Lets have a mango party: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Boom! The ending drops right at the beginning: that Zia ul-Haq will die.

Much like in the novel that is referenced, The Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammad Hanif.

Set during the military rule of President Zia ul-Haq, A Case of Exploding Mangoes looks at the fictional events leading to his death and alleged assassination. For most part of the novel, the story  fluctuates between the President’s viewpoint and that of the protagonist, the wry and indifferent junior military officer, Ali Shigri, who himself is haunted by the death of his own father who was also in the military and who he believes was killed on the President’s orders.

download

Through Zia ul-Haq’s viewpoint, we see the fears that plague him and the religiousness of the man who uses the Koran as almost a prophetic device to guide his everyday actions. Much like in Wilkie Collin’s novel, The Moonstone, where one of the characters uses the book, Robinson Crusoe, for seeing the future.

This is how we first see the President as well: ruminating over the different translations of a verse about Jonah; finding meaning in it and deciding to up his security level to Code Red.

On the other side, we see Ali Shigri, who views and comments on everything in a cold, calculating and sarcastic manner (even his own brief stint with prison) as if nothing effects him. He is portrayed as a tough and dedicated officer but who lands in trouble due to his missing roommate, Obaid, with whom it is suspected he was very close to. Both land up being held for hatching a plot to kill the President and through this we see the elaborate conspiracies and schemes wrought by the Intelligence Agencies and government to keep the many suspects at bay (or more precisely in prison!).

We know the the President is going to die. We know the moment we start reading the last section of the book titled, Mango Party. Yet, this foreshadowing does not dull any of our excitement since the narration is done at a suspenseful pace that keeps one on tenterhooks. We are racing towards that one final moment where not just the President explodes but so do many, juicy mangoes, along with a unlucky crow! While racing ahead, we see the many threads coming together, we see who is plotting against whom and how this will end!

So whodunnit?

Got to read the book, my friend!

Start with the first chapter here:

P.S. Read reviews of his  second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, below:

https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/r4wrV70ARes9Q7jrX112LL/Our-Lady-of-Alice-Bhatti–Following-the-fallen-angels.html

https://tribune.com.pk/story/257182/book-review-our-lady-of-alice-bhatti-alice-in-charya-land/

 

Control Freaks

Amidst the hullabaloo of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US government snooping on its own citizens and those of foreign countries, George Orwell’s 1984 has been mentioned countless times and how he was right in predicting the government’s role of the Big Brother. Another author depicted a dystopian future wherein the government had a different sort of control over you-controlling your violent instincts. While the government spying on one’s phone calls, emails, social networking data is not a comforting feeling, the government actually controlling how you behave is even more disconcerting.

Clockwork Orange, a novel by Anthony Burgess, explores precisely this aspect of control. Alex, the anti-hero of the novel, is a the narrator and refers to himself as “Your Humble Narrator.” He narrates his and his pals’ violent escapades in a nameless town where such violence by teens is rampant. They engage in brutal violence-assaulting, stealing, beating and sexual violence during the night. On one such escapade, Alex and his gang decide to rob a single woman living with dozens of cats. However, the plan goes awry as Alex’s usual ruse of acting like a wounded boy and fooling the woman to open the door fails. He then goes through the window and threatens her but the old woman isn’t frightened so easily. She seems to get time to call the police and eventually in a fight, Alex gives a fatal blow. The police picks him up and he is shunted to the prison for a good 14 years. It is here Alex learns of a miraculous technique that will reform him quickly and let him get out of jail in no time. The prison chaplain, the only decent person around, warns of this so-called-miraculous Ludovico Technique and of its ethical ambiguity. Due to a turn of events, Alex is eventually subjected to this technique which is torturous in its own way and has terrible consequences for our Humble Narrator.

Written in the “Nadsat” language, which is the lingo used by the teens of that world, Clockwork Orange is a gruesome look at the politics of control and surveillance and raises questions about the need for an individual to have a choice in the way s/he behaves. Ludovico Technique essentially conditions Alex to have sickening feelings for anything related to violence. It ‘cures’ him of his bad behaviour by leaving him with no choice but to be good because being bad or even thinking of violence entails a rising of aversion in him. Burgess cleverly shows how the government’s method of reducing crime by relying on such ethically questionable techniques is not a foolproof method but only raises more problems rather than resolving them. For example, if Alex is faced with a situation where he has to defend himself he is absolutely helpless since he cannot resort to violence as he has been conditioned to be averse to it.

