Cover of Sidin Vadukut's new non-fiction book, 'The Sceptical Patriot'

Irficionado | Book Review | ‘The Sceptical Patriot’

Logo for Irficionado seriesCover of Sidin Vadukut's first book, Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin "Einstein" VargheseIn the Dork trilogy, Sidin Vadukut expects us to suspend disbelief, over all the dumb things the protagonist, Robin “Einstein” Varghese, does, for which he somehow eventually receives fantastic payoffs. In ‘The Sceptical Patriot’, Vadukut urges us to do just the opposite.

SubtitlFront cover of Sidin Vadukut's new book of non-fiction, 'The Sceptical Patriot'ed Exploring the Truth Behind the Zero and Other Indian Glories*’ (the asterisk denoting ‘Conditions apply’), Vadukut’s first book of non-fiction goads us to have a skeptical, enquiring mind toward all the glorious “truths” that are hurled our way by jingoistic politicians, cultural chauvinists and lazy history books, instead of accepting them at face value. “Facts” such as India invented the zero, Sushruta performed the world’s first plastic surgery, this great land never invaded another land in the past 10,000 years, J C Bose invented the radio before Marconi, and Taxila/Takshashila was the world’s oldest university.

Vadukut aims to get to the heart of the “truth”, with a lot of research, referencing and reading. Plus an army of questions. In the chapter on Taxila, he has us mull over how exactly to define a university. In the one about the Chola kings, he urges to keep looking and digging for further and deeper truth. And in the one on the invention of the radio, he makes us consider: an invention isn’t as easy a definition as GK books make us believe – many inventors may have invented things that enabled the final inventor (or assimilator) to come up with that invention; so, who do you really credit it to?

Popular illustration of Sushruta performing the first plastic (nose) surgery in the world

Intentions aside, Vadukut is candid enough to admit that this is at best a “pop history” book and some discussions are beyond its scope. Fair enough. For he doesn’t aim to establish the truth, but like any ideal guide, or even teacher, he urges us to find out the truth for ourselves. Nevertheless, he does share the “truth” according to him: at the end of each chapter that examines a particular popular India “fact”, he gives a truth scale, offering his opinion of the said truth. And leaves each chapter with a few questions for the reader (learner) to chew on.

However, Vadukut hasn’t abandoned his trademark gut-busting humour, though it can’t be abundant in a book of this nature; else, it wouldn’t have been just ‘pop’, but actually junk. In the Sushruta chapter, he goes, ‘We don’t care if plastic surgery was invented in India by Bijumon Biryanveetil or Blossom Babykutty. All we want to know is if they did this before anybody, anywhere else.’

Author Sidin VadukutVadukut also shows that he can write. You don’t see this in Dork; Dork is distractingly funny. However, he shows he can layer and build stories, in the process, making non-fiction absorbing. The way he does this is by beginning each chapter with an extremely tangential anecdote or experience and then eventually linking it to the “fact” under exploration. For the one on Taxila, he begins with his visit to the Edinburgh castle, where he learns how impregnable it was designed to be. He then moves on to how India had a natural barrier from almost all sides due to its location (the seas in the south and the mountains in the north and north-east) – which is why all invaders came from the north-west. He finally comes to talking of Taxila’s location – it had to be where it was for where else would you see so much interaction in those times?

‘The Sceptical Patriot’ thus comes across as a very admirable and even brave effort. Someone questioning, and urging us to question, the veracity of these “time-honoured” statements. However, it is also a sign of the times that Vadukut has to bookend the heart of the book with disclaimers (at the beginning) and worries of the culture vultures coming after him next (at the end): ‘This is going to piss off a lot of people, and I am buying asbestos underwear as I type, but…’. However, Vadukut need have no such worry. He lives and works out of London. And maybe that’s just why and how he can afford to write such a book: the safety of distance and objectivity. If he had been here, he would have had to do a waapsi of the signing amount he got for this book, at the very least.

Which brings you to a question of your own: wonder if this book will have a series too? Given its intention and quality, there should be. So, dare I predict the names of books two and three? ‘God Save the Sceptical Patriot’ and ‘Who Let the Sceptical Patriot Out?’ Bring them on.

