Category Archives: Book Review

Book review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I started reading Norwegian Wood with two misconceptions: like most (at least the ones that I have read) books by Haruki Murakami the story would revolve around something bordering on paranormal or some parallel, inexplicable existence from which the characters of the story keep coming in and going out, and the backdrop of the book would be Norway. It is a totally normal story, with normal characters, living in Japan (mostly Tokyo), and they never go to Norway.

Norwegian Wood, as I discovered while reading the book, is a famous song by the Beatles. There is no particular reason why the title of the book is Norwegian Wood aside from the fact that one of the characters keeps on singing or playing the song with no particular impact on the story of the novel, and the name appears on the very first page of the novel, triggering the entire sequence of storytelling. The titles of famous Western compositions, by the way, are a recurring appearance in the Murakami books. This could be because a major part of his life was spent in Europe and America.

I started reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami by accident. Although I had purchased the book long time ago and stored it on my Kindle reader, I never got down to reading it because these days I’m mostly reading non-fiction. I had just finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi and I wanted to read something heavier so I picked up The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. It so happened that when I started reading The Myth of Sisyphus I was sitting in the playground of our building with lots of kids playing around and lots of ladies chattering, sitting in the sun. Although I wanted to read, I couldn’t focus. The essay kept referring to some abstract philosophical concepts I don’t understand. Besides, the first essay in The Myth of Sisyphus deals with why people commit suicide. Sitting in that playground, with my daughter taking rounds on her new bicycle and seeming to be on cloud nine, around 20 kids playing around me and the cheerful ladies enjoying the sun, I wasn’t exactly feeling like reading a dismal subject with so much philosophical analysis. I closed the book and then randomly tapped on Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

It is an autobiographical book although not exactly the story of Haruki Murakami as suspected by many readers. It doesn’t even tell the story of a complete life. It is the story of a boy, Toru Watanabe, and his romantically turbulent days even before he turned 20. It’s just about a couple of years. Is it a love story? It depends on how you take it. Haruki Murakami in one of the interviews about the book said that it is no way a love story. Toru Watanabe starts telling the story 18 years after the incidents unfolding in the story happened.

Toru, when in school, had a best friend named Kizuki and Kizuki had a girl friend named Naoko and life have woven around them psychological and behavioral circumstances in such a manner that outside of their small circle they don’t interact with anybody else. Despite being the third person in the group, Toru never feels that he is intruding or he is just being tolerated because he doesn’t have a girlfriend.

Kizuki suddenly kills himself at the age of 17 and the worlds of Toru and Naoko are totally changed. When together, they never talked to each other and completely lose contact with Kizuki out of the picture. After Kizuki kills himself Toru finds it impossible to keep living in the same town so for his college education he comes to Tokyo and starts living in a dormitory. Since his childhood the only friend he has had was Kizuki, and he is never able to forgive his friend for killing himself like that, just like that. Nobody knows why Kizuki killed himself.

Many months pass like that and one day, while travelling in the train, he bumps into Naoko who was also forced by Kizuki’s memories to leave home. She asks him if he would like to walk with her and having nothing pressing to do, he agrees. Long walks in the city and in the wilderness become a routine. They don’t talk much. She keeps walking randomly and he keeps walking behind her, whenever they decide to go on walks. Toru always considers Naoko Kizuki’s girlfriend and Naoko also treats him like he used to be, Kizuki’s best friend. The scar that Kizuki has given them acts like a strong bond, something only they share with each other.

In between the narrator describes the university agitations going on in the late 60s and the students’ obsession with socialist ideals without understanding them or assimilating them.

While living in the college dorm Toru comes across another friend named Nagasawa who reads the same books Toru reads. Nagasawa is flamboyant, is a habitual womaniser and is totally unapologetic of his lifestyle. This is the quality that draws Toru to him and during many of their excursions, Toru ends up sleeping with different girls.

Naoko is older than Toru so her 20th birthday falls way before Toru’s 20th birthday. They celebrate the birthday at Naoko’s place and end up making love. Toru doesn’t know what to make of their new-found intimacy, but this incident brings them closer and although it isn’t mentioned in words, they begin to love each other. But the next day Naoko leaves saying that she cannot cope with the pressure of Kizuki’s death. Her parents send her to a new age sanatorium or mental health retreat.

He writes multiple letters to her, to her parents’ place, hoping that they would forward them to wherever she is, but no reply comes for months.

While Naoko recuperates in the sanatorium Toru bumps into this mysterious girl called Midori who comes and goes according to her whims. Although she has a boyfriend, she’s drawn to Toru due to his straightforwardness and aloofness. While attending university she runs a small book shop left to her by her father who, she says, has left both the sisters and moved to Honduras after their mother’s death from brain cancer.

Just like Naoko, it’s Midori who takes constant initiatives and keeps inviting Toru for outings and eat outs. Once he visits her place above the book shop and while sitting on the roof they watch a neighbor’s house on fire, play guitar and kiss each other while Toru reminds her that he loves another girl.

