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Book Review: Private India by Ashwin Sanghi & James Patterson

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Private India (Arrow Books, 2014) is a brand new book from prolific crime writer James Patterson and Indian author Ashwin Sanghi. This is part of a new series called Private, with place-specific editions like Private Berlin, Private LA  and Private Down Under. I’ve possibly read every book that James Patterson wrote. Right from the beginning, I’ve enjoyed his work – it was dark, edgy and different from the other crime writers I had read until then . Remember the whole nursery rhyme series with Detective Alex Cross (Along came a spider, Jack and Jill, Roses are Red, Pop goes the weasel)?  Patterson stopped his solo novels soon after (and began churning out dozens of books with other writers). I must admit I don’t enjoy his collaborative work so much – that Patterson edge doesn’t quite show up in the collaborative books.  I haven’t read any of Sanghi’s earlier work so I can’t comment on it honestly either.

The Patterson books have a certain formula – short chapters, multiple murders, deliberate clues left behind by the killer baiting the cops, a story tying up the clues at the end. Private India runs along the same lines, but for the first time, with an Indian context. Private India is the Mumbai branch of a worldwide elite investigation agency with Santosh Wagh at its helm. Wagh’s team gets roped into solving a murder, then another. Before you know it, prominent actors, politicians, yoga instructors and socialites are getting killed – and they are all women.

In true Patterson style, the killer leaves a signature behind. And some deliberate tokens. It is up to Wagh and his team to figure out who is behind these ghastly killings and stop the murderer.

Apart from killers, Santosh Wagh has his own demons to chase. He’s got a “psychosomatic” limp, a casualty of an accident that claimed his wife and son, which has left him dependent on not just a cane, but also alcohol to get through the day. Wagh’s character reminded me instantly of Hugh Laurie’s House where Laurie has a similar dependence on a cane (which is a convenient device when needed). I’m not saying any more.

Private India is a complete pot-boiler and would probably make a hit Bollywood movie. It has all the elements – corrupt cops, cricket matches, smugglers, dingy dance bars with underage girls smirking at mafia dons, Muslim suspects, beautiful female cops who get into trouble and need to be rescued, the ISI and the squalor of the “charming yet repulsive” city. There’s also a reference to an “Indian fusion group – Samudra” which reminded me of the popular Indian Ocean band.

The story had all sorts of twists and turns keeping you guessing who the killer was. The revelation is a surprise of sorts – it makes you want to blink and say “Really?!” Personally I felt that including the ISI angle was unnecessary and played to the gallery. It didn’t add to the story but ended up annoying me for its stereotypical characters and plot.

Overall, the book was a fun read and Indian readers might like the local touches.

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. 

I received a free copy of this book through Blogadda.com in exchange of an honest review.

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Reading

I’m coming out of blogging oblivion* to tell you about the things I’ve been reading. I discovered the Kindle app for my smart-phone a couple of years ago and my life, and I do not say this lightly, has changed forever. I have read dozens of books in the last year or so only on my phone. Amazon Kindle has a long list of full-length novels in every genre, a lot of them free or for very little money. I’ve read a lot of contemporary fiction and historical romances, some of which are very very good and deserve to be on bookshelves everywhere. I read Jane Austen’s entire collection including a biography – all for free. Then there are the trashy freebies, of course, which are not challenging and you could read two of them in a day if you had to stand in many queues or wait for an egg or two to boil for breakfast.

That’s the beauty of reading on your phone. You carry it everywhere with you so you pick up the story when you can. Waiting for school to let out, in the supermarket queue, in the loo.

Bliss.

There have been paper books too, of course. Life would not be worth living without those and the silverfish they bring with them.

