Saturday, August 27, 2011

Chanakya's Chant by Ashwin Sanghi

Authors Note: This book review has been published in association with Vodafone Crossword Book Awards - 2010. Please click here to know more about the awards.

An exciting read!

Chanakya's Chant is author-entrepreneur Ashwin Sanghi aka Shawn Haigins' second offering after the 2007 The Rozabal Line that went on to become a national bestseller. It has been nominated for the Vodafone Crossword Book Awards for 2010 - in the Popular Award category - along with nine others. I do not know who will win, but since 'win' is one half of 'Ashwin' ... he may already be half way through *smile*

Chanakya is no stranger to us. Through history books, the Amar Chitra Katha comics and the TV series by the same name, along with his two seminal works, the Arthashastra and the Nitishastra, we all claim to "know" him. Though his life and works have been lost to us, due to the antiquities of time, yet several attempts have been made to reconstruct his persona. However his legend has lived on and will continue to do so.

In Chanakya's Chant, the author has relied on his own imagination along with materials culled from various sources, including perhaps Mudrarakshasa (The Signet of the Minister) - a historical play in Sanskrit by Vishakhadatta. There are two narratives that runs parallel to each other: one is that of Vishnugupt/Kautilya aka Chanakya - the son of Chanak and the other is that of Pt. Gangasagar Mishra - a modern day Chanakya like figure. They are separated by over two millennia and there is no physical similarity between them yet they are very much alike: cold, calculating, cunning and motivated by higher ideals. Their stated aim is to unify India (for Pt. Mishra it was of course a much truncated version). Neither of them wished for nor received any material gains, nor did they desire for roads and statues to be built after them. They were selfless in the truest sense and they were the followers of the doctrine of "ahimsa" - in their own way.

Chanakya had Chandragupta Maurya while Pt. Gangasagar has Chandini Gupta - a slum kid he is determined to install as the PM of India, as their protégés. Chandragupta - from whatever we can gather about him - was valiant and sharp, however in the book he comes across as a tad puppetish. Which is fine, since Chanakya is the focus of the narrative, but a little more assertive and cerebral Chandragupta wouldn't have disappointed. Chandini by contrast is much beholden to Pt. Gangasagar, though she does display some spark and spunk sporadically. However, come to think of it, it could just be that both were simply following the paths outlined by their respective gurus and did so because of their immense faith in them, all the while learning via osmosis ... which do not make them puppets, but clever! And ideal examples of guru and shishya (protégé).

Both the narratives flow along quite well, pulling you into their midst and going back and forth 2300 years - taking you through the ups and downs, the struggle, the revenge, the cunning, the wars and battles, the intrigues, the mind games, the spies and vishkanyas, the battle of instinct, changing loyalties and promises. The book encompasses history, religion and politics among other things in quite a mouthwatering mix.

Chanakya's character is much more strongly etched, which is not surprising, and even though the author has borrowed quotations from others and attributed them to Chanakya ... none can say that the great man himself had not said similar things. However, the cuss words mouthed by him seem too undignified to have been uttered by the great man himself. I'm sure Chanakya's cuss words too would have sounded erudite *smile*

The author hasn't changed the names of places too much. E.g., Taxila is not called Takshashila. Peshawar is not called Pushkalwati or even Purushapura or Pushpapura - perhaps for the ease of reading.

Chanakya - one of the most illustrious among the students to have graduated from the famed Takshashila University authored the world's finest treatise on political duties, statecraft, economic policies, state intelligence systems, administrative skills and military strategy, called the Arthashastra, consisting of 15 books. He also ably guided Chandragupta Maurya to lay the foundations of the great Mauryan Empire, and also served as his prime minister. Emperor Ashok the Great was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya.