If interested, check out Sidin’s blog here, where he writes with the nom de plume, Domain Maximus: Whatay

Author Siddharth Chowdhury holding his new book, The Patna Manual of Style

Irficionado | Books | The ‘Heart’ of an Author

Logo for Irficionado series

You read a book by an author you haven’t read before. You like it. You read up about the author. You like what you read. Then, you meet the author at a literary fest. And promptly fall in love with them. Literarily. Not literally.

Cover of 'The Patna Manual of Style', Siddharth Chowdhury's new bookI spotted Siddharth Chowdhury on the very first day of the just-concluded The Hindu Lit for Life 2016. Siddharth was there as his new book, ‘The Patna Manual of Style’, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Fiction. I read the book a couple of months back, after reading glowing reviews of it, and found it sweet, simple, soft, warm. His storytelling and language are so simple that it makes you believe you can be a successful writer yourself. And I mean this in a good way, of course.

So, there Siddharth was at one of the event organizer tables at the entrance, signing a cheque. (From what I could gather, there must have been some change of plan, for which he was presently having to pay out of his pocket, and I guess he would be reimbursed later.) A few people were coming up, not to speak with him, but for inquiries, believing him to be one of the organizers. But since he seemed to be busy, they just picked up the event brochure and left. I took the opportunity to approach him with what I thought was a clever introduction line, “Hey, Siddharth, you shouldn’t stand here as they’ll think you’re on the organizing committee.” And before he could wonder who hadn’t mistaken him for an organizer, I quickly added, “I know your name because I’ve read your book, loved it, and am waiting to speak with you.”

Photo of author Siddharth Chowdhury on the inside cover of his new book, The Patna Manual of StyleCheque-signing over, Siddharth was free to speak with me. While I shared with him whatever I wanted to talk to him about, I couldn’t help noticing how soft-spoken he seemed to be. Even shy. Even benign. Even like a mouse. (And I mean this in a good way, of course.) I was a little surprised by this, for on the inside back cover of the book is a photo of his where he seems to be from a regal family, and therefore a bit unapproachable. The same pic was on the board nearby that spotlighted the names and books of all the nominated authors. I told him so. I don’t remember his exact reaction now, but it was… benign.

I spotted who seemed to be his wife and kid close by, and then parts of the book (which is actually several parts of his life autobiographized) came back to me: going to Calcutta/Kolkata to ask for his to-be wife’s hand from her parents, making out with her with implorations of “no, not on the chin, like a dog” (she), his wife encouraging his writerly dreams… It’s surreal watching a writer’s life, or at least parts of it, unraveling in front of you. Or at least, you think it is: for what if rather than autobiographizing it, he, being a writer, was actually concocting it?

And then, we spoke about his book and writing. The book is a 143-pager, comprising several short stories that are interconnected. While it’s a pleasure to read, I shared with him that it’s perhaps too short, at least too short to win a major award like this. He told me his writing is very short (so I need to go and read his other books). And left me with – when I asked him, despite the size of the book, whether he fancies his chances at the award – a not-so-benign, but utterly-filled-with-candour, “No way!” And that’s when I was smitten with Siddharth. Again, literarily of course.

I read more about him at night, and saw him the next day too. He was all dressed up as the award ceremony was in the afternoon. He, like the other authors, would be reading a bit from his book. Wished him luck. Asked for his card (didn’t have it). Wondered if it would be okay to drop in to meet him if and when I’m next in Delhi (he’s an editorial consultant at Manohar Publishers). Went for the session. Watched him read. Watched him receive a generous response. And watched him not winning. Sigh. (The winner was Easterine Kire for ‘When the River Sleeps’.) Heard my mind go: ‘Rigged’. ‘Unfair’. ‘Boohoo’.

Pic of red panda, known to be extremely shyIn my two interactions with him, as I’ve already written, I found Siddharth Chowdhury to be as gentle as a Red Panda (what’s with my animal analogies, and hope he doesn’t mind, or better doesn’t see this). And then, his writing seemed to unravel some more. ‘The Patna Manual of Style’, as I see it, should be called ‘The Writer’s Manual of Style’, or even ‘The Siddharth Chowdhury Manual of Writing’: simple, warm musings and anecdotes of a writer’s aspirations (‘ambitions’ is too strong a word for someone like Siddharth and for his writing), muses, rigours (the chapter about a day in the life of a writer, titled unassumingly ‘Autobiography’), insecurities (the first chapter where he loses his job). And the best part is, it’s part of a series (the previous two being ‘Day Scholar’ and ‘Patna Roughcut’, from what I know). No, the real best part is the name Siddharth gives his protagonist, or alter ego (as it’s autobiographized). ‘Hriday’. ‘Heart’ in Hindi. Not ‘Dil’, also ‘heart’ in Hindi, but which sounds commercial and coarse. But ‘hriday’, a softer word. Or a word that’s more… benign.