Out of the babble of words, these few books are worth mentioning.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a stunning saga of the Grimke sisters, heroines of the abolitionist movement in America. The story runs through the lives of the sisters, from their sheltered childhood, the horrors of slavery that they witness, to their attachments to their slaves, including Handful, the bravest of them all. At the end of the book, I was surprised to learn that the Grimke sisters were real and this story is loosely woven around their lives. What a fascinating (though troubled) life Sarah and Angelina had. I cannot even begin to imagine the barbarism that Handful and other blacks endured. I would love to read more of the author and highly recommend this book.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is one of the most elegant and beautiful books I’ve read in a long time. Other than something by Joan Didion, this might make it to my Desert Island list – it’s that good. The story is set in an unnamed South American country where a birthday party in honour of a CEO of a Japanese company is taking place at the Vice-President’s House. The star of the evening is opera singer Roxanne Coss. The evening goes downhill when terrorists break into the party and hold everybody hostage. The book is about the drama that ensues in the following weeks and the relationships that develop between captors and hostages. Spellbinding stuff. And very very beautiful.

There are some books you buy because of their title. Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton is one of them. I’ve been a diarist since I was eight and reading other people’s experiences of journaling and reading glimpses into their most private writing is compelling stuff indeed. I had not, to my shame, read Sarton before and I was delighted by this little volume describing her life in New Hampshire. It made me want to ‘notice’  things once again, so I could write about it like she did (as opposed to mere grumbling about my life). If you love journaling, gardening or reading about writers, you’ll enjoy the book. 

I first read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott about eight years ago. I found it in the writing section of my local library in England. I checked it out then eager to read this classic but gave up midway. At that time, the book seemed like a how-to for fiction writers. It didn’t seem to be something for me, a newbie to freelancing. Now I’ve got my own copy and when I read it this time, I’m in awe. Because every word that Lamott says applies not only to fiction, but also to non-fiction, journalism and any other genre you can think of. The book is of course a classic and a game changer. No writer should be without a copy. This is a rare one that has pencil marks in it – I hate to scribble in books but besides making notes and noting down page numbers for future reference, I had to mark certain compelling words and passages.

Freelance Journalism by Kavitha Rao and Charukesi Ramadurai: This is the book that freelance writers in India have been looking for. Written by experienced Indian freelancers, the book walks you through everything you need to know about making writing a career. From pitching tips, market suggestions,  how to find ideas and negotiating rates with editors, the book is filled with advice and information written from an Indian perspective. Kavitha and Charukesi are excellent examples of Indians freelancers who consistently write for international publications and make good money while doing it. If you dream of doing the same, get the book.  (Disclaimer: I’m one of the freelancers quoted in the book, but you should get it nevertheless. :))

Have you read any of these? What are you reading today?

(P.S I’ve been blogging here and writing here, if you’d like to stay in touch.)

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Birding with the kids (#LookUpAtTheSky Day)

This morning I woke well before dawn. The streets were quiet, an occasional trio of motorcyclists zooming past in tandem, having a 5 am chat. (Tourists, I said to myself.) The house felt asleep as I walked through the dark corridors, solar lamp in hand. Clean teeth, Coffee, hurried breakfast of buttered poee and cheese. Then, under duress of the ticking clock, I woke M, dragging him out in the semi-darkness once he was ready, to the other side of the road outside, where our ride awaited.

Today, as part of our #summerholiday plan, we were going on an early morning bird walk. Totally kid-friendly.

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Chasing the sun, we arrived at the Chorao ferry. As we waited for the others to arrive, the sun bounced out of the water. One moment it was dark, then the sky turned pink with a deep blush, and then, in a matter of minutes, it was business as usual.

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On the ferry, excitement bounced off the deep blue metal of the boat like the choppy waves below. Adults and kids looked around for birds. And spotted flying fish skimming the water like a smooth stone.

At the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, we hired the Forest Department boat to take us around (Rs. 900 for 12 passengers) and it was wonderful. The boat went in and out of inlets around the island, gently slowing down when we spotted a bird or three. An hour or so later, we were back at the Sanctuary, ready to get off the water and do some walking.

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The Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is a mangrove-bordered haven for local and migratory birds. The narrow path is not smooth and is littered with the occasional dog poop and what looked like cow droppings (but might more likely be mounds of earth diligently excavated by mud crabs).

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Construction work ongoing on the path makes a bit of a mess, but like most things in India, you learn to ignore it and carry on.

The kids ran on the path, ignoring stories of wildlife. They were captivated by the possibilities of crocodiles and make-believe dinosaurs. If you want to do some serious birding, leave the kids at home.

