Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Billionaire Raj
Author: James Crabtree
Publisher: One World, 2018
Billionaire Raj by the former Financial Times Bureau chief in India, James Crabtree, is a journalistic assessment of not only how the British Raj in India has been replaced by entrepreneurs and politicians who work symbiotically to create a close nexus of exclusive crony capitalism but also gives an optimistic outlook for the future… with a few strings attached.
The book comes across as a series of clear well-researched articles strung together thematically in logical order. From British Raj, India moved to ‘License Raj’, where a license was needed to start any venture. Once that was lifted, the age of billionaires sets in. He has compared this period to the Gilded Age of American history, an era in the nineteenth century of robber barons and rich bankers, just after the American Civil War.
Crabtree plunges in with stories of people he calls ‘Bollygarchs’, a new term which has evolved to define billionaire-entrepreneurs with Russian oligarchic tendencies like, Vijaya Mallya, Ambani and Adnani and more. The best way to understand the Bollygarchs is perhaps to imagine the flashy Bollywood culture (like that seen in the Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham) brought to life.
We studied the extensive menu, which listed both international as well as local cuisine. Joe and I were fast decision makers when it came to selecting our dishes. Joe settled on rice with Crispy Catfish in Chili Paste and a side order of the ubiquitous tangy Green Mango Salad to share, while I chose rice with Red Curry of Roasted Duck, a dish Joe had suggested after describing it as a bracing Thai classic combining tender roasted duck with a perfect blend of spices, coconut milk, and pineapple. The food arrived within ten minutes of ordering, and was excellent in both presentation and taste. My duck curry surpassed Joe’s mouth-watering description. I complimented Joe on his recommendation. His quiet response was “I’m happy you liked the duck.”
Food aside, what do you talk about with a charming Thai man whom you have just met on his home turf? A lot, apparently. I told Joe about my job, and he pressed me to tell him more about the documentaries I had shot from Singapore to Bangkok. As I had at least a dozen documentaries under my belt in Singapore but only one in Bangkok, I gave Joe capsule highlights of my work. He seemed impressed. It was now Joe’s turn to talk about himself. His voice was even and fluid as he told me about his student days majoring in
Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Title: Voice of the Runes – When Souls Connect, But Vengeance Speaks
Author: Manjiri Prabhu
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2018.
Voice of the Runes begins with a vision and a death. The stage is set and readers plunge into the mystery even before they have seen Lund University, Sweden, the setting for Dr Manjiri Prabhu’s Nordic noir. The thriller brings back Re Parkar, the investigative journalist with the ability to sense things and chase visions. With him in this adventure is Magdalena Lindberg, Maddy, who assists him in tracing the messages the runes offer.
The story begins with Professor Heinz delivering his annual address to the university’s students a day before the university’s 350th year celebrations. He is a revered practitioner of runology – a controversial subject in an academic atmosphere that relies heavily on its scientific temperament; Maddy is his research assistant. As he delivers the lecture, he turns to a moment of drama, shuts his eyes and picks out a rune stone from his bag. The first kiss of stone and the professor collapses, suddenly, shockingly.
The stunned silence that follows will soon give way to chaos, suspicions, intrigue, arson, vandalism, treachery and deaths while Maddy interprets the clues in the runes for Re Parkar and they arrive closer and closer to the truth — a truth that will shock and unnerve the characters as well as the readers. Manjiri Prabhu delivers a masterstroke by bringing in this twist in the tale, firmly establishing the story’s emotional core.
Here there is so much paranoia. They are angry and afraid that the colonial powers will keep coming and they will never stop. They say that the peninsula is just a puppet nation, run by the British imperialists and greedy conglomerates…In Sumatera, at least, I am far away from Jakarta. There the soldiers and the Islamists and the Communists are going to kill each other one day. But for now I am in Medan, where I can stay with people I trust.
Our ancestors came from here, they say. This is where all our stories began. The name ‘Melayu’ itself: In old dictionaries it meant ‘to flee’. In that sense we’ve always been wanderers, sojourners in the archipelago. But how much of that do we remember today? Does any of it still matter to us, in an age of atomic weapons and satellites?
