The Begum by Deepa Agarwal and Tahmina Aziz Ayub

The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First LadyThe Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady by Deepa Agarwal Deepa Agarwal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Vivek said this book was up for grabs for review, the title and the subtext intrigued me! Of course, a lot of us knew about Liaquat Ali Khan as the first Prime Minister of Pakistan after the partition. But I was not aware of the life of his wife – Ra’ana (formerly Irene Ruth Margaret Pant) – which more often is the case with most spouses of political leaders with the exception of Rajiv Gandhi in India or say Barack Obama in recent times. Of course the media attention to the details of the private lives of the politicians and their spouses has made it easy for us to know a lot more about them. But such was not the case in British India or even a pre-internet era India.

The Begum is split into two parts – the first half by Deepa Agarwal taking a lot at Irene’s life as child in India, her marriage with Liaquat Ali Khan and the political career till the partition, and the second half by Tahmina Aziz Ayub which takes a look at her post the partition particularly after her husband’s untimely death in 1951. As with any multi-author books or multi-director movie montage, this book definitely will have the reader comparing the first half with the second half, and one clearly can see the stronger half.

Deepa Agarwal perhaps benefits with the meat of Irene and Ra’ana’s life prior to the death of Liaquat Ali Khan. The book traverses history of the Pant family from the point they were Hindus who converted to Christians, the upbringing of Irene, the various schools she went to, the region that Pants would spend their summer vacations in, initiation of Irene and Liaquat’s romance, their marriage till the partition, and most importantly the influence of Jinnah on their life including them needing to leave their prized possessions in India post the partition. This is a very very easy read and you also get to know ‘The Begum’ as a person and connect to the person very easily.

The second part of the book by Tahmina Aziz Ayub suffers from a documentary/literary survey type writing and there is unfortunately no soul in this writing unlike the first half and one is forced to treat the book as chapters in a history text book. There is definitely good research and good information about the Begum, but not as a portrait as the book claims to be.

One of the key takeaway from this book as getting to know how Pakistan had to start from scratch with respect to a lot of things and the first Prime Minister did not have the luxuries that his Indian counterpart had. In addition, he had a bigger task of putting his country on the map and fight unrest among people (the latter was a task for Nehru too and how he handled is a discussion for another day).

This portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, the Begum, starts out well and is worthy of a read for its first half definitely!

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‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy – Some Thoughts

The Ministry of Utmost HappinessThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometime in 1998, when I was in high school, in a news article, I read about an award called the ‘Booker Prize’ (later did I realise it was called the Man Booker Prize) and that an Indian had won the award for the year. Though my reading habit was on the decline back then, I did get my hands on the book that won Ms. Roy the Man Booker – The God of Small Things. I recall having skimmed through a few pages in the book, realised it was not my type of book and gave up the idea of reading it. A couple more false starts in the 2000s made it seem as though the book was not for me. Fast forwarding to March 2015 and a beach in Goa, I saw myself with this book sitting in a beach shack. I do not know what made a difference now – if it were the ‘me time’ or if I had grown up to appreciate the writing better – I really could not stop reading the book and I finished the book in a little of a day’s sitting at the beach. ‘This woman is brilliant!’ is all I said to myself about the book.

I never went on to read Ms. Roy’s other pieces of non-fiction she had written over the years and I eagerly awaited for her next book. And there was no sign of it, until mid-2016 or so, when it was announced that her new piece of fiction ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ was coming out in June 2017. Phew! It would have been gross injustice to Ms. Roy’s writing skills if she had stopped with the God of Small Things alone.

Having gotten a copy on the day of its release (and via the Flipkart Book Review program later), I really wanted to sit down with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and spend all the time that week reading it. However, time is a luxury these days and I found myself reading it over 6 weeks on multiple airplane journeys. The exact opposite of what I wanted to do. It was a new experience in itself and perhaps re-reading the portions of the book to preserve continuity gave things a different meaning at times.

