Wednesday, October 31, 2012


An enormously successful executive with Columbia TriStar Television, Joe Kissack had the good life and more. He had a successful career syndicating shows such as Seinfeld, Walker, Texas Ranger etc. Yet there was an emptiness within. Born to a hammer of a man for whom everything looked like a nail, Kissack grew up fearing and hating his own father, yet desperate for his approval.

Gradually the emptiness began to consume him, and Kissack found himself resorting to the numbing comfort provided by alcohol and prescription drugs to relieve the anxiety and depression.

Miles away in another country, but not around the same time, another situation was brewing, in which some other men would also find themselves lost and helpless.

These five fishermen sailing in a fibreglass boat had launched off a town on the west coast of Mexico. They were out on a three-day fishing expedition, but were carrying four days worth of canned food, just in case the fishing turned out to be really good, besides tools and other supplies.

While at sea, the fisherman faced a storm that was the weather equivalent of, in Kissack's words, "going twelve rounds with Mike Tyson. An angry Mike Tyson" The storm took away four days worth of canned food and some tools. A few odds and ends and Salvador's Bible were all that remained. In this condition, they drifted on for days. The lack of potable water made it difficult for them to swallow. While the others started drinking seawater and suffered the consequences of this wrong move, Salvador drank his own urine.

Later he killed a sea turtle, a task in which he received able assistance from fishermen Jesus Vidana and Lucio Rendon. The three then ate the flesh of the sea turtle in order to stay alive and drank its blood in a bid to stay hydrated. Fisherman Farsero and the owner and captain of the ship, Juan David Lorenzo, who could not bring themselves to consume raw flesh and blood and thereby adapt to the situation die very quickly of starvation.

Salvador, Jesus and Lucio meanwhile drifted for nine months, reaching roughly six thousand miles away from the point at which they started before being rescued by a Taiwanese ship crew.

The first twelve chapters alternate between the story of Kissack and that of the fishermen. From then on the chapters concentrate solely on Kissack's situation, as he seeks validation, struggling to fight against the verbal abuse that he suffered as a child. Depression and anxiety, as a result of the pressures of the job and his own unresolved issues, surface. From this point, the story of the fishermen is discussed from Kissack’s point of view.

The writing is honest and takes you into the empty turmoil of the successful TV executive who is enslaved by his own success. Parts of the book, however, are better written than others.

The Fourth Fisherman of the title refers to Kissack himself. The reference isn’t immediately obvious, and Kissack himself makes note of it only at the very end. In fact, it is the last line of the epilogue. Consequently, I went through some confusion at the beginning, since the second chapter of the book clearly speaks about five fishermen on board the boat.

Kissack attempts to draw parallels between his own situation and that of the fishermen, implying that they were both lost in different ways, and were rescued by faith. The helplessness of the fishermen, however, was an actual, real-time instance of being lost, as opposed to Kissack’s situation where he was lost in a spiritual sense.

If Kissack meant to write a book about himself, his depression and subsequent acceptance of God in his life, and his attempts to make a Hollywood film on the fishermen in the face of obstacles, it would have been better if he had not given us so many details about the Mexicans. After alternating six chapters of his own story with six chapters of that of the fishermen, I was greatly disappointed to find the focus suddenly shifting to Kissack.

The story of three men drifting on the waters for nine long months would have been a far more moving portrayal of the way in which faith can sustain humans when there is no hope. It would certainly have been a far more riveting read than one in which the low point is when Kissack’s wife’s Lexus needs to be sold. 

Eventually, it is the faith that shines through. Lucio's grandmother, Panchita, believes that he is alive and never stops praying for him or setting a place for him at the dinner table. Salvador’s faith helps to ignite the faith of Jesus and Lucio. And Kissack's faith helps him to be a better man, a better husband and father.

The Fourth Fisherman is above all the story of that faith.

I received a copy of The Fourth Fisherman for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Daunted by the Don'ts

Noted American comedian Groucho Marx once said, “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

That’s all there is to it. Disregarding the innocent motives of the feline, we humans persist in making ourselves miserable by ascribing an ominous significance to its ramblings. We ferociously cling to these superstitious beliefs long after the smallest shred of reason has deserted them.

As human beings, we are all superstitious. It is only the extent and the things that we are superstitious about that vary. Nowhere is this more evident than when a little infant draws out the protective instinct within us. When this happens, all the baby-related superstitions are collectively taken out of storage and aired. Random people begin to drop hints about things you should and shouldn’t do, and if you are a first-time mother as I once was, then you begin to listen to their mutterings. You do not always believe what they have to say, but for the sake of the little one, you are not so vociferous in denouncing them. Just in case.

Long before the baby arrived, the Don’ts did. “Don’t cross your legs when you sit,” “Don’t make a wardrobe for the baby before it is born,” “Don’t eat eggs with double yolks and bananas that are joined,” “Don’t lift your arms above your head,” “Don’t tell anyone about the pregnancy” and all the eclipse-related stuff.

