The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

End of Empire…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1942 and tensions are running high in India. Britain, with its usual high-handedness, has decided that Indian troops will join the war effort without consulting the Indian leaders. Gandhi is demanding that the British quit India, even though that will probably mean that the Japanese move in. When the British arrest the leaders of the Independence movement, for a few short days the peace of Mayapore is broken as rioters take to the streets. And in that time one British woman will see her idealistic dreams destroyed while another will be brutally raped. Eighteen years later, an unnamed researcher will come to Mayapore to try to discover the truth of what happened in those days.

Scott starts by telling us:

This is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened. There are the action, the people, and the place; all of which are interrelated but in their totality incommunicable in isolation from the moral continuum of human affairs.

But in fact it’s the story of two rapes – the rape perpetrated on Daphne Manners, a white girl who made the fatal mistake of falling in love with an Indian man, and the rape perpetrated by the British Empire on the culture, society and people of India. Written at the height of the breast-beating anti-Colonial guilt experienced in Britain following the gradual letting go of their empire, Scott shows no mercy in his dissection of the evils committed, not so much by individual Brits, though there’s some of that, but by the imposition of one dominant culture over another.

The book is told in a series of sections, each concentrating on one character, and gradually building to create an in-depth picture of fictional Mayapore, which functions as a manageable microcosm for India as a whole. It takes a long time to get to Daphne’s story, deliberately, as Scott circles round, showing life in Mayapore from many different angles and over a period of years both before and after the event, creating a feeling of eventual inevitability about her rape as a thing that rises out of that ‘moral continuum of human affairs’, and feeds back into it.

Scott uses many different styles to tell his story. Some parts are first person “spoken” accounts told to the researcher, some are third person narratives, some take the form of letters between characters, or official reports, and some come from Daphne’s journal. In the third person sections, where it’s written, presumably, in the author’s own style, the language is frequently complex, rather spare and understated at the moments of greatest emotion, but often with lush beauty in the descriptive passages, creating a wonderful sense of this town and the surrounding country. In the other sections, Scott creates individual voices for each of the narrators, suited to the form they’re using, and he sustains these superbly so that one gets a real feel for the personalities behind even the driest and most factual reports.

Some of the sections are intensely human stories, like that of Edwina Crane, a woman who has devoted her empty and lonely life to the Church of England mission schools that teach the Indian children how to be good little English-speaking Christians. Her admiration for Gandhi has finally been destroyed by his recent actions and she has found that the Indian women she had looked to for a meagre form of social life are no longer so keen to be patronised by white women. Or the story of Hari Kumar, an Indian boy brought up in England and suddenly transported back to the country of his birth, where he is an outsider to both cultures – unable to speak the Indian languages and lacking knowledge of their way of life, but as a ‘native’ he is not allowed to be a part of the British community either, despite his impeccable English manners and education.

Other sections are told to the researcher and although their purpose is to shed light on Daphne’s story, the characters reveal as much about themselves along the way: Lady Lili Chatterjee, high caste and with a British title via her deceased husband, she is respected by the British but still subjected to constant, often unthinking, discrimination; or Mr Srinivasan, a lawyer who was involved in the Independence movement, and who shows us the Indian perspective on the political questions. The reports from the military and civil authorities are formal in style, but are accompanied by letters to the researcher, where the characters are able to look back on and reassess events with the perspective of time passed.

And in the last section we learn Daphne’s own story in her own words – not just the story of her rape, but of her life, of the choices she made and of her reasons for making them.

Paul Scott

Scott creates a vivid and believable picture of the society, culture and politics that led to this moment in time, but he never forgets to put people at the heart of it. While some sections are focused very much on the political situation and, as a result, might be rather dry for readers who are less interested in that aspect, these are broken up by the often intensely intimate stories of the characters, many of whom become unforgettable. Since I’m fascinated by the British Empire, and India especially, I found the political stuff just as engrossing as the personal. Superbly written, intelligent at the political level and deeply moving at the personal – a wonderful novel.

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Book 20 of 20

A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

The Gentleman’s Game…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

selection-day-2Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Radha, the elder, with his film-star looks and love of the game, is the better of the two, and it’s accepted that he will be the star. But as they grow up, Radha’s skill diminishes, just a little, but enough for him to be eclipsed by the younger Manju, whose attitude to the game is more ambivalent. Their mother having disappeared when they were little (run away? dead? The boys aren’t sure), the brothers have been brought up by their tyrannical father Mohan, who is determined they will succeed in the sport as a way to raise the family out of the slums. So when the chance of sponsorship comes along, Mohan grabs it, even though it’s at best an unethical deal which sells his sons into a kind of bondage and, at worst, borders on the illegal.

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. The game, once the preserve of all that was considered gentlemanly, has become all about money. The days of languorous five-day test matches has morphed into not only one-day cricket, but the hideousness of the ultra-short 20-20, which Adiga describes in his humorous glossary of cricketing terms at the end of the book as “in the eyes of some older fans, almost as bad as baseball.” It’s not necessary, I think, to know about cricket to enjoy the book – Adiga doesn’t fall into the trap of lengthy descriptions of games, tactics or technicalities, and the sport could as easily be any other. But cricket has a particular resonance, because of its origin as a game of the British Empire, a period whose influence is still vital in understanding much of Indian society.

In the next few minutes, Anand Mehta came up with the following observations about cricket: that it was a fraud, and at the most fundamental level. Only ten countries play this game, and only five of them play it well. If we had any self-respect, we’d finally grow up as a people and play football. No: let’s not expose ourselves to real competition, much safer to be in a “world cup” against St. Kitts and Bangladesh. Self-obsession without self-belief: the very definition of the Indian middle class, which is why it loves this fraud sport.

Poised to offer the world more deep thoughts about the gentleman’s game, Mehta heard:

Shot! Bloody good shot!…

Confronted by the sound and smell of an instant of real cricket, Mehta felt all his mighty observations turn to ashes.

As Manju hits adolescence, he becomes fascinated by another young player, Javed. Javed is gay and Manju’s attraction to him suggests that he is too. But Manju is of a lower class than Javed and has a father who’s not likely to be the most supportive, so it would take considerably more courage for him to admit his feelings than Javed. But his relationship with Javed isn’t purely about physical attraction – Manju finds himself influenced by the older, more confident boy in other ways. Javed, another talented cricketer, sees the corruption in the sport and wants Manju to give it up. So poor Manju has a jealous brother who feels he deserves to be the best, a friend pulling him away from cricket, and his father and his coach putting pressure on him to practice every moment he can. It’s not altogether surprising that he’s confused before he gets to Selection Day, the day on which the big teams pick which young players they will sign.

