Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Best Laid Plans: Two Books and a Movie

It began on a summer afternoon in July, a month of intense heat, rainless skies and scorching, dust-laden winds.

His eyes fell on the headline and unconsciously it registered on his brain.


Quite suddenly, a desire to read pulp fiction gripped me…hard. Since taking the metro to Hardayal library, which has a fairly good collection, was out of question, I decided to try the internet. was the site I tried since they have a separate section for this genre. I was lucky enough to download a known and an unknown author. James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish turned out to be fairly gripping tale of kidnapping and murder. The book, the first one that Chase published, has seen many changes in various editions. Apparently, the one I read is a sanitized version. Chase is one of my favourite writers of pulp and this book confirmed the point once again.

The other one was Clean Break by Lionel White. Had never heard of White before but since this was a post 30s novel, thought that it’d be interesting. And interesting this novel concerning a robbery heist turned out to be. While going thru the Wikipedia entry on the novel learnt that a movie, viz, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is based on it. So, the next step was, of course, to watch the movie. It turned out to be absorbing especially its non-linear format and the last few minutes with their premonition of doom. The characters, however, were depicted more sympathetically in the movie than in the book which I thought took away some of the tension that is there in the book. The robbery in the movie fails to a large extent due to fate but in the book it is the underlying tension between the various characters (none of whom is likable) that gives it its edge.

So all in all I have discovered a new writer and a new director.


The books can be downloaded from The movie too is available online. For those interested, here’s the trailer:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Journey of the Self: Aatish Taseer's Stranger to History

"I had sought out my father because I couldn't live with the darkness of not knowing him."

Absent fathers make for haunting presence. Think of Hamlet, Ghosts, and The Glass Menagerie.

Aatish Taseer's first book: Stranger to History: A Son's Journey through Islamic Lands is a young man's search for his father who like the father in The Glass Menagerie is for many years just a photograph in a browning silver frame.

As young Aatish grows up, he starts realising that there is something that sets him apart from his Sikh cousins. Later a therapist in a boarding school impresses upon him the fact that he should try and contact his father, the Pakistani politician, Salmaan Taseer, and form an opinion of him himself rather than simply relying on the recollections of his mother, the Indian journalist, Tavleen Singh. The young boy gets hold of his father's number and gives him a call. From then on begins an on-off relationship with his father.

Things come to a head when Aatish publishes an article on the growing Islamic extremism amongst second-generation Pakistanis in Britain. Since it is his first cover story, he sends a copy of it to his father and eagerly anticipates the latter’s reaction. His father’s letter shakes him up as he accuses Aatish of spreading invidious anti-Muslim propaganda. This leads Aatish to think of his own Muslim self, of his father who never followed the tenats of Islam but called himself a Muslim, of his great-grandmother, who never recovered from the horrors of partition, and whose first comment on seeing the infant Aatish was: “Yes, he is lovely, but Muslim nonetheless.”

It is in search of his own identity that Aatish sets out on a journey thru Islamic countries. The book chronicles the journey thereof. In Turkey, he sees people turning away from the almost militant secularism of Ataturk; in Syria, he watches the enflaming of passions over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammad; in Iran, he has an experience of a ‘police state’ but also realises the resentment of a few against the ‘arabinasation’ of Islam. He also finds cults like Hare Rama Hare Krishna! And finally to Pakistan which was made for an idea, and which had broken with history for that idea.

Interspersed through all this is his own discussion with self and surroundings as also a glimpse into his personal history. There are some heart-felt passages, where he realises what he has missed out in his life:

Through the whole experience, I watched a small boy, sitting at my feet in a white skullcap. He fiddled, then fell occasionally into the prayer position, then got up and looked around. He had beautiful light-coloured eyes. Seeing him near his father, in the all-male environment, it was possible to see how visiting the mosque could become a special rite between father and son.

However, the one passage that resonated with me is the one where he describes his grandfather’s longing for an undivided Punjab:

His face came alive as he’d tell me the story of how he had called my father from London to inform him of my birth. When the operator on the Pakistani side spoke, and my grandfather heard the music in his accent, he gasped, ‘He spoke my Punjabi!’

I can well relate to the sudden sense of belonging that arises when one hears the Raavi-paar Punjabi.


Stranger to History is easily available in bookshops and can also be purchased online. I bought one from a shop at South Ex, Delhi.


Entered for the Book Review Party hosted by Cym Lowell every Wednesday.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Pit in Dothan: Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar

He walked slowly across the room until he was standing face to face with Brat by the window. He had abnormally clear grey eyes with a
darker rim to the iris, but they had no expression in them. Nor had his pale features any expression. He was so tightly strung, Brat thought,that if you plucked him with a finger he would twang.

