Book Review — Fortune’s Soldier by Alex Rutherford

If I’ve learned one thing about Hindustanis, it’s their endurance, their patience. When I hear my fellow officers whining on in the mess, I think how much we could learn from these people if only we wanted to… if only we made an effort…

Nicholas Ballantyne was meant to enjoy his life in Glenmire, Scotland, but when an unprecedented move on his uncle’s part sends him across the world to Hindustan, he becomes deeply involved in the changing political scenario of the nation. As an employee of the Company, Nicholas ventures into the heart of its presidencies in Calcutta and Madras. It is there that he displays the true meaning of loyalty and humility, racing from one battlefield to the next, protecting those he loves and serving the Englishmen who’ve given him a chance to rebuild the name, Ballantyne.

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I enjoy reading historical fictions and this one features my homeland, so of-course I wasn’t going to pass it up. Moreover, it promised a great deal of adventure surrounding the operations of the East India Company in the 1700s. That is a subject I’m not very familiar with and so, I couldn’t wait to see how Alex Rutherford would combine this fictitious storyline with the recounting of events that actually happened in world history. What impressed me from the very beginning is the authors ability to characterize Nicholas in such a way that he becomes a full-fledged, realistic person, one who begins to surprise you with his strength of character. And I feel that it is this very quality about the writing style that prevented the entire tome from being dull. Even though we read about many battles and war council meetings, I wasn’t bored of it (barring the last couple of chapters) because I was fully invested in Nicholas’ as the lead.

The writing style is not over the top and neither is it too simple or plain. It doesn’t make allusions to any event or occurrence in a way that leaves you perplexed or unable to proceed reading the book without a quick dash to Google. That was another aspect that made me the like the novel. Apart from Nicholas, I enjoyed reading about Tuhin Singh. He is a respectful steward and friend to Nicholas, often shown to be just as (if not more) brave and has strong opinions about the Company’s operations in Hindustan. He is not easily fooled or subjugated. I felt that Meena’s and Lucia’s characters were not explored enough. They could have played a more significant role.

From the beginning, we know that Nicholas is going to be this heroic character, and so it is the stories of Robert Clive and George Braddock that introduce the themes of greed for power, communal rivalry, corruption, betrayal etc. This book also brings to light the opinions of several Mughal rulers towards Hindus. And so, religion is evidently a common symbol throughout. By the time I’d read past page number 350, I was getting worn out by the sheer quantity of battles that are spoken about in this book. That said, I appreciate the ease with which these stories are delivered to us. A majority of this book makes for a very immersive read which will surely have your rapt attention. Nicholas’ adventures were thrilling to read about! And so, I’d definitely urge you to give it a try, if you are interested in historical fictions.

Rating – 3.5 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? An insightful story about the East India Company’s interest in Hindustan and the resultant changing dynamics within the nation.

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Book Review — More Bodies Will Fall by Ankush Saikia

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Amenla Longkumer, a woman from Nagaland, was murdered in Delhi a year ago. So when the Delhi police closes the case without identifying any leads, her father approaches Detective Arjun Arora for help. The mystery behind Amenla’s death takes Arjun on a long journey into the inner recesses of the North-East, where he is forced to confront the actions of his past that have left an indelible mark on him. Soon it becomes apparent that this case is mired with complexities as it involves many branched off connections. More Bodies Will Fall is a window to the political clime in India, marked by corruption and communal tension.

I am always in the mood for thrillers and so, was intrigued by the premise of this novel. The plot is definitely multi-layered and you can’t take anything at face value. Usually I do have some suspicions when it comes to murder mysteries, but this book has way too many possible suspects, so my conjectures were a bit pointless. As with novels, we don’t come to know much about all of the characters, except that of Arjun. I felt that that’s probably because there are so many characters who play small roles and so they all appear on few pages here and there. That said, they are essential for solving the mystery, hence are not fluff characters.