My hriday looks forward to more from gentle little Siddharth Chowdhury.


Indian mythology fiction writer, Amish, in his study

Irficionado | Books | Something’s Amish

Logo for Irficionado series

Cover of Amish's first book, 'The Immortals of Meluha'I read Amish’s first book in the Shiva trilogy (‘The Immortals of Meluha’, his first book ever, which also shot him to spectacular, overnight fame), soon after it released and on taking in all the buzz, up to page 100, that too with a lot of self-pushing, and gave up. The writing was too every day.

I like mythology, especially Hindu mythology, which almost blends into the religious domain. And I like Shiva – his wild appearance, his yin-yang forces of masculinity-femininity, the anger he harnesses within, which when provoked, manifests through his taandav dance or, in rare cases, through the opening of his third eye, and eventually his power to destroy (which is actually aimed at restoring balance in the world). But I need my writing (that is, the writing in the books I read) to be as engaging as the story itself. Which is why I gave up on Amitav Ghosh too (many of his fans themselves say his books are tremendous… from a research perspective, and therefore a delight… for academics).

Vaishna Roy, Associate Editor, The HinduNow, why would somebody who had an interesting subject (to the best of my memory, no Indian writer had written fiction around Shiva before this; they have on Ram – through the Ramayana – and on the Mahabharata, but not the Destroyer God) not write mesmerizingly on it too? The session with Amish at the recently concluded The Hindu Lit for Life litfest provided some answers, or better still, some insights. (Interviewing Amish was Vaishna Roy, Associate Editor, The Hindu, who I’ve met and corresponded with a couple of times.)

Indian mythology fiction writer, AmishOne of the first questions to Amish was about something he himself has stated earlier: he gets the plot of his books and its details through some “divine inspiration”. He just sits at his laptop and sees clearly the pictures he’s going to paint, and the writing just flows. Amish has also said how he’s a Shiva bhakt and believes Shiva, and the other gods (or people), did exist. (He also reveals how he was atheist for a long time before he turned believer.) If you want to read “divine inspiration” in another way, it can mean pure talent. So, Amish has the innate talent for this; it’s, well, God-given. But now, if his books seem more like recordings than narrations, that means… he does nothing more with his talent. No developing it, no growing it, no interfering with it. Stasis. (Which also means that if one day, the talent deserts or subsides within him, then what? No worries. The author is also a good speaker and businessman – he kept goading attendees to buy and read his books – and can rely on these other talents to see him through. Plus, in India, there are enough takers for mythology/religion.)

Indian mythology non-fiction writer, Devdutt PattanaikThat however was only one part of the story. The tale unraveled further when Amish answered another question (and the most exacting one of the interview, in my opinion). “Your writing seems a bit utilitarian.” A euphemism for “functional”, or worse, banal. (Good one, Vaishna.) Amish fielded this one as well as he did the other questions (he came across as being as diplomatic as the other hugely successful writer on Hindu mythology, though in non-fiction, in India, Devdutt Pattanaik), saying that each style (pedestrian vs poetic) has its merits and serves a function, and in a very cloistered way, agreed that his writing is not, to use another euphemism, ambitious.

The decider though was yet to come. When asked about the kind of books he reads, Amish answered that while he reads a lot, and has been doing so for a long time (4-5 books per month), only 15%, at the most, 20% of it is fiction; 80-85% is non-fiction. Based on the kind of writing he produces, I dare say this non-fiction is more detail-based than narrative. And there I guess you have it. Why Amish writes the way he does.

Composite image featuring, from top to bottom, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Bishwanath Ghosh and Siddharth ChowdhuryIf I had to read interesting mythology, I’d go to Arundhathi Subramaniam, author/poet on spirituality and culture, who has written a book on Buddha and who chaired a session on female Indian mystic poets at the litfest. I still wouldn’t go to Devdutt, who I believe merely presents (or worse, packages) mythology (though he knows a lot about it, and well, packages even better when speaking). For non-fiction (non-fiction that actually reads like fiction), I’d go to someone like Bishwanath Ghosh, also Associate Editor, The Hindu, who I met at the fest too. And for fiction that reads like narrative non-fiction – it’s that easy and simple and warm – I’d go to someone like Siddharth Chowdhury, who too I met at the fest. And about who I’d be blogging about next.

