Sunday, 31 July 2016

Book Review - The Sialkot Saga

BOOK REVIEW : THE SIALKOT SAGA
BY ASHWIN SANGHI
Image result for the sialkot saga 
The Sialkot Saga is a story built around two scoundrels, two ruffians of the highest order – one masquerading as a gentleman, and the other openly rebellious and criminal. This is an ugly book, a hands on look at the ugly underbelly of life, a brutal no-holds-barred ugly account of greed, crime  -white collar as well as of the other kind, selfishness of a very high order, desire and naked ambition all rolled into one single story

THE CHARACTERS
Arvind Bagadia – Love him, you cant. Hate him, you can – and very very easily. Sympathise with him – negative, no way. Avoid him – impossible. The quintessential anti-hero

Arbaaz Sheikh – Love him – you cant; sympathise? Yes, in a manner of sorts. Tough guy, a man life has given a sour deal to start with – a man who chooses the wrong path in rebellion… and becomes, like Arvind, a complete bastard

Abdul Dada – Gansgter, Loves only money – and loyalty. And Arbaaz; but then Arbaaz has earned him bushelfuls of money, and with extreme loyalty too.


That’s it. This is a story of two characters – sure there are others, but they don’t matter except Abdul Dada. This is the story of two people and two people only, the rest are only fillers who take up space, flesh out the story and provide momentum and some form of continuity to this cleverly put-together story; beyond that, they have little import in the overall scenario and the story, neither do they have any large function to perform in furthering the story.



THE PLOT
There isn’t any; period. There is no coherent plot as it is commonly understood; that is not to state the book is bad – or it isn’t readable; it just has no plot. The plot is – in one line – the life story of two criminals – one a reprehensible conman who should be in jail for somewhere around 100000 years if our penal code and human lifespan allows; and the other a tragic story of a poor man from a poor family gone bad, and into big crime – a man who should be hanged, or at least put away for a very long time indeed.


People come and go, get used, but the story is nothing but a patchwork – a very skillfully and adroitly crafted patchwork of individual capers of two complete bastards. Sure, the book back uses the euphemism “businessmen of a kind” – make no mistake – you have a story of two people as completely evil as it has ever been the misfortune of mine to ever read in fiction print. Reprehensible and completely disgusting characters to the core.


THE ANALYSIS
First, the good. For a story that has no definable and clear plot line, this is a top book – eminently readable, fast paced and rapid. This is good for a read or two, or on a journey – and you  will not regret buying it, although the price-point is a tad on the higher side for a book of its quality – Rs. 350 just doesn’t quite justify the contents. I would plumb for a price-point of around Rs. 200 – 225; at that price – this is a good buy.


The author, despite not managing to craft powerful characters in this book, has nonetheless managed to deeply embed two of them in our minds, very skillfully creating the right atmosphere around each character. This is clearly by design – he has, it seems to me, consciously downplayed all for the benefit of the two {or three} main characters. The other characters merely accentuate the principal ones, and add to their background and character-graph.


The story is a patchwork on independent unconnected events spread across years and decades; this is not a book that you will miss putting down for a day, and would easily continue after a gap, missing nothing. There is precious little connectivity and continuity between events; you can even start in the middle somewhere on your second read, and would miss nothing. The biggest drawback in this is that you don’t really get a feel of the years passing, the timeline seems patchy. The plus is that this has been skillfully woven such that it isn’t a major irritant.




Of the two characters, you can readily sympathise with Arbaaz, given his background of penury, and the bullying he undergoes; but his response to the bullying – right from childhood – show his evil streak. His further deeds completely strip away any sympathy for him… Arvind – he just is pure evil, with no redeeming quality that I could relate to. He is one complete bastard, and that is that. This is a book that has no heroes, and no punishments for evil deeds and crime – crime pays here, and big time. That is my main grouse with this book – that is why I dock it two stars from the 3-3.5 it richly deserves, and rate it at 1 star or 1.5 stars tops. I don’t think we need such books that extoll these anti-heroes, but that is purely my opinion!



The main point about the book is complete incongruousness of the title, and its near-total lack of relevance to the real story, and a feeble attempt to link it to some ancient  stuff which has not been thought through properly and seems half-baked. The fact is that the story would have been equally good by entirely removing the whole sections of the ancient stuff, and the Sialkot connection. The story would have lost nothing, given that there is precisely zero relevance, in my opinion! 

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

When Mountains Shake Hands With The Clouds

These are a set of Snaps Clicked on my Mobile Camera en-route to Baroda for a family function; a scene I found breathtaking and mesmerising, as it seemed as though the clouds had descended to the Earth to shake hands with the mountains, creating a stunning visual imagery with a captivating beauty and awe-inspiring visual delight.