While going through various twists and turns with Midori Toru receives a letter from Naoko and it is in this letter she reveals that she is recuperating in a mental health retreat in the mountains. She apologises for vanishing like that and reassures him that she has been trying her best to gather her energies and contact him and until that happens, he should do with the occasional letters.

In one of the letters he asks her if he can visit her and she says yes.

At the mental health care center he is greeted by a cheerful and aged Reiko who is Naoko’s roommate. As per the rules of the place he cannot meet Naoko alone and Reiko has to remain present during all the interactions.

Reiko has her own story and reasons for being at the sanatorium for the past 7 years and in between she tells him her story. It’s at the sanatorium that both Naoko and Toru confront the memory of Kizuki and how his death has affected both of them. Naoko tells him about her sister who had also committed suicide and how she had discovered her sister hanging from the roof. She tells him that she can hear Kizuki and her sister calling her and urging her to join her. During his stay, Reiko, Naoko and Toru go on a long trek and Reiko urges Toru and Naoko to go for a walk alone, against the rules of the sanatorium. During the walk Naoko tells him that despite having been boyfriend-girlfriend since an early age, she and Kizuki had never been able to have an intercourse and she would always release him with her hands. So when Naoko and Toru made love on her 20th birthday, he was the first man ever to enter her. While on the walk, the kiss each other, admit for the first time that the love each other.

He gets caught in the whirlwind of life when he comes back from the sanatorium in various incidents keep bringing him close to and pushing him away from Midori with various intervals. Midori now doesn’t disguise the fact the she is in love with her and he constantly tells her that he is in a complicated relationship that cannot be explained, without ever talking about Naoko.

Eventually, there comes a time when he cannot decide whether he should wait for Naoko who is constantly being drawn to another world by her dead sister and a dead Kizuki, or move on with a highly desirable Midori who is deeply in love with him but is quite hotheaded and can push him over to the embers if she is displeased.

This is not the end of the story but while reviewing the book I wouldn’t like to reveal exactly what happens. When you’re reading the story, it seems that Toru is the only person in the story who seems to have what you may call a “normal” upbringing or past. Otherwise everybody is broken one way or another.

What’s the message Haruki Murakami tries to convey through the novel? There is a compelling sentence in the story: Throughout our lives we are nurturing death.

Incidentally, the book I chose to read in place of The Myth of Sisyphus because I didn’t want to read an analytical essay on why people commit suicide, tells the story of a few characters who either commit suicide, or are deeply scarred by those who have committed suicide. Quite strange.

Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchDue to various reasons it took me more than three months to complete The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I came across the name of the book accidentally (as it often happens with my reading pattern as I don’t interact much with avid readers) on a blog – don’t remember in what context. When I started reading the book I didn’t even know the meaning of “Goldfinch”. It is a bird primarily found in America and Europe. There is a finch family of birds (again, I wasn’t even aware of the word “finch”)

Why did it take me such a long time? Is it a tedious book? To an extent, yes it is, but that was not the main reason. In between I read another book. Then I was busy writing current affairs and political articles for various publications. Professional commitments, obviously. So at a stretch I couldn’t read the book for more than 30 minutes on a particular day. And for many weeks I couldn’t even get back to it. Hence such a delay.

No matter how tedious the book seems, reading Donna Tartt is always “paisa vasool” – what you may call in English, worth every penny you have spent – if you’re looking for an out and out intellectual experience while enjoying a good story. Does it mean The Goldfinch is a very good book? It depends on your reading habit. It depends on what you seek from a book.

She made a mark on me when I borrowed one of her first books, The Secret History, from the British Council library in Delhi. I don’t even remember getting the book issued on my own; I guess someone else got it for me as I wasn’t able to visit the library as frequently as I would have liked. Unknowingly I had decided, whenever she wrote her next book, I would read it.

Then, if I’m not forgetting, my brother-in-law brought The Little Friend to our house because he was reading it those days and then give it to me to read once he had completed. I dropped whatever I was reading those days (very little, maybe one book in a year, and maybe not even that) and read the book in 4-5 days.

Coming back to The Goldfinch, it’s a first person account of a boy named Theodore Decker who gets caught in a bomb explosion in a museum, when he was 13. Although he survives, his mother dies. After the explosion, when he comes to his senses, he finds himself near a dying old man who gives him a ring to deliver to someone. Before the explosion, he had seen this old man accompanying a girl he had been drawn to in an exceptional manner. Both the old man and Theodore – “Theo” – have no idea whether the girl has survived the explosion or not.