Takshashila, the place where this university existed, is currently in Pakistan, and gets its name from Taksha, who was the son of Bharath (the brother of Shri Ram). Taksha ruled over the kingdom of Taksha Khanda, which even extended beyond modern day Uzbekistan, and Tashkent - the present day Uzbek capital also gets its name from Taksha/Takshashila. As to why modern scholars and experts are so keen to classify the Ramayan and the Mahabharat as 'mythology' instead of the history of the Treta and Dwapar Yug ... my guess is as good as yours. And why they try their bestest to restrict them within the current landmass of India, with a reluctant reference to Sri Lanka and Gandhar (in modern Afghanistan) ... I have not a clue.

Frankly, Chanakya is considered to be the first great political realist, a master strategist, the world's first "Management Guru" and a true Man of Destiny (Yug Purush). To my mind, he is the Shri Krishna of Kali Yug (the age of Kali - the era in which we live). He is the third among famous political strategists to have walked on this land, after Shri Krishna and Shakuni. Yes, Shakuni. Shri Krishna's successful guidance of the Pandavas in the Mahabharat is legendary and the Bhagavad Gita is universally renowned, as the jewel of India's spiritual wisdom, yet let us not forget that without Shakuni's cunning, the Kauravas were nothing really. It took someone of the caliber of Shri Krishna to finally outwit Shakuni.

Sadly our knowledge of Shakuni is limited. I see a repeat in the face-off between Chanakya and Rakshas but here too our knowledge of them is sketchy at the most. Ashwin has however tried to flesh it out a bit.

The central theme of Chanakya's Chant is a Shakti Mantra that is uttered by both Chanakya as well as Pt. Gangasagar Mishra:

"Adi Shakti, Namo Namah
Sarab Shakti, Namo Namah
Prithum Bhagvati, Namo Namah
Kundalini Mata Shakti
Mata Shakti, Namo Namah"

(translated: Primal Shakti, I bow to thee All-encompassing Shakti, I bow to thee That through which God creates, I bow to thee Creative power of the Kundalini Mother of all, to thee I bow.)

It is generally believed that Chanakya's views on women were a tad regressive. However I have always felt that his utterances towards women were not per se but w.r.t specific events and contexts.

Chanakya apart from being a great teacher was also a master strategist with deep insights into warfare, military technology and plans ... including the art of intelligence gathering. Whatever he has said could be interpreted in the light of the above. He was farsighted and hence may have meant his writings to be a cautionary note for the future generations - since he may not have believed that his generation has seen the last of the mischief mongers and mlechchas.

Could it not be that vested interests have tweaked his works to suit their needs? Just as our scriptures, etc was tweaked, e.g., to make 'aagre' (to lead) turn into 'aagne' (into the fire). A widow is supposed to lead the funeral procession of her deceased husband and not immolate herself on his pyre to commit 'Sati' (known as 'Satidaha' in Bengal – meaning 'the burning of Sati')

It took immense efforts under extremely trying circumstances (since the vested interests fought tooth and nail) from a succession of social reformers lead by the great Iswarchandra Vidyasagar to point that out and finally abolish 'Sati'.

Yet we still see it and much more happening under the guise of 'our ancient customs and traditions' of which there is no shortage of upholders. Sadly.

In 2009, we commemorated the bicentennial or the 200th anniversary of the birth of two historic figures, whose ideas and actions shaped the modern world - the evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin and President Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States (US), who successfully led the US through its greatest internal crisis, the American Civil War, preserving the Union and ending slavery. On the other hand, we succeeded in completely overlooking another important occasion - the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Arthashastra - (written in the period 321 - 296 B.C.) - the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, authored by the world's original political realist, Chanakya. Chanakya's long forgotten wisdom from the 3rd and 4th century B.C. was restored to modern India when Dr. R. Shamashastri of Mysore discovered a manuscript of the Arthashastra in 1904, then edited and published it to great acclaim in 1909.

So, in a way Ashwin Sanghi's novel has come at the right time. Chanakya is timeless and therefore there cannot be a time or era when he or his teachings can ever become redundant.