To complicate the plot further, Alex after being ‘cured’ is used by certain individuals for their own personal gains-namely to show that the present government is using such brutal techniques in the reduction of crime. Alex becomes a trophy prize over which politically motivated parties and individuals tussle, leaving behind the core of the problem-if the Ludovico Technique is not morally correct and the usual punishment of imprisonment also fails, then how exactly to reduce the rate of crime and violence in a world where youngsters are increasingly setting up sub cultures of crime and violence.

Clockwork Orange doesn’t answer those questions outright. Instead the story explores the ideas of the nature of evil and if it is really possible for the government to control the individual’s violent inclinations and urges through conditioning techniques. The book shows how the government treats people like machines, like ‘clockworks’ that can be tweaked to make a better, crime-free society. We have already seen in the 20th and 21st centuries how the media has been effectively used to tweak people’s way of thinking and getting their support on certain politically important matters (For eg, it is thanks to the relentless media proclamations of US’ war on terror that the entire globe sees the Middle East as merely a part of the world crawling with terrorists out to attack America while completely disregarding their own unique culture. Closer home, the media is often used in India to mobilise people’s opinion for the ambiguous notions of ”development” and “growth” while cleverly trying to put down all those who clash against these ideas). It is not just the media alone, mainstream culture-whether it is books, movies or art-all are effectively used by the government to mould people’s opinions for or against something. Therefore, it is perhaps not far away that the governments all over the world will be able to control its citzens’ behaviour. And that would indeed be a scary prospect.

Though small in size, Clockwork Orange may not be a breeze to read thanks to the “nadsat” words that Burgess uses which can be understood only by referring to the glossary every once in a while. It can be frustrating because while you want to get on with the story(which moves at a good pace), you have to pause and find out the meanings first but be patient and it will definitely be worth it. It will take time to accustom yourself to the language but once you are attuned to it, it will be an easy and enlightening read. Try and read this one-it is relevant and will always be because no government has come close to curbing violence among its people. So while you figure out what “droog”, “carmen”, “chasha,” malchick,” ‘mesto” etc mean, don’t forget to also ponder over the subtexts of the story.

The Games People Play

Mumbai-a city you can have a love-hate relationship with, a city in which people think dreams are built (do they ever think that they are shattered there too?), a city fast moving, on the go, a whirling vortex that will push you into anonymity at times. Yet still we all live, die, dream and enjoy and curse in this bunch of islands reclaimed together to assume the shape of a city. ‘Sacred Games‘ by Vikram Chandra  is wholly enmeshed with this whirling vortex of a city whose one claim to fame is being the commercial capital of India. The story focuses on Sartaj Singh, a lone Sikh inspector in Mumbai police and in his forties, who gets an anonymous tip off on Ganesh Gaitonde, a dreaded Hindu don of Mumbai who any respectful inspector would kill to catch and get a promotion. Similarly Singh sees a window of opportunity in this tip off and soon gets to Gaitonde’s shelter from where he chats with Singh through the intercom telling him a winded tale of the start of his criminal life. Sartaj is unable to convince him to surrender and so eventually bulldozes the place and much to his chagrin finds Gaitonde and an unknown women dead already. Thereafter, the book weaves its way in a parallel of Sartaj’s investigation into Gaitonde (after Gaitonde’s death, the Indian intelligence comes to investigate this mysterious presence of the gangster in Mumbai and how he might have posed a threat to national security. Sartaj is recruited to help in the investigation) and Gaitonde’s narration of his life to Sartaj. The latter is rather eerie as it feels like the dead is speaking directly to Sartaj. Within these parallel stories lie countless number of subplots-Katekar’s (Sartaj’s partner) life and death, Katekar’s wife and his two sons, Sartaj’s other numerous investigations such as the case of blackmailing of Kamala Pandey, Sartaj’s mother’s ponderous moods, the Partition and how it affected Sartaj’s mother’s family, Senior inspector-Parulkar’s tactics to stay on the job, Jojo’s dreams of becoming an actress and several more. There are chapters in the novel called insets which can become novellas and short stories in themselves. These insets are related most often to the subplots like Sartaj’s mother’s sister, Navneet, being lost in Partition. Gaitonde’s life story reveals the grim underbelly of Mumbai’s mafia and how much of the city functions only because of them and the fighting between Gaitonde’s Hindu gangster company with the Muslim Suleiman Isa’s company seems faintly reminiscent of real life fighting between Dawood Ibrahim and Arun Gawli in Mumbai. Vikram Chandra has himself said that he did meet up real life ‘bhais’ in Mumbai and perhaps a lot of it is inspired by real life itself. We can only speculate and guess. What we can be sure of is that from this epic novel you can definitely get a lot of excitement and entertainment and thoughts to ponder over.