Sachin Tendulkar, India's finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He's also much loved by advertising executives...
Sachin Tendulkar, India’s finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He’s also much loved by advertising executives…

I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai or Bombay (names which he uses interchangeably). He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but, unlike some of the (usually ex-pat) Indian writers who love to wallow exclusively in the misery, Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature. There’s also a good deal of humour, often very perceptive and coming at unexpected moments, startling me into laughter. This book tackles some tough subjects, but on the whole Adiga simply lays the arguments out and leaves the reader to come to her own conclusions – there’s no whiff of the polemical in his writing.

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

There is, however, some great characterisation, and he writes about them empathetically so that it’s hard not to see why even the less savoury characters have turned out as they have. One of the things I loved was seeing how the perception of Mohan, the boys’ father, changed as they grew up. This man who loomed over them in childhood shrinks as they grow – both physically and in terms of his influence. It’s the mark of the quality of Adiga’s writing that this happens so gradually there’s no jarring moment, but towards the end I realised I had come to feel about him quite differently than I had in the beginning.

For me, this was a slow-burn book. It took at least a third of the book before I was convinced that this tale of cricketing brothers was going to hold my interest. But as it progressed, I began to appreciate the subtlety with which Adiga was showing various aspects of contemporary Indian life, and as always I found his writing pure pleasure to read. And by the time I reached the end, I found he had again created some characters who had become real to me, in the way Masterji did in his excellent Last Man in Tower. This book confirms Adiga’s place as one of my favourite authors, and gets my wholehearted recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham 1) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a rising manThe corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce. Back in England, Wyndham had worked in the CID and Special Branch, and had been recruited into the intelligence service during the war. It is his wartime boss, now posted to Calcutta, who has persuaded Wyndham to come to work for him there.

It is soon discovered that the victim is Alexander MacAuley, one of the many Scots working in the Colonial government. His eminent position there means that it is likely the murder was a political act, carried out by the terrorists seeking to achieve independence for India. Wyndham agrees this is the most probable motive but, being a conscientious officer, he is also determined to keep other options open and to look into MacAuley’s personal life. But this isn’t the only case on Wyndham’s plate – a train has been held up by a gang of men, again probably terrorists, who killed one of the guards. When it appears an infamous terrorist leader is back in Calcutta, Wyndham has to ask himself if the two events could be related.

According to the brief author’s bio on Amazon, Abir Mukherjee, I assume of Indian heritage, was born in London and grew up in the West of Scotland. I was intrigued to see how these different influences would play out in a book about India under the Raj, especially given the huge Scottish involvement in colonial India. The answer is brilliantly! Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. The dialects of the Scottish characters are excellent – they give a real flavour of regional Scottish speech patterns without being in any way hard for non-Scots to understand.

Abir Mukherjee
Abir Mukherjee

In truth, I feared in advance that the book might turn out to be something of a fashionable anti-Empire rant, but actually he keeps it very well balanced, steering a careful course between showing the iniquities of the colonial system without being too condemnatory of the individuals operating within it. Through the terrorist aspect of the plot, we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. Wyndham is an enlightened man, but not anachronistically so. He is aware of the relatively tiny number of Brits in India, meaning that the co-operation of Indians at all levels is essential to the maintenance of the colonial system. So to him, fair play and even-handed justice are more than just desirable for their own sake, they are necessary tools in the struggle to maintain Indian support for the colonial government. Surrender-Not gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.

But, lest this make it all sound like a heavy political snorefest, let me hastily say that all the historical and political stuff is done subtly, never feeling that it’s wandering into info-dump territory or veering towards the polemical. Mukherjee uses it to provide an authentic background, but the focus of the book is on the investigation and the development of the characters of Wyndham and Banerjee. The excellence of the writing means that the tone is light and the story entertaining, even though it touches on some dark aspects of life. And the personal outweighs the political – in the end, as with all the best detective novels, the motives lie in the murky depths of the human heart.

A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series. I will be queuing up for the next instalment in Wyndham and Banerjee’s adventures – Mukherjee has leapt straight onto my must-read list!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman

gandhi and churchillCometh the hour, cometh the men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.

Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel...
Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel…

Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.

Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.

Churchill with his beloved cigar...
Churchill with his beloved cigar…

Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.

And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.

Arthur Herman Photo credit: Beth Herman
Arthur Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!

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Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

black narcissusTill the rains break…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The palace at Mopu was once known as the House of Women, home to the harem of the General, the local overlord of this remote spot high in the Himalayas. That General is now dead, and his son wants to do something to improve the lives of his people. So he has invited the Sisters of Mary to set up a convent there, to provide a school and clinic. Sister Superior Clodagh and her small group of fellow nuns make the long journey, full of enthusiasm to set up the new Convent of St Faith. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, set amidst the mountains, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.

Rumer Godden writes in a straightforward style, with little in the way of dramatic or poetical flourishes. But this simplicity is deceptive – she draws her characters with a surprisingly few strokes of her pen, and brings a haunting quality to her descriptions of place that allows her readers to understand the profound effect of it on the nuns. Sister Clodagh is young and inexperienced, but sure of her ability to lead – a confidence that isn’t completely shared by the Mother Superior back at the mother convent. Sister Blanche, known to all as Sister Honey, is sweet and kind, wanting to do her best for the children who attend the school and clinic. Sister Philippa and Sister Briony are the more experienced nuns, sensible and hard-working, Philippa in the gardens, and Briony heading up the clinic. And then there’s Sister Ruth, a troubled woman, full of jealousies and suppressed emotions; the kind of person no-one really wants around.

The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger
The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger

As they begin to settle into life at the convent, each of the nuns finds the isolation working on them in different ways. Sister Clodagh looks back to the events that brought her to a religious life, and for the first time finds herself questioning both her calling and her abilities. Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with the garden, creating grandiose plans that the convent could never afford. Sister Honey finds herself becoming emotionally attached to the children to a degree beyond what is either wise or safe. And Sister Ruth struggles with the altitude, constantly complaining of headaches and stomach aches, and feeling that the other nuns don’t value her, especially Sister Clodagh. As time goes by, the Sisters begin to drift, almost dreamlike, away from the routines and religious observances that were once second nature to them, finding that the dramatic beauty and emptiness of the mountains somehow diminishes the things they once held precious.