Chanakya's Chant has revived our interest in the life and teachings of the great Chanakya. I am keen to know more about him and Chandragupta Maurya ... and I wonder what would India (and her people) been like had they lived in today's times. If only ... we could find visionaries and leaders like them - so personified by Pt. Gangasagar Mishra and Chandini Gupta, even their circumstances and/or events that they are a part of ring a bell with the reader.

We all know that Chandragupta fared well even after Chanakya decided to retire and write his treatises. But for a modern Chandragupta, that may be difficult, nay impossible, given the gargantuan proportions of the challenges we as a nation face.

However, there is a need for some serious introspection, a need for soul searching - to understand as to where we went wrong in the last millennium or in the last one thousand years, that the great Empires and the Vedic civilization collapsed. That this great land saw the advent of conquerors after conquerors ... the ones who could not be rebuffed or defeated, and this land was plundered of her wealth and saw the forced demise of a part of her culture. Paying mere lip service to our culture and traditions and reminiscing about our past glories will not do and is not enough. A glorious past is no guarantee for a shining future unless we are prepared to jettison petty-mindedness for serious intent to execute the common goal of making India (Bharatavarsh) emerge as a great power in the 21st century.

In these times of turbulence and violence - the Kali Yug - Chanakya's thinking, his teachings and his philosophy are even more relevant. Each of us needs his guidance like never before. 'Coz a nation is made great by her people. And we all know a weak spine cannot support a strong and righteous mind ... and vice versa.

Details of the book: Chanakya's Chant/ Ashwin Sanghi/ Publisher: Westland/ Pages: 441/ Paperback/ ISBN: 978-93-80658-67-4/ Price: Rs.195/

Photograph: The book jacket cover of Chanakya's Chant. Picture courtesy: link.
About the author: Ashwin Sanghi (born January 25, 1969): An entrepreneur by profession, Ashwin Sanghi writes extensively on history, religion and politics in his spare time, but historical fiction in the thriller genre is his passion and hobby. Sanghi holds a master s degree from Yale. He lives in India with his wife Anushika and son Raghuvir.

His first novel, The Rozabal Line, was originally published in 2007 under his pseudonym, Shawn Haigins. The book was subsequently published in 2008 and 2010 in India under his own name and went on to become a national bestseller.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

along the way by TGC Prasad

An entertaining, enjoyable and a fun read.

Based in Bangalore, TGC Prasad isn't a professional author but comes from a strategic and general management consulting background. Nevertheless he has written several novels and along the way is his latest offering.

This is the story of three friends – who met at NIT Kozhikode (Calicut) and became friends for life.

Venkata (Venkata Subramaniam Adisankara Tanikaburla) or VSAT hails from a small town and is the son of a schoolteacher. Raj Malhotra is from Delhi and is the quintessential Punjabi munda, whose father deals in pre owned cars. Adi or Aditya too hails from Andhra but miraculously has a short name ... and a secret of his own.

We read about their lives in NIT – K, and it is nicely sprinkled with wit and humour.

During their third year Venkata becomes besotted with Anjali – a Coorgi girl with a retired colonel for a father. Food (both solid and liquid), sleep and computers keep Adi occupied while Raj is only too happy to take his Malhotra khandaan's 'specialties' forward *wink*

By a happy coincidence all four of them, along with Srila, Anjali's best friend, are placed with TCS. After the training period Srila opts for Chennai, while the others remain in Bangalore. We get to read about their office capers, peek into the lives of software engineers and get a glimpse of the goings-on in the IT industry.

Anjali and VSAT want to marry, but will their culturally diverse families give in to their wishes? Will VSAT's parents agree to have a non-Telugu speaker as their daughter-in-law and more importantly will Anjali's retired Colonel and trivia loving father accept VSAT, who is woefully short on trivia, as his son-in-law.

Well read the book to find out, I won't play the spoiler.

You get to read about what IT companies are willing to do to acquire talent, make sure they join and retain them. It is difficult to get TCS folks to join ... even if a good offer is made, the hard copies of the offer letters handed over, umpteenth questions answered and even after the candidates accept the offer and commits to join. Rest assured, TCS line and staff managers will do everything and more to hold them back ... and will most definitely bring out their trump card, their Brahmastra ... an onsite opportunity (in the US of course). Matter settled.

