Sunday, October 19, 2014

Private India: Collaboration of Patterson and Aswin Sanghi

James Peterson is a paperback mass production unit. I had read his first major novel Along Came a Spider, which was well written and reasonably good murder mystery featuring a troubled detective. These days he brings out variety of paperback bestsellers co-written with several other writers. Aswin Sanghi is an Indian writer specialized in writing mythological thrillers. Now they have collaborated to bring Private India, a murder mystery set in Mumbai. The expectations were very high when two men who know the trade join hands.

The novel starts with the murder of a Thai doctor in Mumbai. Very soon more bodies start piling up. After every murder the dead bodies were arranged in a peculiar manner. Santosh Wagh, Indian head of Private, an investigation agency headed by former CIA Jack Morgan, and his team starts investigation of seemingly unconnected murders. Soon all kind of trouble befell on investigators- corrupt cops, dangerous underworld dons, a Pakistani attempt to annihilate them and above all a smart serial killer who always seems one step ahead.

The winning point of Private India is its incredible pace. I finished the 400 plus paged book in just two sittings. Plot marches on very fast and while reading you tend to ignore most of the flaws. But once we are done with it, the euphoria subside and we look back to it, we realize that what we read was actually a checklist of serial killer clichés. The characters of antagonist and protagonist are done to death. Even the settings and thrills are nothing new. Mythological angle of the murders give some variety to the plot, but even then it is skin deep. Reader never gets a takeaway from it.

Private India is fine for a quick read on a lazy holiday. You will be lightly entertained if the expectations are kept rock bottom.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

That Evening When I Had The Scare of My Life...

I am a person who doesn't get scared much. I have no problem in staying alone in a building, or walking in a dark night. I can watch the most extreme horror movies and still get a good night's sleep. The ghost stories never bothered me in moments when I was alone, which used to be quite often before. But there was this one night, from long back, when I really got scared as never before. I literally shivered for some moments that night.

I was staying in Coimbatore then, in a rented room along with a good friend. In our floor, there were two other rooms. In the room adjacent to mine, a kid, probably a student, used to live. The third room used to be a mystery for us. Most of the times it used to be kept locked. On some occasions we had observed people there, but never the same ones. The mystery was cleared when the house owner told us that it belonged to a private firm and their executives who come on duty to Coimbatore stayed there.

That particular evening, my friend had went to his native. I had my dinner outside and was comfortably watching television. It was turning late and a horror movie was running in HBO. All of a sudden, there was a terrible scream. It was so unexpected and loud that I remained sat on my couch for a full minute. I could not determine from where the sound came. I could not conclude if it came from the throat of a man or a woman. Hell, I was not even sure if it was human.

I waited a while for a follow up. Nothing came. Suddenly I remembered our mystery room. That noon I had noticed someone entering it. It was a lady. Was she still inside the room? Was that her sound? May be something nasty is going on. May be someone is in need of help.
I slowly opened the door and looked out. No one there. I took one step outside. 
"Psst", the guy who lived upstairs.

"What was that?" He whispered. I shrugged. He went back. I waited for a minute and came back to the room. My sleep was dead and I had no desire left to watch the movie. I sat and thought for sometime about many possible situations. Every thought had a dirty, tragic end.

"Hell", I thought, again came outside and knocked the door of the kid. The guy took two whole minutes to open the door.

"Hey, didn't you hear that horrible scream sometime back?". I enquired in a hushed, urgent tone.

Came the tired reply "Yeah. I got an electric shock."

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith: Striking Again...

I had read the second novel in Cormoran Strike series by J K Rowling, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, some months back, but only now came to write about it. A delay like this has an advantage, it filters out all the unimportant factors about the book out of the writing. The opinions tend to be more balanced and thought out. Now that everyone are aware who the author is, one novelty of the first novel is worn off. What I expected from The Silk Worm was two things. Some more elaboration of the major characters- Strike and Robin, like how they take their first success and how they grow as characters. Secondly a great story.