Really, Amish, I’m more than happy to give you A-miss. And now, I know just why.

Cover of 'Tiger Boy' by Mitali Perkins

Irficionado | Book Review | ‘Tiger Boy’

Logo for Irficionado seriesA book about saving a tiger cub, from poachers, set in the Sunderbans. Has to be about animal and environment conservation, right? Well, it is, but also goes beyond. To make a very keen point about a key aspect related to conservation. Education. But not the way we hear it most times – education of the populace – but education at a more individual level. But first, the story.

Royal Bengar Tiger cubA female tiger cub has escaped from the reserve, clawing a small hole in the fence. The rangers are looking for her (to bring her back to safety), her mom is definitely looking for her (and the rangers fear that if she’s not able to find her cub soon, she will find or make her way out of the reserve and wreak the ensuing havoc on the denizens), the nefarious Gupta is looking for her (to sell her fur, teeth and other tiger talismans in the animal trade market), and thus the protagonist Neel too wants to look for her (to save her from evil Gupta).

But Neel has a problem. (Obviously; stories need conflicts.) He has been selected (by Headmaster; yes, sentence-case) to represent his school for a prestigious scholarship exam, but so far is not showing much aptitude or inclination for it, well, at least not in one subject. Maths. Plus, getting selected will mean leaving his beloved family (parents and elder sister, Rupa) and his equally beloved Sunderbans for the school in the city. He eventually decides to throw caution and maths to the winds and go in search of cubbie, accompanied by Rupa.

Why does he believe he will succeed, when the rangers, Gupta and mommie haven’t so far? He knows his beloved island very well, especially nooks and crannies where someone of his (and the cubbie’s) size are likely to creep in away from searching eyes. He begins by mapping the island, using, interestingly enough, maths to make an accurate map. Does he find cubbie? Does cubbie manage to re-unite with mommie? Or does Gupta beat them to it? Well, you do know how most children’s / animal fiction turns out.

Author Mitali Perkins in a bookstoreNow, as I wrote above, to me, Mitali Perkins‘Tiger Boy’ is more about the education bit. Education is necessary for conservation, of both flora and fauna. The sundari trees, which give the Sunderbans its name, are necessary for the prevention of soil erosion, which enables the yearly growth of the paddy crop. (Neel’s father, Jai, is against the indiscriminate cutting of the trees, and his paddy yield is envious year on year.) Education can be beneficial in ways you can’t immediately see; maths-loathing Neel is able to make that accurate map and… (leave you to discover) only due to the maths he has managed to learn. The reward for education and for anything else (you’re getting how the story ends, aren’t you?), especially for the young, can be more education: Neel is gifted books on the Sunderbans by the rangers, to which he notes to himself that ‘he knows the land so well that he’ll probably be able to point out a few errors in each book’. Also, learning subjects other than those of your interest can be useful (the point about learning maths above and a point about doing things outside your comfort zone). And finally, the most poignant point Perkins makes is about girls’ education. Girls in rural, coastal, and interior areas of India are typically pulled out of school at a young age, to either assist at home or, if they have a brother/s, for the money to be diverted to the boy’s education. You believe Neel finally gets motivated to crack that exam when his sister, who was pulled out of school too, wistfully urges him, “If you learn, you will be able to teach me.”

So, while ‘Tiger Boy’ may not be great writing (the style is meant more to aid the story along than to have you pause and ponder, for instance, about the beauty of the Sunderbans), in more ways than one, it is a satisfying read. But ok, when it comes to describing the cub, it does become poetic after all, dropping writing beauties just like the kisses Neel keeps dropping on cubbie’s forehead. Read the way cubbie is described, and you’ll feel like dropping and dripping kisses on her forehead yourself.

Pick up ‘Tiger Boy’. The tigers, the Sunderbans, and the education system (no matter how flawed it may seem) will thank you for the love.