There is blood everywhere, his ears are numb, his head hurts, he cannot see, and amidst that, the old man goes on and on and while he’s talking to Theo he points to a small painting named The Goldfinch, supposedly painted by Carel Fabritius, a 15th century painter. There is total confusion and chaos. Theo isn’t sure whether the old man is going to survive or not. He promises to send in help, takes the painting and somehow exits the museum. Expecting another explosion and taking him to be just another kid loitering around the crime scene, one of the policemen chases him away without paying attention to what he’s trying to tell. He thinks that his mother is either still inside trying hard to come out, or she’s already out and heading towards home. Somehow he reaches home and starts waiting for his mother. He’s pretty sure that sooner or later she is going to turn up.

Beyond her mother there is no life for him. The alcoholic, abusive father has left them, bringing both of them closer. Her mother, a former, lesser-known model, had deep interest in arts, especially painting and Theo inherits some of that interest. Before the museum they were heading to Theo’s school because he had been suspended for either smoking on the premises or indulging in an activity that cannot be indulged in inside the school – I forget. Since there was some time left, they decided to visit the museum where his mother wanted to see one of her favorite paintings. Suddenly, she leaves him in a room, remembering that she wanted to have another look at a particular painting just for a few more minutes, and goes into another room which perhaps bore the maximum brunt of the explosion. At home, alone, he is convinced that his mother is alive somewhere, caught up in something unavoidable, and is going to come back any time. He even saves the leftover food for her. He saves the painting for her in his room.

The indifferent but highly concerned social services persons pay him a visit and then later on leave him under the care of his friend Andy’s upper-class family that takes him in with a flourish of formal and restrained familiarity. Theo and Andy are the quintessential bullied kids in the school in the typical American manner simply for being good at their studies. Andy’s parents welcome Theo into the family because they believe Theo helps Andy open up. The painting is still at the old apartment.

While staying at Andy’s place, Theo visits the downtown New York where James Hobart – Hobie – lives. Hobie is the person to whom the dying man at the Museum – Welty – wanted Theo to deliver the ring and probably the painting. Hobie and Welty were business partners. The ring Theo takes but leaves the painting behind because by now he is scared that if he reveals that the world-famous painting is with him (on TV he has been watching how there is a massive search for paintings that are missing after the explosion and people are being arrested), the police would arrest him and hand him over to the social services people. Hobie lives in a workshop-cum-apartment-antiques shop. At Hobie’s place he meets Pippa – the girl who was with Welty before the explosion, the same girl he had been so strongly drawn to. Pippa was Welty’s granddaughter. Aside from injuries in the limbs, she has also received grave injury in her brain and she mostly sits in a dazed state, listening to classical music. He spends some time with Pippa and as he makes further plans to visit the place on a repeat basis, he is told by Hobie that a distant aunt of Pippa’s is taking her away as she was badly injured in the head due to the explosion at the Museum and the treatment was not possible at Hobie’s place.

Andy’s family is about to adopt Theo when his father reappears and offers to take him to Las Vegas where he is currently staying with his new wife Xandra. With the help of the guards at the apartment building where he and his mother used to stay, he is able to conceal the painting and take it with him to Las Vegas.

Later on it is revealed why exactly his father brings him to Las Vegas. In Las Vegas he lives like a vagabond with no restrictions on drugs, delinquency, alcoholism and gambling – his father seems to be filthy rich and he seems to be getting all his money from gambling. In school he meets a new friend, Boris, the son of an alcoholic Russian contractor who constantly abuses his son. From thereon starts a lifelong friendship replete with drug abuse, betrayal and loyalty.

This is just the beginning of the story. If you ask me what the story is about, I would say it is about the small boy Theo who has to cope, all alone, the massive tragedy that he faces after the explosion. Why the explosion happens, who is responsible, the author doesn’t touch upon that piece of information. It just happens and wreaks havoc with multiple lives including Theo’s and Pippa’s. They are both shattered for life, Theo emotionally and Pippa both physically and emotionally. The painting, always remaining in the backdrop, plays the central part, because by clinging to the painting, he doesn’t want to let go of that moment when he lost his mother and everything precious that he had. Mostly it is about Theo’s and Boris’s friendship.

Donna Tartt seems to do lots of research while writing her books. For instance, Hobie buys damaged antique furniture, restores it, and then sells it to his selected clientele. There are some very detailed descriptions of the processes, emotions and materials involved during restoration. Painting, yes, The Goldfinch is the central theme and hence naturally there has to be lots of talk about various paintings, various painters and one feels like reading a highly seasoned art critique. Then of course, there are drugs.

In all the three books from Donna Tartt, The Secret History, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch, narcotics feature prominently. She talks about drugs like a person who has had first-hand experience. Lots of chemicals, even medicines that are otherwise taken for ailments, can induce drugs-type effects and hence, many people buy them just for that purpose. Lots of educational stuff if you want to get a glimpse of drug addicts.