How much I miss Malaya. I never saw much of it after I was taken to prison. Five years of prison, kept in filthy cells, where they beat us if we tried to talk to each other. Funny how many whispered stories still passed through the walls of Pudu, keeping us angry and alive. And then they told me that I had a choice of more years in prison, or I could go to Indonesia to join the rest of my people. How I laughed when they said that, how they forget that this region is a mixture of faces: There is the Malay, the Bugis, the Javanese, the Sulawesians, even the Chinese. In Medan I am close enough to home that on some days, when I drive to the coast, I imagine I can see the peninsula on the other side of the Strait. But I cannot cross it.
Title: The Billionaire Raj
Author: James Crabtree
Year of publication: 2018
At the port, the facility’s amiable chief executive, Captain Unmesh Abhyankar, talked excitedly about the mechanics of the place: a world of berth occupancy, throughput rates and turnaround times. Mundra had an unusually deep harbour, allowing it to attract some of the world’s biggest cargo ships, he explained, giving it an edge over rivals elsewhere along India’s western coast. ‘We focus on the three Cs: coal, containers and crude,’ he said of the cargoes the ships brought in. Exports were more of a mish-mash, including everything from bauxite and cars to iron ore and wood. India’s dilapidated road network made it hard to move this in and out, so industrialist Gautam Adani built a 60-kilometre private freight line to the main rail network. Most Indian ports were state owned and inefficient, taking a couple of days or more to unload a ship. At Mundra, however, cargo was mostly whisked in and out over a morning. Abhyankar expected his facility to become the country’s largest port later that year, handling 100 million tonnes of goods, the first in India ever to do so.
Even at dusk the giant container cranes were easy to spot from the window, as our plane took off that evening and flew us back to Ahmedabad, ready to meet Adani the next day. The day’s last light glinted on the grey of the Gulf of Kutch in the distance. A few years earlier a team of oceanographers had found an ancient stone anchor lying 50 metres below the waves, of a type used by merchants more than a millennium before. For centuries, those same waters had been India’s trading artery, bringing wooden dhows and then steamships across from Africa and the Middle East. Through such trade and commerce, India had been an early pioneer of globalisation, at least until Nehru launched his new age of self-enclosure in the aftermath of Independence in 1947.
He felt the ground for the reassuring grip of his cleaver. Once he had it in his hands, he crouched down and heard for sounds. The night was dead quiet. Not a good sign. It was a shade of absolute silence that was all too familiar to Lao Seng. He gripped his cleaver tightly. He peered over the barrier that marked out the activities area for the elderly to look at the field between the two blocks. The electric lamps had dimmed as well, creating a darkened no man’s land. Something metallic hit the floor violently and from the sound, Lao Seng knew where it was. One of the offering bins had been toppled and thrown against the pavement. The sleepers in the apartment upstairs would only hear it as a minor nuisance before they roll up their blankets to return to slumber. For Lao Seng, it would be a different story.
He eyed the area under the tree where the offering bin lay. It was now somewhere in the covered walkway between the two blocks. In its place, was a black figure, hunched over like an ape. Its form was indistinct, as if one could see through it. Dark smoky trails rose out of it, like it was burning from a black fire. The ape figure was rummaging through ashes of the joss paper as well as several food pieces scattered around the field. It was hunched over, totally focused on picking through the burnt heap.
Reviewed by Debraj Mookerjee
Title: The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2018
Some book titles are a giveaway. Given the political climate in India today, with so many conversations centred on the subject of meat eating, one might be forgiven for assuming that The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seventh book, a novella, is a satirical take on contemporary India. In English August(1988), and in The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), Chatterjee’s pen is acerbic, and educated-middle-class-privilege tipped, displaying a wit that wafts out of the 1970s generation in mainstream Delhi University. The temptation is to assume that Non-vegetarian presents more of the same. It does not. It is a sombre story, set in a small town (Batia) in early post-Independence India, and told with uncharacteristic restraint.
