Khaas Baat : A Publication for Indian Americans in Florida


Book Reviews By NITISH S. RELE,
[email protected]

Murder in Old BombayMurder in Old Bombay” (390 pages; $26.99) by Nev March; published by Minotaur Books (www.minotaurbooks.com)

1892 Bombay serves as the backdrop for this riveting mystery that features Captain Jim Agnihotri of mixed heritage (Indian and British perhaps). As he lays in a Poona military hospital recovering from injuries suffered in a skirmish in the wild northern frontier, he chances to read about the bizarre deaths of two Parsi women who either fell or were thrown from the Rajabai university-clock tower. Yearning to play and inspired by Sherlock Holmes (“In Conan Doyle’s imagination, Holmes could hope up for hours, smoke his pipe and scrape at his fiddle”), the captain pays a visit to Adi Framji, widower of one of the dead women and the cousin of the other. “Bougainvillea danced in the breeze beside fluted pillars, and scattered pink petals over smooth marble,” notes the author as Agnihotri visits Framji Mansion. Before he realizes it, he is hired to investigate the deaths, which Framji believes weren’t suicide but murder. Donning his Sherlock cap, Agnihotri takes off on a journey to Simla, Pathankot, Lahore and battle memories of “Karachi Port … A horse shrieking. Blood on a turbaned face, eyes vicious, pouring hate … Dirt scraping my face. Clouds of dust, dense, white. Gunpowder’s sharp reek, choking me. Cannons growling. Walls splintering. Smoke. Fear.” Adding romance and spice to the probe is Diana, sister of the widower, who falls head over heels with the captain, as well as exposés about another Indian family’s governing the princedom Ranjpoot where British Raj does not reach. All is well that ends well, as they say. British Raj is on full display in the book with its highlighting British civil servants, Indian kings and ranis, Afghan villagers, dreadful criminals, etc. Describing the city of Lahore, then a key military supply post, March writes, “The smokestacks of the brick factory, squat against the sky, blocked out a swath of stars. Seeing a glimmer ahead, we slowed and disembarked before a cluster of low-hatched hours lit with kerosene lanterns.” For a debut book, the talented author has sketched a fascinating story of intrigue, love, despair, hope and murder that we sincerely hope will turn into a mystery series with Captain Agnihotri at the helm. We can’t wait long enough for the next mystery from you, Ms. March!

Night TheaterNight Theater” (218 pages; $16.95) by Vikram Paralkar; published by Catapult (catapult.co)

It is no easy task addressing morality, faith, death and afterlife but the physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania takes the heavy subjects head-on. To aid in the endeavor, he uses magic realism … and it works. A surgeon, marred by scandal, flees from the city to a village where he has been running an ill-equipped health clinic for three years. “These menial chores—draining abscesses, treating coughs and diarrhea, extracting rotten teeth, and now, another great feat, squashing cockroaches. All for what? To live in this hovel?” wonders the sad and gloomy Doctor Saheb, whose only company is a female pharmacist. The story takes a turn one night when a teacher, his pregnant wife and 8-year-old son with severe wounds arrive at the doorsteps of the clinic. Apparently, the trio was murdered in a violent robbery attack and claim that if the surgeon can fix their wounds (“torn blood vessels,” “internal injuries”) before sunrise, they have been given another chance at life by an angel. With no anesthesia, medical equipment or proper medication at hand, Doctor Saheb gets to work. Left to his own conscience and thirsty for answers, he is surprised to learn from the dead man that just like on earth, the afterlife too is run by bureaucrats. “There are probably more officials in the afterlife than there are dead people … The officials have different conditions for rebirth. Some say our lives are important, others our deaths. Some go through our sins, other talk about our penance,” he learns. Though this thriller of a book is a speedy read, it will leave you with questions about life, death, sin, resurrection, and hereafter. A greater admirer of novelist Franz Kafka, Dr. Paralkar understandably uses all his medical skills and expertise to provide a blow-by-blow account of surgeries – entrails, incisions, et al. So, if you are queasy, some of those passages could be troubling. At one point, Doctor Saheb offers this insight: “We hope that before we die we’ll find some final truth, a magic bulb to switch on and make all the wrong paths disappear. Until then, all we can do is walk through thorns and try not to trip.”

Each of Us KillersEach of Us Killers” (180 pages; $18.99) by Jenny Bhatt; published by 7.13 Books (www.713books.com)

There are 15 stories about varying and colorful characters that involve race, class, gender, and more, and Jenny Bhatt relates each tale vividly in this debut book. Set in Michigan, England, Mumbai and Ahmedabad, the stories revolve around the dreams, challenges, aspirations and humiliations of their professions: live-in maid, street vendor, journalist, engineer, professor, yoga instructor, bartender, baker, architect, etc. In “Return to India,” police interrogate co-workers of an Indian American who has been killed. Blatant racism is on full display during the questioning: “When I turn around, it’s this darkie fella I never seen before.” “Where’s your manners? Don’t they teach no manners where you come from?” Or the usual one: “Go back to yer country.” Then there’s “Life Spring” in which a divorced baker who has just moved to Mumbai is inspired after a one-night meeting. “Memories are strangely blended things, made up of many details, and, as with baking, they rise in expected or unexpected ways,” feels the baker. The title story highlights the indignities faced by a low-caste father and daughter as related by a group of Dalit men in a small village to a journalist, also a Dalit, from Mumbai. “How, in this present moment, as the rain drenches us, chills our clammy skin, mingles with our tears, we are still dumb, unable to speak of this corrosion burning away within each of us killers,” notes the talented author. Particularly appealing and superbly told is “Mango Season” in which the protagonist Rafi works in a sari shop. Though aptly titled, the story is not just about the fruit, but about the stuff dreams are made off. “He wondered, staring at the rows of mangoes before him now, about the exquisite hopes of youth and how, in time, life eats into them.” Though her characters are somewhat depressing and tragic with hints of happiness, Bhatt is a promising storyteller at bringing them to life.