She knows a lot about the topics she covers in her books and sometimes, because of that, she seems to ramble on and on and to a person who isn’t reading for the sake of reading (rather than getting done with the book), it may seem a bit offputting. There was a time when I was desperate to complete the book but it just wouldn’t complete. In the end, it goes on and on and one feels she is trying to imitate Ayn Rand. The book has its faults, as every other book. For instance, War and Peace is perhaps one of the best books you can ever read, but sometimes it needlessly seems to go on and on and tends to get boring.

Reading some books is like listening to the FM radio, you can drive and listen. Some books are like listening to some really good music for which you have to sit and pay attention. For classical music, you need to know your music. The Goldfinch is of the second category. You will have to pay attention. Your vocabulary should be good and you should be really interested in reading. With these attributes assumed, it is quite a good book. Otherwise, you may like to skip it.

Review of Fatal Admiration

Fatal Admiration by Irfan Iqbal Gheta is a story of three people – Rishi, Shobha and Neha – brought together, some intentionally and some unintentionally, into a whirlpool of uncontrollable passion that leads to totally unexpected circumstances.

After going through a few pages I almost decided not to read the book because somehow I could not relate to, not just the characters, but also the way they talked to each other. Irfan, before sending the book for review, had asked me whether I would like to review a book that can be categorised as “mushy romantic love”. I have always had an open mind when it comes to reading so I told him, no problem, send me the book and I would read it and if possible, also publish a review of it.

So why I almost stopped reading it? At the risk of sounding boastful, the way a writer writes, matters to me a lot. Although I’m pretty open about the categories of the literature I spent time on, one thing I cannot compromise with is the writing style. The writing style needs to resonate with me and as far as Fatal Admiration goes, it didn’t.

Some context is needed.

A couple of weeks ago one of my clients and I met over beer at my place and he asked me whether I have read Chetan Bhagat. I told him I haven’t and he was quite insistent that I must. “He knows how to talk to the young audience, he understands their pain and their day-to-day dilemmas like no other contemporary writer,” he said.

The problem I faced while trying to read Chetan Bhagat was again, his writing style. I didn’t find it very fascinating. It was too simplistic for me. Perhaps it was also because just before trying to read Chetan Bhagat, I had completed Manas Ko Hans by Amritlal Nagar which, if you read the book, lifts your literary experience to a totally different dimension. After reading that, a few paragraphs of Chetan Bhagat looked very drab and uninspiring. It was like listening to Justin Bieber immediately after listening to, let us say, Luciano Pavarotti, or in the Indian context, listening to Sonu Nigam immediately after listening to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. After that, somehow, no matter how hard I tried, I could never bring myself to reading Chetan Bhagat again.

Unfortunately the same thing happened when I started reading Fatal Admiration. I was in the midst of reading The Goldfinch (I’m still reading it) by Donna Tartt and reading one of her books is an out and out intellectual experience, unfailingly. So this is some sort of injustice that happened. But this time, I was aware of my mental disposition (and more importantly, I had committed to Irfan that I would write a review for his book) and hence I forced myself to go on reading Fatal Admiration.

I’m glad I did.

As I mentioned above, Fatal Admiration is a story of three characters, Rishi and Shobha, husband-and-wife, and Neha, who is Shobha’s cousin. Rishi is obsessed with Neha and cannot come to terms with the fact that she is not attracted to him in any way, and to rub salt to the wounds, she gets her heart broken by another thankless person and then in a rebound, falls in love with another person.

The story begins with Rishi finding abandoned leggings and panties in his bedroom, sprawled upon his own bed, belonging to Neha, whom he has craved for, for many years. He talks about how the sight had set his imagination on fire and heightened his expectations inordinately. The reader never gets to learn how the leggings and the panties ended up there (or whether it was a random act or had a purpose to it) but the scene definitely sets stage for a psychological incarceration that is tantalising as well as erotic for the male protagonist. It’s like reading wrong signs at the wrong time. Undergarments have been left on his bed, he knows that the person sitting in the drawing room is sitting without her undergarments (or this is what he assumes anyway) and the person sitting without her undergarments, he conveniently assumes, knows that he has seen the undergarments. It was like an oasis to someone lost in a desert.

In the beginning, he is not communicating his thoughts vocally or through email, he is simply jotting them down in his moleskin notebook.

As the turn of events takes place, it is revealed to him that the notebook is read by the subject of his enchantment.

Henceforth a series of interactions take place between Rishi and Neha with intermittent references to his wife Shobha who happens to be Neha’s cousin sister. The interactions alternate between loose talk and passionate, although one way, physical longing. The style of conversations is quite peculiar and if you have never read such literature you may also find it enchanting in a twisted way. Most of the story is narrated in monologues. The characters either talk to the reader or to each other through emails and notes left in a red Moleskin notebook.

Though immature and sometimes even awkward, the dialogues are quite engaging in a sense that, they seem to be coming from people who would actually talk the way they do and if Irfan has purposely done that, he has a great talent for getting under the skin of his characters, just in the manner Nabokov could do in Lolita. They also give you a voyeuristic experience.