Penning down about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the toughest task I have had to do in a while. I still cannot get myself to say much about the book since the book with some bit of non-linear narrative, multi-person perspective and slight magic-realism (not too evident as such, or I misread a few things) is not a page-turner. In addition to this, Ms. Roy tries to put in a real world setup to drive the story with events from the recent history including 1984 Sikh riots, 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, 2002 Godhra riots, 2012 Anna Hazare fast, Kashmir crisis and many more. It does get a little difficult at times to realise if this is a piece of fiction or if Ms. Roy has a point to make about the current political scenario.

The story’s protagonist Anjum and Tilo, and the associated male character trio Musa, Naga, and the landlord (whose name I don’t seem to recall now) are strong characters and Ms. Roy’s ease in making you love the characters shows. Particularly, Anjum’s story through the first 80 or so pages reads like poetry. Just when you think that you are back in that zone of reading a well-crafted narrative, the meandering mess that the novel ultimately turns out to be actually begins. While there are parallel narratives to this one which ultimately seem to converge, one is unable to see the bigger picture and a lot of the intricate details in the setup of the story seem to be lost somewhere in the abyss.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a definite lesson in writing for someone and it surely an example of how not to navigate through a narrative that has started out well. There’s crispness in Ms. Roy’s language when it comes to conversations and there’s the inimitable verbose nature while describing things as with God of Small Things.

One thing is for sure though – I will go back to read this book once again in the near future. But, if only the parts of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ added up and ended up being much more!

This book was provided to me as a part of Flipkart’s Book Review Program.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid [Book Review]

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Dec 2013, I was out with a friend who had a book titled ‘Moth Smoke’ whose title intrigued me enough to go look at who the author of the book was. The author had a more popular ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist,’ which I probably knew better because of its movie adaptation (I wasn’t reading much back then). Later on a visit to Blossom Book House, I picked up a used copy of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ (TRF) and read it on a plane ride across the Atlantic. The monologue that TRF was made me fall back in love with the concept of reading and there has been no turning back ever since. The author’s ‘Moth Smoke’ and ‘How to get filthy rich in rising Asia’ were both satisfying reads and I was happy to receive his new offering ‘Exit West’ for review via the Flipkart Blogger Book Review Program.

It’s been close to 48 hours since I put down Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Exit West’ after finishing it and I still think of the book in more ways than one. This genre-defying book is a lot more layered than what one would expect and is definitely a book that requires a little more attention than the author’s previous offerings.

Nadia and Saeed are the two protagonists in the book and the story that starts off in an unnamed country with the ‘romance’ between Nadia and Saeed traverses through Myrkanos, London and California through the journey of the book. Set in today’s troubled climate of immigrants and unrest in the Middle East, the story rather than talking about the physical journey of the characters from place to place, speaks more of the mental journey of the characters through the book. IN fact, the physical journey part is actually just conveyed through a portal and that made me wonder what the overall theme of the book was going to be, at times.

The journey that Saeed and Nadia undergo initially in the book is conveyed well through the use of multiple plot elements including how a good old romance essentially blossoms. While this smooth flow is often obstructed by the mention of additional characters from time to time, you don’t realise the tension in the story until it blows up into a full-fledged one. There is an occasional instance of a major turnaround in the story mentioned in a simple line that you’d miss it if you speed-read it.

‘Exit West’ at this time is still more of an enigma to me than a story and I am sure the characters Nadia and Saeed are two people I would think about from time to time. With so many unanswered questions and so many unresolved mysteries, the book doesn’t feel incomplete. However, I would have liked some of the loose ends tied rather than have them hover around in the story unrelated to the larger scheme of things. Or maybe Mohsin intended to have them related in some way I wasn’t able to understand.

If you like a bit of openness and a bit of intrigue, ‘Exit West’ is a great book which will definitely not leave you without thinking about it in the near future.