Following their success Strike and Robin are now more steadily employed, though most of the cases are quite unchallenging. One day a lady approach him asking to find her missing husband, who turns out to be Owen Quine, an out of luck novelist whose latest manuscript gets leaked. The novel Bombyx Mori, translated as Silk Worm is actually an abusive rant on several people with whom he collaborated in past. During investigation Strike find the dead body of Quine. It is evident that he was murdered in the same way the lead character of the manuscript, who was modelled on himself, is killed. Strike has to identify the killer from seven suspects whom Quine has parodied in the novel. Parallel to this story line, another story is told- Robin is varied of Strike's attempts to limit her to office jobs while she wants do investigation. Robin's suitor's dislike of Strike and her job is another barrier for both of them In functioning as a team.

The mystery is just great. Each and every twist was for me very much unpredictable and convincing. The writer is successful in showing that even literary world, that look quite placid from outside, is not free from petty envies and ego clashes. Colorful characters, all of them, add to the enjoyment of reading it. The manuscript of Quine, which essentially forms the skeleton of the mystery is embedded masterfully to the narrative. Slowly, when the crime unfolds, author changes the mood of the narrative darker.

One unpleasant aspect of The Cuckoo's Calling was the repetition of certain factors in its narrative. In The Silk Worm, the trend made me feel the length of the novel. For example the handicap of Strike was established in the first novel itself. In this novel, every instance he ventures out, a mention about this is made. If he is outside for investigation, he is made to suffer endlessly due to his cripple. Even the places were the tension between Robin and Strike is described, we find the same issue. If these issues weren't there reading this extra long book would've been a cakewalk for me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Weekend On Boulders From Demons

We, husband and wife, made a trip last week, to a place just 50kms away from where we stay. It just took a few hours more than half a day. Yet it turned out to be a memorable one. Though both of us like travelling around, we went only to very few places as tourists. This one is worth mention as it was a spontaneous decision to go. We went to this dam called Bhoothathankettu, a location near to Kothamangalam, Idukki district, Kerala. When we reached there we found that Thattekkad bird sanctuary was nearby and had a short visit there too. 

When we started at 5.50 am, there was a slight chance of rain. It was the day Hudhud cyclone was supposed to enter Andhra, still we decided to take on the risk. (Risk edukkunnathu rusk thinnunnathu poleyaanallo). The roads were of excellent condition, contrary to our expectations. We took a detour into Kothamangalam town and had a sumptuous breakfast, though a bit more spicy for my pallette. One of our ideas for the trip was to tryout a local teashop, like the ones featured in Sathyan Anthikkad movies. But we never came across one on the way. 

Another 10kms from there took us to the dam. Instead of stopping there, we decided to drive towards Edamalayar through reserved forest. We returned after a couple of kms and got off near the dam for a detailed inspection. Bhoothankettu was a natural dam, made by huge stones which fell down from mountains during floods centuries before. Local belief was that demons were responsible for boulders that obstruct the flow of river Periyar. Hence the name Bhoothathankettu. A man made structure was constructed later. On one side of the structure is the placid reservoir and on other bottle necked water gushes out of three opened shutters towards the valley creating much noise and mayhem. The contrast was amazing. There was supposed to be a walkway parallel to the river that goes through the woods. We desisted the temptation to explore the path after finding out it was muddy. The sky was also getting darker due to clouds. We stayed on the dam for some more time looking at the scenery. By 9.30 we started from there. 

Our next destination was Thattekkad bird sanctuary. It is another 8km from the dam. Thattekkad is a place famous for the variety of avian life that it contains- perhaps biggest in India. Famous ornithologist Salim Ali had stayed there and catalogued many species of native and migrating birds. Public can go inside the forest and observe bird life after obtaining a pass. We took the pass and before entering forest the officials advised us to explore a few other sites worthy of a look- there was a mini zoo, an interpretation center and a water body housing aquatic birds. Mini zoo was a pathetic sight. I loved the interpretation center that had valuable information on the sanctuary, ornithology and birds of Kerala. Several pictures, photographs, models and specimens makes the exploration worthwhile. I took an immediate liking to the stuffed anteater. Establishing similar centers in schools and public places will be, in my opinion useful to cultivate  interest among public. The water body is perfect for observing several birds like ducks, kingfishers and keels.

