Tag Archives: India

THE MOUNTAIN  SHADOW  by GREGORY DAVID ROBERTS


 

Book Review

This big, sprawling novel, with a cast of thousands, re-connects us with GDR’s alter-ego, the Australian Lin a.k.a. Shantaram, and his exploits in the Bombay underworld.

Some of the characters from the first novel, blockbuster Shantaram,  are re-assembled, plus squads of new ones.  There are few quirky, attractive new characters , the Zodiac Georges. Two street people, who are undying friends, both named George and differentiated by their birth months, hence Gemini George as opposed to Scorpio George. The new characters also provide arch villains. There’s the deeply unpleasant Lightning Dilip, the sadistic police sergeant , who routinely beats up suspects, and extorts bribes on every occasion. Concannon, the homicidal Irishman, wants to beat Lin to a pulp.  I could never quite understand why. There are many others, but as I said, there’s a cast of thousands.

Testosterone and violence permeate the first third of the book; thereafter we have holy men, spiritual teachers and quests for love and faith, mingled with bouts of violence. It’s an uneven mix.

The story revolves mainly around the convoluted, not to say torturous,  romantic  relationship between Lin and his soul-mate, Karla and one of the novel’s major weaknesses are the pages and pages of waffly dialogue between them when they have verbal sparring matches. Boring. As are the  tedious passages about earnest philosophical issues, with spiritual overtones.  GDR needs to make up his mind whether he wants to write a Philosophy 101 textbook, an exposition on his personal  brand  of spirituality, or a ninja novel. A mix of all three ingredients doesn’t work and we have to toil through 873 pages to confirm this for ourselves.

Mercifully GDR is restrained when it comes to writing about sex.  He does not indulge in pages of soft porn as so many blockbuster writers do. He keeps his purple passages for  one  dreadful poem  and for emotional or soulful pages.

When  Mountain finally staggers to a halt, with all loose ends tidied up, it’s an anti-climax. A review on Goodreads  said something about a possible third Shantaram novel. No. Enough already.  I enjoyed Shantaram, but his second outing on the theme is way, way too long.

What does work is GDR’s pages about the city of Bombay itself, its vibrant street life, its slums, mansions, and inhabitants; the myriad mini-stories of human struggles.  I was intrigued to read about the business activities of the Bombay underworld, and the pervasive graft and corruption at all levels throughout the  city.  Even subtracting 50% of the accounts as literary hyperbole, it made me realise that the country I live in is in the junior league, compared to the shenanigans in Bombay. Which, in a weird way, makes me feel a little better. Maybe.

At the end of 2015, which has been a tough year, I needed a relaxing, escapist read. I guess GDR’s novel was it, but, boy oh boy, it was a long haul!  Where was his editor, I wondered? Maybe if you’ve written a  wildly successful blockbuster first novel like Shantaram,  your editor treads softly.

Speaking of which, there’s an intriguing final page titled Proclaimer  where GDR makes it crystal clear he does not endorse the criminal lifestyle, drugging, drinking or smoking, and has merely used them as foundations for his story.  There’s a terse note on the back jacket flap that says GRD has retired from public life to pursue other projects and writing.I was intrigued, and a Google search  led me to an in-depth interview with GDR by the Sydney Morning Herald. The interview was tagged ‘The final Interview with GDR’.You can find it at:

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/gregory-david-roberts-final-interview-on-the-mountain-shadow-by-shantaram-author-20151005-gk1o20.html

As ever, GDR has plenty to say.

 

 

 

 

 

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BOOK REVIEWS: TWO INDIAN NOVELS


I always enjoy reading Indian novels and if you’ve never tried an Indian novel, I urge you to experiment. Like all other genres they range from the comic (see below) to the serious, for example Rohan Mistry’s work, and a whole lot in between.

Thrity Umrigar is an interesting female novelist – interesting because she’s an Indian novelist who  lives and works in the USA  and in the two novels I’ve read, both  explored the collision of cultures as applied to womens’ stories, modern Indian v.s. modern American life. It’s East meets West, and occasionally the twain do meet, but often with much conflict en route.

In The Story Hour  she focuses on Lakshmi’s story. Lakshmi, is a deeply unhappy wife imported from India to a marriage in the USA; she’s so  depressed she tries to commit suicide and is saved, in hospital, by a female psychologist, Maggie.  The story is a brilliant exploration of cultures, womens’ relationships, the cultural barriers between East and West. We view two marriages – secrets are revealed. There is despair, forgiveness, hope and  a blossoming new, fulfilling  life. I very much liked the ending which was not a formulaic  “and they all lived happily ever after” finale. Life seldom ties a neat ribbon bow around endings, and the novel authentically presents possibilities and options, but we don’t know which she will choose. Very authentic.  A recommended read.