And while I am at it, let me also demolish a popular myth – that HR folks have all the power to make or break someone's career.

It is not so. HR folks – are part of the staff function – and have no power or very little power, which is, pretty much equivalent to having no power at all. But are popular scapegoats – for line managers – if anything went wrong. HR especially Talent Acquisition plays the supply chain function in the IT industry. They hire the talent required for a project to commence or ramp up ... and have to adhere to the negotiable and non-negotiable aspects of the requirements and SOPs. They have to make provisions for no shows, reneges and backfills too ... in order to minimize revenue leakage. And all this cannot be done after a joinee fails to show up or resigns within a short time span. These have to be anticipated well in advance. Folks in talent acquisition are assessed based on offer to joinee ratio and offer to on boarding ratio. They operate within a strict hiring budget and timelines ... er ... deadlines. It is not called deadline for nothing ... you are dead if things don't happen as per the hiring plan.

But I digress.

along the way is a warm hearted story that is tailor made for the silver screen. There is fun, humour, wit, friendship, romance, ruthna- manana, campus and office capers, quirks, heartburn over increments and office politics, well meaning advice and letters from parents, foreign tours, visa capers, city life, small town, picturesque locales, tragedy, comedy, Hitler and Pappu, good food, bad food, maggi, kissing in the rain, Telugu superstar Mahesh Babu's – the one who can break light posts with his bare hand - heavy duty dialogues and hold your breathe ... a friendly cameo by none other than Shah Rukh Khan!

What else do you want?

And yes, there is even the bit about the divine and the mandatory offering of one's crowning glory to the Lord of the hills.

And before I forget, there are lots of trivia too – so your GK will surely travel northward, whether you like it or not.

My rating: 3.5/5

The language is simple and the writing style is crisp which makes for an easy read and a thoroughly enjoyable read. The production value of the book is good, the cover design is quite attractive and the book feels good to hold. There are very few editing errors and it only adds to the reading pleasure.

I only wish that certain aspects of Raj and Srila's lives were better developed.

You can find echoes of: Hyderabad Blues, 3 idiots and Dil Chahta Hai in this novel. And even that of Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone. Umm, considering that it was the only readable book by Mr. Bhagat, that isn't too bad, no?

Bollywood, where are you?

Details of the book: along the way/ Author: TGC Prasad/ Publisher: Rupa Publications/ Publishing Date: 07/01/2011/ ISBN: 978-81-291-1784-7/ Paperback/Pages: 368/ Price: Rs.295.

Photograph: The book jacket cover of along the way. Picture courtesy: link.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Life after the Bouffant

Begum Ayesha Sultana born Shormila Thakur (on 8th December 1946), known by her stage name Sharmila Tagore (Bengali: শর্মিলা ঠাকুর) is an Indian film actress few have unheard of. Born in a Hindu Bengali family in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, to Gitindranath Tagore who was then Dy. General Manager of the British India Company and owner of Elgin Mills, she attended St. John's Diocesan Girls' Higher Secondary School and Loreto Convent, Asansol. She is the great-grandniece of the great poet laureate Gurudeb Rabindranath Tagore (Robindronath Thakur).

In fact she is more closely related to the great Tagore from her mother's side. Her maternal grandmother Latika Tagore was the granddaughter of Rabindranath Tagore's brother Dijendranath. Sharmila has never met Rabindranth Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941), but he taught her mother when she went to Shantiniketan. Apparently her mother had received wonderful collections from Tagore like little couplets, drawings, et cetera in her book. But she would never give those to her.

Reason: She had lent Sharmila Gora (a novel) autographed by Tagore himself when she was 12, and she wanting to show off took it to school and lost it! Her mother did not speak to her for months after that. Not surprising, if you were to ask me.

To cut to the chase, I found this piece while trawling the net ...and decided to re-post it here. It makes for an interesting read.