And then quite suddenly the tightness went.

He stood for a moment searching Brat's face; and his own was suddenly slack with relief.

"They won't have told you?" he said, drawling a little, "but I was prepared to deny with my last breath that you were Patrick. Now that I've seen you I take all that back. Of course you are Patrick." He put out his hand. "Welcome home."

Brat Farrar, the eponymous hero of Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel, is a foundling brought up in an orphanage. A loner by disposition, Farrar leaves England in his teens, traveling as far as Mexico and the US but without settling anywhere. The only solidarity that he feels, in an otherwise lonely life, is with horses. Returning to England, he is one day accosted by a man called Alec Loding. A bit-part player, Loding, wants Farrar to impersonate Patrick Ashby, a neighbour of his in a village called Clare. Patrick had committed suicide some eight years back though his body has never been found. Had Patrick lived, he would have turned twenty one in a few weeks time and inherited his parental estate. At first, repulsed by the offer, Farrar starts taking an interest in the scheme as it provides him with excitement and thrill. Secondly, there are horses on the estate, and finally because somewhere he is keen to have a family. However, his decision to go along with the impersonation has far reaching impact on the other Ashbys, most notably, on Simon who as the slightly younger twin of Patrick was about to inherit the estate.

The book is not much of a mystery because you know right from the beginning that Brat Farrar is an imposter. The other mystery – that of the death of Patrick - can be easily deciphered too. The only mystery, in fact, is whether or not Brat is an Ashby and if so, who sired him. The plot, thus, is not gripping but Tey’s talent of creating memorable characters - notably the Rector George Peck and Aunt Bee who have a quiet dignity about them - keeps one engrossed in the text. Also, Tey’s description of the English rural life is engaging, though the details are more like that of life in the Thirties rather than what its date suggests -
a post- world war second novel.


Brat Farrar can be purchased online or you can download it for free, as I did, from this site:



The problem with Josephine Tey is that very early in the novel you get to know the characters the author sympathises with. From then on, the reader too is either forced to like those characters or if not then the reader is damned because the characters the author herself is not fond of come to a bad end. So it is with Simon in this book. Rather early in the book, I could guess what had happened to Patrick and for this Simon had to be shown as a petty, mean little thing. As Brat rises high in the esteem of everybody, Simon repeatedly comes across as shallow and finally downright evil. Questions like how could a thirteen year old execute such a diabolical plot or why the family was so eager to throw him over in favour of Brat are never satisfactorily answered. The way the family did behave was almost like they wanted somebody to spite Simon. Thank God Tey didn’t make Simon to have engineered the death of his parents too!


Wednesday: 10th August, 2011

Entered for Book Review Party Wednesday

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Are you who you think you are? Desmond Bagley's The Tightrope Men

Then he looked into the mirror above the basin and, for the first time in his life, experienced sheer terror...

Usually I steer clear of espionage thrillers because if the story is set during the two world wars then one can be sure that Germany would come to a sticky end and if it is a cold war scenario then one can rest assure that it is either Soviet Russia or the East European Communist Bloc getting the short end of the stick.

But when the premise is of a man waking up one morning after a night of drunkenness, in strange surroundings and wearing a face that is not his, than it becomes near about impossible to resist the book. And was I glad that I read Desmond Bagley's The Tightrope Men! It is a racy thriller depicting the adventures of Giles Denison who wakes up one morning to find that he is wearing the face of a stranger, which turns out {as later developments reveal}  to be that of the eminent science researcher Dr. Henry Meyrick.

Add to the confusion - men from Whitehall, the CIA, the KGB, the Germans, the Czechs; angry red haired ladies who accost our hero on the streets; and the daughter of Meyrick - and you have a lethal cocktail. As Giles Denison gets involved in an adrenalin pumping adventure, he has to answer questions about those around him as well as about his own past, for he is Giles Denison...or is he?

Go ahead and enjoy The Tightrope Men with a steaming cup of tea and a plateful of hot pakoras.


The Tightrope Men can be purchased online. I borrowed it from a friend.

14th July, 2011

Submitted for the Book Review Party hosted by Cym Lowell

Thursday, August 12, 2010

at that particular point...

“For God’s sake, switch off the light! I’ve to go to office tomorrow.” Bitter-half grumbled audibly.

I seethed within. What was he implying? As though, I did not have to go to work the next day. I shut the book in my hand with a bang and switched off the lamp. I also pulled at the sheet with unnecessary vehemence. Just a few pages more and I’d have known the identity of the listener to whom Changez was speaking. Could it have been Chris? Perhaps not really dead….