 Read more about the book and tiger conservation efforts in the Sunderbans here:

Front-Back covers of 'The Secret Sanctuary', Stephen Alter's new book for children

Irficionado | Book Review | ‘The Secret Sanctuary’

Humans were never meant to interfere with animals. Animals were meant to be in the wild, and humans in the plains, or well, non-wild. But man is man, and has not been up to much good since the time of Cain. He has let his population and greed go forth and multiply, so much that it’s come at the cost of the animals’ (population only; animals aren’t greedy, they take only how much they need, food and territory alike). Many animals have lost their habitat and thus their numbers, and others find themselves in what are sanctimoniously called sanctuaries, spaces that nevertheless have boundaries and in many cases fences that define how much space an animal can have. But what if there was a space, a sanctuary, a place for animals where humans just couldn’t enter, or better still, not interfere?

Stephen Alter, with the Himalayas in the backgroundStephen Alter introduces just such a place in his new book for children, ‘The Secret Sanctuary’. The sanctuary is set in the real-life Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, near the small village of Kolti, north-east of Mussoorie. The story takes us through one day in the lives of three kids, the siblings Kamla and Pradeep and their friend Manohar. The three set off for their distant school one morning as usual, through the edges of the forest, then distracted by a marten pair on the hunt, go deeper and lose their way. As they slowly and as gallantly as possible try to find the path out (there puzzlingly doesn’t seem to be one, at least not in the same direction they came), they realise they and their interferences with the animals (such as stroking a barking deer) are oblivious to the animals. The forest is the animals’ alone, it’s truly an animal sanctuary.

To help the kids (and perhaps to enable the philosophy of the book to emerge), Alter introduces a naturalist in the middle of the forest. He is appropriately named: Dr Pashupatinath Linnaeus Mukherjee – Pashupatinath afPashupatinath, the incarnation of Shiva as the lord of the animalster the mythological lord of animals and Linnaeus after Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, or basically, the person who stipulated all those Latin names for plants and animals. The ‘Animal Doctor’ knows the workings of the forest deeply – he has been there, lost or wandering, for the past three years (although he’s not sure of the exact duration, as “Jungle Time” works differently, slowly, he says). He came there for the believed-extinct Mountain (Himalayan) Quail, but hasn’t given up despite not spotting it even once. Dr Mukherjee provides them food (fruits, seeds, tubers and other things green and edible), water (the hidden spring, which proves to be a secret sanctuary within the secret sanctuary) and shelter for the night (a cave that he shares with a bear, who does make an appearance, but remember, the animals can’t see the humans, so all of them sleep soundly, though a bit tightly), opens them up to the magic of the forest (the birds’ dawn chorus), and most crucially, answers their questions about animals, birds, their lives and workings.

In the end, the kids do manage to find their out. But there is no big adventure (apart from the doctor tumbling down after pursuing the supposed call of the quail), no major action (the result of the leopard stalking the goat-antelope doesn’t unravel in front of their eyes, so you don’t know just then “who won”), no breakthrough (the doctor doesn’t find the quail, yet); in short, there’s no high drama. The kids leave the forest as they came, unobtrusively. Also, they don’t destroy anything in the sanctuary: they use the doctor’s sBear Gryllis in (eating-wild-animal) actionolar lamp at night, forage for the fruits of the forest, and most remarkably, don’t do a Bear Grylls: they don’t hunt (making a big point about surviving in the wild without destroying the balance / sanctity of the place; although technically they can’t hunt in this case because of their “non-interferability”). The animals in their place, the humans back in theirs, without disturbing the former or their way of life. Just the way nature meant it to be.

That itself is a big achievement of Alter’s. Else, most animal / kid fiction ends up being extremely racy / pacy. Here, the author treats his reader kids almost as grown-ups, or at least mature, leaving them to work out the philosophy from the deceptively simple narrative. And it is a philosophy rather than a message. A message, that too about animal (habitat) conservation, could come across as forceful and thus be eventually discarded. But a philosophy, being more at a principle level, is easier to adopt, or at least consider.

But Alter serves up other glories too. He knows the environs intimately: you feel he could make his way out of this sanctuary if it came to that (Alter was born and now lives in Mussoorie, and Dr Mukherjee almost seems his alter ego, except that the doctor came from elsewhere and Alter came back here). And he writes immaculately, to paint the perfect picture of the place and its creatures: The bear had a strong, earthy smell, like a big dog but with a wilder, stronger smell, as if he’d been rolling about in rotting leaves. You feel you’re the fourth kid there in the forest.