The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian features Agastya Sen’s father (who we met in English, August, writing peremptory letters to his ennui-stricken son), and hearkens back to an older milieu, both in terms of the frame, and in the person of Madhusudan Sen, ICS, sub-divisional magistrate in the small town of Batia. The murder of six people who Sen considers friends, or the murderer that sparks the tale of revenge, present little mystery. The suspense is built by the narrative that unfolds from the edges of the grim event and the role Sen plays in giving shape to it over a period in time with issues swiveling around death penalty. Unlike his spiritually dispirited son from the celebrated debut novel, in this somewhat less ambitious novella, Sen is self-possessed, intellectually restrained, committed to the world in which he enjoys the trappings of state power, and a steadfast friend.
I figured I must have fainted and dropped the phone. Probably I got a bump on the head, and that was the cause of the change in my eyesight. I hurried to pick up my phone before anyone could step on it. I saw my arm reaching out—but somehow my hand couldn’t pick the thing up. I tried several times, thinking I had bumped my hand as well as my head and numbed it, like when you hit your funny bone. The feeling was different, though. Not a flash of painful sensation in my elbow or tingling in the wrist. Just—nothing. I was puzzled. How could I have hurt myself so badly that I didn’t even feel any pain?
Thinking I’d go and find some help, I stood up slowly, my feet on either side of the smartphone to keep it from being stepped on. That’s when I noticed that there was no one nearby. Turning carefully, I saw that a small crowd had congregated in front of a train which had stopped on the other side of the platform. The light and the colours were still blinding, but the sounds from the scene came up only gradually. I began to hear exclamations, and one or two women screaming breathlessly. Suddenly, a brilliant flash of white rushed past me—two men in white uniforms, with a stretcher between them piled with blankets. A group of policemen followed closely behind. Like the light and the colours, the movement of the men was so intense it made me dizzy. The policemen hustled the crowd aside while the men in white jumped down in front of the train and busied themselves with something there.
Our ascent to the mountain peak was predictably long and tortuous. I was sweating and blaspheming in my mind, trying to maintain my balance and resisting my inner urge to give up the climb. My snowboard grew heavy on my shoulders and it was painfully bumping against my spine. When we had left careless shrieks of the skiing crowd far behind, it suddenly started snowing. Fluffy snowflakes were melting on my face and infiltrating unpleasantly under my collar. I could hardly see Clara, purposefully making her way through the thick lace of the snowfall curtain enveloping the earth all around us. That is why, when she suddenly stopped, I bumped into her nearly causing us both to fall into the abyss below. She stood there immobile, her hand raised in a warning sign.
“I think I saw her,” she said in a low voice. “Who?”
“The Mountain Maid.”
Eric looked up from his music player and realized that the series of speeches was over. He removed his earphones and handed them, along with his music player, to one of his classmates. Clad in their white judogi and black belt, he and Dennis marched to the centre of the quadrangle and cued for their background track to be played. Eric limbered up when he heard the first beat of a Mortal Kombat theme song, while Dennis approached from behind and was soon pretending to attack him. In defense, Eric swiftly turned around and grabbed Dennis’s upper arms and threw him over his shoulder. He followed through with another shoulder throw, a basic martial arts routine which nonetheless drew loud cheers. Eric carried on oblivious to the cheers, wishing he could fast-forward their number. It could have been worse—Mr. Santos had initially suggested that they perform their routine to Eye of the Tiger.
After their performance, Eric and Dennis dashed to the farthest bleacher. Eric put his earphones back on. A few minutes later, the emcee announced the exhibition game line-up: Warriors versus Tigers, billed as THE basketball match between the strongest teams. “How did basketball become so popular here? These guys are half the height of NBA players,” Eric whispered to Dennis, who rolled his eyes in response.
Just then the Warriors’ cheering squad, in orange costumes, emerged chanting, “We are the Warriors, never the worriers! Warriors mean victory and Tigers will soon be sorry!”