This is where I contradict myself. There are lots of clichés and jargons in the narrative, especially within the dialogues (would you say to your object of desire, “I would like to be in your good books”?) They seem jarring so this is something you may have to ignore. On many occasions the language seems very artificial, something that we don’t normally use while talking to each other. But that will improve as he writes more and gets more comfortable with the language.

If you like a good story that goes fast and ends fast and has a totally unexpected turn of events, you’re going to like this book.

Review of The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh

A very servile Manmohan Singh

To be frank when I started reading The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh by Sanjaya Baru I was simply looking to reaffirm my belief that the Prime Minister must be a hopeless person who rightly deserves the derision he elicits from all quarters. If you have the same intention, prepared to be disappointed, because more than portraying him as a feelingless, soundless, immoral, expressionless and a robotic person (the writer does spend some time highlighting these attributes although not in very harsh words) Baru portrays him as a person who is one of the most deserving Prime Ministers India has ever had but like a mythological tragic hero, he is too embroiled in his own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and in the process, not only totally destroys his reputation but also undermines the authority of the highest institution of the country in its most extreme sense.

Manmohan Singh’s critics, both in media and in opposition parties, I think, jumped the gun when they poked fun at him conveniently assuming that lots of juicy details were contained within the book. Even his daughters who blamed Baru for breaking the trust that their father had put in him hadn’t, I suppose, read the book when they made those statements.Once you have read the book, it seems as if Manmohan Singh himself had wanted this book to be written. The book in no way disparages him. Yes, it does show him a willing puppet of Sonia Gandhi in total exasperated cluelessness but in no way it depicts him as a person who deserves no sympathy.

Baru remained the Prime Minister’s media adviser from 2004 till 2008 and this is the period that is mostly covered in the book. While reading the book, I was thinking, how difficult it is to imagine Pankaj Pachauri, the current media adviser, in the same position, enjoying the same level of intimacy that Baru enjoyed it.

The Accidental Prime Minister

Having worked in Economic Times and Financial Express, Sanjaya Baru was already an admirer of Manmohan Singh and he can be easily grouped into the category of editors and journalists who have a friendly, lenient approach towards the Congress party, especially Manmohan Singh. When I say “lenient” approach I don’t mean they’re totally servile (some of them are, undoubtedly, especially from the Hindustan Times and Outlook), but when it comes to making a choice between the BJP (the right) and the Congress (the center of left) they would put their weight behind the Congress rather than the BJP (it might not be true, but this is how it seems by the general state of affairs in the media as well as intelligentsia). As Baru himself explains, the system of familiarity and bonhomie between the top rungs of the bureaucracy and politicians spans many decades and it is not very easy to unshackle one from the deep-rooted attitudes and opinions. Even Baru was known to people who were close to the Prime Minister’s office due to his father, relatives and friends.

Tavleen Singh in her book Durbar also talks about this close network that not only supports its members but also bars the entry of the outsiders. This network has a preconceived notion of what sort of people should run the government and any sort of divergence from that preconceived notion disturbs them, makes them uncomfortable, and consequently, consciously or unconsciously, they start working towards bringing the same old establishment back to power, the establishment they are comfortable with. How deeply this psychology is entrenched can be gauged from the following two quotes from the book:

A couple of years before Sonia Gandhi took charge of the Congress, the communist ideologue Mohit Sen wrote a persuasive column in the Times of India underlining the historic role Sonia would be called upon to play and urging her to do so. The first woman president of the Indian National Congress, he argued, was also a European woman, Annie Besant. The party, he stressed, should once again be led by another.

I assumed that Mohit, as an Indira loyalist, had a special regard for her heirs. But his opinion that Sonia should enter politics was also based on his conviction that without a Nehru-Gandhi family member at the top, the Congress party would splinter and wither away. This view was also encouraged by members of the Delhi durbar—a ‘power elite’, to use sociologist C.Wright Mill’s term, comprising civil servants, diplomats, editors, intellectuals and business leaders who had worked with or been close to the regimes of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. Some of them inhabited the many trusts and institutions that the Nehru-Gandhi family controlled. They had all profited in one way or another, over the years, from their loyalty to the Congress’s ‘first family’.

So when Baru joined as a media adviser to the PM, you can easily say that he came with a positive view of not just Manmohan Singh but also of the new UPA-1 government that had just replaced the NDA.

Going by the state of the country and the sort of monumental apathy our politicians display towards its people, it was surprising to read about bureaucrats and some of the politicians actually brainstorming on the pressing issues on a regular basis, even weekly, sometimes. Baru in his book says that top bureaucrats, IAS/IFS officers and top rung government secretaries often meet over tea, lunch and dinner to talk about the various programs and schemes being launched and monitored by the government.

Baru assumed that his topmost priority would be to highlight all the work being done by the PM and keep the media abreast with what is happening in the Prime Minister’s office, but his job was made considerably tough by Manmohan Singh’s insistence that under no circumstances he should be promoted more than the Gandhi family.