Despite all the excess energy around, we spotted many different kinds of birds including the kingfisher, egrets, koyal, pond heron, white breasted water hen and a couple of Lesser Adjutants.

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The Salim Ali trek is a wonderful activity for families. You can explore the sanctuary, take the boat ride around the island and be back home in a few hours. And if the early morning start prevents you from feeding your tummy, fill it up at the local tea-stall at the ferry point. Fresh pav-bhaji, batata wadas and wonderfully greasy samosas make the perfect ending to an unusual morning.

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September 10: World Suicide Prevention Day

Please click here to go to the main World Suicide Prevention Day Web page

Today is celebrated as World Suicide Prevention Day.  Nearly one million people worldwide die by suicide each year. This corresponds to one death by suicide every 40 seconds. Isn’t that a staggering number?

As a former volunteer with Samaritans Helpline in Mumbai, I have a deep interest in mental health issues and the problem of loneliness. It is vexing, not having anyone to talk to, whether you are well or not. Helplines serve such an important need – just being there for someone in their hour of despair.

Goa has an incredibly high rate of suicides. The daily newspapers have an average of 1-2 reports every day, and that is not an understatement. For a small state like this, this is a crisis that needs to be resolved. Which is why I was so glad to hear of a new helpline that was launched recently. The COOJ (Cause of Our Joy) helpline  0832-2252525 works Mon-Fri 3pm to 7pm. Volunteers are trained to handle calls and are also fluent in the local language to reach a larger audience.

This news of a new helpline in Goa comes shortly after the announcement that the new Mental Health Bill 2013 was introduced in Parliament last month. One significant point in the Bill is that it seeks to decriminalise acts of suicide by linking them to the state of mental health of the person attempting the act. This should come as a huge relief not only to mental health practitioners but to millions of anonymous Indians who have, at some point, attempted to take their own lives, but survived. If they were taken to hospital, the police get involved and a criminal case is registered against them (adding insult to injury). In many cases, the issue is hushed up, the scandal and stigma too much to bear. And life, the pretence of it, continues.

Once this Bill becomes law, might it be too much to hope that suicide survivors will be treated with compassion? Or that more helplines and counselling centres spring up in our cities and villages? One can only hope. And keep that candle burning.

If you live in a city where there’s a helpline, please consider volunteering. It only takes an hour or two a week of your time and in return, you impact so many lives teetering on the edge. A partial list of suicide prevention helplines in India is here.

Even more important, help publicise helpline numbers. So when someone needs a friendly voice, they don’t have to think twice.

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In my home: Two things

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There are two things always present in our 200-year old home: Books and Dust. We can’t do much about the dust (a tiled roof, thin window panes, busy road outside and hardwood floors make it a mammoth task to clean), except to,  well, dust occasionally. The books, though, are another story altogether. This home currently hosts four generations-worth of books. We have hundreds of books tucked away in cupboards, trunks and stacked on top of cabinets. Seven cupboards filled with antique and vintage books in Portuguese, German, French and English line the kitchen corridor. Three cupboards in the entrance host fiction, books on Goa and music. Other cupboards hold medical textbooks going back to the late 1800s until the 1990s. And all of this is just what my in-laws have. My own modest collection is still lying at my mother’s house (sorry, mum) and I dare not bring it here yet because we’ve run out of shelf space.

Despite the daunting dust situation, I’ve taken to displaying a few books here and there. The trio above is in our formal living room. Three different styles of art, completely at home. In the dining room, a quartet of hard-bound books on ballet sit on an antique laundry basket, now re-caned and re-purposed as a cabinet of sorts. The books are accompanied by a brass leaf and a wooden elephant rattle.

Read the rest of this post on my other blog

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The joys of fundraising

One of the things I really enjoy doing is fundraising for charities. Don’t expect me to go door-to-door chugging people for their change. But give me a target and a grant to apply and I can hug my Excel sheet all day. I’ve been fundraising for many years now, and with much success (especially during my years in England).

I now raise funds for our own little music charity. I successfully put in an application for FCRA which went through without any bribes commissions being paid to any agents (which is apparently unusual). And I’m trying to figure out how to be an ethical ‘professional’ fundraiser in India (both apparently don’t go together here).