Into this mix come the catalysts: the General’s heir, a rather beautiful young man, clad in silks and jewels, seeking an education; and Mr Dean, a man with a less than savoury reputation regarding women, but with a blatant masculinity that half-frightens, half-attracts the nuns. Mr Dean is the new General’s man, on whom the nuns must rely to get practical things done around the convent. He is not conventionally religious, constantly challenging Sister Clodagh’s rather glib attempts to create a replica of the mother convent here in a place with a very different culture and spirituality, and pointing out any time he feels she falls short of what she professes to believe. But it is Sister Ruth who reacts most strongly to Mr Dean, years of suppression breaking out into ever wilder longing and jealousy.

Rumer Godden

The wonderful characterisation and atmospheric descriptions of this starkly unforgiving landscape provide a backdrop to the nuns’ struggle to stay on their religious path in this place they find so hauntingly mystical. For each, the experience will change her forever in ways she never imagined – some will find spiritual growth and a truer kind of faith, some will reach a reconciliation with events in their past, others will find their strength isn’t enough to come through the challenges of the place unscathed. Godden’s prose is flowing and effortless, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story without being distracted by any flamboyancy of style. The story that starts off slowly and rather gently gradually works itself up to the heights of gothic horror, but told with enough restraint to keep it feeling completely authentic and believable. An excellent book – highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of Godden’s work in the future.

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Film of the book: As an occasional feature throughout the year, I’ll be watching the “film of the book” with a view to seeing how the movie version works as an interpretation of a novel, or occasionally the reverse, when I’ll be reading the book of a film I love. Black Narcissus will be the first – to see the film review, click here…

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

Morass of woe…

😦 😦

sleeping on jupiterWhen she was a little girl, Nomi’s house was invaded by soldiers. They brutally killed her father and her mother fled with Nomi, looking for safety. But they became separated and Nomi was eventually taken in by an ashram run by a charismatic guru, where she spent her childhood years. Now, in the present, she is on her way to Jarmuli to make a documentary, and also to seek some answers about her past. On the same train are three elderly women, off on holiday together.

It is an unwritten law that the Booker longlist will always contain at least one book from or about India. Unfortunately that law doesn’t seem to specify that the book should be good. Which is a pity, since some of the best writing in the English language comes out of India, so one wonders why the Booker committee ends up picking ones like this.

This is a trite mish-mash of oh so liberal concerns piled together in yet another of the great tradition of Indian misery novels – the ones that suggest there is nothing good about India and no hope for change. We have child abuse, rape, dementia, the subordination of women and gays, violence – both domestic and war. Oh, and poverty, religious mania, animal cruelty and madness. And a dying dog, naturally.

The following is a genuine quote from the book, not a pastiche of it, I promise. A depressed drunk is swept out to sea on a current…

He would not move his arms. He would not move at all. The sea could have him. Out there somewhere his wife was drinking beer, eating sandwiches, making love with his friend, and that dog was dying.

Or how about Nomi, on a sunlit day, looking out at the sea…

She had seen – she counted – the Sargasso Sea, the Chilean Sea, the North Sea, the Bass Strait, the South China Sea. She’d even dipped a toe in the Baltic Sea – that was icy – and grey like slate. Whole shiploads of children drowned in the Baltic Sea during the Second World War. Think how they died. Frozen.

I am not for one moment suggesting that India doesn’t have deep problems of poverty, inequality and violence, but I am tired of reading books that simply describe these things without offering anything in the way of contrast or hope. It feels like a kind of voyeuristic wallowing, bathos in its purest form; especially in this one, where there’s no feeling of political anger driving it, as there is for example in Mistry’s equally miserable but much better written A Fine Balance. On the upside, this one is much shorter.

Anuradha Roy
Anuradha Roy

For the most part, the writing is average. It starts off quite strongly with the description of the attack on Nomi’s village, and then the introduction of the older women. But within a few chapters it sinks into being a list of one sad or violent or abusive incident after another until it eventually drowns itself in a morass of woe, while the pedestrian prose does nothing to buoy it up. I found the characters became increasingly unconvincing as the book dragged on – as I’ve remarked before about other Indian novels they are merely puppets to be tortured at the whim of the author for the supposed entertainment of the reader. This reader was left feeling unentertained, unenlightened, uninspired and unmoved.

And unbelieving that this book was longlisted when the profound and beautifully written The Way Things Were was not…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus Books.

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The Tender Herb (Murray of Letho 6) by Lexie Conyngham

the tender herb 2Days of Empire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Charles Murray of Letho is on an extended visit to Italy when his manservant Robbins turns up unexpectedly. Robbins has received a letter from Mary, Murray’s former maid, asking for advice. Mary’s husband has been arrested for murder in Delhi, where his regiment is based, and Mary is convinced of his innocence. When Robbins asks for permission to go to Delhi to help out, Murray decides that he will go along too – partly out of loyalty to Mary, and partly because he is trying to escape from an enthusiastic mother, determined to trap him into marrying her rather dull daughter.

Have you ever had the experience of loving a book all the way through to the last few pages and then suddenly coming upon an ending that changes your entire opinion? I’ve enjoyed all of the Murray of Letho books. Set in early 19th century Scotland, each one has incorporated a decent murder mystery into an excellent account of an aspect of post-Enlightenment society, well researched and well written. This one is set primarily in India, but the India of Empire, so another important aspect of Scottish life at that time, when so many Scots were posted out there as either government officials or soldiers.

As always, Conyngham wears her research lightly – the descriptions of the journey to and then across India are vivid and ring true, but don’t overwhelm the quality of the characterisation, which is perhaps her main strength. The plots are sometimes the weaker part of the books and again that’s the case here – there’s a lot of bumbling around getting nowhere fast, followed by an unnaturally quick denouement. But it’s still strong enough to hold the book together and to give plenty of room for Conyngham to allow her characters to explore this new and rather exotic environment on behalf of the reader. We get a real feel for the difficulties of this huge journey – a long sea voyage followed by weeks of traversing the country on elephant-back with the huge entourage of native servants that was the norm for wealthy travellers in India. And the depiction of Delhi society, as seen through the eyes of the British there, is both interesting and believable.

Red Fort Palace in Delhi - at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.
Red Fort Palace in Delhi – at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.