The good news is the famous dimples are still intact.

But if you loved that sweeping bouffant, alas, that’s gone. But Sharmila Tagore doesn’t mind. “I thought I looked nice so I just did it,” she says with a laugh. “But now my children say, ‘Amma, you were very pretty. But that hair ...’”

The bouffant might have bit the dust but Sharmila Tagore is still going strong. Though she hasn’t appeared in too many Hindi films, she had leading roles in two recent Bengali films. In an industry where actresses have notoriously-short shelf lives that’s not a bad innings given that she entered the industry in 1959. She was 13 then. Her director was Satyajit Ray. The film: Apur Sansar.

Tagore cannot even remember clearly how it all came about. “I think someone saw me in front of some school and then Manik-da (Ray) called my father and asked if he had any objections,” she says. “I remember I was wearing a frock at the photo shoot and Manik-da asked if I could wear a sari.”

Ray was already a household name, thanks to Pather Panchali. His newly-discovered hero, Soumitra Chatterjee, was playing Apu. The role of Aparna, Apu’s young bride in Apur Sansar was one any young actress would covet. “But I was quite blase,” confesses Tagore who went on to act in four other Ray films. “I just did whatever everyone told me to do. There was no special enjoyment, no special tension.” She smiles and says what she cherished most was meeting the crew, many of whom became regulars in Ray films. “Durga-da, who did the sound, Bansi-da (Chandragupta), Subrata-kaku,” she ticks them off. “I don’t know why some were ’da (brothers) and some kaku (uncles). They became my pals. Can you imagine they are all gone?”

Ray knew that it would be hard to convince his audience that this sophisticated young Calcutta schoolgirl was the shy village bride Aparna. Tagore remembers she had a scene where she is supposed to hit her co-star Soumitra Chatterjee. “It had a lot of dialog. I said it all, and Manik-da said, ‘Excellent.’ Then he said, ‘Rinku (Tagore’s nickname), ekta kaaj koro. Kichhu bolar dorkar nei. Thappor merey choley jao. (Do something, Rinku. You don’t need to say anything. Just smack him and go.)’ He just cut it all out.”

But Apur Sansar was nothing compared to her next role in Ray’s Devi, where she played the daughter-in-law of an obsessed zamindar who thinks she is a goddess incarnate. Tagore readily says that it was a role she didn’t even fully comprehend while shooting. “I understood the romance of Apur Sansar, but the complications of a woman’s body in Devi were so much more tragic. I had no idea what I was doing till I was in my 30s,” she says. “The face of that girl still haunts me. You know, that film was just close-up after close-up.”

She went on to act in Aranyer Din Ratri, Nayak, and Seemabaddha and got to see Ray evolve as a filmmaker. “I think he peaked with Charulata, Mahanagar, and Aranyer Din Ratri,” she says, though she adds he never lost a certain innocence and simplicity in telling a story.

But did she ever feel comfortable enough to contradict him? She chuckles and says, “Well, in Nayak my character was supposed to wear glasses and I asked, is she long-sighted or short-sighted. He was very pleased. He told someone, ‘You know, Rinku is thinking about her roles now.’”

But her thinking person’s actress image suffered a severe jolt when the girl from the Tagore household left Calcutta to try her luck in Bombay. “My naak-unchoo (snooty) friends were disappointed, but I needed to stand on my own feet. Working with Manik-da was wonderful, but there was no money in it. If you wanted economic independence you had to do other things,” she says frankly. There was also a Bengali connection in Bombay— filmmakers like Shakti Samanta and Sachin Bhaumik who took her under their wings. At that time leading man Shammi Kapoor was being paired with new faces. That’s how she ended up in Kashmir ki Kali.

