided to send Nanima and their kids to my Nanima's brother place in India. He told her that he will stay back and if things improve will call them back. Nanima moved to India with the kids and as we know things didn't improve, infact got worse day by day. For one month there was no trace of my Nanajee and everyone thought that they may never see him again except my Nanima who always knew that he will make it. And he did. But when he came back, he was in a pretty bad shape and didn't talk to anyone including my Nanima for atleast a month. Its obvious that he saw some things during partition that are better not talked about. With time physical and emotional scars healed up and he again worked hard to make a life for himself and his children.

My Nanima passed away before my Mom got married so no one from my Dad's side ever saw her. But Nanajee made sure that his grandchildren will never forget the love of his life. Whenever we would visit him, we would follow the same ritual every evening after dinner. All the grandchildren would go and sit on the floor in my Nanajee's room. He would first tell all of us a joke in Punjabi, some of which are legendary in our family, then he would tell a sakhi (story) from the life of Guru Nanak and finally end the katha-session (story-session) by telling us a story (or an anecdote) about our Nanima. He kept my Nanima alive through his stories, so much so that sometimes I feel that I know my Nanima better than my Nanajee. He was truly a remarkable man in every sense. His story is a story of one of the many millions refugees who left their lives on the other side of the border to create a new life on this side of the border.

He passed away more than a decade ago but his sense of humor, his love for his wife and kids will always remain with me as an inspiration.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A case of exploding mangoes

'A case of exploding mangoes' is a refreshing satirical novel based during the reign and death of General Zia ul-haq. The novel is part fiction, part reality and that what makes it so interesting to me. There were times when it was hard to separate reality with author's imagination. The story is based around the mysterious death of General Zia and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. The author, Mohammed Hanif, has interwoven all the conspiracies together to lead us to the eventual death of Zia.

As an Indian I always thought that Pakistan's history was very fascinating and it was more so because of the dictators that ruled the country. Although, none of the dictators had more influence on the country than General Zia (we still don't know how history will judge General Musharraf). One of my Pakistani friend in the office who is very knowledgeable in the history of his country once told me that General Zia was not only the most shrewdest but smartest dictator that Pakistan ever had. Unlike Pervez Musharraf, General Zia did a perfect balancing act between the Mullahs and the Americans. Although one of the interesting conspiracy theory surrounding General Zia's death is that it was CIA with the help of General Beg (his successor) that took him out.

The novel uses black humor to keep the story interesting. How can a rectal examination of the most dreaded dictator that makes him seem helpless not be interesting. Also, the part where General Zia's wife catches his picture in the newspaper staring at a Blonde American reporter's assets and then kicks him out of her room is hilarious. Ironically, it is a sad fact of South Asian history (and literature) that humor quotient has always been very low in its politics. Apparently not many people will find humor about the time when Indira Gandhi imposed emergency on the country. The novel does mention India and Indira Gandhi but it is her brutal death that haunts General Zia and makes him scared of his own bodyguards. I am sure that most Indians won't find the humor relating to India as funny though, whether its General Zia mentioning Gandhi as that 'Baniya' or protagonist of the novel mentioning Lata-Asha as "old, fat, ugly Indian sisters" (although the protagonist also mentions that battlelines are drawn across the country between Lata and Asha fans).

One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Major Kiyani. He is the un-official hitman of ISI and shows no emotions in killing or torturing anti-nationals. According to the novel he is on the plane that crashes killing everyone on board including General Zia. But the Google search on the incident doesn't mention his name as one of the passengers on board. Guess who replaced General Musharraf after he was removed as Chief of Army Staff. You guessed it, General Kiyani.

Before I started reading the novel, I had very limited knowledge of General Zia and associated him mostly with Islamization of Pakistan. He is even accredited with replacing words like Khudha from school books and replacing them with Allah and also drafting draconian rape laws in the country based on Sharia. And I felt that a lot of problems that Pakistan is facing these days is because of the mis-rule of General Zia. He is the one who forged the relationship between Military and the Mullahs. Infact, Red Mosque that caused a lot of trouble during the Musharraf era was the making of General Zia. This novel was not a historical reference on Zia ul-haq but it did gave some insights into the politics surrounding Zia's era.

I am a fan of fiction based in non-fiction setting and this novel found a perfect balance between the two. The novel is a fascinating read and its open-ended ending do lead to more questions than it answers. Who or What killed General Zia? Yours guess is as good as mine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's on your mind?