The books fall between ‘cosy’ and ‘gritty’ – just where I like crime fiction, in fact. The cosier element is around the recurring characters, whom we’ve got to know and care about over the previous books – particularly Murray himself, of course, who’s an intelligent and attractive lead. There’s always a good deal of humour in the books which makes them a particularly enjoyable read, and in this one there’s a lovely romantic sub-plot, as Murray finally meets a young woman who may be his match in every way. The grittier side comes from the murder plot – in this case, the knifing of a clergyman outside the barracks. But it appears that the clergyman, along with many of the other characters, may have had secrets to hide, and there may have been more than one motive for his murder.

So, great descriptions, excellent characterisation, a nice little bit of romance, and a strong enough plot – it was all going so well and heading straight for 5 stars. But – and I accept this is a matter of personal opinion only and annoying since I can’t explain without spoilers – I hated the way it ended, to the extent that I’ve been left unsure as to whether I want to continue with the series now, and that has to be a serious mark against it. All I can say is that everything up to that point had led me to believe it was going to finish one way, which I would have found satisfactory, and then at the last moment the whole thing was turned on its head, and I found the eventual outcome neither desirable nor credible. 4 stars, then, but still with a strong recommendation to read the series, preferably in order from the beginning. And yes, despite my cryptic remarks over the ending of this one, and with just a little hesitation, I’d still recommend it too.

Book 11
Book 11

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The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

the way things wereThe past is a foreign country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Skanda’s father dies, it falls to Skanda to accompany his body back to India for the funeral rites. Though at first reluctant to go, once there, Skanda decides to stay on for a while, living in his parents long-empty flat in Delhi. The death of his father and the experience of meeting up with many of the people he knew in childhood leads him to remember and re-assess the recent history of his family, from the period of the Emergency in the mid-70s until the present day. Like his father, Skanda is a Sanskrit scholar, with a penchant for finding linguistic cognates – seeking out the shared roots of words across languages ancient and modern.

And yet – strange as it must seem – they had a corresponding desire to make a great show of their Indianness, to talk of classical dance recitals, of concerts, of textiles, and spirituality. To throw in the odd precious word or phrase of Hindustani, to upstage their social rivals with a little bit of exotica so obscure that no one could be expected to know it. India was their supreme affectation! They wore it to dinner, as it were; and, of course, the ways in which they were truly Indian – their blindness to dirt and poverty, their easy acceptance of cruelty – they concealed very well.

And this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. Skanda’s family comes from the rich English-speaking society of Lutyen’s Delhi, those who became such an integral part of colonial India that decades after Independence they still educate their children in English and look to Dickens and Shakespeare as their cultural classics. But through Skanda and his father Toby, Taseer suggests that this disconnect with Indian culture and heritage pre-dates Empire, that already India had forgotten or distorted its history and that this has fed into the divides within modern society. The fascination that Toby and Skanda have with Sanskrit and the ancient writings of India are openly symbolic of what seems like a cry for India to look past the turmoil of the last couple of centuries and to reclaim her pride in her own heritage as one of the great and influential cultures of the early world. The point is made that Skanda pursues his research into Sanskrit, not in India, where it is looked on as a kind of curiosity, but in America. (As someone who has banged on a good deal about the loss of national culture and heritage in my own country, I found this whole aspect of the book eerily familiar, especially the tendency, which I share, of blaming external sources, namely the British Empire, for the loss, when in fact it tends to be as much the aspirations of the educated of the society itself that allow this to happen.)

Rashtrapati Bhavan formerly known as Viceroy's House, New Delhi
Rashtrapati Bhavan formerly known as Viceroy’s House, New Delhi

But the book isn’t just about India’s past. It also looks at the politics of the present from the time of Mrs Gandhi to today. When reading Mistry’s A Fine Balance, I complained that the book concentrated so much on the poverty and misery of the underclasses that it failed to offer any answers or hope for the future. Taseer’s novel is in no way overly optimistic, but because it concentrates on a class that wields power and influence, the message is much more that India must and can choose its own future, not by rejection of its past, recent and ancient, but by understanding it and building on it. Taseer shows the rise of the new industrial class and, while they’re not necessarily shown in the most attractive light, they are a vivid contrast to the rather effete upperclass shown as clinging to the habits and values of the colonial period.

Here the murk has sunk deepest. Tonight, the British city, with its low domes and bungalows, is like a submerged necropolis. The rickshaws glide along its streets, with that stealthy sense of purpose with which single-beam submersibles in documentary films explore the ocean floor; the yellow streetlights, buried in the canopies of trees, have the nested glow, at once inviting and dangerous, of marine wonders behind screens of sharp coral; and, everywhere, the dense cold air, sulphurous and full of particles, closes over old wounds. Even where the scar tissue runs deepest, the line between the British city and the Muslim town to its north, where the escapees of one upheaval came to populate the abandoned places of another, the fog, easy and billowing, brings a feeling of continuity, at once even-handed and insensitive, like the blanketing hush of a first snow, like curfew in Srinagar.

That might all make the book sound unbearably dull, but in amongst all the politics and philosophising are a group of exceptionally well drawn and believable characters, whose story is interesting not just for what it tells us about India, but in itself. Skanda is to a large degree merely there to tell the story of his parents, Toby and Uma. Uma is without exception the most intriguing female character I have come across in Indian fiction and, for me, she is the heart of the book; and is in many ways the personification of this post-colonial class that Taseer is portraying. When I read Taseer’s earlier book, Noon, one of my reservations about it was that the women in the book were almost entirely background figures, so I was particularly pleased to see such a strong female figure front and centre in this one. Very much a flawed human, Uma is nevertheless the product of her society, and she has an independence of character that I found very refreshing. To some degree, she is still defined by the marriages that she makes, but she makes those choices for herself. The difficulties for women in what is still a male-dominated and very unequal society are not minimised, but through Uma we see the glimmerings of change.

Aatish Taseer (Source:
Aatish Taseer

It’s always a pleasure when one marks an author as ‘one to watch’, as I did with Taseer after reading Noon, and then finds that promise fulfilled. This huge and ambitious book is full of profound insight, brilliant characterisation and beautiful language. It’s not unflawed – sometimes Taseer’s voice comes through too strongly, making his point rather than leaving the reader to find it, and the device of Skanda telling the story of his family’s past to his new girlfriend is clunky in places. But the quality of the prose and the depth of insight outweigh any weaknesses in the structure and make this an enlightening and deeply thought-provoking read. And though Taseer avoids giving any easy answers, I came away from the book with a sense of optimism; a feeling that perhaps the intellectual direction of India might be moving somewhat away from contemplation of its failures towards consideration of how to achieve a better, and inherently Indian, future. An exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

the lives of otherSometimes life really is too short…


This is the story of a large, extended family all living under one roof in Calcutta, and of one of the children of the family who becomes a Marxist agitator following the Naxalbari uprising. I abandoned it at the halfway point – sometimes life really is too short. A fellow reviewer* described it as “Like The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good”. I think that’s a perfect description – and I found The Lowland pretty underwhelming…

There are about twenty characters in the family and the book jumps about between them in a fairly random fashion. The timeline also varies and it’s often not made clear what period we’re in, though the main storyline seems to be the one set in the ’60s. Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).