It wasn’t the smoothest of landings. “My Hindi was bad—Bengali accented—and I was like a piece of cardboard,” she admits. “And I had to learn all these jhatkas.” She remembers being in tears when she watched her first rushes. “There was some song. I thought I was awful. I hated everything from the eye makeup to the song. I didn’t feel like that at all about Aparna in Apur Sansar.” She smiles and then without missing a beat recites the dialog from Apur Sansar. “Tomaar chokhey ki acchey bolo. (What’s in your eyes, tell me.) Kajol. (Kajal) To my wife. Wife maaney jaani (I know the meaning of wife),” she shakes her head. “Beautiful.”

Though after Kashmir ki Kali she was almost ready to pack her bags and go home, she stuck it out and soon became the glamour doll of Bombay. That’s when the Sharmila Tagore of the bouffant and butterfly-knot blouse was created. She says she had no idea she was setting trends. “I was impulsive. I was ready for a new flavor. I guess I had a guardian angel because somehow I landed on my feet.”

Well, almost. When Sharmila Tagore suddenly appeared in a bikini, Calcutta’s intelligentsia choked over their tea. “I was foolish. I didn’t understand the Indian mind,” she says. “Usually the photographer tries to trap you. But in this case he tried to tell me it might not be a good idea. But I said, let’s do it. You know, I was just growing up and making mistakes, but they were my mistakes.” But now, decades later, she says she didn’t realize how much appearances counted not just for her but for her family. “Then heroines wore white saris and hid their whiskeys with coke. I drank whiskey. I smoked cigarettes. But I did everything openly. I lived alone in a hotel. So I was a social suspect.”

But her headstrong attitudes didn’t just raise eyebrows. The glamorous girl-about-town image also trapped Sharmila Tagore the actress. She remembers how in Anupama, the director Hrishikesh Mukherjee tried to de-glamorize her. “He said, ‘Rinku, this is a motherless child. You are very pretty and we’ll give you a backlight. We don’t need the hair.’ But I wouldn’t listen to him. I don’t know why he didn’t sack me on the spot.” She says her looks probably got in the way of any roles in art films as well. “Perhaps I looked too refined. At that time parallel cinema was all about Harijans in Chakra,” she shrugs.

Eventually, there came a point when she almost quit films. “It was those huge posters of An Evening in Paris,” she says. “You could see my arms and legs and it looked like I wasn’t wearing any clothes. My mother-in-law was coming to town. And the driver had to go and remove all the posters.” That was the point when she decided she needed an image makeover. After that she took on films like Aradhana, Safar, and Amar Prem and with Rajesh Khanna became quite the romantic couple.

As an actress she played opposite most of the leading men of her time - Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar, even Amitabh Bachchan. She has fond memories of them all but if she had to pick her leading men, they would be Paul Newman, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Shashi Kapoor. “And some of Dilip Kumar’s performances are fantastic - he is not good-looking but charismatic. He is a complete natural. Like Naseeruddin or Balraj Sahni. Shahrukh is not. Amitabh plays to the gallery but there is a coldness somewhere.”

Though she got along well with her men, it was sometimes a little dicier with the leading ladies. Rumor has it Mala Sinha once slapped her. She says the incident probably happened when she suggested some dance step. “She said I was trying to teach her and was humiliated. I tried to apologize but she screamed, ‘Who does she think she is?’ But I don’t think she slapped me,” says Tagore. “Maybe I was out of turn.” Then there was a time during the making of Daag that her co-star Raakhee stopped talking to her. Tagore admits that happened but says she has no idea why. “God knows who said what. She’d been to my house many times. I went to her wedding. And she stopped talking suddenly.”

But the two returned together a couple of years ago to star in Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubho Muhurat. In fact, Tagore’s latest, most successful forays have been in Bengali films, including Abar Aranye—a sort of sequel to Aranyer Din Ratri, but this time made by Gautam Ghosh. “I signed that film only to reunite with all those people,” she says happily. “We all shared a bungalow and it was so much fun. Soumitra would read poems he was writing on scraps of paper for his granddaughter. Subhendu (Chatterjee) would tell stories. And Samit (Bhanja) was of course very sick at that time but he was with us throwing a fit about bad food. There was such a bond between all of us.” She remembers how Samit Bhanja couldn’t come to the premiere because by then his cancer had spread. They all called him instead. Within a month he was dead. “But he is so alive in the film,” she says. “It was about generosity and heart, not about getting paid. It’s the kind of giving that characterizes us as actors.”