One thing I didn’t really like about this book was the overwhelming amount of detail about Arjun’s course of action. In the sense that, for example, when he is out and about, hunting down suspects, the author goes into the very minute facts of which road he is on, where he takes a turn, which building he passes by etc. And if that had been a one off instance, I would not have minded it. But such explanations happen EVERY time Arjun heads out. What I did appreciate about the author’s descriptive writing style is his focus on the North East. The glimpses of their culture has left me wanting to read more books based in those states. The mystery in itself is very well thought out – not easy to predict and gradually, all loose ends are tied up. If you do pick up this book, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Ratings – 3.5 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? A murder mystery that is heavy on the detail and is set in Delhi as well as North East India.

Thank you Penguin India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

Book Review — A Murder on Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

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Sujata Massey’s historical fiction, A Murder on Malabar Hill takes us through pre-Independence India, positing Parveen Mistry as the first female solicitor in 1920’s Bombay. Working at her father’s law firm, Mistry Law, Perveen dives neck deep into the family matters of the Farid widows, who having lost their husband, Mr. Omar Farid know not what’s in store for them, financially and socially. But when secrets begin to threaten the foundation of this family, Perveen realizes that she will have to get to the root of the murder that occurs in Malabar Hill in order to protect the interests of the women and their children.

WOWOWOWOW. This is such a fast paced and wonderful read! It surpasses your expectations for a normal detective fiction, with its inclusion of cultural emblems and addressing of social issues. For what’s inherently typecasted as a murder mystery, there’s a second story that runs parallel to the main plot. That is of Perveen and a man she falls in love with. And for the longest time I wondered why it had been included, but soon you come to understand that the flashback chapters which are set in 1916-17 help give depth to Perveen’s character in a way you don’t, initially, see coming. This novel has been well written and saying that Sujata Massey has a brilliant grasp over the language would be an understatement in light of how masterfully she has given life to the book.

I didn’t find the mystery predictable and so I really enjoyed the long drawn process of discovering clues, unearthing suspects etc. The author does take her time in establishing the case, but it’s all worth the wait. There were many a times I got furious, because we are made privy to how women were treated in early 1900s. Themes of female seclusion, male dependence, domestic abuse are dealt with by the story and you can’t help but get angry at how easy it is for people to oppress women. Especially when Perveen’s desire to study law was met with such sexist criticism from her male classmates and professors. I was glad that Perveen’s parents were the supportive, understanding kind. One of things I loved about A Murder on Malabar Hill is that we are introduced to Parsi culture as well as personal laws. This helps shape our opinion about 1920s India. The suspense will keep you at the edge of your seat throughout. All in all, I really liked this book and I would recommend it to everyone who enjoys fiction.

Ratings – 4 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? A bewildering mystery and an inspirational female protagonist who stands for women’s rights at a time when they were considered inferior.

Thank you Penguin India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

Book Review — Dreamers by Snigdha Poonam

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Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers brings to light the struggles and aspirations of the Indian youth. In a society that is brimming with job seekers, the paucity of employment propels these young Indians into doing whatever it takes to make ends meet. Filled with political stances and the desire to break through the gateway of modernism, this book brings to us the stories of individuals who refuse to back down.

When I heard about this book, I had a slightly different picture in mind; one of a dramatized version of what the youth in India are upto, in order to achieve their dreams. As I began reading this book, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to finish it because of the overwhelmingly detailed content. But the more I read, the more I wanted to know about where India was headed, in terms of the mentality of its youth, their actions. The author’s writing style is commendable. She writes very eloquently, in a non-judgmental manner. Themes of religion, bigotry, woman empowerment, violence, technology and modernism are highlighted throughout this tome.