However, Alter reserves the best part, of his intention, for last. In the acknowledgments section, he mentions how 50% of his royalties from the book will go toward the Reserve. So, go on, visit this sanctuary, both for the love of reading and for that of animals.

Signboard stating 'Jabarkhet Nature Reserve'

Cover of the book 'Aarushi' by Avirook Sen

Irficionado | Book Review | ‘Aarushi’

Logo for Irficionado seriesIs there anything left to be said about the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case of 2008? It would seem so. For this year alone there have been three mainstream-media efforts to bring back the case into the public consciousness. At the beginning of the year, there was ‘Rahasya’, which took the sensationalistic route – adultery, adopted daughter, and finally, guilty parent. It, perhaps not surprisingly in retrospect, didn’t too well (though it had a fine performance from KK as the investigating officer). Then, on October 2, as if indicative of its moral-worthiness, we had the Vishal Bhardwaj-produced, Meghna Gulzar-helmed ‘Talvar’ releasing. Fictionalised to an extent, and featuring some fine names, the astutely-made Talvar has gone a good extent in reopening discussion on the case. And now we have journalist Avirook Sen’s book.

Avirook Sen, journalist and author of book, 'Aarushi'Avirook closely reported on the trial (which began in May 2012 and concluded in September 2013, with the Talwars’s conviction and sentence of rigorous life imprisonment), but followed it up even after. He’s now crystallized all of that reporting into the book. And put his mind, heart, soul and belief into it. For somewhere, like ‘Talvar’, and like many rational-minded people, he too found the final decision sticking in his throat more than that khukri or scalpel or whatever.

He goes about the onerous mission he’s set himself very soundly. He sets up the book with the acumen of a feted architect. Before the first chapter, he devotes pages to first the cast of characters (the main people involved in the case, right from the deceased to the convicted to the other accused to the witnesses to the lawyers to the experts). Then, he lists the timeline of events. Next, he provides the blueprint of the Talwar flat, the book now beginning to sound like a play (and wasn’t the case?). And finally provides the raison d’etre for the book in the introduction… When Rakesh Sharma went to space in the early 1980s, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, asked him what India looked like from up there. Sharma’s response was memorable: Saare jahan se achha (better than all the world). This book is about what it looks like from the ground.

Avirook builds on the solid foundation he’s laid at the beginning throughout the three chapters, layering them with significant details, pertinent questions and counter-questions, poignant observations, heart-rending accounts, and even sideline notes of inanimate objects (the accused person’s stand in the Ghaziabad court that seems to be on its last legs), lending some succour to the spirit-leeching narrative. But his masterstroke is the background sketches of the key people involved in the case, allowing peeks into their lives and perhaps their souls. (He seems to borrow on what Rushdie and Marquez have done in their classics – ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ respectively – to understand someone or something better, especially their motivations, it’s necessary to understand their background.)

Chapter 1, The Investigation, recounting that by the three teams (the UP police and then the two CBI teams), grips you early on and doesn’t let go till its end. You are taken back to the days of the reporting on the case, feeling the same kind of involvement, though in a telescoped timeline. And thanks to Avirook’s detailing and writing, you now feel one step closer – as if you were a part of the investigating team, a neighbour, or a CCTV camera in the Talwar house. The emotional intensity festers and keeps rising, reaches a crescendo – you feel like you’re pulled in and spinning in the vortex along with the dentist couple – and then crashes with the decision of the magistrate to not accept the closure report but send the case to court.

In between is one of the most heart-wrenching narratives ever accounted, so searing it could only have been fact and not fiction. All undertrials would be taken to court handcuffed in the same vehicle. As if this wasn’t uncomfortable enough for Rajesh Talwar, one day, he found himself handcuffed to/with Krishna, the main accused by the first CBI team. When pleading against this (with the writhing “Don’t do this. This man has killed my daughter.”), the police only replied, “We have just one pair of handcuffs.”

You somehow recover from that and reach the end of the chapter. Where there are two special post-script pages, along with photos, of the case of the “erroneously numbered” pillow and pillow cover. You somehow feel you can’t recover from this one.

The chapter also proffers a telling portrayal of the second CBI team’s investigating officer, A. G. L. Kaul – he had corruption charges against him in the past. Truth is stranger than fiction, you shake your head.