 

The other Indian novel was by one of  my favourite comic authors, Tarquin Hall. Yet another mystery in the  Vish Puri series, titled The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken.  The book is like a Bollywood movie – OTT (over the top) –with multiple, confusing plot lines, amongst them match fixing in cricket, diamond smuggling, a  record-breaking moustache is stolen (off the wearer’s face, nogal) ; the Indian Partition of 1947, a revenge killing and through it all there is indomitable Vish Puri : detective of note, he’s overweight, lover of good food, but currently a reluctant dieter.  Vish Puri is trying to solve all these mysteries simultaneously, with varying degrees of success. And then there’s his Mummy-ji*, respectable old lady, who interferes mercilessly in the process. There’s a  marvellous portrayal of a breakneck car chase, which is breathtaking to read.

The book is a terrific substitute for a ticket to India – its colourful, spicy, chaotic and garlanded with the solemn hilarity of Hinglish ** and as a bonus point there’s even a Hindi wordlist at the end of the book.   I can’t wait for the next Vish Puri mystery!

*-ji is an honorific, attached to names.

**Hinglish – lovely mixture of Hindi and English

 

 

 

 

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COOKING  CURRY


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I watched a BBC cooking show, a series called Rick Stein’s India which gave us all the colour, dust, crowds, gaudy festivals, temples, gorgeous saris, elephants, and palaces you could ever wish for. An absolute feast for the eye. My favourite street scene shows an elephant slowly ambling along a road bordering a street market, and at each stall the vendor steps forward and offers one item – mostly fruits – from his stall, which the elephant gracefully scoops up with a curled trunk, while the vendor makes a Namaste and a slight head bow.

In amongst this the pink and perspiring Mr Stein, notebook in hand, camera-man at his shoulder, valiantly researched, South Indian cuisine, Rajasthani delights, on and on he went, through humble home kitchens, hole-in-the-wall kitchens in cities,  no bigger than a broom cupboard, tucked down side-streets, manned by sweating cooks turning out their speciality – just the one dish, there literally being no room to produce more than one.. He ate street food (and there were never any references to the dreaded Delhi Belly, he must have a very strong stomach!). He ate in a restaurant run by a Maharajah, who personally cooked ‘Jungly Mas’ for him – a simple dish consisting of goat, water, salty, ghee and chillies; he ate at the Indian school equivalent to Eton. He ate at the Golden Temple, at Amritsar, where thousands are fed daily – food is cooked in vast vats over open wood fires, by bare-chested lunghi-clad old men.

No matter where he ate, the theme seldom varied: curry. Sometimes it was vegetarian curry, sometimes fish, but often it was goat curry, masquerading as lamb, called lamb, and never referred to as goat. I gathered that sheep didn’t do well in India. Imagine those thick woolly fleeces in that terrific heat!

He conducted an earnest enquiry during his travels, as to whether Indians use the ubiquitous word ‘curry’ and if so, what they meant by the term?  Apparently in Britain, the word curry covers practically any hot and spicy main dish, produced by immigrant families in takeaways, in the local High Street; accompanied by naan bread  and lots of lager.

It transpired that most Indians were quite happy to use the word curry, although – strictly speaking – the work means ‘gravy’. But it seems that ‘curry’ has entered the many languages of India, and is widely use, to cover main dishes ranging from the most subtly fragrant to the inflammatory chilli. One Indian gentleman, a famous cook in India, discoursed eloquently and scornfully on the horrors of “Indian Curry Powder”, the boxed variety brought home from colonial service, to dear old Blighty, by the British. His condemnation of commercial curry powder was a joy to listen to! Indian cooks, of course, buy and grind their spices daily, at home, depending on the dish they’re making. I have to agree, that boxed curry powder (Rajah Curry here in South Africa) while quick and easy is always too hot. I don’t like blow-your-sox off fiery curries, I prefer spicy, deep flavoured curries.

So: inspired by Mr Stein, I hauled out my cookery books and made a tasty cauliflower curry for lunch yesterday. It’s quite a fiddly process, what with the chopping up of the veg, the discovery that I do not have fenugreek, or ground clove in my spice drawer, the garlic is finished, and so on – back to the shops yet again. But the results were worth it, and I have a nice stash of curry dinners tucked away in my freezer.

I can’t resist a bargain, especially in the cash-strapped month of January, so I bought vast quantities of tomatoes which suddenly appeared at Food Lovers’ Market at literally give-away prices, and I’ve found a recipe for tomato and hardboiled egg curry.   Hardboiled eggs, oddly enough, go well in a curry sauce. Sounds good to me!