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Fables from India – Uday Mane [Book Review]

Fables from India: A Collection of Short StoriesFables from India: A Collection of Short Stories by Uday Mane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was provided to me as a part of the Flipkart Book Review Program.

A lot of us have read numerous Indian folk tales in the past including the likes of Jataka tales, Panchatantra etc. The stories in these are pretty simple to read, understand and mostly have a message to take away. I emphasise on the message part here because these stories are primarily targeted at children who are quite impressionable and the stories might prove to be a good way of teaching them some life lessons including the types of people in the world, the problems encountered and the solutions to those problems.

Fables from India is no different from the Panchatantra that you and I may have read a couple of decades ago. It has a total of 22 short stories set in the forest, kingdoms or villages and does require a little bit of suspension of belief. These stories all follow the pattern of the tales I mentioned earlier with a small problem or an issue and how the protagonist solves the problem and learns from solving the problem.

The stories aren’t complex in any form and a child in the age group of 8-12 can read this book in a couple of hours and go on to retell the story to a younger kid. The only peeve about these stories from India is the frequent use of non-Indian and middle-eastern names in the narrative which sort of makes you ask the question – am I reading fables from India? There are a few grammatical errors which may not be visible to the reader easily, but they do exist.

what would have made the book work better is a deeper dive into the story in a few cases rather than having a shallow ‘here’s this person, here’s his problem and here’s how he solved it!’ narrative. There’s definitely some merit in the old-fashioned story telling process for kids and this book could have exploited it.

Fables from India is a good addition to a kid’s bookshelf with some old tales in a new form.

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Exile: A Memoir by Taslima Nasrin – Book Review

Exile: A MemoirExile: A Memoir by Taslima Nasrin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(This book was provided to me for review as a part of the Flipkart Blogger Book Review Program.)


Exile. The first thing that comes to my mind when I see this word is the lives of the Pandavas in Mahabharata during their 13 year stint outside their kingdom including a year being incognito. The Pandavas were banished from their kingdom for losing in a game of dice. Or should I say – cheated of their kingdom? And at the end of the day they come back to their kingdom, fight it out, get their kingdom back from the Kauravas and the tale has a sort of happy ending.

Taslima Nasrin – the popular author – however, at least at this time, cannot boast of a happy ending to her tale of exile. Instead what she can do and has done is written what she went through during her exile in the 2007-08 time frame. Taslima has been a controversial figure in India and Bangladesh, thanks to her books – Dwikhandito in particular. Unfortunately, the author who seems to have done a tell-all in Dwikhandito rubbed the wrong side of people and got herself into a mess. While the grudges against her all seem to be personal from what she says, the threat against her life which came as an aftermath of these burnt bridges were all politically and religiously motivated.

Exile is a not a difficult book to read. However, it is a difficult book to digest. Any normal human being takes a lot of things in her/his life for granted. These include shelter, proximity to loved ones, a routine and above a safe and sane surrounding. Unfortunately, Taslima who returned back to Kolkata in 2007 or so, had this sort of a routine life short-lived, thanks to her perpetrators (if you will) who attacked her during a visit to Hyderabad. Since then, her life was all about being moving from Kolkata to Jaipur and then being moved to Delhi, and then an almost solitary confinement in Delhi for a long time till she moved to Sweden. The book is a tell-all in its own way and picks up from the point where Taslima talks about the difficulty she’s had in getting this book of her’s out. This is followed by a memoir of sorts describing her exile.

The book has writings in three forms: one – a pretty normal narrative in first person, two – a set of poems written by her during her exile, and three – ‘Excerpts from a Diary’ as she likes to call it. The first form is moves pretty quickly and reads like any other autobiography while it is still filled with a lot of angst. The second form, a set of poems, is a short segment and shows Taslima’s passion towards writing her own life in a poetic way (though it appears in print as prose). The third form, which forms a major chunk of the books, is something that starts out like a regular diary and goes on to convey her frustration related to the two countries India and Bangladesh, her friends, her ‘well-wishers’, her religion (Islam), the politicians, and men. However, it is in this segment that the writing and her though process (considering it is a diary) gets very very repetitive. Her sad situation is very well evident in the diary which is seen in the multiple entries which almost read alike.