This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-NovelsThis Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels” (278 pages; $15.95) by Subimal Misra; translated from Bengali by V. Ramaswamy; published by Open Letter (www.openletterbooks.org)

If you are looking for a “boy meets girl, girl meets boy” kind of story, you can give the book a pass. It’s anything but a novel or close to one. “This Could Have …” was first published in Bengali in 1982, while the second novella “When Color Is a Warning Sign” two years later. The two post-modernist works were translated and published as one just recently for the U.S. readers. The first looks at the death of Ramayan Chamar at police hands after his involvement in a Communist uprising on a tea plantation. But every time the author attempts to tell Chamar’s story, he is thwarted by voices of maidservants, college boys, babus and bibis — the lords and ladies of upper-class elites. There appear diary entries, poetry, reportage, fantasy, mostly muddled but attempting to make the point – systemic disparities propagated by higher-class people. “When Color …” is even more chaotic as it abandons any sort of narrative in exchange for dialogue snippets, newspaper clippings, historical facts, statistics, etc. You read about the Pope at a “gold-ornamented religious ceremony in famine-afflicted Poland” to Israeli occupation of Palestine; Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Henri Matisse’s paintings and explosion of handguns in America also get a mention. In fact, the author even dabbles in filmmaking techniques by zeroing into text on a page. Here are some thought-provoking tidbits: “Let us learn to recognize our own likes outside of the likes imposed upon us.” “Democracy doesn’t fill the belly, that’s why democratic socialism came to our country—hooray for democratic socialism.” “The writer offered a cigarette and lit it for him carefully. The boy held it like a chillum pipe between his two hands, took a deep puff and began to cough. The boy’s still coughing.” “Basti-dwellers graze greedily at the house above in which electrical inverters provide light during a power outage.” “What have you done with your science? What have you done with your humanism? Where is your dignity as a thinking reader?” An anarchist and activist, the visionary Misra offers the reader a harsh glimpse into violence, greed and corruption in 1980s India through experimental fiction. Sadly not much has changed in the country since the novellas (or is it anti-novellas?) were published more than 36 years ago.

The Henna Artist” (368 pages; $26.99) by Alka Joshi; published by Mira (www.mirabooks.com)

Set in the 1950s, “The Henna Artist” traces the story of Lakshmi Shastri, 17, who escapes an unhappy marriage in a small village to begin a new life in Jaipur. In the Pink City, she flourishes as a highly skilled and in-demand henna painter, as well as a trusted friend to high-caste and affluent women. She also discreetly sells contraceptive tea sachets to men with mistresses. Author Joshi vividly brings the Pink City Bazaar of that era to life: “… women in patterned saris selecting hairpins, men in kurthas munching spicy chaat, old men killing time, their glowing beedis cutting orange arcs through the dusky night.” But the past catches up after husband Hari tracks Lakshmi down. He is accompanied by Radha, a sister whose existence is unknown to Lakshmi. Also shocking is the news of the death of their parents. Of course, it isn’t long before sisterly love takes hold as Radha begins accompanying Lakshmi on trips to henna parties. And that is when all the twists and turns begin for the siblings. Post-independence era Rajasthan is evocatively detailed: “Torches glowed along the edges of the velvety lawn beyond. Bearers in red turbs and white coats offered drinks and hors d’oeuvres to guests on silver trays. Gold rings flashed on the gentlemen’s fingers as they raised glasses filled with ice and sharab. The women’s pallus, threaded with gold and silver, fell like shimmering streams from their shoulders.” As the protagonist unveils her lifelong saga, themes such as prostitution, abortion, infidelity, women’s rights, arranged marriages and familial bonding come to the forefront. For a debut novel, Alka Joshi uses eloquent and wonderful prose to offer a peek into Indian culture of the 1950s. She is no less than a master storyteller.


I am Grateful” (46 pages; $8.95) by Param Patel and Pinky Mukhi; illustrations by Devika Oza; published independently.

After “We Are One” a couple years ago, Param and Pinky Mukhi are out with another educational, fun and well-illustrated book for children. What are you grateful for in life? For the answer, the authors take us around the world to such places as France, Brazil, China, India, Japan, Turkey, among others, as children of the world talk about thankfulness. We learn that the kids are appreciative for love, friends, Mother Nature, sun and moon, food, home, learning, toys. San Francisco Bay area resident Param, 9, conceptualized the subject matter for the book three years ago. His mother, Pinky, engages with children teaching Gujarati language as well as stories, arts and crafts. Kudos to Oza for eye-catching Illustrations of landmark and symbol backdrops of the Bamboo Forest, Mount Fuji, Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, etc. that will keep the reader gleaned to the story. This simply told and well-designed book will surely arouse the imagination of 4- to 9-year-olds.

Midnight at Malabar HouseMidnight at Malabar House” (330 pages; $27.95) by Vaseem Khan; published by Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

Move over Inspector Chopra and Baby Ganesh. Detective Persis Wadia has arrived. After successful Baby Ganesh Agency books such as “The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra,” “The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown” and “Bad Day at the Vulture Club,” Vaseem Khan introduces a new character protagonist, India’s first female police inspector in a fresh historical crime series. Set in 1950 with the horrors of partition afresh, the bright, determined but slightly grumpy Wadia is consigned to the midnight shift at Malabar House, home of Bombay’s most “menagerie of misfits,” as one newspaper put it. A phone call reporting the death of a well-known English diplomat Sir James Herriot changes everything. Paired with Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, sub-inspector George Fernandes (curious name choice) and others, she sets out to solve the murder mystery. Other interesting characters rounding up the story are the inspector’s wheelchair-bound father Sam, who owns a bookshop, and Auntie Nessie who is desperate to get her niece to tie the knot. Of course, there are hurdles aplenty along the way as male and societal resentment kicks in. Truly, the Bombay of the 1950s, now Mumbai, comes back to life as in: “She made good time along Madam Cama Road, then on to Marine Drive, a three-mile-long esplanade housing a succession of art deco towers – the Oceana, the Shalimar, the Chateau Marine …” Or “the tomb of Haji Ali had been built in the 1400s, a whitewashed monument perched on a tiny inlet in the middle of Haji Ali Bay in mid-town Bombay, linked to the city proper by a narrow causeway that was traversable only during low tide.” Unlike the previous Inspector Chopra series, which entertained with the hilarious Poppy (Chopra’s wife), a meddlesome mother-in-law, and an overbearing but rib-tickling building committee’s Mrs. Subramanium, “Midnight at Malabar House” is serious stuff. Nevertheless, it is a promising start to the Persis Wadia crime series. Like always, we look forward to more from the author though we must admit that Baby Ganesh was one adorable character!

Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised MeMissed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me” (260 pages; $27.99) by Sopan Deb; published by Dey Street Books (www.harpercollins.com)

It’s a poignant story of a son re-connecting with immigrant parents he hasn’t seen in ages. Sopan Deb, a “New York Times” writer and standup comic, brings into the open the wounds within his family with remarkable candor. Sopan and his elder brother Sattik were raised in New Jersey by parents in an unsuccessful arranged marriage. However, the nearly 30-year-old author had lost touch with his parents for several years (no address or phone number for either!) before an unexpected wedding invitation in India spurred curiosity about their whereabouts. After a decade, Deb reconciles first with his engineer father in Kolkata (with encouragement from fiancée Wesley), and subsequently his mother in neighboring New Jersey. All’s well that ends well, as they say. Nevertheless, we cannot let go of this touching tale about family, love, forgiveness, without some classic lines from the talented comic: “Classic Indian family weekend: get in the car, drive to a relative’s house, sit, talk, eat, sit again, talk some more, drive home. I’m generalizing here, but a family weekend for lot of my white friends seemed to involve doing things, like hiking, going to the movies, or hanging out at Six Flags.” “Saying my parents had a tumultuous marriage is like looking at a redwood tree and remarking, ‘Boy, these trunks are elevated.’ ” “For those of you who might need a reference point: Take a blazing ball of fire and put it in a microwave, and you have Kolkata in July.” “I’ve got a bald spot that’s growing in proportion to the federal deficit. And the bald spot bothers me more. I don’t care if the country can’t pay its bills. Just let me keep my hair.” “Have you ever been to an elaborate Indian wedding in the summer? It’s like Coachella, but with higher temperatures and fewer drugs.” “There is a formula to this for many Indians: Go to school. Get good grades so you can get into another school. Get a job, preferably in what your parents want you to study. Get a better job. Get married (in many cases, how and to whom your parents want you to). Have children. Have those children do the same thing. Wash, rinse, and repeat.”

Joy of Life: Effortless Work and Happy Living through Self-transformation” (156 pages; $15.95) by Dr. Purnachander R. Bikkasani, M.D.; published by Best Seller Publishing (www.bestsellerpublishing.com)

How do you live a happy life? In this debut book dotted with personal experiences and observations, Dr. Bikkasani leads the reader on the road to the “Joy of Life.” Born in a farmer’s family in Telangana, he narrates a story of poverty to riches, ending with his own gastroenterology medical practice in Crystal River for over 30 years. In nine chapters, he lays out how to overcome pain and distress and build a cheerful life. According to the Tampa resident, the origins of contentment come from the activities you can do to gain joy, how you can adapt to adversity, as well as genetic happiness. He lists tools to work stress-less: setting up goals and affirmations, hiring the right help on time, delegating, building teamwork, communicating, doing stress-less and effortless work, creating a stress management program, conducting public seminars/workshops and starting nonprofit work. His mental exercise, Vehicle of Joy, to build a dream car highlights engine (affirmations), body (goals) and steering (opportunities) as tools are one’s disposal. For Dr. Bikkasani, the desire to commit to charity is “our evolutionary instinct that helped humanity to survive and progress … Helping others in need activates the happy chemicals in the body that make you feel good and live a meaningful life. Scientific studies have confirmed that charitable giving makes you feel good, happy, healthy, and live a long life.” Since retirement five years ago, the good doctor has founded Awareness USA to provide financial aid and assist underprivileged students in America; in India, he set up Chaitanya Saradhi Trust to offer computer education classes in government schools. “Living your dream is happiness,” Dr. Bikkasani notes in this simply-written, easy-to-understand and highly recommended book. “Feeling proficient, self-sufficient, self-efficient, and confident is happiness. Feeling good about things you do, for yourself or others, is happiness. Taking or giving help, gratitude, love, empathy, support, or encouragement is happiness. Building happiness in your life doesn’t require any special efforts – only changing how you think and what you do moving forward. You can work on embedding principles within yourself that can give you a free and fearless feeling. This journey is a self-transformational one for life.”

Gun IslandGun Island” (314 pages; $27) by Amitav Ghosh; published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (www.fsgbooks.com)

“The strangest thing about this strange journey was that it was launched by a word – and not an unusually resonant one either but a banal, commonplace coinage that is in wide circulation, from Cairo to Calcutta. That word is bundook, which means ‘gun’ in many languages, including my own mother tongue, Bengali (or Bangla) … But there was no rifle or gun in sight the day the journey began; not indeed was the word intended to refer to a weapon. And that, precisely, was why it caught my attention: because the gun in question was part of a name – ‘Bonduki Sadagar’, which could be translated as ‘the Gun Merchant.’ ” Thus begins the latest part realism/part myth novel by the renowned author of much-raved “The Ibis Trilogy” (on the opium wars). Dr. Deen Datta, a rare book dealer, sets out on a bizarre journey. According to the folklore, the Gun Merchant and his shrine is guarded by a king cobra in the “tiger-infested mangrove forest” of the Sundarbans. It is on this trip that our protagonist takes off, globe-trotting from Brooklyn to Calcutta, Venice to Los Angeles. During his travels, Datta meets up with diverse and colorful characters, including a fellow Bengali American, an Italian friend, and an entrepreneurial youth. Climate change, immigrant atrocities, environmental disasters, slavery, political agendas, snakes, ghosts and many more make up this hodgepodge. We expected the talented Ghosh to entertain us with his genius as he has done in the past (but the book jacket cover is absolutely stunning). However, the over-reaching hand of activism on his part is blatantly self-evident. And likely was unnecessary.