Dear Readers, it is a truth universally acknowledged that just when you are desperately close to unraveling the mystery in a book, then - precisely at that particular point - the entire universe conspires against you from finishing those last few pages.

Well, there I was, immersed in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Not an Agatha Christie with murderers at large in sleepy old villages, not a Dan Brown with its Biblical mysteries, yet holding me in its thrall right then.

The beginning had been slow and I’d not really enjoyed the narrative style till the mystery of the listener began to grip me. And now just when it was so tantilisingly close, I had to shut the book. I listened to the snores of hubby dear as he waded through dreams and hoped maliciously that they would turn into nightmares.

My restless night ensured that the next day I was late in getting up. A hurried breakfast (“again toast!” – Humph! Had he not noticed his paunch? I couldn’t be like his mother to pamper him with paranthas), a quick packing of tiffins and then we were locking the door and walking out.

The Metro, I smiled to myself. Yes, I could finish the last pages while traveling to the college. My smile died as I looked at the throng on the platform. Everybody, it seemed, had decided to travel by the Metro. Well, good for the Metro people, I thought sourly a few minutes later as I stood sandwiched between two ladies, but it’s absolutely ridiculous the way they don’t add new coaches or increase the frequency of the trains and why, why for the love of God, is Delhi so overcrowded….

Okay, I thought to myself, smoothing down my crushed salwaar-kameez as I alighted from the train, there is one free period that I have today, I’ll finish the book then. Two classes thankfully over, I went to the annexe of the Staff-room, asked the peon to give me a cup of tea, and was opening my bag when…..


I looked up. One of my former students beamed at me. She, of course, had to choose this very particular day to come and meet me and, of course, she was so confused about which course to pursue and could I just help her….

Feeling not like a beacon but more like a fused bulb, I answered her queries nevertheless. At my back, Time’s winged chariot rushed by…

Enough is enough, I thought grimly as I glared at the students, I am not going home till I finish the novel. This was my last class and after that I was gloriously free.

“Hey, the meeting is in the Seminar Hall” Dr. Bhushan, my senior colleague, remarked as I was about to enter the Staff-room.

“Mee…Meeting?” I sputtered.

“Of the Art and Culture committee.” Amongst his other accomplishments, Dr. Bhushan, let it be known, is also the convenor of the Art and Culture committee.

“But…but there was no notice.”

“Yes I know,” he said. “This is an emergency meeting. There is a cultural program that the college is organising so….” He lifted his shoulders in apology.

His apology did little to appease me as I sat miffed through out the meeting, snorting and smirking at suggestions and passing snide remarks. In short, doing a Snape.

Once again it was the Metro. Thankfully, it being afternoon, it wasn’t that crowded. But just as I was taking out the book from the bag, the mobile rang. Not mine, but of the girl sitting next to me and for the rest of the journey I had to listen to inane talk of insensitive boyfriends, narrow-minded parents, over-weight problems…in short all the angst that our young generation is so full of. I entertained myself by inwardly reciting the choicest abuses in Punjabi.

Home had never seemed as sweet to me as I unlocked the door and walked in. Hastily splashing water on my face and changing my clothes, I settled in the cushy armchair….


It was the friendly neighbourhood aunty who had prepared dahi-bhallas and had so very thoughtfully brought a bowl for me. Despite her protests ( rather feeble, I thought sarcastically), I prepared tea and made polite noises as she complained about her daughter-in-law, her maid, her relatives….

As I saw her off, my maid walked in with a sunshine-bright “Namaste Bhabhi.” The day became overcast for me.

For the next forty minutes, she mouthed an oft-repeated tirade of her mother-in-law, her other mem-sahabs, (“Not you bhabhi, you never do khich-khich” – I plastered a smile on my face) her husband…. even as I tskd-tskd at appropriate intervals.

Shutting the door after her, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. Not a moment to lose! I rushed towards the book…..only to be arrested in my movement…..the phone was ringing - sharply - a tone that suggested that it could not be ignored.

It was the chatty colleague, who had taken leave for the day and thus wanted to know all that had transpired in the college. Dejected and dispirited, I recounted the things. Needless to say, she found it her moral duty to regale me with her opinion about each and everything. I thought despairingly of Changez walking in the dark with the Mystery Man….

“Bye,” she said chirpily as she hung up.

“Bye,” I said in a dead voice. Changez and the Mystery Man had already disappeared in the darkness.


• The Reluctant Fundamentalist is easily available in book shops. However, I borrowed it from Delhi Public Library, opp. Old Delhi Railway Station.