I will not dismiss Exile as yet another book. It is an important book to someone who is unaware of how a celebrated author can be put to distress by two countries that she calls home and then is given refuge by countries that she does not relate to. It gives one a perspective that however advanced the human race may have become, there is still a young section of the human race which is dumb and does not think rationally and a lot of things can be motivated politically and religiously. It takes a lot of guts to come out with a book on the very system and people that put her to distress. If only she had not made it the rant fest that it seemed like the second half of the book!

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Skyfire by Aroon Raman [Book Review]

SkyfireSkyfire by Aroon Raman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was provided to me by the publisher as a part of the Flipkart Blogger Book Review Program.

As mentioned in a previous review, there have been a multitude of thrillers that have emerged in the Indian author writing scene in the last few years. There have been a few well-crafted stories which give you an edge-of-the-seat feel as you peruse them. The premise of a routine thriller typically lies on the fact that there is a problem that needs immediate attention and there’s our protagonist, preferably with a team, who tries to get to the root of the problem, and solves it before the antagonist/villain is successful. In most cases, the evil villain is someone who has been in front of the protagonist’s eyes (and readers’ eyes) and typically doesn’t drawn suspicion towards herself/himself in the narrative. Some 200-300 pages later, there is a confrontational scenario with the protagonist and the villain and by beating all odds, the protagonist emerges victorious and stops the ill-happening or the problem.

While this narrative is fairly straightforward and one can perhaps build a ‘Indian Thriller Plot Generator’ app and weave out stories by the dozen, the distinction between a good thriller and a not-so-good thriller only comes in its treatment and how the book tries to play with the intelligence of the reader.

Skyfire by Aroon Raman is the author’s third book after a pretty successful (from what I understand going through the author’s profile) debut The Shadow Throne. It is perhaps the author’s way of trying to make his debut his benchmark by trying to reference the mystery in The Shadow Throne multiple times in the narrative. Skyfire has three major protagonists Chandra, Hassan and Meenu alongside a few other supporting plot elements who are to solve the mystery of missing orphans while it leads them to solving the mystery of anomalous weather in a few Indian cities/towns.

Base of the plot (some ‘spoilers’):
There is some form of acid rain in a few cities in India, which the team later realises is not attributed to natural causes. There is also a case of children from a school for orphans missing. There is also this big larger-than-government initiative – Dharma Initiative – which aims at solving the issues the country is facing. How do Chandra, Hassan and Meenu track the children and also arrest the effort to sabotage other Indian cities getting affected by the weather anomaly? How does the Dharma Initiative fit into the proceedings?

The premise is mostly filled with decent writing and the author does manage to pique the interest of the reader in the first 40-50 pages. With two entirely different issues occurring in the plot, one is left wondering (for a little bit) how do the two of them get tied. As with any thriller, there are the standard elements to Skyfire too. There is the routine mysterious guy who appears a couple of times in the plot but contributes majorly to the proceedings of the plot. There is a romance angle (or two) which doesn’t necessarily contribute much to the premise. There is also a government component which includes people/spies from the neighbouring countries.

For a first-time reader or an occasional reader, Skyfire may come across as a well-crafted mystery. Unfortunately, for those who end up reading and watching a lot of thrillers, the culprit or the villain in the premise is visible from a long distance – in my case, I was able to see it 60-70 pages into the book. While that occurred, it still was quite intelligent of the author to look at the piquing my interest to see how the two mysteries were connected and what the overall premise was.