According to Baru, somehow it had gotten into the PM’s mind that his entire existence depended upon being on the good side of Sonia Gandhi and it would be disastrous to antagonize her or act in a manner as if he were asserting his importance. For him, the party came first, then the prime ministership and then, the country. In fact his own partymen and women had so much disdain for his position that they wouldn’t even report to him and would straightaway go to Sonia Gandhi. Once Pranab Mukherjee visited an important country and when he came back, he reported to Sonia Gandhi, not bothering to even once visit the Prime Minister. Manmohan Singh felt sad, but he never protested and ultimately, the country was the loser.

Perhaps he had gotten this idea from the sort of treatment Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri were met with for ending up on the wrong side of the lady. Narsimha Rao, while he was the Prime Minister, had asserted his authority and rarely allowed Sonia Gandhi to have her way. She turned him into a total outcast as soon as she was able to do so and wouldn’t even allow his last rites to be performed in the capital, which was the norm with all the past prime ministers of the country. His dead body had to be flown back to his native place. After that, his name was totally removed from all official documents.

Narasimha Rao’s children wanted the former PM to be cremated in Delhi, like other Congress prime ministers. Impressive memorials had been built for Nehru, Indira and Rajiv at the places where they had been cremated along the river Yamuna, adjacent to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. Even former prime minister Charan Singh, who had not belonged to the Congress, and Sanjay Gandhi, who was only an MP, had been cremated and memorialized in the vicinity. However, Patel wanted me to encourage Narasimha Rao’s sons, Ranga and Prabhakar, and his daughter, Vani, to take their father’s body to Hyderabad for cremation. Clearly, it seemed to me, Sonia did not want a memorial for Rao anywhere in Delhi.

Interestingly, in 2007, the Congress party tried a replay of this stratagem with the family of former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, persuading them to take the body of the former PM to his farm at Bhondsi in Haryana. However, Chandra Shekhar’s son insisted that the family would go to Delhi’s Lodi Crematorium if the former PM was not given a proper state funeral in Delhi. The government fell in line and Chandra Shekhar was cremated on the banks of the Yamuna at a spot designated Ekta Sthal.

Sitaram Kesri, who was the president of the Congress party before Sonia Gandhi, was subjected to the same sort of ignominy. He was physically thrown out of the office to make way for Sonia Gandhi.

Another major misconception was that no matter what his colleagues do, he would remain un-tarred. That was perhaps one of his greatest fatal mistakes. It reeks of the typical Punjabi mentality of “saanu ki?” (why should I bother unless I’m directly involved?) You cannot remain in a mud pool and come out clean. As the Prime Minister of the country it’s your responsibility to see that your colleagues don’t take advantage of their position and indulge in corrupt practices. His entire fortress of uprightness and principles collapses in one blow under the light of the facts that he stood witness to the massive plunder of the country assuming that things are going to remain fine as long as he remains clean. What sort of PM did he think he was? What good does your integrity do when your entire team is corrupt? This is beyond a reasonable person’s comprehension. This is how he could explain the 2G scam, the Coalgate scam, the spectrum allocation spam, the Commonwealth Games scam and such. Coalition dharma in order to keep his party in power for him came before the country. Baru compares him to the mythical Bhishma. Bhishma was the right person on the wrong side. He even bore witness to Draupadi’s disrobing in the court just because his dharma didn’t allow him to speak up. In the same manner, Manmohan Singh kept quiet while his country was being disrobed and raped by his own men and women.

It was an open secret that had Sonia Gandhi had her way she would herself have become the PM or at least would have made sure that one of her family members would have gotten the seat, but the circumstances were such that she had to settle for Manmohan Singh, a totally pliant, non-politician, non-authoritative personality. It became clear to Baru very soon that everything good that happened had to be attributed to the Gandhi family and everything bad that happened was to be attributed to the PM. She enjoyed total authority with zero responsibility.

Manmohan Singh was so worried about giving every possible credit to the Gandhi family that once he chastised Baru for attributing the success of a particular event or a scheme to him because he was worried that Sonia Gandhi would be upset if the credit was not given to Rahul Gandhi.

The book also throws some light on how political machinations triumph over national interest. Various peace initiatives initiated between Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf were scuttled because the high command didn’t want the credit of such an important event to go to a non-family person. Ever since the times of Nehru and Indira Gandhi the various prime ministers had been trying to strike up a sustainable accord with Pakistan without success and there was this person who had been simply installed as a puppet and he was making headway and consequently, about to take the whole credit. How could this be allowed to happen?

Due to whatever perverse reasons Sonia Gandhi intends to keep everything under her control. To abdicate responsibility she formulated the NAC that imposes all sorts of socialistic welfare schemes upon the government, putting lots of financial burden on the exchequer and wreaking havoc with the economy. She has no qualms about destroying various institutions as long as the destruction solves her purpose and perpetuates the rule of the dynasty. Everywhere she plants her own ministers and her own babus, and nobody questions her absolute authority. In the second term of the UPA, the PM couldn’t even employee the media adviser of his choice.