Sacred Games‘ is a massive book-900 pages long-quite daunting to look at and even more difficult to hold for long and if you are one of those who bought a hardback copy (like me) my utmost sympathies. But the size shouldn’t mislead you. The book is very engaging, eloquent and epic in every sense. It is difficult to categorize this novel-it is a mesh of a Bollywood film (and can be adapted into one as well given Bollywood’s penchant for action), thriller, detective novel, city novel etc. Pinpointing to one exact genre is next to impossible because of the sprawling nature of the book’s story which covers such a wide range of subjects and is written in multifarious styles that could be from any genre. ‘Sacred Games‘ is a wholly Indian book, a completely Bombay/Mumbai book reflecting Indian moods, issues, problems, daily existence, language. There is a generous sprinkling of Hindi terms, Bombay Hindi, Hinglish and Marathi too which could be hard for a foreigner or even an Indian unfamiliar with the special mix of Bombay languages to understand. On the author’s website, you can find a glossary for the novel which may or may not be useful. Click here to get it.   A little background knowledge about the 80s’ and the 90s’ scenario in India would also help in better understanding as Chandra routinely refers to actual events though he never names them explicitly such as the Partition, the Indo-China war of the 60s’, the Bombay riots of 1993 etc. The book is definitely for a true Mumbai inhabitant, one who will immediately recognize these events, feel a connection with the persistent smoke, traffic, noise and the islands of peace of the city, one who will know about the criminal underbelly of the glitzy city.

The detailing of ‘Sacred Games‘ is splendid. Chandra has done a fabulous job to string together vastly different lives/characters and put them together in the story thus creating a rich, multifaceted tapestry of Mumbai and its many quirks. Sartaj Singh is one of his best creations. He gives the inspector a humane personality which most mainstream portrayals of policemen lack. They tend to demonize them and constantly depict them as cruel,lecherous and sadistic in their behavior (which may be true of some but generalisation is always a dangerous thing to do). Gaitonde is suffused with a very Godfatheresque aura having the same paternalistic outlook towards his people and business as Don Corleone did.

The plot, the writing, the variety are all very fine and good but what eludes the book is any challenges on the author’s part. Vikram Chandra simply spins a yarn and puts it down in a 900 page book which is thrilling nonetheless but there is none of Chandra’s own opinions reflecting through in the novel. ‘Sacred Games‘ is too realist, doesn’t challenge anything. It only states that yes-the city is and will always be ruled by mafia-police-ministers nexus, women will forever be seen as sex objects, Bollywood will always be a dreamland etc. Catherine Belsey, a famous British Marxist feminist critic once asserted that realism only legitimised the actual society and their authors never challenged the several practices of the society: they only depicted it as it was. This is true of ‘Sacred Games‘ as well and the most damning of the ‘realist’ depictions are the inferior status of women in Indian society. The novel is very male centric and women are either only whores or depicted as dispensable dependable objects. There is a tacit subtext of the novel that women only exist to please men’s needs, to do their duty (Sartaj’s mother’s assertion that it is her right to feel happy in being alone after her husband’s death because she has done her duty is rather badly misogynistic. It implies that happiness only comes for women after they have been dutiful all their lives) for society i.e. to get married and procreate and take dowry with them. There are hardly any major, strong women characters barring Anjali Mathur, Mary and Jojo Mascarenhas and Iffat Bibi. This stereotyping fails to do anything except assert the ‘real’ world and does not challenge it. Moreover, there is a sense that Chandra seems biased against the Muslim community. It is a delicate thing to write about Muslim-Hindu mafia or the Partition but it shouldn’t have to hold fingers against a particular religious group. Manto wrote on the most sensitive topics around the Partition but he showed the inhumanity of it all rather than blaming either Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus.