Phoolan Devi, Rebel QueenPhoolan Devi, Rebel Queen” (224 pages; $334.99) by Claire Fauvel; published by NBM Graphic Novels (www.nbmpub.com)

“I, Phoolan Devi” is a 400-page-plus autobiography dictated by the late illiterate bandit and Member of Parliament. If you haven’t read the unforgettable account, you may want to consider the latest delightfully illustrated book on the rebel. The author of this graphic novel memoir admits the inspiration came from Phoolan Devi’s life style. “That is the tale I wanted to recreate in the graphic novel format, without trying to distinguish truth from fiction and reality from myth, and without claiming to provide a historical testimony,” writes Fauvel, who borrowed Phoolan Devi’s own words, “because they are of unparallel sincerity, at times horribly violent and at other times embodied with the naivete of childhood.” Born in a poor, low-caste family in Uttar Pradesh, the 11-year-old was married to a much older man. After numerous beatings, rapes and oppression, she is kidnapped by bandits whose band she later joins. She finds love in the gang before he too is violently killed. Once she learns to use the gun, Phoolan Devi exacts revenge on the men who harmed her or other women in the past, as well as robbing from the rich to redistribute wealth among the poor. After serving 11 years in prison (charges included murders, arson, plunder and kidnapping for ransom), she was pardoned and then elected to Parliament twice before being assassinated by ex-rival bandits (Fauvel has done a laudable job initially highlighting the conflict between Mallahs and Thakurs). “Like Durga, her favorite goddess, Phoolan embodies strength, courage and tenacity,” notes the author. “In turn naïve and violent, she is India itself, in all its contradictions and excess. In short, the woman you are about to meet is a rebel – a genuine rebel, the real deal …” Because of the subject matter and vivid depictions of the violence perpetrated on Phoolan Devi, the book is recommended for mature readers only. Attractively drawn pencil sketches interwoven with rich and saturated shades bring the rebel queen’s grim, tragic and short story to life.

Passage WestPassage West” (430 pages; $28.99) by Rishi Reddi; published by HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.com)

What was life like for the Indian share cropper at the onset of World War I in California farm country? Was the American Dream within reach or beyond expectations? It is evident that Rishi Reddi has extensively researched the subject and background before brilliantly relating us this fictional story of family, friendship and survival. Set in Imperial Valley on the Mexican border, we follow the calm Ram and the hothead Karak, two Sikh friends who couldn’t be more different in their personalities. But both have the same ambition: endure and flourish on the farmland. Upon Karak’s invitation, Ram travels to Fredonia by train. Reddi envisions the scene for the reader: “Gazing west from the platform, he saw storefronts with awnings lining the dirt road: HANSON’S IMPLEMENTS. EDGAR BROS GENERAL STORE. CHARLIE’S HORSE AND MULE RENTAL. Farther along stood a brick building with arched promenades. To the east sat a string of shacks, and beyond them sky and air and earth stretched away in every direction. A mound of sand rose in the near distance covered with gray-green brush; old trees stood upon it, tall and waiting, tentacles reaching to the clouds.” After toiling hard on the farm, Ram yearns to return to his wife and son in Punjab. On the other hand, Karak finds love in Fredonia, and marries a Mexican woman. Throw in anti-immigration sentiment (pro-white legislation), cultural differences, racial prejudices, bad/stolen crop, and a love triangle into the mix, and you have a recipe for disaster. If you would like to know more about the history of pioneers of the Imperial Valley who primarily led the way for legal immigration to the United States, this is a must-read. In all earnest, we remember these hard-working and enterprising people who survived to prosper against all odds. And hats off to Reddi for highlighting their struggles in this intensely-scrutinized book as she raises the question: “There is, after all, a land of one’s birth, and a land of one’s work and action. Which should one call home?”

Walks Through Life: StoriesWalks Through Life: Stories” (202 pages; $4.74) by Santhosh K. Komaraju; published by Notion Press (www.notionpress.com)

There are just nine stories: “The Hidden Kingship,” “Divine Ax,” “Blessing of a Curse,” “A Letter from the Well,” “Beyond the Bar of Humanity,” “Rise of Motherhood,” “Two Misjudgments,” “King of All” and a “Gold Message.” But each tale, ranging from 15 to 20 pages, conveys a moral borrowed from Hindu mythology. And Santhosh Komaraju is more than happy to put the spotlight on what are not just historical events but “a set of valuable lessons that are often interwoven within the details.” In the author’s note, he writes, “… our thirst for learning is ever-growing with this tremendous source of axioms left at our disposal. The deeper we go, the more we find that there is more to learn – infinity learning, as I call it. There is no chance for boredom, as each level of knowledge pushes us to the next as we crave more.” So, you have a wild cat’s misery that could use some help, according to a villager; a boy who saw a glimpse of hope in a pretentious woman; two brothers competing against each other to climb up the ladder on a false pretense; and then there’s the ill-behaved lad who craved for more life to undo the past as death drew near. Citing Shrithis, Smrithis, Puranas and Upanishads, the author is grateful to use these valuables “for guidance in every walk of our lives – if we show ignorance, it’s at our own peril.” This morally-inclined collection of stories, a first for Komaraju, is simply written so as to appeal to adults as well as the youngsters.