Then there was this nuclear deal everybody was up against. In fact 50% of the book talks about the various political intrigues that took place during the various negotiations and talks. The survival of UPA-1 depended on the communists’ support. Whereas people like Sitaram Yechuri and Harkishan Singh Surjeet supported the PM, Prakash Karat who succeeded Surjeet had his own axe to grind. Due to infighting within the Communist Party, he created all sorts of hurdles and practically sabotaged the entire deal. The CPM and the CP(I)M withdrew support over the issue and fortunately for Manmohan Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav came to his rescue.

Even the Congress high command wasn’t very happy about the deal because it meant getting closer to the USA which would mean antagonizing the Muslim vote bank that was deemed to be highly against any sort of collaboration with America. So even if the deal was for the benefit of the country, it didn’t suit the Congress high command politically and hence all sort of pressure was put on Manmohan Singh to cancel it.

This was perhaps the only time when Manmohan Singh put his foot down and insisted on going ahead with the deal. The government almost fell.

When the UPA came back to power in 2009 it was solely due to Manmohan Singh, according to Baru. It was his policies, his better handling of the economy and the external affairs that won the coalition its second term. Contrary to the popular belief, the Congress party wasn’t expecting to come back to power. The strategy before the election was, if they want, the entire credit would go to the leadership and dynamism of Rahul Gandhi, and if the lost, all the blame would be put on the anti-poor and America-favoring Manmohan Singh.

Rahul Gandhi, every party loyalist claimed, was the architect of the 2009 result. In the very hour of victory, its authorship was denied to the man who made it happen.

The way I saw it, if the Congress had lost, the blame for the defeat would have been placed squarely on the PM’s shoulders. It would be said his obsession with the nuclear deal cost the party the support of the Left and the Muslims. His ‘neo-liberal’ economic policies would have been deemed to have alienated the poor. His attempt to befriend Musharraf would have been regarded as having alienated the Hindu vote. A hundred explanations would have been trotted out to pin the defeat on the PM. Now that the party was back in office, and that too with more numbers than anyone in the party had forecast, the credit would go to the party’s ‘first family’. To the scion and future leader. It was Rahul’s victory, not Manmohan’s.

Sonia Gandhi, feeling threatened, began to diminish his authority even further.

He said, ‘I am sorry about what happened. You see, you must understand one thing. I have come to terms with this. There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party.’

I saw no point in disagreeing with him or contesting his thesis. But, of course, I did disagree with it. The prime minister was answerable to the Parliament and the government was governed by the Constitution. The party president was only the leader of her party. The prime minister was the leader of the country as a whole and the head of government. One could go on and on, discussing these things threadbare. But this was neither the time, nor the place. Each one of us finds our own rationale for what we do and do not do. He had found his.

Baru enjoyed a personal bonding with Manmohan Singh and Manmohan Singh used to communicate that in minimum words.

The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making And Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh makes an engaging reading despite lots of policy related descriptions and bureaucratic jargon. It gives you a deep insight into the complex character that Manmohan Singh is. In his public appearances he might appear almost dead, but in his day-to-day dealings and with his dealings with other statesmen of the world, he was quite communicative, receptive and presentable. This book will change the way you think of Manmohan Singh, although you may end up disliking him more because he could have done so much better. Who cares how history will judge him? What matters is, how the present generation judges him. Read the book, it won’t be a waste of time. Baru is a good writer.

Review of No Looking Back A True Story

No Looking Back – A True Story

In the midst of reading highly disturbing When a Tree Shook Delhi and totally nonsensical The Hindus, No Looking Back, A True Story came as a fresh whiff of air

I’m not sure — at least as I’m writing this review — whether I read No Looking Back as a person with disability, or as a casual reader (casual in another sense, otherwise I consider myself a serious reader). I’m saying this because at a certain plain I felt connected to the author — Shivani Gupta — because we’re both physically disabled. We don’t know each other personally but I remember seeing her in a few conferences and at that time she came across as a very reserved, serious-looking person, but of course, at that time I didn’t know her story, which, now I do.

No Looking Back is autobiographical. It begins with Shivani, the author, struggling with a plethora of conflicting emotions about whether she should attend her college reunion or not. Confined to a wheelchair after a car accident left her a tetraplegic, she doesn’t want to paint a sorry picture of herself in front of her friends who had once seen her running around full of verve and ambitions. She is worried about what people who must have seen her running around in the college campus unhindered by physical as well as mental constraints may think of her when they see her in a wheelchair, being helped by people for her every move. This, I think, is a situation people who are born with the disability (and hence have never experienced walking or doing other stuff people do) don’t have to go through, but then, I may be saying this just for myself.