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‘Where have all the editors gone?’ and Book Review of Bhrigu Mahesh, PhD by Nisha Singh

I have been doing a fair bit of reading in the last 2 years. This includes reading fiction including classics – both contemporary and ancient ones, a variety of non-fiction including travelogues and political pieces, graphic novels, books by budding authors (which I mostly get for review), award-winning books and more. There is no one particular genre I would pin-point to and mention that I prefer reading books in that genre.

Writing books is something that has gotten a lot of attention by budding authors worldwide due to the increase in the number of publishing houses and due to easy self-publishing options. Every blogger who had a blog with sizeable following ended up becoming an author of a book. If the blogger got lucky, she/he was able to get one of the big publishing houses to bring out the book. And then you had the other type of authors who used cheesy titles for their books to draw the ‘young adult’ crowd and they were mostly successful in getting their target audience to get read books filled with love, sex, betrayal and more.

I confess I am not a gifted writer. The purpose of this blog (as with my other blogs) is for me to convey my thoughts in simple words with the occasional grammatical error or typo. The grammatical error or typo seeps into my writing either as a result of years of erroneous usage of the tenses, without being corrected, or (mostly) due to oversight. I must also confess that reading good books and good writing has made a big difference – for the better – to my writing.

Another aspect of writing is the editing. It would not be wrong if I said this: in academia, we typically spend more time on proof-reading and editing the manuscript describing our research than actually writing the manuscript. Any good journal or conference of repute definitely sees the papers undergoing a rigorous review process and the proof-reading and editing is essential.

Unfortunately, the books churned out by new authors these days typically skip the proof-reading and editing process from what I have observed. The editing process typically ensures that your writing is tight and you are expressing your thoughts effectively (in fewer sentences hopefully). The proof-reading process ensures that you not only are rid of typographical and grammatical errors, but that you also are not putting in factual errors into the premise. This is the point where ‘Bhrigu Mahesh, PhD’ essentially failed me.


Bhrigu Mahesh, PhD – The Witch of Senduwar – Book Review

The author Nisha Singh claims to have been created an Indian Sherlock Holmes after being inspired by the iconic character in literature. She also throws in the essential Watson into the mix. She is able to identify a mystery (a murder mystery, of course) and then goes on to trace the events leading up to the murder while listing the possible suspects. This premise is something that sounds good in concept and as a one page outline. It is in the execution and in the details that Nisha falters in addition to the lack of proof-reading and editing.

Statements like – ‘A Tale of Two Cities by Leo Tolstoy’, ‘Newton’s First law states – every action has an equal and opposite reaction’ – in the first 20-25 pages of the book make you squirm with a question on whether the author ended up making these errors out of oversight or if it was something that the author had learned wrong while in school. The author speaks of her mother (an English teacher) as her influence with respect to writing and unfortunately goes on to make several glaring grammatical errors in the first few pages of the book itself.

There is this lack of consistency in writing where a few chapters appear to be written flawlessly with use of bombastic-yet-appropriate’ words, while there are chapters which one cannot help but think whether it was the same person writing the full book. There are segments in the book where the author tries to establish the character with some background and showing the detective/investigator’s well-read and calm and composed stature and more. Agatha Christie does this very well with both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple in the books that they make their appearances first. Unfortunately, in this case the introduction turns out to be a damp squib with really no effect on the character.


The book, as mentioned earlier, could have done with the much-needed editing and proof-reading. This would have ensured that the book became a 200 page thriller than the current 300-sh page dragging mess where the reader loses interest in finding out who the killer is.

Unfortunately, as much as I would want to, I do not have many good things to say about the book Bhrigu Mahesh, PhD – The Witch of Senduwar, except for the fact that it is a sincere and honest attempt and that a lot of hard work has gone into writing it. Better luck next time, Nisha!

PS: Another this that annoyed me on every page was the header – ‘Bhrigu Mahesh, Phd’, without the ‘d’ capitalized.

PPS: Happy to correct any typographical or grammatical errors in this post, since I did write it without the help of an editor. 😉

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