Something that irked me about this book was that I felt it was not really inclusive. In the sense that it doesn’t draw a fair picture of the youth of India. A majority of the stories were about men (I don’t have a problem with men and neither is this about feminism. So don’t misconstrue my words.) and then, none of the stories covered the southern states of India, or even the East. I agree that it must have been extremely difficult to seek out youngsters from different parts of India. But for equal representation, it would have been nice to know about individuals from different backgrounds. Some of the stories and morals that come to our attention when reading this book concerned me a great deal, because it unearthed the face of a highly intolerable and prejudiced future. While it’s important to be aware of that, it doesn’t color my opinion of everyone below the age of 25 years. This book has just equipped me with the affirmation that we are a fierce bunch, ready to do whatever it takes to fulfill our goals. All in all, I would recommend Dreamers to those who enjoy nonfiction and are interested in the subject matter.

Ratings – 3.5 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? An indepth glance at some of the mindsets that are the future of our country.

Thank you Penguin India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review — Aqson Level 1 by Sreejib

Aqson Level 1 is an action packed Indian fantasy fiction that has so many layers to it, it’s a complete feast! God and Lucifer have started a new game, the goal of which is to make their weapon the Prime Minister of India. They launch their angels onto the battlefield to defeat one another and take control of all the weapons that Nature has endowed them with. Toya Mahapatra and her friends were only getting by with their college when an unforeseen incident pulls them into the student politics scene in Kolkata. They soon realize just how influential they have become on a national level. What they fail to realize is that governing humans is but a game to God & Lucifer; unfortunately for them, they’re neck deep in the mess.

FINALLY! An Indian fantasy fiction that has been done right. When I heard about this book, I was extremely enthused at the idea of a fantasy plot being based in India. But this book just blew my expectations away. There’s so much going for it:

  • For gamers – The surface level plot being a video game with maps, rules, opponents, weapons etc. 
  • For fantasy lovers – Mythology, elemental magic, angels.
  • For politically inclined – elections, youth politics, strategising. 
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All of the above are masterfully woven into the multiple plot points that constitute the book. There’s so much more I could list, but I will leave it to you to discover. The author’s writing style is very descriptive, focusing on minute details to give you the complete picture. I liked the fact that some of the speech occurs in Bengali (there’s translation too! so don’t worry about that.) and cultural motifs have been generously sprinkled throughout the novel. In addition to being of fantasy genre, it is also laced with a certain kind of thrill and humor that makes it all the more enjoyable. There were so many mesmerizing moments where I couldn’t believe how intricate and genius the plot points were!! The world building is mind blowing. On the other hand, there were small instances that could have been more convincing. That’s something I felt could have been improved.

Speaking about characters, I downright detested Ollie a.k.a Niyol. He’s a sexist and wouldn’t stop ordering Toya around. The only time I felt remotely proud of him was during a debate (you’ll see what I’m talking about). I was also confused at times by Toya’s personality; she’d have these random outbursts. Arpita and Goenka are the two characters I liked. Arpita is dauntless, open-minded and considerate. Nevertheless, the bond that Toya, Goenka, AJ, Ollie, Rahul and Arpita share is heartwarming to say the least. They are all super protective of each other and find a sense of belonging in their tight knit group, even when things aren’t going right. I would have liked some more scenes with God and Lucifer, the little taste we get in the prologue is just not enough. Overall, I liked this book so so so much. I would recommend it to all of you fiction readers. Just give this one a try, you’ll be left speechless.

Is there a next book? Someone please tell me there’s a second book. I NEED IT ASAP.

Ratings – 4 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? A very unique outlook on mythology, astral travel and a refreshing glimpse of what youth could contribute to politics.

Thank you Sreejib for sending me a copy of your book in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review — How May I Help You? by Deepak Singh

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How May I Help You? is a memoir that traces Deepak Singh’s experiences in America, as a well educated individual who is compelled to work a minimum wage job. Through chapters that unravel his descent into American society, we are also pulled into the lives of his colleagues and acquaintances who are themselves struggling to get by in a world that is foreshadowed by apathy and fallacy. Spanning across two years and some, this book brings to light the strong culture shock that Deepak deals with, when confronted by an America quite unlike the picture painted by the big screen. What this autobiography succeeds in doing commendably is emphasizing that people may be separated by oceans and borders but we all couldn’t be more alike due to our shared sufferings and encounters.