But I would have been willing to make the effort to plough through the book if the story were interesting, the writing beautiful or the characters enjoyable to spend time with. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The story is simply an observation of this unpleasant family that goes on and on in endless detail but never actually heads anywhere. The exception to this is the strand about the budding terrorist. Cut in at the end of chapters, this strand is told as a series of extracts from letters he sends to an unnamed person, possibly a lover – at the point I abandoned it we still don’t know. Here we learn all about the lives of the rural poor, but from a distance – we never actually get to know any of the poor, just this angst-ridden middle-class Marxist’s interpretation of them, liberally sprinkled with a regurgitation of Marxist theory – at great length.

Calcutta 1967
Calcutta street scene 1967

The quality of the writing is fine – neither particularly bad nor good. Occasional passages are well written and there’s no doubt he gives a very, very, very detailed picture of everything he describes (including lots and lots of abstruse mathematical theories – well, he obviously knew them, so why not put them in?). I quipped that Donna Tartt had obviously bought a couple of enormous economy sized bags of words and used them all in her writing of The Goldfinch – Mukherjee has obviously been to the same shop. I saw him being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel and when asked about the length of the book he replied that he wanted the book to be ‘densely rendered’ (Good news! It is!) and that if people were paying £17 for the hardback he felt they should get their money’s worth. Personally, I’d prefer to pay for quality rather than quantity. He also said that he thought even Indian people would find it hard to really understand the ‘Bengali-ness’ that he is apparently trying to portray – I guess therefore it’s understandable that this Scot struggled to feel engaged.

Neel Mukherjee
Neel Mukherjee

The real flaw in the book though is that, out of this huge cast of characters, there isn’t a single one who is likeable, engaging or even particularly interesting. The family on the whole dislike each other and that I did find understandable, since I disliked them all. We have bullying of children, animal cruelty, incest (or as good as), and sexual perversion of the most ridiculous kind about which it has been my misfortune to read. We have some members of the family being treated as second-class citizens within the home, sibling rivalry taken to extremes, obnoxious wives battling for domestic supremacy, servants being treated as badly as servants usually are, and beggars being turned away at the door to starve. Two weeks in this family and I’d have become a Marxist terrorist myself.

I said it when I was reviewing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and I’ll say it again – I do not believe that India is this unrelievedly awful. The problem with unmitigated misery is that it becomes numbing after a while – there has to be something to contrast it with if it’s going to have an emotional impact.** Or alternatively it has to be written so beautifully that the words themselves become the point. All of these people are so deeply unpleasant that this reader couldn’t care less what happened to them. In fact, I was rather hoping for an alien invasion to brighten things up.

In truth, this probably deserves about three stars for the writing and descriptions but, since I found it such a dismal, tedious and ultimately pointless read that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I feel I have no option but to put it in the 1-star slot. It’s been shortlisted for the Booker, of course…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

* Amazon UK reviewer “Mister Hobgoblin”

** As an aside, I find it intriguing that the three authors I have criticised as portraying such a bleak mono-coloured view of India are all people who have left it to live elsewhere (Rohinton Mistry, Neel Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri). On the other hand the two Indian authors whom I have hugely enjoyed (Aravind Adiga and Chandrahas Choudhury) both live and work there, as far as I know, and give a much more balanced and nuanced picture of the people and of life there. I rather wish someone would do a thesis on differing viewpoints of emigrants and residents…

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A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Abandoned, but not lightly…


a fine balanceShortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize, and recommended by just about everyone who’s read it, this book has accumulated 244 5-star reviews on Amazon UK, and only three 1-stars. Well, four now. I began the book on the 27th July and finally abandoned it on 1st September at just over the half-way mark. So this review is an attempt to explain why I struggled so badly with a book that apparently the whole world loves.

The book is set in the period of the late ’70s/early ’80s, probably in Bombay, I think, though I don’t think Mistry ever actually says so. Mrs Ghandi is in power and ‘The Emergency’ has been declared – a period, it would seem, when the government was cracking down on opposition and civil liberties in general. I say ‘it would seem’ because again Mistry doesn’t really bother to tell us about the political situation – he implies his characters are too poor or disinterested to care about politics and, since we see only through their eyes, we get only a vague, fuzzy view of what’s going on. Fine, if you already have an in-depth knowledge of Indian politics of four decades ago, but unfortunately I don’t.

Indira Gandhi Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS
Indira Gandhi
Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS

The book starts with the coming together of four people whose stories make up the heart of the book. Dina Dalal, a widow on the edge of poverty, takes on a contract to make clothing for one of the big new companies that have taken work away from the traditional tailors. To fulfil the work, she hires two such dispossessed tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash. At the same time she takes in student Maneck, the son of an old school friend, as a paying lodger. The first half of the book is taken up with the backstories of these characters, explaining what tragedies have led them to this point. And when I say tragedies, boy, do I mean tragedies. Rape, murder, all forms of cruelty, racial and religious attacks, threatened incest – all human misery is here, often several times over. But these poor people don’t realise this has actually been the good part of their lives – things are going to get worse…

But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

Mistry’s writing style is very good. The descriptions of these awful lives in this horrible country are detailed and convincing. So convincing, in fact, that one is left wondering why anyone would choose to go on living at all. Each day is a joyless burden, filled with nastiness and filth. There are only two groups of people in this country: the oppressors and the oppressed. No hope, no chance for escape from the degradations and privations that increase with every passing day. Not a picture of India that I recognise from other novels, the best of which do show the extreme poverty and huge inequalities, but also show the diversity and even vibrancy of the country as a whole.