Guesthouse for Ganesha” (352 pages; $17.95) by Judith Teitelman; published by She Writes Press (www.shewritespress.com)

Since we celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi this month (Aug. 22), we thought it would be appropriate to review this vividly written part magical realism/fictional account by Teitelman. It follows the story of young Esther Grunspan as she “arrives in Koln (Cologne) with a heartened heart as her sole luggage.” It is 1923 and rumblings of a dictator are beginning. The Jewish master tailor is not alone on her 22-year journey, which will then take her to Wupperthal (Germany), Paris, Switzerland and finally India. Her trusted traveling companion, Lord Ganesha, is the book’s narrator who addresses her abandonment at the marriage chuppah by a man she had trusted and loved. But it is just the beginning of a path that will result in a loveless marriage and losing two of her three children to Kindertransport (organized rescue mission for Jewish children). With a baby in tow and a new name and identity to escape the Nazi turncoats, the resolute and fiercely driven woman treks on with Ganesha and his abilities to destroy obstacles leading the way: “I choose Esther because she is a woman … a soul … who experienced … who truly and deeply … to the core of her being understood … understands … love. Pure love. The truth of love and its power and its strength … and its purpose.” And when the silhouette of the manifest God takes form, she is aghast but appreciative: “This elephant-headed man was draped in layers of luscious yellow and red diaphanous silk clothes. Countless claims of exquisite mala – each with 108 flawless beads – reserved against His throat, garlands of red hibiscus flowers lay upon His chest. His four arms and hands seemed in constant motion yet without movement.” Ms. Teitelman, please take a bow for an inspiring and touching story of love, loss and spirit beautifully told with great conviction and style. The debut novel, which weaves Eastern beliefs with stark realities, speaks volumes about the talent of this budding author.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow” (114 pages; $12) by Pico Iyer; published by Epigram Books (www.epigrambooks.sg)

“Often, I suspect, people come to Singapore to visit Raffles as much as they come to Raffles to enjoy Singapore,” notes our favorite travel author during one of his visits in 35 years. His books about crossing cultures such as “Video Night in Kathmandu,” “The Lady and the Monk” and especially “The Global Soul” are treasures to be cherished forever. Though “This Could Be Home” is more of a puff piece on the city-state and the hotel, the book still has the distinct Pico Iyer appeal to it. Built in 1887, the iconic Raffles Hotel (whose namesake Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles visited Singapore for hardly a month, according to historians) has undergone just two renovations in its history, the most recent one just last year. It began as a 10-room hotel before expanding to the present 115 and offering nine suite types. More than 600 workers labored for over a year on the historic monument with its “cast-iron verandah and balustrades and cornices.” Iyer sets the mood and tone for the reader as he steps in to check the backdrop: “In one corner Elizabeth Taylor, in a large, framed black-and-white photo, appears to be helping herself to a piece of history; in another, Somerset Maugham is taking silent measure of the storied bar in its latest incarnation.” And stories that have unfolded before the author are plenty, such as a loyal guest from Germany who visits four times a year for a month each time, or the couple from Switzerland who stays at Raffles for six months every year, “the two of them dine at the same table every evening and toast one another with Champagne every night.” To them, “it’s their old friend’s place in the country where they can drop in whenever the time is right, as familiar as home and as comforting,” notes the author. The motto of Raffles Institution is: AUSPICIUM MELIORIS AEVI, which translates to hope of a better age. Though the language in which the saying was written is dead, Iyer says, “But the hope – more and more people are streaming into the new hotel around me, old and young, dark and blond, hip and highly retro – is very much alive. Home, quite beautifully, can be a creation of the future as much as of the past.” Though critics have slammed “This Could Be Home” as a blatant ad/brochure for Raffles and Singapore (Iyer is the first Writer-in-Residence for the Raffles Writer’s Residency program), we will take Pico Iyer over any other travel writer any time.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an EmpireThe Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire” (528 pages; $35) by William Dalrymple; published by Bloomsbury Publishing (www.bloomsbury.com)

The next time you hear talk about the British conquering India and ruling the country for nearly 200 years, think again. Better yet, grab a copy of “The Anarchy” by one of our favorite narrative historians (“The Last Mughal” and “Return of a King”). Dalrymple lays out in minute and intricate details how a dangerously unregulated private for-profit company headquartered in a small office, five windows wide, in London, colonized a nation thousands of miles away. Founded in 1600, the East India Company was comprised of pirates, adventurers, merchants and ambitious London officials. Leading the charge was its accountant, Robert Clive, who through his ruthlessness and military acumen ascended to become Governor of Bengal. In 1765, he led the charge to defeat and send into exile Mughal emperor Shah Alam from Delhi to be replaced by ‘the high and mighty, the noblest of exalted nobles, the chief of illustrious warriors, our faithful servants and sincere well-wishers, worthy of our royal favours, the English Company.” It was this new admin of traders who began collecting taxes – what would today be called an act of involuntary privatization. In less than 40 years, the private security force had swelled to about 200,000 men who, after the takeover of Bengal, marched on to the Mughal capital and almost all of India south of that city. “It had also, by this stage, created a sophisticated administration and civil service, built much of London’s docklands and come close to generating half of Britain’s trade,” notes Dalrymple. The story of the East India Company is as relevant even today, 425 years after its founding, cautions the author. “The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out,” notably the international subprime bubble and bank collapses of 2007-09. Indeed, history can repeat itself!

The Far FielThe Far Field” (440 pages; $27) by Madhuri Vijay; published by Grove Atlantic (www.groveatlantic.com)

For a debut book, this is a triumphant one, drawn by the author from the experience of living and working in locales where the story backdrop takes place. After all, there aren’t many novels that start in the “Garden City” and end up in “Paradise.” It all begins in Bangalore for a 20-something Shalini who lives with her widowed father. After the death of her mother, the fortunate and gullible young woman decides to go to Kashmir to find Bashir Ahmed, a traveling salesman who visited her childhood home and was close to her disturbed mother. It was a relationship that rankled and fascinated the daughter, a sort of puzzle that she felt had to be unveiled. “Kishtwar. It was a town that lay on the Jammu side, six thousand feet above sea level,” discovers Shalini. “A town most famous for its shrines, especially those of two legendary Sufi saints.” And then she recalled Ahmed’s words, “My wife’s whole family is from there.” That clue was more than enough for the naïve and edgy Bangalorean to head for Kashmir. “They (Indian soldiers) were everywhere, dressed in khaki or olive, congregating in tight groups on street corners or in tea stalls. Whenever I walked, a convoy of army jeeps would usually roll by, soldiers sitting in the back like bored tourists being ferried around yet another foreign city, but they mostly ignored the local people, who ignored them in turn.” It doesn’t take long before Shalini gets entangled in the political landmine and class prejudice while inching closer to the whereabouts of Ahmed. Six months ago, since India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status to become a Union territory, the troubled state has been in the news. As it turns out, the setting for Vijay’s book is a timely one, both politically and emotionally for the reader. Here’s hoping that the gifted author will pen more such effortlessly written and engrossing tales.