Once baby arrived, it was Don’t photograph her. This in an age where people are updating photos of their kids for the world and its cousin to Like almost on a daily basis. Having returned home from the hospital, baby needed to be armed at all times with a black mark to ward off the evil eye. Indians are notorious for sullying the sweetness of our little one’s faces by blackening their cheeks, chins and foreheads. I cringed but gave in. Just In case.

One of the biggest storehouses of such beliefs is the maalishwali, the woman hired to massage little babies, a tradition practised by Indians everywhere. This woman assumes a formidable position in the household with elders sometimes holding her in higher regard than they do the baby’s paediatrician. Doctor’s instructions are routinely passed through the sieve of her wisdom, which is nothing but a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas marinated in old wives’ tales, with a dash of hard horse sense thrown in.

The maalishwali who performed this service for La Niña, my daughter, used to thrust her thick thumb (used for veracity rather than mere alliterative effect) into the kajal dabba and deface my pretty one’s forehead with a large teeka the size of a one-rupee coin. To my continuing dismay, she would then wipe her thumb on my pristine white bed sheet. Even as I winced at the sight of that big black circle on her forehead and its kin on the sheet, it was the Husband who firmly offered her a ear bud for the purpose, and solved both problems at once.

There were other Don’ts that assailed me during those early days. “Don’t ever cut her nails at night” was one of them. No one cared to spell out just what kind of grave trouble would ensue. Maybe they thought that the vague tone of foreboding that they used would serve to deter me.

It didn’t. I used to end up cutting her nails at night. The thought of her scratching her own face in her sleep was frightening. And any mother of a newborn knows how fast and sharp those little nails grow.

One Don’t warned me not to apply oil on the kids’ heads and then wipe it off on my own. Something about my lifespan being enhanced at the cost of my children. It was a silly thought. And yet, not one to be taken lightly. Just in case.

Even our maid thought she’d leave her own two-bit for posterity when she told me that I shouldn’t touch a needle and thread, let alone stitch, lest the baby suffer. I told her not to be silly. But such was the power of Just In Case, that for a few days, I did set aside that huge piece of cross-stitch artwork that I had been working on. To this day, it lies unfinished.

When El Niño was born, three years later, we hired another maalishwali. She turned out to be crazier. She said that little boys must be fed their own urine at least once. Not little girls, mind you, only little boys, she said, elaborating upon her ridiculous theory. I watched her hawk-like for the two months that she spent with us to make sure that she didn’t bring her theories into practice.

When we got a cradle for El Niño, La Niña would enjoy putting her teddy bear, a stuffed dog and a stuffed doll that she calls Chintu to sleep in it. She would be chided for rocking the empty cradle, when her brother wasn’t in it. In vain was her explanation that the cradle wasn’t empty; there were three sleeping beauties in it after all.

“Don’t ever let the baby look into the mirror” was another diktat. I suppose they thought that the sight of another little baby would traumatise my little ones for life. But they only laughed that adorable toothless laugh that mothers will do anything for. And so I used to repeatedly position them in front of the mirror, and make the most laughable monkey faces I could to entertain them.

Emboldened by that laugh, I grew in maturity and confidence, knowing that my instincts and my kids would guide me towards becoming a better mother. And so, one day when someone told me that I should never kiss my babies’ faces, or say anything nice about them, lest I jinx my good fortune, I was able to laugh it off. Suddenly Just In Case didn’t have such a big shadow anymore.

This post was written for Parentous, an online community initiated by BlogAdda for parenting-related issues. The original may be found here.   

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A voice from the street

The best thing in life is knowing that you have a home to go to. No matter how small.

Knowing that there is a place to which you belong. No matter how humble.

Knowing that when you knock, they'll take you in. No questions asked.

I should know. I’ve never had a home of my own. The streets are all I’ve ever known. All the life I’ve seen. Stuff you’d never imagine.

I was born on the streets 10 years ago and I suppose I shall die here.

The days pass quickly enough. There’s work to be done. Things that respectable folk like you would not want to sully your hands doing. I’m a ragpicker. I rummage the bins and trash heaps of this city looking for stuff that can be reused, recycled. Stuff that I sell to scrap dealers for a pittance. The bulk of the money is made by the scrap dealers.

To do that, I trudge across the city, poking my hands into garbage. I used to do it barefoot, until I found these slippers. It never ceases to amaze me, the kind of stuff that you think has outlived its use. The realisation that the next haul might earn me some good cash keeps me going. And of course, I am my own marzi ka maalik. I’m much better off than some other boys and girls who work as househelp or at chai tapris. Oh yes, the days pass easy enough.