As someone who has aspired to live abroad, the synopsis of this book was very intriguing to me. At the same time, I don’t really read autobiographies. That said, How May I Help You? is a very smooth read, captivating because of its simplistic depiction of a foreign society and earnest in its portrayal of a profession that isn’t held in high esteem. The author’s writing style is very straightforward which I appreciate when it comes to non-fiction; I found myself wanting to finish the book in one sitting. The story is endearing to say the least. I’m sure we’ve all felt lost at some point in time and so Deepak’s sentiments resonate with us. To be stranded in a foreign land, unable to form genuine connections with people there, can be a heartrending experience. I really liked how diverse lifestyles were reflected in addition to Deepak’s. All of which help us get a better understanding of the non-glitzy aspect of living in America.

It also draws comparisons to the low income group in India, trying to find a togetherness in the struggles of people across the world. The voice of immigrants and diasporic communities is always a refreshing one and this book is no different. We come to learn just how ignorant people can be about other cultures, misled by popular representations. Kudos to the author for having aptly delineated themes of poverty, loneliness, camaraderie and personal growth. Don’t be intimidated by the harsh realities that are mirrored here; it is one that we should acknowledge. All in all, I really liked this book and it has encouraged me to pick up other memoirs. I would definitely recommend it to everyone; whether you read autobiographies or not, DON’T MISS OUT ON THIS!

Ratings – 4 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? An honest glimpse of what it means to be working abroad, devoid of any sugar coating. And a taste of culturally diverse mindsets.

Thank you Penguin India for sending me this book in exchange for a review. 

Book Review — The Indian Spirit by Magandeep Singh

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The Indian Spirit captures the historic events and societal nuances that led to Indians embracing spirits  and alcoholic drinks like rum, vodka, whisky, wine, beer etc. It digs deep into the origin tales, bringing out the long processes of evolution in our drinking culture, some of which we imbibed from foreign forces. Equipped with years of experience in the field, the author throws light on the many brands that took root in India; some of which have inevitably soared to international standards and others that have been forgotten. Almost every kind of spirit has a deep rooted connection to the growth of the F&B industry in India. This book in its entirety is a delight for those who indulge in alcohol, heightening our experience of consuming the said liquor, with tips on how to best approach it and amazing anecdotes from the past.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but some books (like this one) are simply splendid and the subject matter of The Indian Spirit appeals to me a great deal. The author’s writing style is quite conversational, flavored by quips and straightforward commentary on various products. Even though there’s a lot of factual information, it doesn’t feel textbook-ish because the narrative style is light and catchy. I often found myself cracking up at the humor wedged in between all that data. There are separate chapters on whisky, wine, beer and many more. The chapter on local alcohol variants was an eye-opener because if not for this book, I wouldn’t have even heard of many of the traditional alcoholic beverages. I like an occasional (read often) glass of wine, rum or vodka, but it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that my understanding of these drinks has been absolutely bleak, when compared to what I learned from the book. Thanks to the little guide at the end of certain chapters, I now know the correct way of tasting, judging and serving some liquors.

Since this book explores a rather wide variety of drinks, it is best read slowly, so you can grasp as much of the information as possible. Rush it, and you’ll risk not remembering more than half of it. Many of the anecdotes mentioned in this book were really intriguing. My favourite chapters (which I am going to re-read again and again) were the ones about wine, drinking etiquette and rum. Overall, this book makes for a great reading experience and I would recommend it to EVERYONE, whether you are a tippler or not. Also, regardless of the number of times I have tried beer and whisky, I strongly believe that they still taste like “something that could power space expeditions”!

What do you get out of it? Priceless knowledge about how alcohol was brought or came to be made in India. With the help of amusing stories and factual deductions, we are able to follow the changes that this market has gone through.

Ratings – 5 out of 5 stars

Thank you Penguin India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a review. 