“The Object of your Affections”“The Object of your Affections” (372 pages; $16.99) by Falguni Kothari; published by Graydon House (www.graydonhousebooks.com)

It’s a simple story about relationships, friendship, motherhood, love and surrogacy told well by Kothari. New York City assistant district attorney Paris Kahn Fraser is married to a handsome, wealthy globally coveted jewelry designer Neal Singh Fraser (fourth in line to a Scottish baronage!). The problem? Paris, who herself has been adopted twice, doesn’t want to give birth to a child but Neal does crave for one of his own. Here enters a potential surrogate, an old former friend Naira Dalmia (barely 30 years of age), who has recently moved to New York from India after the death of her husband. And there are several legal and financial issues to be tackled (“Men tended to complicate the simplest of decisions with their arrogance and chauvinism – my husband included,” Naira believed). Amid twists and turns that move the story ahead at a quick pace, Paris pops the question to Naira if she would accept surrogacy. Of course, the benefit for Naira would come in the form of a huge business opportunity. Told in dual narration by Paris and Naira, “The Object of Your Affections” is a commendable attempt at exploring the hardships and struggles that can arise between friends. Though predictable in the end (“Oh, but it was good to be home”) and at times slightly more graphic than is necessary, Kothari deserves kudos for tackling the complicated subject of surrogacy with relative ease and determination.

“A People’s History of Heaven”A People’s History of Heaven” (296 pages; $26.95) by Mathangi Subramanian; published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (www.algonquin.com)

Deepa, Padma, Banu, Joy and Rukshana live in heaven. But their home is not a paradise. In this instance, Heaven “settled back into the lazy lights of blinking fireflies and three-wheeler headlights, the sleepy sounds of pressure cookers hissing and pots banging” is a derelict slum hidden between high-end buildings in Bangalore. That the five girls (blind, artist, dancer, born as a male) come from different religions or sexual orientations isn’t important. What is of essence is that they can take a firm stand, notably when the local government threatens to demolish their huts to make room for a shopping mail. It is then that their fierce determination to stand the ground against heavy bulldozers sent to raze homes, survive and fight against all odds comes to the forefront. This brilliantly written lyrical, elegant and debut novel by Subramanian, with a gripping plot revolving the five girls, is hard to put down once you pick it up. Here are a few subtle but candid sentences that are sheer poetry: “Ragged jigsaw of tilted tents, angry quilt of rusted roofs, maze of sagging sofas. Muddy monsoon squelch, dry summer hum and clatter of gunshot tongues firing words faster than Rajni fires bullets.” “It was a boy. Eyelids wrinkled and transparent as jasmine petals. Purple lips pinched together like carnations.” “Joy is the girl you can’t miss. Eyes large as a calf’s, long-lashed and velvet. Hips like palm fronds that billow and sway. Hair black and glittery, like a strip torn off of midnight’s double-color sky.” “You don’t have to light a match to burn a family’s life to the ground.” “It’s where the hijras (eunuchs) work. Square jaws, Adam’s apples, swinging hips. Hair like crows’ wings, eyes like temple stones.”



Indian(-ish): Recipes and Antics from a Modern American family” by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna; 246 pages; $28; published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; (www.hmhbooks.com)

Indian(-ish)? What’s that, you may ask. Well, according to the author Priya Krishna, her mother Ritu, cooks meals reminiscent of her Indian heritage but infused with American ingredients. And those easy-to-prepare, accessible and quite delicious recipes make up for “Indian-ish” cuisine, which is also the title of the book collaborated by the mother-daughter. You are promised that preparing these cool recipes, employing Instant Pots and microwaves, isn’t a lengthy and complex process. The author, a food writer, makes it all fascinating with some witty anecdotes and portraits of the Krishna family. “It’s (book) the result of my mom writing one hundred (!!!!) recipes after stressful workdays; my dad doing hundreds of dishes wearing nothing but a lungi (Google it) …” Culinary wizardry by Ritu included making pizzas out of roti, cooking saag paneer with feta cubes instead of paneer, and turning leftover sabzi into portable, travel-size Indian taquitos, writes Priya. Complementing the recipes are striking illustrations by Maria Qamar and outstanding photography by Mackenzie Kelley. “Indian (-ish)” recipes such as Tomato-Cheese Masala Toast, Indian Ribollita, Quinoa Shrimp Pulao, Roti Pizza, Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Green Walnut Chutney will stir up not just your appetite but also your curiosity. Just so all bases are covered, the author has put together a comprehensive spice guide, a flow chart, Ritu’s guide for pairing wine with Indian food, and some fine tips for hosting and living graciously (“Appetizers are overrated, and distract from all the hard work you put into a meal.”) There is even a chapter on “Why My Yogurt is Fabulous” by dad Shailendra! So, if you would like to try out one or more of the “Indian(-ish) recipes, this cookbook will satisfy your palate!