 

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CORRESPONDENTS IN CAMMO


Lost in Transmission by Johnathon Harley.

Harley worked as an anchor for the  Australian Broadcasting Corp. Based in New Delhi, India, from 1998 – 2002; ABC correspondent for Asia. His book covers the 9/11 attack and the USA retaliation on Afghanistan against the Taliban.  He gives his impressions of India, the Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and the Pakistan vs India semi-war on their common northern border.  You get a real sense of the poverty, the frustration of coping with a Third World environment, and you really experience the huge adrenalin rush of being a war correspondent.

A travel book with a difference.  I enjoyed it far more than anticipated.  The chapters were short, and it was an easy and engrossing read.

The Kindness of Strangers by Kate Adie.

Cover of "The Kindness of Strangers: The ...

Cover via Amazon

Star female BBC reporter’s autobiography.  Relates her progress, beginning in local radio to  the  achievement of becoming the first female war correspondent.  There are tales of conflict with the IRA in Northern Ireland; Bosnia, Libya – she’s done it all.  The book is packed with stories ranging from the gritty through to the tragic, to the hilarious. An amazing woman, with a deep sense of professional probity and honesty.  Reading her book made me wish I’d done more with my own life.

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RECENT READS #10 : INDIA


  SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

I bought the book in 2006 after drooling over it in airport book stalls on my 2005 Australia trip. I didn’t buy it at the time because it was literally too heavy to cart around airports and hostels.  Having  bought it in 2006 the book languished on my shelves for a year. I think I was intimidated by its sheer size.  I finally tackled it, and staggered to page 923, THE END,  Phew!

I can see why it was so popular. Lots of manly brawling and crime – hardly any sex, more about romantic love actually – plus a somewhat juvenile exposition on “why are we here, what’s it all about?” which GDR (as per his website) has now rather grandly spun into a full-blown philosophy. And of course, a full-frontal tour of Mumbai at its squalid, dirty, fascinating worst.  I’ve crossed it off my Cities to Visit List.

Best of the book were the descriptions of life in the Mumbai slums, and good works in a slum clinic, life in the Indian Mafia, insights into the war in Afghanistan, some of the character sketches.  And GDR’s realization that his father figure, Khader, had used him as a pawn – quite ruthlessly, despite all the love and devotion from GDR. It’s a big, epic sprawling book filled with colourful characters, spiced with the Indian backdrop.

GDR was a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict, who escaped to India and spent eight years in the Mumbai underworld, living in a Mumbai slum – so his story is based on solid experience.  However, I can’t help suspecting that some of the tales were gathered in bars, over the years, or in jail cells, and quietly woven into the fabric of the novel. But isn’t that what novelists do? Embroider reality to suit their purpose.

I was curious to see the author of this Boys’ Own extravaganza, so Googled him, and was disappointed to see a small, triangular face, big ears, and a surprisingly unscarred face, given all the beating he endured in the Mumbai jails.  I suppose it was too much to hope for that he’d look like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I had hopes …

LAST MAN IN TOWER – Arvind Adiga

I love Indian novels for their quirky characters, for their Indian-ness, but this is an Indian novelist I approach with caution.  I didn’t like his White Tiger (a much acclaimed book, his debut novel, which won the 2008 Man Booker prize: it was too brutal and too realistic for me) I like my Indian novels more cinnamon scented in a swirl of cerise saris …

Anyway, this recent novel, although dealing with moral issues, was lighter in touch, even though it displays Mumbai in all its corrupt, thrusting vitality. In short, a property developer (corrupt through and through) wants to tear down an old apartment building near the airport, and build a smart new complex in its place.  He makes the residents of the building an offer they cannot refuse, literally the fabled opportunity of a lifetime, to move on, to move up the social ladder, to become (modestly) rich!  Of course, they excitedly accept his offer – all except one man, a retired schoolteacher.  He won’t budge. Hence the title.  And the book takes off from there.

The book displays  Mumbai’s gritty, greedy, thrusting vitality. It exposes the sad truth that money can corrupt everything, even the oldest, deepest friendships are not proof against greed. Loyalty flies out of the window. We also see the immense value placed by Indian society on family; everything the characters do – or don’t do – are motivated by FAMILY. I’d never appreciated before just how family minded Indian society is. The novel also made me ponder: at what point is the struggle simply not worth the price? When should we decide to give up the fight? And another thing: at which point does a principled moral stand dissolve into a futile Quixotic gesture?

Arvind Adiga writes disturbing books.  There is no sugar coating in this one.  The ending is shocking, but hey!  Life goes on. Despite the darkness in this book, I enjoyed it.

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