Regretfully, I was in an AC compartment, meaning the full impact of the beauty of Mother Nature was muted in these images... but what is there is, I believe, sufficiently captivating... these have been clicked on a Panasonic Eluga Switch mobile phone in auto mode…
















Tuesday, 26 July 2016

One Nation, One Voice

ONE NATION, ONE VOICE


The recent events in our nation have lead to a rather interesting, and frankly disheartening & depressing scenario of some people in the media and the public asking questions of the Government of India as well as sadly, The Armed Forces; or critically examining our shortcomings and our flaws or perceived flaws both. It is not my point that these institutions cannot be questioned; but the timing of these questions leaves a lot to be desired for. Neither am I advocating ultra-nationalism or fanaticism, or making any observation for or against these two approaches.


THE MEDIA

Given the furore in some sections that I have seen, as well as sporadic comments on social media – let me be also crystal clear – nothing in this article is to be construed as an anti-Indian point, nor is there anything contained herein that is in support of anything even remotely anti-Indian. When I state that institutions can be questioned {given that we are a democracy}, before we start the blame game, we perforce have to consider the presence of internal mechanisms of redressal as are there in both the Government as well as the Armed Forces.  


It is the role of the Media to question the Government, to lead change and to engender a positive force on the Government that keeps it accountable to the people; this is does by providing information to the people so that they can be informed and can form opinions basis facts and data that are balanced and fair. This I whole-heartedly accept; not only do I accept this, I wholeheartedly support the role of the Media in a democracy.


THE PEOPLE

There is even a case for sporadic, interested, fair and patriotic individuals {and groups} to openly question the government, make petitions, approach the courts and all the rest that a functioning and vibrant democracy entails. The presence of all of these in our lovely India is a source of immense pride for all of us Indians, that is also beyond debate. Further, the above is not an indictment of any specific entity or individual – just a general observation in theory.


I am not making a case for gagging of the people in any way or form; we are a democracy – and any such move would not be successful in a nation where democracy has now taken deep roots till the last person and city & village in India. The very thought of gagging 1.27 Billion people is ludicrous on the face of it, and quite frankly impossible to achieve; any attempt towards that would be capital folly, as no doubt everyone realizes quite clearly. Given our diversity, there will always be a cacophony of voices emanating from our people who have diverse challenges, dreams and ambitions.


VIBRANCY OF OUR DEMOCRACY – AND THE MEDIA

The point here is simple : it is the role of the Media to communicate these diverse opinions, challenges, voices, problems, objections etc to the larger public in as coherent a voice as possible; it is also through the Media that the Government also, in some ways, keeps abreast of the overall public mood.  No one is arguing with that so far as I am aware; these are absolutely vital functions that a vibrant and rich democracy needs to breathe, grow and eventually enrich its people.


THE INFORMATION AGE

But beyond all of this, it needs to be kept in mind that The Media is also a very powerful force in the modern information world, with its rapid flow of information and its hyperactive social media. Examples of its power are evident in every of the world in shaping and influencing opinion, conveying an image etc. This places an onerous responsibility on all segments and sections of the Media {including Social Media} – one that needs to be kept in mind.


ONE NATION, ONE VOICE

It needs to be understood that times of stress are different from normal times; times of stress need a very different and highly calibrated response from The Media. Fine – this also applies to Social Media; but that is impossible to implement at least so far as I am aware; you cannot expect that from Millions of individuals. When the nation goes through trying times, especially times with an obvious foreign hand of intervention and terrorism involved in it – the equations change quite dramatically.


One cannot deny that there is a very, very high chance {certainty?} that these recent stressful times have been stoked by our kindly, peaceful, sweet, gentle, ‘democratic’  neighbor. Indeed – the evidence of this is present in our history as well as recent events. What should the response be in such a charged atmosphere? How do we prioritise our statements, responses and focus in these trying times is the key aspect that needs to be appreciated


Do we go the complete fair route and question the Government and its actions in such an atmosphere? Is this approach even fair? Again, I admit that any Government must be questioned in a democracy; this is the basis of democracy and is its foundation stone. Or do we keep silent – or should we mute our critical examination in light of the stress? Given the external factor involved and the complicated nature of the on-ground reality as well as the sacrifice of our patriots and our  citizens, is this constant questioning of the Government, or analyzing internal factors to the stress, really advisable or indeed accurate?