The characterisation is strong in the sense that each of the four main protagonists is well delineated and their behaviour is consistent with their past experiences. But the problem is that Mistry clearly has a political agenda and the characters are no more than puppets. I felt that Mistry had started with a list of all the bad things about life under Mrs Ghandi, added all the different ways people can be nasty to each other, and then dumped all this misery on the heads of this tiny group of characters. I’m sure all these bad things happened, indeed still do, but I’m equally sure they don’t happen every single day to the same people. If there’s a riot, they’ll be caught up in it. If a slum is pulled down, it’ll be their slum. If a father is murdered for being the wrong caste, it’ll be their father. If a wife is raped for being poor…well, you get my point. Even if one of them pauses to make friends with a dog, you can be sure the dog will die hideously within a chapter. The strange result of this was that I didn’t care what happened to any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as people – merely as fairground ducks for Mistry to shoot over and over again.

Mumbai slum
Mumbai slum

I’ve had a long, long time to think about why I found it so difficult to pick the book up and read even a few pages each day, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the book lacks two fundamental necessaries. Firstly, there is no plot. There is simply a description of the miserable lives of these miserable people – we’re not heading towards, or even away from, anything. And secondly, there is no glimmer of hope. I’m not suggesting there should be a happy ending with them all becoming rich and happy, but there has to be a possibility of something in the future that would make their present lives worth the horrible daily struggle. But there isn’t – it’s crystal clear that things are going to get worse and worse until Mistry finally runs out of things to torment them with; at which point they will be abandoned to their miserable fates. (When I decided to give up, I flicked ahead to the end to see if I was being unfair – I wasn’t.) I’m a political animal, so I love novels that include an element of politics in them. But there must be something else in them too – otherwise it’s not a novel. This book is about one important sector of society, the poor, at a particular point of Indian history; but I got no overall picture of the society, no understanding of why the political situation had reached this stage, no glimmer of what opposition might be in train. As an extremely lengthy description of how awful life can be for people caught up in hopeless poverty and cruelty, full marks. But then we already know that, don’t we? We watch the news…don’t we? A novel needs to be more than that, surely? It needs to tell us what we don’t already know – it needs to make us think…to care. And ultimately this one doesn’t…

‘Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’ he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.’

For me, Mistry failed to achieve a balance – the book is too heavily weighted towards misery and hopelessness. The quality of the characterisation and descriptive writing makes me feel that my 1-star rating is harsh, but since I can’t bring myself to finish the book, I feel it’s the only rating I can give it.

If you’re one of the people who loved it, I’ll be interested to hear why…

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Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Powerful and thought-provoking…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

witness the night2When a family is horrifically murdered, the sole survivor becomes the chief suspect, even though she is a fourteen-year-old girl who had been found tied up at the scene and had herself clearly been assaulted and raped. Durga is now in prison and social worker Simran Singh is called in by her old friend Amarjit, the Inspector General in Punjab, to assess her mental health and decide whether she can be interrogated. But Simran finds it impossible to believe in Durga’s guilt and so sets out to investigate the events that led up to the murders…

This powerful book won the Costa First Novel award in 2010. The murder story itself is hard-hitting, but the real purpose of the book is to take a much more in-depth look at the place of girls and women within Punjabi society, and it doesn’t pull any punches. In a society where male children are treasured, female infanticide is shown as commonplace, while women who fail to produce male children are stigmatised and may be cast aside to face a life of poverty and disgrace. With the advancement of medicine, Desai shows how the ability to determine the gender of a foetus has led to the practice of aborting females, sometimes with the mother’s willing consent, but sometimes forced. At the same time, these very practices mean there is a shortage of females of marriageable age, leading to arranged marriages with girls from Indian families elsewhere. The book also shows the continuing cultural after-effects of Empire and the links with the large Asian community in Britain, specifically Southall, an overwhelmingly Asian-populated suburb of London, where the elders still conform to old traditions while the younger generation are much more anglicised in their outlook.

Simran is independently wealthy, so has escaped the traditional need to marry and breed. She is a modern woman, who smokes and drinks and has boyfriends, all things considered quite shocking here in the town of Jullundur where she grew up, but which she left many years ago. Though she’s now in her forties, Simran’s mother still hasn’t given up hope of marrying her off and getting some grandchildren, and this aspect of the story adds some much-needed humour to lighten the tone in places, while also allowing the author to contrast the more enlightened attitudes of some areas of India to those prevailing in Jullundur.

Kishwar Desai
Kishwar Desai

The story is mainly told by Simran in the first-person (past-tense, thankfully) intercut with sections from Durga’s journal and e-mails between Simran and Durga’s sister-in-law in Southall. The plot is a little too convoluted and sometimes messy – it seems as if Desai has wanted to cover so many issues that she has had to cram too much in for total plausibility. There is an occasional descent into preachiness but not badly enough to destroy the effectiveness of the story. The writing is good rather than excellent, and for my taste there were too many unexplained Indian words that left me floundering for a meaning from time to time. I also wondered if the society and culture could really be quite as bleak as Desai paints it, but perhaps it is.

None of these points, however, take away from the impact of the book. Unlike so many of the crime novels I’ve been disappointed by recently, this one shows what the genre can do when it’s done well – cast some light on aspects of society that are normally hidden, and tell a strong and hard-hitting story without indulging in lengthy descriptions of gratuitous sex and misogynistic violence for the sole purpose of ‘entertainment’. Desai has subsequently written a further two Simran books, and I will be keen to see how she develops the character and what subjects she tackles in those. Meantime, this one is highly recommended.

Thanks to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for the recommendation that led me to this book.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Disappointingly average…

😐 😐 😐

the lowlandSubhash and Udayan are brothers, growing up together in post-independence Calcutta. Subhash is conventional and studious, fully intending to follow the path expected for him by his parents. Udayan is more adventurous and becomes politicised after the brutal suppression of a communist uprising in the small village of Naxalbari. Udayan soon becomes a member of the Naxalites, an offshoot of the Communist Party, which believes in direct action – i.e. terrorism – to achieve its ends. Subhash meantime takes up an opportunity to go to the States to continue his studies in oceanography.

This is where Lahiri makes her first strange choice. Instead of remaining in Calcutta with the charismatic and interesting Udayan, learning more about the Naxalites and the political situation, we are whisked off with the frankly dull-to-the-point-of-catatonia Subhash, and given detailed accounts of the considerably less exciting environment of the campus of a University in Rhode Island, where the most thrilling thing that happens is that Subhash decides not to get involved in Vietnam protests. From there on, we only learn what is happening in India through the occasional letter that Udayan sends, until an incident occurs that makes Subhash return briefly – but only long enough to marry, when he and his new wife return to Rhode Island. The bulk of the remainder of the book is taken up with detailed minutiae about the extremely dull and miserable lives led by Subhash, Gauri and their daughter, Bela. Subhash and Gauri both spend their lives studying and then teaching in Universities so we rarely get off campus and, after an entertaining start, Bela turns into as dull and misery-laden a character as her parents.