It’s the nights that are hard on us. Then we move, sleeping sometimes at railway stations and beneath flyovers, in parks and on footpaths, even empty parking lots. We huddle together at night. There’s safety in numbers, you see. I’ve seen and lived horrors that your worst nightmares don’t know of.

It’s not always easy to find work. But I try. There’ve been times I’ve felt tempted to steal. Hunger can upset the ramshackle moral code within you. But Dada warned me. He said, “You steal a piece of chapatti. They’ll thrash you for it, in more ways than one. They, sitting in their Mercedes and BMWs, could mow us down and kill us in our sleep. They’d still get away. You won’t.”

Dada isn’t really my brother, of course. He’s just another homeless guy who took me under his wing. Without him, I would have been easy prey. Dada himself is a child of the streets, so he knows well the danger I face. His story is really sad. He told me once that he used to get thrashed by the police on a regular basis, no reasons assigned. Unfortunately, that happens to a lot of people, men and women alike. I am glad I have Dada to look after me.

He smoothes the edges of our rough lives. He knows which dargah is distributing biryani on a Friday evening. We eat out of garbage bins too. You have no idea what good food these 5-star hotels dispose of. Of course, to get at it, your have to compete with the street dogs. But that’s okay, we are all citizens of the streets, man and beast, and we have an equal right to its spoils.

Dada also keeps me away from the other, more ugly world that tramps the streets. But he can’t save me from everything. I’ve inhaled glue and Iodex and petrol. It helps numb the stink of my daily work, but Dada assiduously keeps me away from the hard-core stuff. Of course, he doesn’t know that I smoke and drink when someone offers me, and that I’ve gambled too. It’s hard to obey Dada’s orders when I see him doing the very things he warns me not to do.

The worst thing is coping with the rains and the open sewers. Then we scramble for a dry spot, under a shop front. Or a flyover. Dada once bought a plastic sheet for us to sleep under. But the police came and tore it down. A metre costs Rs30. We can’t afford to buy it again and again.

Also, water costs Rs 1 per litre. Think about it, Rs 10 for a bucket of water. And then you crinkle up your nose when you have the misfortune to pass us on the street. If you had to shell out money for your showers, you’d think twice too. We pay Rs 3 to use the toilet but the urinals are free, of course, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Even respectable folk like you pee everywhere. I pity the women though. They have to shell out Rs 3 each time.

We buy the water from watchmen of housing societies and even from slumdwellers, who have illegal connections. When we fall ill, our best option is dying quickly. Even hospitals offering free treatment look at us askance, thoroughly uncomfortable with our lack of a fixed address. That is why even though I am 10 years old, I look no more than 7. The fact that we eat when we can means our bodies are not really well-nourished even at the best of times.

When you go to bed on your soft beds, warmed by your blankets, your stomachs well fed, your heads nestled on your pillows, spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of us who are homeless. We’ve slipped through the cracks of society, but we are still human. And still children.

This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The tyranny of buying the right gift

You’ve heard it said that it is very difficult to gift the one who has everything. I disagree.

First of all, there is no such thing as everything. The universe is constantly expanding and those who have everything today will necessarily need to have more when there is more to be had to ensure that they continue to have everything.

I believe that it is infinitely tougher to gift the person who does not want anything. Such people have few wants and are satisfied with the little they have. You can tear your hair out in desperation but you cannot draw such people out on the subject of what they would like to have. They will tell you that they have everything, that they hardly go out, and that if you got them something, they wouldn’t know how to use it, and they might just give it away.

Buying a gift for such people is a great challenge. I once faced such a challenge twice over. The occasion was the 25th wedding anniversary of my parents.

The clue to my parents’ attitude towards gifts lay in the fact that they were very self-effacing people. They put their needs last, after the monthly household requirements, the needs of the children and other miscellaneous requirements were satisfied. Since we were not ever well-off in those days, there wasn’t much spare change left over once the needs of three growing children were taken care of. And then, true to the best traditions of the great Indian middle class, they would set some money aside for the proverbial rainy day.

As children, we had seen the sacrifices that our parents had put in. Since this was a special occasion, I was determined to buy something special for them, one tiny gift (or two) that would indicate how much I loved them and how much they meant to me.

I had just graduated from college and had not yet landed my first job. I had a little money set aside though, my earnings from a few short pieces that I had written for a newspaper. The smallness of the budget reduced the shopping options available to me. And the fact that I was at the end of my tether as far as ideas went caused those few options to dwindle further.

Those were pre-mall days in Bombay. The only shopping places I knew of were Crawford Market, and Linking Road and Elco Market in Bandra, besides the odd store here and there. Where to go for the perfect gift, was the question.

The fact that I do not enjoy shopping as an activity also added to the difficulty of the task. I do not get a gleam in my eye at the thought of shopping, unless it is book buying that you are talking about. In college, with not particularly significant spending power, we used to enjoy window shopping. With this background, I was totally ill-equipped for the magnitude of the task.