If Chapter 1 is a logical and psychological rollercoaster, Chapter 2, The Trial, takes you in only one direction: down. Page after page, account after account, as the Talwars run from one court to another (for various appeals and petitions, including bail for Nupur) and finally as Rajesh waits during the defence lawyer’s closing arguments with countless duffel bags of documents to provide to the judge if asked, you slowly begin seeing the writing on the wall: Guilty. Rigorous life imprisonment. Your heavy heart looks for a silver lining: at least the court did not pronounce the death sentence (which the second CBI team asked for). Cruel as it may sound in this case, there may be a god after all.

Tanveer Ahmed Mir, the defence lawyer for the TalwarsChapter 2’s sketches, perhaps to counter the impending miserable outcome, are more humanistic. A luminous one is that of the defence criminal lawyer, Tanveer Ahmed Mir, which talks about his robust voice, how an incident from his youth spurred him toward criminal law, how he felt this was a “beautiful case” as it had “acquittal written all over it”, and yet how his “greatest failing” was that he could not get the trial pushed to after the judge’s retirement.

Bharti Mandal, the Talwars's domestic help at the time of the murdersAnd then you have the mother of all background stories, of Bharti Mandal, the Talwars’s house-help during the time of the murders. Avirook visits the basti where she lives; it’s a maze where he loses his way until her husband comes to his help. He looks at the squalor amidst which they stay, but which they feel is better than the distant West Bengal village from which they hail. You learn how Bharti was only a stand-by: she had been working with the Talwars as a sub for only seven days during their regular maid’s leave. And this was the woman on whom a key part of the testimony, and eventual conviction, rested. Bharti said in court right at the beginning of her deposition, “I’m just saying what I’ve been coached to say (by the CBI team).” Later, when inquired by Avirook, she admits not realizing that the testimony she gave went toward incriminating the Talwars. You don’t know which of her two statements sounds more crushing.

But Avirook leaves the most chilling portrayal for the last. Chapter 3, Dasna Diaries, recounts two years of the Talwars in Dasna Jail, by which time they’ve become “veterans” (Nupur’s words) and seen a complete switch of personalities – Rajesh, the softie of earlier who beseeched with “I couldn’t even put a needle in her (Aarushi’s) mouth during dental work”, seems to have become the strong one and Nupur (whose biggest crime it would seem was not crying “like a mother who’s lost her only daughter under gruesome circumstances” on national TV) the crushed one. The diary is one that Rajesh penned during the initial days of imprisonment “to make sense of everything”, which he eventually gives to Avirook. Sen publishes excerpts of it in the book. But goes beyond. He now includes follow-up-portrayals, what happened to the various cast of characters, thus lending symmetry to the book. You feel some justice delivered finally when you learn Kaul died of a heart attack. And then Avirook visits the judge’s house.

Sketch of Judge Shyam Lal, the Ghaziabad court judge on the Talwar trialJudge Shyam Lal, known as Saza Lal (Punishment Lal, as he was known to convict in most of his judgments), had aimed the case to finish before his retirement day: he pronounced the verdict four days before his last day. During his visit, Avirook comes to learn about the judge’s life-long fascination, or aspiration, for English. A fascination that found its way into the stuffy-sounding 201-page verdict that the judge delivered: ‘who have been arraigned for committing and secreting as also deracinating the evidence of commission of the murder of their own adolescent daughter—a beaut damsel and sole heiress…’ He wrote it along with his son. When Avirook comes to know this, he asks the son some details, and then making calculations, slowly makes this realization, deadpan: Lal and his son had started writing the verdict before the defence team had started making its closing argument. The handcuffs’ incident pales in comparison.

But Avirook is not done yet. At the very end, he proceeds, or attempts, to answer the question a nation, and a couple, wrung all its neurons over: who did it? He features excerpts of the transcripts of the various scientific tests of the domestic helps. You are left wondering: how can anyone make any other conclusion from this? And left asking for one more follow-up portrayal: that of the domestic helps. But who knows which part of the world they’d be in by now after being allowed to go scot-free?

With the quality and depth, sincerity and sensibility Avirook puts in, the book is a supreme effort. So much so that, especially knowing the reportage given to this case, you just might forget that Avirook is a very good writer. Though for once, the writer may not mind the attention going to the subject(s). Or the injustice they were caused.

Hope you’re in a better place, Aarushi. For your parents though, it’s been quite the opposite.