I suspect the aim of the book is three-fold: to show the sense of displacement felt by immigrants, to examine the effect of a violent incident on the futures of those affected by it and to look at the moral questions surrounding the use of terrorism as a political tool. The blurb describes it as ‘epic’, ‘achingly poignant’ and ‘exquisitely empathetic’. It is epic in the sense that it covers a period of 50 years, but geographically and emotionally it remains static for most of that time. The other claims, I’m afraid, would depend on the reader caring about the characters and sadly these characters are not written in a way that induces empathy. Lahiri’s second strange choice is to make the book entirely humourless and passionless, with Subhash and Gauri perpetually wallowing in their self-created misery. Each has a successful career, but neither seems able to form real relationships – not even with each other.

Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri

The writing is completely flat, and so is the story; no passion, no light and no real dark – just greyness, like living under permanent cloud-cover. On the rare occasions that Lahiri discusses the politics of the Naxalites, she does so in a way that reads like a textbook or a Wikipedia article, which means that there is no depth or humanity to it. The old saw of ‘show, don’t tell’ was constantly running thorough my mind at these points. The moral questions around terrorism are only discussed at the end of the book, in a very superficial and throwaway manner. The implication is that these characters were damaged by Udayan’s actions, but we are given nothing to make us believe they were significantly different people before. In fact, it is very clear that Subhash in particular lacks passion and humour before the life-changing incident just as much as after.

For a plot that promises so much, the book fails to deliver. Competently written rather than beautifully, I find it hard to understand why this book was shortlisted for the Booker. If this is really one of the best books being produced in the Commonwealth, it goes some way to explaining why the Booker is being opened up to the rest of the world. But I suspect it was shortlisted for the author’s reputation and the ‘worthiness’ of the message rather than for any real qualities of writing or story-telling. A disappointingly average read that I didn’t feel gave me an adequate return on the time I invested in it.

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Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

arzee the dwarfThe best laid plans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Despite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.

Light on plot, but long on characterisation, this is a deliciously bittersweet little comedy. Arzee has been happy in the Noor, nestled in the womb-like darkness of the projection room. He counts the images of the Bollywood starlets whose posters line the walls of the cinema as friends and is proud of being in charge of the machine that projects the magical beam of light onto the screen. He might now be relying on his mother to bargain for a wife for him but he has known the joy of true love – a love lost when his prospective father-in-law objected to the match. And he hopes to rediscover some of the sweetness of that love with his new wife, once she has been found. But when the cinema closes, he will lose not only his job but his hopes of marriage. It is time for Arzee to reassess his dreams and try to take control over his own destiny.

“Languorous music would be playing on Monique’s stereo – some French Edith woman with a last name full of huffs and puffs, her delicate syllables overlaid with the sound of pigeons cooing in the skylight, and the silences between words sometimes filled in with sounds from the neighbour’s television set to create a new Indian mix.”

As we follow Arzee through the streets of Bombay (not Mumbai in this book), we meet a host of characters, each brought vividly to life; Arzee’s mother, always favouring Arzee over his brother because of Arzee’s dwarfism, a staunch and sometimes overbearing protector; Deepak, the not-very-hard hardman pursuing Arzee for a small gambling debt – the two of them locked in a cat-and-mouse game where it’s not at all clear which is the mouse; Dashrath, the taxi driver who dispenses philosophy as he drives; and Monique, Arzee’s beautiful and rather nebulous lost love.

The characterisation of Arzee himself is excellent. The narrative is third-person but always seen through Arzee’s eyes. While we get to see the difficulties and mockery he’s had to face as a result of his height, Choudhury neither makes Arzee an object of pity nor does he portray him as a hero. He’s just a flawed man – bombastic, prone to self-pity and annoyingly talkative; but he’s also a dreamer who, even at the darkest moments, clings to his dreams.

“The mirror made it seem as if there were two of each of them, and this was true in a way, for (Arzee thought about this carefully) she was both the Monique that she was and the Monique he took her to be, and these two were similar but not the same, and he was both himself and the Arzee who belonged to her. And in the gaps and linkages between these real and reflected beings, all kinds of meanings and suggestions seemed to be lurking.”

Chandrahas Choudhury
Chandrahas Choudhury

Choudhury’s prose flows smoothly throughout, with some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. Something of an unexpected delight, this is one of those rare books that makes me smile each time I think of it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYRB.

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The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

the white tigerEscaping the Rooster Coop…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Having given the FictionFan award for Book of 2011* to Adiga’s great novel Last Man in Tower, I backtracked to this earlier book with very high expectations, perhaps too high. The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker Prize but, while it shows all the same skill in writing, the humour and the ability to compel the reader to keep turning the pages, for me it lacks some of the humanity and warmth that characterises the later book.

On the eve of the Chinese President’s visit to India, Balram Halwai, the White Tiger of the title, writes him a series of letters ostensibly to explain how democracy and entrepreneurship are the factors that differentiate the two countries. However as Balram’s story unfolds, it become a confessional, as we learn of the unconventional way in which he broke out of the ‘Rooster Coop’ that keeps the lower caste Indian in a state of poverty and servility to the rich.

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

Balram’s job as driver and servant to a rich businessman gives Adiga the opportunity to show the contrasts in Indian society, as does Balram’s move from the poverty of rural India to the rich parts of Delhi in the wake of his master. Adiga’s writing is so assured and flowing that the book is a pleasure to read and Balram, despite his faults, is a character it’s hard not to empathise with and like. But somehow the descriptions of the society seem a bit shallow – not enough shades of grey. Adiga is wryly scathing about the corruption endemic in politics and the police, but so many of the characters seem purely driven by greed that often there’s very little room for the reader to sympathise with them.

Overall, I found this a well-written, enjoyable read with obvious signs of the talent and promise that, for me, Adiga fulfilled in Last Man in Tower. Recommended.

*The prize for this prestigious award is that I buy the author’s next book.

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Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

last-man-in-towerUK300When a community divides…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Sometimes a book is so good it’s hard to do justice to it in a review. This is one of those books.

As the Vakola area of Bombay (as the author usually calls it) begins to come up in the world, the inhabitants of an apartment block are offered money by a developer to move out. One man, Masterji, a retired teacher, wants to stay. This is the story of how the promise of wealth changes and corrupts a community. But it’s also so much more than that. The author takes us into the lives of Masterji and his neighbours, letting us see their thoughts and dreams and fears. With humanity and humour he paints a picture of the friendships, favours and shared histories that bind a community together; and then shows how small envies and old grievances are magnified when that community is divided.