Here is a recipe reproduced with permission:

Chickpea Flour Green Beans

I recently started seeing chickpea flour (also known as besan, or gram flour) everywhere. Now that apparently every child is gluten-intolerant, I see mommy bloggers hailing chickpea flour on their websites as this **breakthrough** discovery. I hate to break it to them, but Indians have been experimenting with this alternative flour for centuries. This recipe is my favorite use for chickpea flour—as a rich, crispy coating for vegetables. It’s like tempura, but nuttier and without the greasy bits from the frying. This was also my late grandmother’s absolute favorite dish, and geez, are these green beans good: crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside. It’s all too easy to devour an entire pan of them in a single sitting. Make sure you scrape the roast-y bits off the bottom of the pan before serving. Those are the best part!

tip: Don’t cut the green beans individually; it will take forever. Line up bunches of three or four beans of the same size and cut them together. Alternatively, just use frozen precut green beans—they work fine!

Serves 4

  1. In a medium skillet over low heat, toast the chickpea flour, stirring continuously, until the flour is golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the flour to a plate and let it cool. Wipe out the skillet.

  2. In the same skillet over medium heat, warm the oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the ajwain seeds and cook until they start to pop, which should be in a matter of seconds. Swirl in the turmeric and add the asafetida (if using), onion, and chile. Cook until the onion is just translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the green beans and salt, then the toasted chickpea flour. Add ¼ cup water and mix everything together so the flour evenly coats the beans. Spread the beans out into an even layer in the pan, cover, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the beans are tender and bright green and there’s a crispy layer of chickpea flour on the bottom of the pan. Once the beans are cooked, scrape up the crispy bits from the bottom of the pan and mix them into the beans. Remove from the heat and add the lime juice. Taste and add more lime juice, if needed, then give everything one last stir before serving.

Chickpea Flour Green Beans is excerpted from Indian-ish © 2019 by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna. Photography © 2019 by Mackenzie Kelley. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Quichotte” (400 pages; $28) by Salman RushdieQuichotte” (400 pages; $28) by Salman Rushdie; published by Random House

Patience, a heck of a lot of it. That’s what you need when you are reading a Salman Rushdie novel. With his latest “Quichotte,” you will need even more. Homage to Cervantes’ classic “Don Quixote,” this comes with a subplot, a plot within a plot, so to speak. So we have a Bombay native Quichotte, a single, genteel but confused salesman who is deeply in love with a Miss Salma R, an Indian actress-turned-Oprah-esque talk show host. Along with his teenaged imaginary son Sancho, he sets off in a Chevy Cruze on a picturesque journey across America to prove worthy of her hand. Quichotte is the creation of spy fiction writer and another Indian Sam DuChamp, who is looking to reunite with his own estranged sister. It appears Rushdie with all his finesse at magical realism, hyper-meta storytelling and absolute absurdity, is willing to take on just about any topic or make one up: opioid epidemic, racism as in white supremacy, life, death, technology, religion, reality TV, sci-fiction, satire, talking crickets and believe it or not mastodons. “There once lived at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result,” so begins the novel. And it is till the very last page that the master storyteller Rushdie keeps a grip on the reader. “Time, that lethal chamber of horrors whose walls close slowly in upon the luckless inhabitant until they crush the life out of him …” Now that is sheer brilliance.

Autumn Light: Season of Fire and FarewellsAutumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells” (248 pages; $25.95) by Pico Iyer; published by Alfred A. Knopf (www.aaknopf.com)

At the onset, we will confess Pico Iyer is our favorite travel author. His books about crossing cultures such as “Video Night in Kathmandu,” “The Lady and the Monk” and especially “The Global Soul” are treasures to be cherished forever. So is his latest venture, which begins with the author’s return to Nara, Japan after the sudden death of his father-in-law. Once the first permanent Buddhist capital of Japan, we read, as the author navigates the sleepy, old city of Nara, strolling the neighborhoods, Deer’s Slope and Slope of Light, Starbucks of course, a deer park, its post office and a bakery. Married to Hiroko, who has two children from a previous marriage, Iyer comes back to the country where he has had a home for 30 years in this part chronicle and part travel piece. “We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty,” he muses while playing table tennis matches with the elderly (assigning intriguing names such as “Bodhisattva,:” “Charlie Brown,” “Wyrd Sisters” for easy identification) at a local club or experiencing “the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.” Going back and forth between yearly visits to Japan is a meeting with the Dalai Lama, who comforts Hiroko about the loss of her father. “Remember: Only body gone. Spirit still there. Only cover gone,” he tells her. Ever the philosopher himself, Iyer notes, “… I’d thought that autumn was the season that taught us how to die, only now do I see that in truth perhaps it’s dispensing the much harder challenge of learning how to watch everyone you care for die. Death can be hardest on the living.” This latest book is a poignant work of art that will leave you yearning for more from the author. As Iyer rightly says, “Autumn is the season when everything falls away.”

Haunting ParisHaunting Paris” (278 pages, $25.95) by Mamta Chaudhry; published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (www.nanatalese.com)

“Squandered time! The most enduring of regrets. In the end, a lifetime is not enough, the heart yearns for more. Who can reason with desire? The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.” So notes lover Julien, a revenant, in this debut novel by Coral Gables resident Mamta Chaudhry, while watching his beloved Sylvie from beyond the grave. Set in 1989 Paris, the book takes us back to the horrors of World War II as Sylvie attempts to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of Julien’s sister and one of her daughters at Auschwitz. The transition between the two lovers, who were together for 30 years, is told extraordinarily well with the chapters for the deceased set aside in italics. “Why does one fall in love with one person and not another?” wonders Julien. “You might as well ask why this piece of music strikes a chord and not that one. Desire is a mystery the dead fathom no more than the living.” As the two lovers grieve, the yearning for unison again is pervasive. “After the span allowed to her by capricious Time, one day Sylvie will push open that curtained door to come to me, and despite all that I have known, at the sight of her I will finally believe all losses are restored and sorrows end.” For a debut author, Chaudhry has written a touching and powerful book, one that brings family secrets, longing, love, reprehensible crimes and sorrow to the forefront. “Haunting Paris” promises to ‘haunt’ you for a long time!