The Misplaced Indian

Image courtesy - Sangha Mitra
Image courtesy – Sangha Mitra

The Indian spirit is like a motherboard. It cannot be whole without its multiple subparts and as a separate entity, drives forward the existence of every Indian soul. This spirit is for us to wield and imbibe as we see fit. Yet, we somehow manage to demarcate the “true” Indian by turning a blind eye to those whose Indianness is diluted by years of westernization and foreign upbringing. This essay looks at the misplaced Indian – one who wholeheartedly wants to be part of the community, but cannot because he/she is far removed from any physical connection to their motherland.

The misplaced Indian is either overlooked to some extent in discourses of Indianness or ignored completely in discourses of foreign communities. He/she belongs to a no man’s land, caught in between two communities and not really a part of either. Such an Indian is not detached from his native because of his own voluntary actions but because of ancestors who have moved to a foreign land. And so matter of factly, they begin to learn their Indian mannerisms alongside the resident country’s value systems. Regardless of how much they want to belong, they are not accepted as equal Indians. Hence, they get misplaced in the process of migration and their identity becomes a matter of questioning.

Some Indian Literatures emphasize on the perspectives of such misplaced Indians. Kenyan born Indian, M.G Vassanji says in his book, A Place Within, “It would take many lifetimes; it was said to me during my first visit, to see all of India. The desperation must have shown on my face to absorb and digest all I possibly could. I recall an anxiety as I traveled the length and breadth of the country, senses raw to every new experience, that even in the distraction of a blink I might miss something profoundly significant.” Other notable writers who convey the sentiments of the misplaced Indian are V.S Naipaul, Shyam Selvadurai and G.V Desani. Such Indians face the anxiety of belonging, as discussed by Meenakshi Mukherjee in her essay Anxiety of Indianness. They are generations away from understanding the essence of Indianness and spend a lifetime trying to grasp what they can of the Indian spirit.

– Meera

Whence we come, to it we shall return.

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Aapnu Amdavad

It is true. We create a thousand Horcruxes in a lifetime.

Bits of ourselves go to sleep in these Horcruxes, until we reach for them. Until we are ready to absorb them again. My trip to Ahmedabad was something of revisiting a Horcrux I had left there. Multiple Horcruxes, if you will. The strange and unsettling (even overwhelming) part of it is that I met all these lovely, homely people who seemed to remember versions of me I couldn’t bring to mind. And I wanted so much to be able to recall my time there. I wanted so much to be a part of that tight knit community again. I had moved on, changed indefinitely. But these people still hold onto age old antics of mine, like clouds clinging onto the hilltops.

The places that I’d once frequented were so unbelievably different that I couldn’t picture myself amidst them. But then a familiar board or a rundown building would appear to remind me of instances that were so integral to my childhood there. As I have been told countless times, the climate is stifling. Now, I don’t much prefer the heat. My favourite weather is anything but summer. And despite that, I found myself wanting to go back. To be the girl, who had left 15 years ago. To make a home of the place I’d been born in.

Going to Adalaj Ni Vav was like stepping into another world. Not only is the road leading to it so absolutely mesmerizing but the carvings in the step well are magical! The writer in me wished I had a notepad and pen, to sit and write of the wonders I beheld. Another highlight of the trip was reconnecting with family friends who are so genuinely welcoming. They spoke of times when my parents were young, of times when life’s simplicity offered the greatest joy. Sitting with them, immersed in all their smiles and recollections, I couldn’t have been more thankful to Ahmedabad.

Our meals comprised of all the delicacies I’d urge my mom to make often. To say nothing of the Thalis and Chaat outlets, would be to paint an incomplete portrait of the bustling city that is Ahmedabad. A city where folks have come to a mutual agreement to sort out their traffic troubles. A city where cliques of cows have as much a license to be on the road, as the rest of us. A city where the youth have taken to enjoying the night life their own way.

If there’s a place I’d want to call home, it is this. It is this.

– Meera