Taken together, ‘Sacred Games‘ can be quite a task to read, but take the book one chapter at a time then there won’t be any problems in finishing this epic novel at all.

Devices and Desires

P.D James’ bestseller, ‘Devices and Desires’ is unlike any detective/thriller I have read. It is a completely atypical crime story that breaks away from tried and tested detective story conventions. Yet James manages to create an equally thrilling and compelling read.

Taken from filmizer.com

At the core of the story is a creepy serial woman killer who goes by the name of Whistler. The killings have rocked the fictional Norfolk coast and have scared the women from venturing alone at night. Then the killer strikes at Larkosen- a picturesque town of Norfolk-with one of the female workers at the Larkosen Nuclear Power Station murdered. Adam Dalgliesh of the New Scotland Yard was on a holiday at Larkosen to settle all the affairs of his aunt’s death-including blowing her ashes and taking care of the the fortune and the windmill she bequeathed him. He invariably gets enmeshed in the murders despite Norfolk not being his patch. When a 2nd murder hits Larkosen, the mystery deepens and fresh troubles surface for Terry Rickards, the Chief Inspector of Norfolk in charge of solving the case, who is desperate to find the elusive killer at all costs.

The plot of ‘Devices and Desires’ sounds like the countless detective stories that come packaged in cheap paperbacks. Yet it is vastly different. Firstly, the pace is much gradual. James takes her own sweet time to build the story, to create tension and take it to a thrilling climax.  She is as interested in the characters and setting as the plot itself which is why the reader peruses pages devoted to establishing the desolate, wild yet beautiful atmosphere of the Norfolk coast in general and Larkosen in particular and to fleshing out characters who are not merely stock characters but individuals with their own unique viewpoint and thoughtful insights.For ex. Dalgliesh is often depicted as pondering over his melancholic and contradictory thoughts about his aunt. The novel is thus very descriptive which burdens it and thus tends to slow down the story’s pace. This may not be appealing to all kinds of readers especially those who are used to their weekly doses of fast paced thrillers. Nonetheless, the novel is still worth the shot because James makes sure that the reader is both aesthetically as well as sensationally pleased with her descriptions and intricate plot.The depth in characterization and the landscape gives this genre fiction novel a literary touch (which is heightened by several references to works of literature such as ‘Dover Beach’, a poem by Matthew Arnold.

James also creates skillful contrasting moods. One moment the reader is plunged into an anxiety ridden chapter of the Whistler’s to-be-victims’ thoughts and in the next the reader dives into the cool, organized thoughts of Dalgliesh or the thoughts of the other numerous inhabitants of Larkosen. James skillfully depicts the gruesome and horrifying aspects of murder and violence as well as manifests the vicious desires and passions of ordinary humans. She has a deft writing touch that marvelously depicts both with a talented ease.

What is jarring is the sudden burst of fast paced and unexpected thrill close to the end that awakens the reader from the stupor brought on by the book’s lulled pace itself. Here James style of alternating moods begins to fail. Its as if she has realised that she needs to quickly finish the story and reveal the murderer and not go on rambling about Larkosen’s beauty or its inhabitants’ idiosyncrasies. The continuation of the same smooth and lulling pace as the whole story would have been more appropriate rather than thrusting the reader into action and more murders that seem blatantly out of place. They seem to be there only to shock the reader or to create the conventional twists in the story.

Yet, apart from these few unexpected jolts, the actual unraveling does happen in a controlled, casual way almost as if a picnic was being discussed and not a murderer’s confession. ‘Devices and Desires’ is still a good, the narrative powerful and stimulating enough to hook all detective fiction lovers and fans.