In Bombay she soon found that kind of enjoyment in her roles was harder and harder to come by. “Especially after Amitabh, it became all about the iconic mother, the absent father, and the rebel son. Women’s roles became more and more regressive,” she says. “Now if you see television everything is about puja and the bindis are covering the entire forehead. Even villains have to be men because that’s a decision-making role. Women have to beautiful and good and cry and dance.” And they have to be young too. “In Hindi cinema life stops at 30 whether you are Sharmila or Raakhee or Madhuri,” she says. “But in Bengali an Aparna Sen name still has marquee value.”

Tagore returned to the Bollywood big screen once more for Aamir Khan’s Mann. “But I was disappointed. He showed me something and he made me do something else,” she says without rancor. “It was such a lovely role but from the first day he said ‘moist eyes, moist eyes’ and I just gave up.”

But she has no regrets. Not even for the roles that got away - like Khilona, which made Mumtaz a star, or Haathi Mere Saathi.

Apart from the occasional film role, whether it’s Bengali or English (Mississippi Masala), she dabbles in television and happily spends her time gardening, reading, listening to music, watching television. “And I love to loaf. I can do nothing for days. I am very content,” says Tagore. Son Saif Ali Khan is a bona fide star now, one daughter designs jewelry, the other, after working at Ford Foundation, is venturing into films.

Her marriage to cricketer Mansour Ali Khan of Pataudi was a glamorous inter-religious marriage that people said would never work. But it did, though at one point she remembers she awoke to find the government had sent a bodyguard because of death threats. Now she says it’s mostly just a tangle of names. “I was Mrs. Khan in the kids’ school. I am Ayesha Begum of Pataudi. I am Sharmila Tagore. I am Rinku.” Then she chuckles, “When I wanted to print a card we had huge debates.” But in the end she decided, “Ultimately I am just Sharmila Tagore.”

Picture: Courtesy link.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Haunted by Douglas Misquita

Fast paced, filled with plenty of high-octane action and incredible twists and turns, Haunted is one action-thriller guaranteed to give an adrenaline rush. Douglas Misquita, Jr. has impressed and how!

Don't be mislead by the title, this book has nothing to do with the denizens of the spirit world or the afterlife, and the author - Douglas Misquita - is very much Indian *smile*

Action-thriller is one of my favourite genres and needless to say, I was more than glad when I won an author signed copy. There is nothing better than an intelligent and lucid thriller that pulls you into the narrative and keeps you there till the very end.

Book blurb: FBI Special Agent Kirk Ingram's life is torn apart when his family is brutally murdered before his eyes. Devastated physically and psychologically, he vows to destroy organized crime in all forms.

Across the globe, an international trade house brings terrorist activities and organized crime together in a deadly nexus that threatens to bring the world-order to the point of anarchy.

And only one man stands in the way of global terror and paranoia - one man seeking redemption, and waging a personal battle against the demons of his past...

Alistair Maclean is my all time favourite for his Second World War and action-thriller novels like: Ice Station Zebra, The Guns of Navarone, Breakheart Pass, among others. I have enjoyed watching the movies too... and it had absolutely nothing to do with the presence of a certain Gregory Peck, I tell you.

Maclean's Where Eagles Dare starring the slightly aging but with his debonair charm intact Richard Burton, and the suave Clint Eastwood is a classic that has achieved cult status.

I liked Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway as well. (Umm, I have a sneaking suspicion that the recent yawn-inducing yarn Kuchh Luv Jaisa starring the face of Indian English film, Rahul Bose and the wannabe desi Jennifer Aniston, Shefali Shah, directed by someone who is clearly a legend in her own mind, was 'inspired' by this 1975 classic.)

But I digress.