What are you doing? What are you listening to? What's your status? What's on your wall? What am I talking about? Well, I am talking about Media and how it is taken over our lives or atleast my life. I come from work and the first thing I do is switch on the TV. It is as if Mr. Obama on the news channel will solve all my problems. The next thing I do is switch on my computer and check my mails. After going through all the important mails and deleting junk, its time to move onto Facebook and reply to all the comments made on my status, photos, links, videos and the list goes on. Now its time to snoop into other people facebook pages and type my comments on their status, photos, links, videos and yet again the list goes on. Now that I have told everyone what's on my mind, its time to tell my twitter friends what am I doing. Mr Obama is here too encouraging me to volunteer in my community.

As I woke up today in the evening, I didn't switch on my TV and fought the urge to push the power button on my computer. I decided to sit on my couch and do nothing. It was hard work, doing nothing and my mind was racing from one thought to another but I sat there for almost 30 minutes doing nothing. What was on my mind? Lots of random thoughts. What was I doing? Trying to do Nothing. What was I listening to? My own thoughts.

I remember growing up in socialist India where we didn't had TV till I was almost 6 years old. The only media influence we had at home was the Akashwani Radio which I would listen for half an hour with my Mom when they will play the top ten songs of the week. The rest of the day, I would play with friends or do my homework. Then came the Black and White TV, which was an event in itself. Half the time we would be on our terrace trying to adjust the antenna to get a clear signal. I started spending more time infront of the Idiot box but was still bound by limited number of watchable shows. Then came the Color TVs and the cable channels and suddenly I had the power to choose the channel or the shows. VCR bought the cinema to my home and the value of another social event of going to movies diminished. Finally we got the computer and it gave all the power to me. Now with the advent of social media I am at a point where I interact more with people indirectly (through tweets and scraps) than directly (face to face or atleast voice to voice).

It is ironic that I am eventually using a social media, blog, to convey my annoyance at all the social media that have taken over my life. Although, it doesn't mean that after this post I will stop poking people on Facebook or stop twittering or scraping people on Orkut (remember Orkut?). This post is to remind myself to take atleast 30 minutes in a day and do nothing, to spend time with one's own thoughts and not to worry about, what's on my mind.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Jai Ho !!

Yesterday was India's day at the Oscars and what a night it was. Even though the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, is a British movie it is an Indian movie by heart. Danny Boyle gets lot of credit for bringing India to the Oscars but it was the slum kids from Mumbai that stole everyone's heart. It was great to see Azharuddin and Rubina, both of whom come from the dirtiest of slums in Mumbai dressed up all in Tuxedos and Formal attire.

The best part of the Oscars was that it showcased the diversity of India like never before. Allah Rakha Rahman - a converted muslim, Gulzar Saab - a sikh (his real name is Sampooran Singh Kalra), Resal Pookutty - a muslim from one of the communist state Kerela, all won the awards as Indians. Apart from the winners, the cast of Slumdog Millionaire represented a Bollywood star, Anil Kapoor, an aspiring model Frieda Pinto, a second generation NRI Dev Patel, a brilliant actor Irfan Khan and then those kids from all strata of the Indian society.

This movie or the Oscars will not change lives of slum kids all across the country but it was heart-warming to watch them celebrating the awards like they won it themselves. As far as controversy surrounding the movie, like calling the slum-dwellers dogs, one only need to go into one of these slums to see that these people live worse than dogs. In an interview of one of the child-artist, Azharuddin, he said, "Yeh kutte ke zindagi nahin jeene hain maine". But the movie doesn't compare these kids to dogs even though it calls them slumdogs. In one of the scene from the movie, after rioting when the brothers lose their mother and have taken refuge in a discarded pipe, Jamal Malik the film's protaganist asks an orphan girl Latika to come under the shade. It showed the human side of slum kids in a dog eats dog world.

Its no coincidence that the movie resonated with people around the world during the biggest recession of our times. The movie is about a triumph of an underdog and all of us are in some ways underdogs during these hard times. We all want to come out triumphant and aspire to become millionaires if not become one.

Slumdog Millionaire was not the only movie that made us proud. A small documentary about a girl from small Indian village with cleft lip, Pinki, called Smile Pinki also bought smiles to billions of people from around the world. It showcased how people like Pankaj, a social worker who travels from one village to another to find kids like Pinki with cleft lips and bring them to Varanasi to provide free surgery, only to bring a smile on their faces.

Jai Ho to all the Pinkis, Azharuddins and Rubinas of the world !!