Bombay itself is a major character in the book. There is a real sense of how the city is changing as India becomes richer. The contrasts between the lucky rich and the frightening hand-to-mouth existence of the very poor are woven into the story, but subtly, so that the reader accepts these contrasts as easily as the inhabitants. The author also highlights the cosmopolitan nature of the city, the differing religions and cultures all forming one vibrant whole.

Aravind Adiga (
Aravind Adiga

This book made me laugh and cry. It is full of warmth and the characters are drawn sympathetically and affectionately. In many ways an intimate portrait of a small group of people, but also an in-depth look at the strengths and frailties of human nature. By a long way, this was my favourite book of 2011 and winner of that year’s FictionFan Award, the prize for which, as regular readers may know, is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book. I’m still waiting, Mr Adiga!

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Village by Nikita Lalwani

the villiageUnlikeable characters in an unfocused book…


This is one of those books that I so wanted to like but simply couldn’t. A BBC crew filming a documentary in an experimental prison village in India promised drama and emotion in an interesting location. Instead we have stereotyped and cardboard protagonists, a group of indistinguishable prisoners trotting out their clichéd sad stories of injustice on demand and, despite every piece of landscape, clothing and food being described in minute and sometimes florid detail, absolutely no sense of place.

‘She could hear the hysteric sound of the water pump, calling her with the pleading sound of a trumpeting animal, curtailed after several pushes only to be started again.’

There are three in the film crew. Serena is the uncaring, unfeeling professional who is only interested in making the film dramatic and doesn’t care who gets hurt along the way. The presenter Nathan, macho chauvinist and egoist, could not possibly be any more stereotyped. Shallow, unlikeable and unconvincing as these two are though, they pale into insignificance beside our chief protagonist, Ray. Of Indian descent, she wants to fit into this culture she is visiting, but honestly I can’t imagine Ray fitting in anywhere successfully. Annoying, unprofessional, self-obsessed and very, very tedious, Ray is liked by no-one – neither villagers, nor colleagues, nor indeed me. At one point Serena says to her ‘You are one draining piece of work, you know that? Dealing with you is like walking through cement.’ I agree, but it made me wonder – if the author sees that her main protagonist is this annoying, why does she believe the reader will be able to empathise with her in any way? It’s not as if she is changed by her experiences; there’s no growth or character development which, had it happened, may have given the book the much-needed focus and point that it lacked.

‘She saw Serena inhale, her mouth around the filter of the cigarette. It seemed so sexual, this open space, closing in on the shaft of a cigarette.’

Nikita Lalwani (
Nikita Lalwani

I haven’t bothered to mention the Indian characters because the author failed to give any of them a well-rounded and distinctive personality. They are ciphers – there merely to provide a hazy and undefined background for Ray to play out her internal angst against. The writing itself is technically proficient – i.e. grammatical – but the endless repeated descriptions ultimately convey nothing. Yes, they dress differently; yes, they’re not white (!); yes, they eat different food…but none of this gives any sense of what life is like for the villagers, what their thoughts and feelings might be. The text is littered with Hindu words without explanations; sometimes it’s possible to get the meaning from the context but not always. This doesn’t give a sense of place – just a sense of irritation.

‘M.R. TRADERS is written in large, statuesque white capitals against a scarlet headboard that crowns a stall crammed with jars of sweets, numpkin, and hanging supari strips.’

I really dislike slating a book, especially from a relatively new author (even if she was longlisted for the Booker for her first book), but although I’ve tried hard, I can’t find anything positive to say about this one except that plenty of other people seem to be finding it a much more enjoyable read than I, as you will see if you look at the reviews on Amazon. But unfortunately I can’t recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Noon by Aatish Taseer


Compelling storytelling

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This book is more a collection of short stories than a novel, showing as it does distinct episodes in the life of Rehan Tabassum set several years apart. Written sometimes in the first-person and sometimes in the third, we see Rehan first as a young man on his way to meet his father who abandoned his mother when Rehan was too young to remember him. The following four chapters focus on incidents in Rehan’s life from when he was a child until the present when he is a young man.

Rehan’s life, as a young man with an Indian mother, an absent father in Pakistan and a western education, seems to mirror the author’s own life and the book comes over as autobiographical in style. The various stories provide glimpses into the divisions in society in both India and Pakistan, the contrasts between the wealth and power of the new industrialists and the simultaneous fading of the old privileged classes, the casual corruption and cruelty that seem to be part of everyday life and the rise of the more militant form of Islamism. Without in any way dwelling on terrorism, the author makes reference to it and highlights the growing hatred of western values and the colonial legacy, embodied often by the use of the English language amongst the elite.

Aatish Taseer(Source:
Aatish Taseer

The tone of the book was quite pessimistic about the societies of both India and Pakistan. The role of women came across as very minor and subordinate – both of Rehan’s father figures had left wives for younger women and after Rehan’s childhood years the women were barely mentioned. The scenes of mild torture casually employed by the police, the continuing class and caste divides, the contrasts of extreme poverty and extreme wealth, the street riots – I was left wanting to see some of the positives that surely must exist to counterbalance these negative images.

Overall, however, I found the author to be a very effective and compelling storyteller. While I didn’t feel the book held quite together as a novel, I found each chapter to be a fully formed story in its own right. There were many cultural and religious references in the book that I didn’t get and the author didn’t explain (why should he?) but I didn’t find this marred my understanding or enjoyment of the book. I will certainly look out for more from this author in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Perfect Murder by HRF Keating

Not quite perfect… 😐 😐 😐
The Perfect Murder

This is a light-hearted crime mystery set in Bombay. The hero, Inspector Ghote, is an attractive character, warm-hearted and honourable, trying to do the right thing by his job and his family in a system filled with corruption and incompetence. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters too often seemed like caricatures, and unlikeable ones at that. Everyone is portrayed as either foolish, incompetent, lying or corrupt – and that’s just the police! And then poor Ghote has to go home to his deeply awful wife. He seems to love her – can’t think why!

The plot was OK but moved along at a snail’s pace and with constant repetitions. I think the lengthy descriptive passages were spoiled for me by the fact that so much is made in the blurb and introduction of the fact that the author had never actually been in Bombay – so how authentic is the picture of the city?

All-in-all, a reasonably enjoyable, undemanding read but I won’t be putting the second volume on my wish list.

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NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.