Elephants and Actresses

The queen of crime strikes again with two easy to read detective novels-‘Elephants Can Remember‘ and ‘Lord Edgware Dies.’ Both are a thrill to read and have trademark Agatha Christie elements and both are Poirot novels. However, the former is rather predictable.Perhaps this comes from having read several Christie novels.

Elephants Can Remember‘ rakes up an old case of a double suicide of the Ravenscrofts. The police had declared that the husband and wife had perhaps entered a suicide pact and either could have killed the other and then oneself.  However, the godmother to their daughter, Mrs. Oliver, an esteemed detective writer herself, is asked by Mrs. Burton Cox at a literary luncheon whether it was the mother or the father that had committed the crime. This query seems initially very trivial and unnecessary but gradually gets Mrs. Oliver’s grey cells rolling as well. She gets her friend Hercule Poirot to help and relies on all her acquaintances who might have known the Ravenscrofts to help her find out what really happened between the doomed couple. The novel looks into the past  and relies on the memories of ‘elephants’ to solve this peculiar case. An interesting aspect of ‘Elephants Can Remember‘ is that Mrs. Oliver is a writer in general and a detective novelist at that. Also, the play on elephants is quite amusing.

Lord Edgware Dies‘ has all the essential things one needs for a mystery-money, love, marriage, the film community, the rich and famous and plenty of motives for murder. One day, Lord Edgware is found murdered and his wife and famous actress, Jane Wilkinson, is suspected because not only did she the night before claim that she would have no qualms about killing him but the butler of the Lord’s house recognized Jane entering the house. In fact, Jane  announced herself and went into Edgware’s room that very night. The police are cocksure about the case being very straightforward. However, the one glitch is that Jane was present at a dinner party that very night. How could she be at two places? The plot begins to boil and thicken with two more murders and a chance remark comes to the rescue of Poirot’s flummoxed grey cells.

Taken from openlibrary.org

They may not be her best work but are a breezy read nonetheless. All Agatha Christie, Poirot and detective novel fans will love them. And if any reader is smart enough, she/he can easily predict the killer in both the books. The suspense is much muted and even though the reader will most probably not be hanging at the edge of their seat, ‘Elephants Can Remember‘ and ‘Lord Edgware Dies‘ are bound to be good reading companions to while away the time or when one has absolutely nothing to do!

Yours criminally!

Crime was never so bloodthirsty, brutality never so horrifying,loyalty never so exaggerated, mafia never so goddamn cunning than in the super famous, ‘The Godfather‘ penned by Mario Puzo. Everyone or almost everyone has read the book. It is included even on BBC’s top 100 books to read! For sure, it is a phenomenal novel that traces the American-Italian mafia in New York City with a chilling, nasty, story involving murders, shootings, family, loyalty, and the ubiquitous Mafia.

The story begins on a light note with assorted Americans asking Vito Don Corleone for help at his daughter, Connie’s wedding in 1945 just after WWII. However there is an unmistakable undertone of the macabre right from the beginning. The reader would quickly know that Don Corleone is a dignified, respected superior wields a powerful influence in New York, that his is an empire of crime and that he is a man not to be meddled with! This immediately sets the tone for something explosive to happen, something thrilling. The story moves on while giving the reader a quick, brief bird’s eye view of the characters and the situations. Then, a meeting with Vincent Sollozo, who wants Don’s help in starting a drug business, goes awry as the Don refuses to help out feeling that the drug business is too risky. Don being too old fashioned would rather stick to gambling, bookmaking etc. An all out war ensues between the five mafia families of New York wherein a lot of blood is shed and Don’s two sons, Sonny and Michael are unwittingly dragged. There are losses on both the sides and the Corleone family goes into decline and eventually the Don offers peace quite reluctantly only after a great personal loss which he promises not to avenge. But, being a foresighted man, he sees to it that all of Corleone’s families losses are restored and all revenges settled in the future. His son, Michael, takes up this job quite successfully and recovers the power and influence of the Family as it was in the pre-war days.