B&W photo of Nupur and Rajesh Talwar with their deceased daughter, Aarushi




Irficionado | Books’ Review | Venita Coelho’s AIA Series

Logo for Irficionado series

Author Venita CoelhoVenita Coelho began her writing career scripting serials for UTV, when that entity was still a production house and not a mega-channel. However, she moved out, out of serial-writing, as she herself says, “when the saas-bahu serials took over”. She wrote for one movie (the damp ‘We Are Family’, based on Hollywood’s ‘Stepmom’), before moving out of writing for the moving-images mediums. Presently, she writes books, out of Goa, where she moved out to from Bombay/Mumbai. She stays in Goa (but also spends some time in Bombay) with her family of people and her family of dogs and cats (five and two, respectively).

All that sounds like I’m writing her author bio for her next book’s jacket, and although I don’t mind doing so, that’s not the case. That is necessary to understand the kind of books she now writes and the style she pursues.

To continue the bio, Venita moved to activism after moving out of TV/movies (many, many people worldwide are following this path), and most recently is into animal activism (again not surprising, given the number of quadrupeds in her house).

All this comes brilliantly to the fore in her series of animal fiction brought out by Hachette. As she hasn’t given it a name herself, I’m calling it the AIA series, after the name of the agency in both the books so far – Animal Intelligence Agency.

AIA is a network of bipeds and quadrupeds across the world who fight to “Save the Animals, Save the World” (their motto). However, the two books so far centre around the ones in India…

The back cover of the books of Venita Coelho's Animal Intelligence Agency series, describing the agentsAgent 002 is Bagha, a Royal Bengal Tiger with a limp from a previous adventure, and who is typical of the male tiger: poised and not given to too much affection.

Agent 11.5 is a boy who gets his agent badge at 11.5 years of age. (So there.) Rana, named after a species of frog (see, this series is that animal-friendly) makes up for in the mind what he lacks in physique.

Bringing up the, um, rear is Agent 013, a langur named Kela. True to form, he is fidgety and a chatterbox. In the first book, he doesn’t have a number when he starts off on the rescue/adventure as it was revoked due to an earlier misadventure – the case of the exploding mangoes – but due to his efforts in the book, by the end, he gets back his badge.

Front cover of Venita Coelho's first animal-fiction book, Tiger by the Tail Book 1, ‘Tiger by the Tail’, is about the AIA’s efforts to investigate and rescue missing tigers. Tigers have gone missing from large parts of India and are, not surprisingly, landing up in China. Though perhaps not for the reasons you think (ornaments, medicines, aphrodisiacs); Venita takes the tigers’ tale to the max. (Will leave you to discover.) Along the way, and in China, they are aided by other agents and animals – a menagerie of dolphins, other langurs, a gigantic gorilla (are there other sorts, but wait till you read about this one), a giraffe, and a cussing rhino (who said plant-eating beings are calmer?). The humans are equally fun too, with Rana’s dada’s friend and a sloshed captain, who buys Rana’s tale that the 40+ tigers he’s just seen stepping into his ship is a drink-triggered hallucination.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoBook 2, ‘Dead as a Dodo’ (which I inadvertently read first as I couldn’t find the first earlier; this released this year, the first one last year), maxes book 1 in the wild department. Not content with saving tigers, Venita brings back the dodo from the dead, but being the only one of your species in this world has a price: collectors worldwide want him, though – tender mercies – alive. Along with Kela, the dodo provides the biggest laughs, as he’s a bit of a weepie, lamenting the fact that he’s all alone in this world – not content to being brought back from the dead.

Venita keeps the books very pacy and racy – perfect for her audience – but it left me a bit out of breath. (But as I just indicated, I’m not the audience.) The style is like Harry Potter meets Tintin, so now you know what I mean. The similarities to both permeate: Rana has lost both his parents to separate tragedies, he doesn’t recall their faces, he has animal companions on his adventures (Hedwig and Snowy, anyone?), the adventures are wild (Bagha jumping on trucks and Kela jumping on trains) and magical (a dolphin leads them to India after they switch off the GPS to avoid being detected by the Chinese as they make their way back with scores of tigers), and inter-species communication happens through a language called JungleSpeak (Parseltongue!).

She also sprinkles the narrative with interesting facts about the issue/s she’s addressing – done through two-page photos, sketches, doodles, notes – be it about the protection of non-human species and their habitats in ‘Tiger’ or about their extinction in ‘Dead’.

If you are an animal lover, you will read these. And then thank the entry of the saas-bahu serials on TV.