A plot built around the terrorism theme isn't something that we can call refreshing or novel, however the plot in Haunted clearly is and for an Indian author this one is certainly a hatke plot. Frankly the reader never feels that an Indian author has written this, and I mean no disrespect towards Indian authors. I am merely doffing my hat at Douglas' caliber as an action-thriller writer, the meticulous research, the erudite language, the taut narrative and the nearly impeccable editing, apart from the look and feel of the book of course. That reminds me... I got to buy one, a hat that is, if Douglas plans to keep writing thrillers like this.

The opening pages are simply mind-blowing - the built up, the chase and the encounter - all leave you quite stunned and yet asking for more.

The pace dips a bit in the subsequent pages, but picks up where it has to and from then onwards it is one tremendous ride. This isn't your run-of-the-mill terrorism stories but a tight adrenalin packed one, involving Citex, a deadly nerve agent. Umm, it reminds me of the 'naagpaas' mentioned in our epics and other literature classified as mythology... btw.

You travel along with Kirk Ingram, the slightly larger than life protagonist/hero, through his trials and tribulations - his highs and lows, his success and setbacks, his smiles and tears - in his quest to destroy organized crime in all forms.

Through the US, Eastern Europe and the Balkans you come across characters - some pitch black, some white and others with distinct shades of gray. You get a sneak peek into the methodologies adapted by the bad rather ugly and evil guys, their logistics network, their fronts, their lives, their agenda and their motivations.

There is some fabulous underwater action too.

The good guys - and there are quite a few of them - work tirelessly despite mounting challenges. Detective Connor stands out among them, though for some reason Arnold Schwarzenegger's visage appeared in my head a few times while reading about him - and under the current circumstances, it is not a compliment. And the good detective does absolutely nothing to merit one either.

You will warm up to the plucky Tamura and the intrepid Amanda Gunner who is on a mission of her own. What that is I will not tell you, read the book to find out.

Lars Gunther, his conglomerate and the shadowy Imer Qerim along with their cronies and sidekicks ooze nastiness from every pore of their being. They will leave no stone unturned to succeed in their nefarious designs and will stop at nothing to liquidate any opposition, Kirk and his team included.

How each of them goes about their job is something you got to read for yourself - for the thrills.

I won't be surprised if your GK or your vocabulary travels northward at the end of it. And there is a twist in the tale too - but don't expect me to play the spoiler. That is something I will not do.

Do not expect to skim through the book and this is no cursory read. It demands your full attention and is worth every bit of it.

When I say full attention, it does not indicate towards the reading bit only. You got to visualize it too. Simultaneously. Make sure you play out the scenes in your head, while your eyes do the reading. That will make it as they say in Mumbai or perhaps in matinee speak, "paisa vasool".

Needless to say, Haunted will make for one helluva movie too but not a desi one for sure. Umm, come to think of it, it may all depend on the caliber of the production team and the person wielding the megaphone and periodically hollering, "cut" as well.

There are many events and characters peppering the book that may leave you with the feeling that a few of them could have been pruned out. Yet towards the end they all converge and all the loose ends get tied up neatly. A word of advice: do try to read this book at one go or at least cover as much as you can every time you sit down or curl up to read it. You may have to go back and forth a few times in order to get the flow or refresh your memory... but then it is all worth it.

And Oh, make sure to put a face to the characters too - in your mind that is, e.g., Robert Redford or Gregory Peck or Paul Newman for Kirk Ingram - its more enjoyable that way. Where my loyalties lie, you already know. Don't you?

My rating: 4/5. A compelling read, it will appeal to all age groups. For fans of the action-thriller genre - this is one book you'll love to sink your teeth into.

I look forward to Douglas' future writings with interest.

Details of the book: Haunted/ Author: Douglas Misquita, Jr./ Publisher: Frog Books/ Publishing Date: March 1, 2011/ ISBN-10: 938015495X / ISBN-13: 978-9380154954/ Pages: 372/ Price: Rs.350; US $16.

Photograph: The book jacket cover of Haunted. Picture courtesy: link.