This 450 odd pages family cum Mafia saga is an intricate novel that will engage all sorts of readers of all ages. While it is at times violent and rather graphic, it is nonetheless a brilliant work of fiction that chills the bone with its lightning speed narrative and excessive doses of murders, crimes, beat ups and revenges. The writing style helps increase the speed-it is precise, to the point, does not meander and sticks to the point and Puzo does not go into elaborate descriptions when unnecessary. The pace of the story thus never slows down- a must for any thriller novel to be worth a read!

The story though quite gruesome and seemingly murderous, is quite sophisticated with an awesome plot, an astonishing ending, a complex chronology and an elaborate and labyrinthine narrative that marks the zenith of an extremely captivating crime novel.

What is rather difficult to overlook is the male centered plot of the novel. Women characters have no substantial role to play except be loving, obedient, and religious.

Other than that, ‘The Godfather‘ is a must must must read for all as it is carefully written with an eeriness that is omniscient and suspense that will make everyone keep turning the pages. Its a recommendation you don’t want to refuse!

 

 

 

Crime in Corrupt India

The dearth of Indian crime fiction has been partially saved by the novel ‘Six Suspects‘ written by Vikas Swarup, better known for his novel, ‘Q and A’ that was adapted into the Oscar winning film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ While ‘Q and A’ was a rather amateurish, not at all researched book with bits of faulty writing, ‘Six Suspects‘ is a tad bit better. While it has its own flaws, it is nonetheless a pretty good detective/thriller story that exposes the corrupt India and has a story that will be lavished by detective fiction lovers/fans.

Taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk

The plot revolves around Vicky Rai’s (the son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh) murder that took place while he was partying at his farmhouse in Delhi to celebrate his acquittal in a Jessica Lall style murder case(only in the book, the girl who was shot dead by Vicky was named Ruby Gill). There are essentially six suspects that are detained by the police as they were found carrying guns. Then, aptly, Swarup goes on and gives elaborate descriptions about all the six suspects and their motives to kill Vicky Rai. The six suspects are a motley crowd-including a sexy actress, an American,a mobile thief, Vicky’s own father, a tribal from Andaman and a former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh. These stories are cleverly interconnected and intelligently converge at Vicky Rai’s farmhouse. In the end, an investigative journalist, Arun Advani, solves this murder mystery and the end is, I might say, quite unanticipated! The murderer is an unexpected one.

The story is well structured, with quite a few twists and turns that are definitely surprising.

Along with giving massive details about the life stories of all the six suspects, which by the way takes up a large chunk of the novel, Vikas Swarup also highlights the corruption rampant in India’s politics, displays the divide between the rich and poor and the different classes, the world of powerful contacts and influences and several more such instances that reveal the sleazy side of India.

Despite ‘Six Suspects‘ being a good detective read, it still has certain weak spots. Firstly, Vikas Swarup tries to put in a lot of information about India in the novel and most of it is sadly lifted from ‘breaking news’ sessions of the Indian tv channels that can get monotonous. This aspect makes it look like ‘Six Suspects was written for foreign audiences and Swarup was aiming for this book to be made into a film as well.  It seems there is a lack of originality. Secondly, certain ideas are rather stereotyped like the American’s view of India when he comes for the first time, the bit about Islamic fundamentalists is also very cliched(all Muslims are terrorists and all that crap). Although the story has an unpredictable end, there are times when the stories of the six suspects get predictable-for example, the tribal from Andaman has to be foolish and get duped by several people in India. Why can’t the tribals be intelligent for once?And there are several such examples.

There are certain creative bits as well like the English Literature professor ,which the former Chief Secretary met in jail, who expresses himself by uttering book titles only.

So the final verdict would be that ‘Six Suspects‘ is definitely worth a read, a good crime novel that unfortunately shows only a newspaper version of India and does not delve deeper into India’s chaotic soul. From the writing it becomes apparent that the India of ‘Six Suspects’ though very real still has a touch of being seen from a distant lens. The lack of research shows through. So if one knows nothing about India, one can probably grab this book to know about its underbelly and get some background on all the wrong things that happened in the country in the past decade or so.