She abruptly leaves this string of thoughts as she explains how she ends up in a wheelchair, and one never comes to know whether she eventually attends the reunion or not (if I’m not losing a thread).

It’s a gripping story of possibly avoidable tragedy, medical negligence, extraordinary courage, human frailties, and finally, an enduring love that transcends normal, conventional understanding.

Shivani tells the story of her life in a “right in your face” manner without fudging facts and mincing words. The significant detail of the first accident, that they were going around 120 km/h in a car (the car was being driven by higher boyfriend) when she met with the accident, makes you wonder why in the first place they were going at such a speed, especially when in India the roads are not very good. But then, this is how things happen in life. I’m sure any other, less courageous writer, would have conveniently skipped this detail. Sometimes we act quite rashly in the heat of youth without paying due attention to the repercussions. This, is what increases the quantum of the tragedy – that it could have been avoided.

Nowhere she pretends that she was one of those ideal women out to change the world. Her primary concerns were how good and attractive she looked, whether she could retain her boyfriend or not, and how and when she would marry, have children and settle down as a regular wife.

The gory details of how she goes through monumental neglect at the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) rattles you deeply despite the fact that you’re quite aware of the conditions of government (for that matter, even some private) hospitals in India, and the attitudes of our doctors and medical staff. The degree of frustration is compounded by the knowledge that just due to their carelessness and criminal detachment a person has to live a life of severe disability. This is a big problem in India that people at responsible positions don’t have to bear the brunt of their irresponsibility no matter how grave a tragedy they unleash upon the victim of their casual attitude. These people have no business perpetuating their crimes by remaining in their professional positions. They should be arrested and made to pay for their behavior dearly. The frustrating account of Shivani’s first month at AIIMS also brings to fore the difficulties a common person has to go through in India even in order to access basic needs.

From a bubbly young woman of 22, full of dreams and about to embark upon an exciting journey of going abroad and studying, there she is lying on a horrible hospital bed with a 22 KG weight dangling through the holes drilled into her skull by a junior doctor who had no clue of what exactly he was trying to achieve. For one month she stays in the same position, just staring at the grim, stained ceiling, with doctors and nurses treating her like a feelingless and emotionless entity. The conditions under which she is kept are simply bloodcurdling, and it gives one a panic attack to think of millions of other patients who must be going through the same conditions in one way or another in such deplorable hospitals. If you say that you can relate to her condition or you can imagine what she must have gone through during those days, I’m pretty sure you are lying. No one can relate, no one can imagine, but her.

Miraculously she is rescued from that hellhole by a doctor of an upcoming institute of spinal cord injuries. She is shifted to the new hospital, operated upon, cleaned up, encouraged emotionally, and within a few days, she’s on a wheelchair, about to move out of her room.

In the name of rehabilitation of the persons who have become disabled there exists nothing in India. There are physical therapy facilities where you can go and exercise alone or with the help of a sem-trained physician, but these activities don’t really rehabilitate you. You need to rehabilitate yourself. There are no councillors and there are no experienced professionals who tell you how to face the difficulties of life after becoming disabled. Shivani goes through the transformation on her own. She climbs mountains and comes down on her own, she falls into pits and comes out on her own. Neither she nor people around her have any idea of what exactly is happening and what turns the life is about to take. She learns on her own.

This is the void she decides to fill once she has overcome her initial sense of monumental loss and reconciled to the fact that she may not walk again, that her life is changed forever and this is her new reality. The succor that she never got, she decides to provided to other spinal cord injury survivors who have been suddenly rendered disabled with no clue of how to deal with their new situation.

As she begins to chart a new path for herself, most of the traits of her old life begin to recede, including her boyfriend, but there are also new beginnings. She starts providing counselling at the spinal cords injury center and thence begins an extraordinary love story. Classics may not be written about this love story, but when you begin to compare this love story with the conventional stories you must have read, you will realise that your conventional stories don’t even know the “L” of love.

No Looking Back is basically a love story, but with a twist. It’s a story between two real-world persons and in the real world, love isn’t the only thing that happens. People get injured, they meet with accidents, their appearances change (for worse sometimes), they become disabled, they may have to help their lovers sit on and get up from the toilet seat on a daily basis, everything becomes inaccessible and even as simple a task as visiting the Eiffel tower may end up testing your physical and mental grit.

Contrary to what many people may think or assume, in case you happen to know the author, No Looking Back A True Story is not a disabilities issues book. Yes, the protagonist becomes a tetrapelagic and then deals with her life accordingly, and on many occasions the book gives you a deep insight into how a person deals with, and even doesn’t deal with (moves on without dealing) the problems that come with extreme physical disability, as I have mentioned above, it is a love story with disability as the backdrop.

I highly recommend this book. Very tightly written. Not a single line that bores you. Just make sure that if you are buying it from Flipkart don’t buy the digital copy because their DMR is very constraining and almost outdated. Purchase a physical copy.