Three Ways to Disappear“Three Ways to Disappear” (310 pages; $18.95) by Katy Yocom; published by Ashland Creek Press (www.ashlandcreekpress.com)

The year is 2000 and ex-journalist Sarah DeVaughan has returned to the habitat of Ranthambore National Park to help preserve the endangered Bengal tiger. India is also the place where Sarah, her elder sister Quinn (“Go save those tigers,” she had told Sarah) and the DeVaughan family had endured unspeakable disaster in their childhood. It was here that at the age of 7, Sarah’s twin brother Marcus died of cholera. But Quinn who is married (albeit, not happily) with twins stays back home in Louisville, Ky. “India was a hard place to live, a hard place to make anything change. A hard place to get past the tragic and the absurd,” recognizes Sarah while touring the tiger park. It isn’t long before the 32-year-old gets tangled in local politics and simultaneously falls in love with an Indian co-worker. Quinn, who isn’t too keen to visit the place of their childhood trauma, is convinced by her sister to make another trip. “Lately (Quinn) she has begun to think of the past as a vast place, dark and mysterious as a forest. Always decaying, collapsing in upon itself, only to bring forth new growth in the most surprising of places,” marks Yocom. The narrative, told in alternating views by the two sisters, but simultaneously highlighting the plight of the villagers and conservationists, has a fascinating plot that ends on a sad note. For a first-time novelist, Yocom has written a fine tale that embraces the majestic Bengal tiger on one side; and childhood trauma, marriage, family secrets, tragedy, forbidden love and compassion on the other.

Bad Day at the Vulture ClubBad Day at the Vulture Club” (380 pages; $26.99) by Vaseem Khan; published by Mulholland Books (www.hodder.co.uk)

After “The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra,” “The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown” and “The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star” comes another tale from Vaseem Khan. In the latest Baby Ganesh Detective Agency mystery series book, retired Inspector Ashwin Chopra solves the death of a wealthy and respected Parsee gentleman who is murdered on holy ground and his body dumped inside a Towers of Silence, where the Parsee dead are consumed by vultures. As always, he is aided by Baby Ganesh and ex-police colleague Rangwalla, who gets an intriguing sub-plot of his own. Then there is Irfan, former street urchin but now a bona fide Chopra family member. Not as visible as in previous books is Chopra’s charming wife Poppy, who has joined the Take the Poo to the Loo campaign to embrace the challenge of ending open defecation. She has put up a poster in the building complex depicting “a series of cartoons of an average-looking Indian man walking along the street, before stepping, with exaggerated disgust, into a pile of excrement.” This causes quite a ruckus, somewhat hilarious, with the president of the complex’s managing committee. Truly, Bombay, now Mumbai, comes back to life as in: “A shabby, twelve-storey tower in a rundown part of the mid-town Dadar district, the building, with its flaking grey walls, caged balconies, cheap advertising hoardings and thickets of snaking electrical and phone cables, looked severely ill, as if it had contracted some sort of debilitating architectural disease.” Our kudos go to Khan for yet another fascinating crime mystery. We eagerly await the next in the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series.

Ghost Work: How to stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global UnderclassGhost Work: How to stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass” (288 pages; $27) by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri; published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (www.hmhco.com)

So you are surfing on Google. Or buying merchandise on Amazon. Maybe booking your hotel at expedia.com Good for you. But ever wonder: How does the gig world function so efficiently and smartly? That’s where the “ghost work” done by people behind the scenes comes into focus. It could be stressed young mothers, professionals forced into early retirement, recent grads that can’t get a footing on the traditional employment ladder, or minorities unable to find jobs. In other words, about 8 percent of Americans have worked at least once in this “ghost economy” and that number is growing, say Gray and Suri. The authors focused on nearly 200 in-person interviews with workers and 50 in-person chats with those hiring on-demand workers living in India and the United States, and examined four different ghost work platforms: Amazon.com’s Mechanical Tuk (MTurk); Microsoft’s internal Universal Human Relevance System (UHRS); socially minded LeadGenius; and the nonprofit Amara.org Unlike assembly workers of the past and some today, there are no health benefits or legal minimum pay set, and worse of all, these overworked and underpaid workforces can be fired for any reason or none whatsoever. Some in the gig economy have even reported not getting paid for the work or fighting a battle to collect wages. Lost amid the on-demand economy is that the workers have a tight social network, a connection, bond with their colleagues. The shadow of Artificial Intelligence looms but it is still not within reach of upsetting the applecart. Gray and Suri rightly call for a different set of benefits and safety nets for the new workforce, which isn’t your traditional 9-to-5 full-time job.

We That are YoungWe That are Young” (490 pages, $27.95) by Preti Taneja; published by Alfred A. Knopf (www.aaknopf.com)

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” then you will find the story similar, though set in modern India. Jivan Singh, bastard son of Devraj Bapuji, returns to his childhood home after 15 years in the United States – only to discover that the ageing patriarch of the Devraj Company he founded has unexpectedly resigned. Then there is Sita, Devraj’s youngest daughter, who flees – refusing to submit to the marriage her father wants for her. Meanwhile, Radha and Gargi, Sita’s older sisters, must deal with the consequences. Thus begins a fierce, deadly struggle for power, which spans from the luxury hotels and spas of New Delhi and Amritsar, the palaces, and slums of the fabled Napurthala, to Srinagar. The story, divided into five chapters (characters, rather), is related in meticulously written prose as the ever-expanding gap between the filthy rich and the extremely poor is laid bare before the reader. Be cautioned that like Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy novels, this one too requires attention and concentration, what with a complexly told storyline going back and forth and intertwined characters that will stoop to corruption, deceit and murder. Here are some catchy lines: “Confusion: the bastard half brother of chaos. Chaos: the torture instrument of forgetting.” “Sacrifice creates the heat that keeps the world turning. If no one sacrifices, the sun will not rise.” “Sin comes in many forms … It can be an act. Or a lack of action. It can be a lie or believing a liar. Doubt is one of the worst sins of all.” Be patient, take your time with the book and you will enjoy the nearly 500-page read. For a debut novel, Taneja shines even though the subjects (characters) are somewhat hollow and depressing.

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