I respectfully submit that in such times, it would be an excellent idea for the Media to speak as one- as one nation, one voice. This does not mean blind support to the Government – as I pointed out above, that isn’t democratic, or indeed advisable. That just means that we allow the situation to settle, allow all facts to emerge – this will allow a much clearer image to emerge. This will also be a powerful force multiplier to our Armed Forces and to the Government which is already fighting a hard fight on the external front with our perpetually sick neighbuor! 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Book Review : The Honest Season

BOOK REVIEW – THE HONEST SEASON
BY KOTA NEELIMA



Kota Neelima has been a journalist for 20 years and holds a Master's Degree in International Relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She writes on politics, democratic reforms and issues concerning rural poor in India. She is Senior Research Fellow, South Asia Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC. Neelima has written four books of fiction based on her exploration of Indian politics, her experience as a journalist as well as a researcher. Each book questions the accepted notions of politics and society and seeks to demarcate desperation of hopelessness and choice.

The current book under review is a political thriller, and it has to be said, it is completely different from any political thriler I have read; a book that is among the best I have read in fiction in any genre. This is a work of sheer class, and makes for a rollicking read. The most surprising aspect is that the author is not known for penning this genre, having her forte in an entirely different and niche class – that of rural India and farmer issues.


The Characters 

Mira Mouli – A Loner, highly perceptive, endowed with special powers, with a rather painful childhood, and an apparent air of complete detachment
Bidur Munshi  –  Apparently, a straight businessman focussed on meaningful news
Mahesh Bansi –  Political biggie {I mean biggie, earnestly}, with all its entrapments. Problem : A father as well. {Is it really a problem? Don’t ask me, read the book}
Sikander Bansi – Aah. The big one in the novel, surprise item on any number of parameters . A politician with a desire to expose all in politics, including father dearest.
Nalan Malik – Good guy. Neutral guy as well. And yes, before I forget, bad guy to boot. Who is is he? What is his motive?


The Plot

In one or two words : pure dynamite. A new member of parliament, and the son of a top biggie, fancies himself as something of a political commando of sorts, an Indian John Rambo albeit in the political arena; this chappie decides all by his lonesome that things ought to change. And, this delightful chappie firmly believes that charity starts at home, thus leading to taking on his own party, before, shall we say, graduating to more juicier targets {post-graduating? Mere graduate isnt enough of an “upadhi” for this bravado / smarts / cunning / foolhardiness methinks}

Now just revealing things obviously wouldn’t do it, now would it? So, this chappie decides to sort of become a jar of Vanishing Cream. Smart you’d say? Well, actually, not quite. This chappie / Vanishing Cream creates a doozy of a puzzle for one Journalist, our heroine, that trail of which may lead to his location. Now that, I respectfully submit, is plain stupid on the face of it; or is it? Why would Mr Vanishing Cream first expose through live tapes political skullduggery, then plot a trail right to his front door? Sounds crazy, at first, second as well as third glance. Why does he do it?



The Review

The book is not a particularly fast read; it is steady, deep and with intrigue; and has a slow build-up. That does not mean that it isnt exciting in the first 40-50 pages; to be fair, the book draws you in right from the first page. The first few pages are all about filling in the background, and getting the story to the main thrust; wherefrom the novel takes off. The good part is that the backdrop has been filled in not through boring details and prose, but through an enticing series of dialogue; interviews; flashback etc – all of which are highly relevant to the story.

The book reads almost like a whodunit, an intriguing plot line and development ensures reader interest throughout the book right till the epilogue. Pace has been sacrificed for the interest of plot development and story; this makes for a very fulfilling and relaxed read. Unlike other genres, this doesn’t move in fits and starts with staid sections intermixed with rapid sequences; it progresses at a steady, even pace, which is why due attention is given to nearly all aspects. This also means you have to pay attention; for a full understanding, you have to get the cues that are interspersed in the pages.



The Characterisation is spot-on, and gels completely with the story; the characters have been fleshed out very well, with sufficient background development and story. That is why the actions of each character seem completely reasonable, and almost expected from each. This tends to both move the story forward in some ways as well as enables an engaging read. Further, this approach has meant that the characters stay with you a long time afer you have finished reading; I can testify to that, as I read this book nearly 10 days ago – and can still recall the characters and their personalities and natures.

All in all, this is a book that is an excellent read, engaging & absorbing, with a plotline that is absolutely unique, hard-hitting and mind-blowing. The development of the plot has also done justice both to the stunning nature of the plot as well as to the real world; nothing comes across as forced or contrived; in fact, if anything, at more than one place you feel as though the sequence is highly plausible – so convincing is the narrative.


There aren’t very many negatives, none that I could spot at any rate. This is a book as close to perfection as it is possible for it to be given its genre. However, in the interest of fairness and plausibility, I must state that this is not for those who are into  1000 kms a second pace in fiction, as it were. If you don’t enjoy intrigue & complex machinations and prefer breakneck speed – avoid; this is not for you – especially given the pace waxes as wanes with the plot development. The only other point- the concept of Know Journalism, which I felt could have been developed more convincingly. That said, what is present is good enough, and has complete gel with the story…