I was reminded of all this while catching up with Sasha Dichter’s blog today. In one post, Sasha says “there is something different about being a (good) fundraiser.  It means that at any day, at any moment, on some level you’re thinking about that revenue line, thinking about where you are in the year, how much time you have left, and what it’s going to take to get there.”

That’s how things are with me. I’m constantly looking for a possible funder, a call for grant applications, that elusive programme that will support us for a year (or three). Just this morning, I’ve made appeals on Facebook asking friends to donate a little to help us bring in teachers for our kids.

During this July-August, we have had ten lovely musicians from the University of Seville, Spain working with our kids and with the larger public in Goa. There have been concerts, lectures, masterclasses and individual teaching. It has been a tiring time, busy with a fair bout of illnesses all around. And around all that music making comes the administrative jobs, the filing of income-tax returns, the running of a home.

The musicians have a wider experience of teaching that we have been grateful to learn from. To put their inputs into practice, though, requires funds. We’re looking for a place to hire that will work as a music school, bringing together our core target of disadvantaged children, and also opening our doors to other children. We need to hire teachers from foreign countries, either as volunteers or paid teachers.

Finding funding for the arts is never easy. And especially so in countries like India where survival takes precedence over making music. Yet, the money is there. I know because every now and then we are surprised by a hefty donation or by someone pledging support for a year, or a bunch of musicians donating their concert fees to us. When people see and understand what you are trying to do, they put in their mite.

Fundraisers need to ask for this slice of pie without shame or embarrassment.  I have never felt awkward asking for money for charity, even when it is my own. And an ask should never be, by the way. 

If you would like to donate to help us bring music teachers to our kids, please hop over here and give what you can. We’ve just launched an ‘Endow a Chair’ programme, so if you are looking for a long-term commitment or want to leave a legacy, please consider us.

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Downtime

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Like last year, I took time off this May too, to recuperate, rejuvenate and restore some semblance of sanity in my life. We were lucky this year to finally make a return trip to the UK, five years after we relocated from that island. It was a trip not bereft of nostalgia, but the presence of our four-year old (on his first foreign trip)  kept us from going overboard with the waterworks.

Because we were travelling with a child, we did a lot of child-friendly things. Like visiting dinosaurs, going on lots (and lots) of train rides, picnicking in Hyde Park on a beautiful sunny Bank Holiday and of course, making a special trip to see the real, the fabulous, the very blue, Thomas the Tank Engine. I had very little occasion to shop, though, sadly. It is not easy to spend time in stores with a cold and cranky kid begging to be carried home.

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So I came back home with souvenirs of creamy magnolia petals, cherry blossoms in impossible pinks, Pooh books from charity shops and vivid memories of a red fox who came visiting every evening.

A fortnight later, we are back, thrilled at having accomplished this planned-for-ages trip.

It’s still only the middle of May and I’m not yet back to writing full-time. How can I, with this lovely child at my feet, singing tunes from the ZingZillas, making up adventures with his trains and asking me constantly, “What did he say?”, where ‘he’ is the train or bus in question and the dialogues are mine to fill.

So I’ve been catching up on my reading, mostly online and with a few magazines for “research”. Writing is never far away, though. I’ve got an assignment to hand in before the end of the month, but most of the work has already been done on that, so working on it will not break my languorous mood. I’ve been working on ideas, making lists for next-month’s pitches, tidying up spreadsheets (have I told you how much I love Excel?) and most gratifyingly, painting. Both M and I are deep in primer and acrylics and are glad to have quiet, paint-splattered quality time together. 

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I’m rather loving this downtime. I’m in bed by 10 these days, catching up on sleep, filling the reservoir for the coming weeks, when life will go back to the work-until-1-am routine. I wish we could tank up on sleep and call upon our reserves when we are worn out.

For now, we watch the sky and pray the rains don’t show up before our pre-monsoon preparations are in place. Hot and humid it may be, but solace can be had in darkened rooms, tall glasses with something chilled in it and a table full of only fruit for lunch.

When it is mango season, it seems like a waste of time to eat anything else.

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