Next we entered the forest after showing our pass in the check post near the entrance. The walkway inside the forest is named Salim Ali Bird Trail as a memorial to the famous ornithologist (the spelling mistake on the board- Trial instead of Trail, was a light turn off though). The walk inside was a magical experience. Let me clarify this- don't venture inside thinking that birds will come in line and pose for photographs. Observation of birds need lot of patience, some basic knowledge on birds and a binocular. When we entered we could hear different variety of sounds made by birds- some strange and some familiar. We had a tough time spotting any of them, let alone photographing. But after a few meters we started concentrating more on the scenery. Narrow walkway lined on both sides by tall and strange looking trees, deep forest and small water bodies beyond them and river Periyar flowing on one side. On the background was a natural symphony provided by birds, beetles and crickets, a distant thunder adding beats to the score. Authorities had helpfully made several way pointers, but they soon lost any relevance. We walked a long way, were tired, but knew that we have not covered enough. The darkening of the sky and incessant thunder made us retract. We found time to check the view tower in between, but it was not worth the time. By the time we came out it started pouring.

We did not explore both the sites fully. But knowing that the journey is incomplete, realizing that another day we can embark on it and be amazed and surprised all over again is also a worthy feeling.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Time When Scandal Drove and Science Took Backseat...

Saw an interview of Nambi Narayanan on TV yesterday. One of the most talented scientists ever born in our country. And also one who was the most vilified wrongly for political gains. With decades of experience behind him, he was heading a prestigious project of ISRO when he and some others were arrested in 1994 for suspected espionage charges. Even before the court took up the case, media pounced on it and pronounced the accused as wrong doers. Espionage case or chaarakkesu as Malayalam media termed it, was celebrated by all when the involvement of two ladies from Maldives gave it a sexual angle.

The presence of a top cop who was close to then Chief Minister was used by opposition and factions within the ruling party to revolt against him. CM had to resign following allegations that he was aiding the accused. Case was transferred from local police to CBI. They found out that the case was false. Media, public and politicians were dissatisfied and wanted a reprobe. When State Government ordered local police to take up the case again, all accused approached Supreme Court. In 1998 SC cancelled the probe and directed the government to compensate the accused for their physical and mental sufferings -which was never done. Another direction from SC was to probe and bring the culprits who were responsible for fabrication of the case, which also is not done yet.

If we go in depth, we can find many behind the screen maneuvers that made the case sensational in public eyes and pronounced Nambi Narayanan and co-accused as monsters who betrayed the nation. Media gave enough publicity by peddling half truths and outright,  made up lies just to increase their circulation. Rivals of CM- in his own party and opposition used the oppertunity to evict him out of power. And we the public, ever hungry for scandals, fell for the propaganda.

But why this false accusation was made first of all? The Wikipedia page of Nambi Narayanan give the crucial clues. I will reproduce the excerpt below:

"In 1992, India had signed an agreement with Russia for transfer of technology to develop cryogenic-based fuels.The agreement was signed for Rs 235 crore,when the US and France were offering the same technology for Rs 950 crore and Rs 650 crore respectively.Documents show that US president George H. W. Bush wrote to Russia, raising objections against this agreement and even threatening to blacklist the country from the select-five club. Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, succumbed to the pressure and denied cryogenic technology to India.To bypass this monopoly,India signed a new agreement with Russia to fabricate four cryogenic engines after floating a global tender without a formal transfer of technology.Isro had already reached a consensus with Kerala Hitech Industries Limited (Keltch) which would have provided the cheapest tender for fabricating engines.But this did not happen as the spy scandal surfaced in late 1994."

When we take into consideration the fact that Nambi Narayanan was the head of cryogenic in ISRO, dynamics become clear.

What were the ramifications of the scandal? ISRO, a premiere research organization lost its credibility within and outside India. Several breakthrough technological projects were delayed or stalled pulling Indian space research back, severely hampering national development. Scientists were generally considered unreliable by public. Science as a discipline, lost its sheen. Youngsters found a profession in research in India unsafe, giving one more excuse for brain drain. Ultimately we, Indians lost.

It took huge hard work of decades and today ISRO is back in limelight with the phenomenal success of Mangalyaan. You may think on this great occasion why I am retelling this sad tale. Its not for taking the gleam out of victory celebration. This story should be engraved on all of our minds, so that we as a nation, irrespective of our ethnic, cultural and ideological differences, stand behind the people who are striving to make a positive difference in our lives.