Also, I tend to get rather intimidated by salespersons who always succeed in making me feel insignificant. I don’t know what it is about me, but they seem to size me up and then take it into their heads that they need to be judgmental and that I need some serious patronizing. In those days, I used to wish for a store in which there were no salespersons, where you could check things out for yourself, then take it to the counter and pay for it, and go out into the world, pleased with your purchase.

I don’t know why this is so. In general, I am a very confident and assertive person and I carry my pleasant weather everywhere I go. But park a salesman/girl in front of me, and suddenly I begin to wish for the earth to swallow me. Am I in a minority of one? Or are there others like me out there who are persecuted by the high-handedness of the shopfloor? Does the fear of salespeople have a name? Is it a phobia by itself?

An ex-colleague had once told me about a book called Confessions of a Shopaholic by someone called Sophie Kinsella. The book is about a girl who is a compulsive shopper and who runs up enormous amounts in credit card debt as a result of her addiction. Even as a fictional premise, I couldn’t relate to the plot of her book. Could there be any hope for me? Would I be able to purchase something special for Mum and Dad?

When ideas are scarce, we quickly turn to the mundane. Dreams of buying that perfect gift starved quickly. So as a last-ditch effort, I thought of buying clothes for them. But clothes posed their own brand of difficulty. Mum and Dad refused to accompany me, for the purpose of selecting and trying on something. Bereft of their support, I remember walking up and down the store fronts of Crawford market, without being able to make up my mind as to what to buy. With my not-so-heavy budget and my parents’ general unwillingness to accept a gift, I wasn’t sure of my ability to give them a pleasant surprise.

I thought of a watch, but they both said theirs were working fine, thank you. When I spoke about shoes, they said they had bought new pairs two Christmases ago, and both were as good as new. Telephones had not yet become a commonplace possession (Incoming became free only 10 years later in 2003). I thought of buying some music cassettes, but I wasn’t so comfortable buying Konkani music. I didn’t have the budget to take the family out to a restaurant for a nice dinner.

Basically there were so few options and I had so few ideas, that I finally gave up the attempt to buy the perfect gift in frustration. As D-day drew near, I was no closer to my goal.

That was when I thought of giving them a more personal something, to show them how much they meant to me, and how important this day was to us. So on behalf of my two brothers, I sat down and wrote this poem. The writing wasn’t as easy as turning on a tap. But that was alright. The effort was part of the gift. This is what I wrote:

25 years since you walked down the aisle
And said to each other, I do
25 years since the time you made vows
Of being ever faithful and true.

25 years have gone by since that day
The years have sped by so fast
And though the world has changed in that time
Love every test has passed.

And today is the day of that special moment
25 Novembers ago
And here we are gathered, family and friends,
That precious joy to echo.

25 years of loving and sharing
25 years of care
25 years of tender affection
25 years of just being there.

And tonight when champagne glasses will tinkle
And feasting will be underway
The children whose lessons of life came from you
In their hearts a blessing will pray

May there be many more of such valued moments
May the best things in life come to you
And in its time may silver turn gold
Happy Wedding Anniversary, God bless you.

Next month, Mum and Dad will celebrate yet another wedding anniversary. This time I am prepared with a bigger budget, and a wider variety of options to be exercised from the comfort of my home. Who’s afraid of salespeople?

This post is a part of the contest at in association with

Friday, October 12, 2012

Seeing Without Sight

Photo: Antarchakshu 2011, a 2 day mega event was conducted on the 9th and 10th of September 2011 in the St. Xavier's College Hall, Mumbai. The theme was ‘Legal Access, Consumer Products and Recreation' with a special emphasis on banking and the true meaning of an accessible ATM.
Pic courtesy: Antarchakshu's FB page.

“Living is Easy with Eyes Closed,” said John Lennon. But that is only if you, like this famous Beetle, are talking in a figurative sense. Because actually speaking, living with the eyes closed is far more difficult than those of us with vision, perfect or otherwise, can ever imagine.

I had never heard of Antarchakshu – The Eye Within. But when Pat, my colleague/friend, sent me a mail, asking me if I wanted to go back to college, I jumped at the opportunity. After all, don’t I always boast that you can get the Cynthia Rodrigues out of Xavier's but you can’t get the Xavier's out of Cynthia Rodrigues?

And so we set out. There was nothing I knew about Antarchakshu other than the fact that it was an exhibition related to the visually challenged. On reaching the venue, I learned that Antarchakshu was organised by the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC), St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, as part of the Mumbai Eye Care Campaign. XRCVC is a state-of-the-art support and advocacy centre, which works towards the holistic development of the visually challenged.

This year’s theme at Antarchakshu was Breaking Barriers, Achieving Access, and it sought to create awareness on education, financial services and employment opportunities for the visually impaired.

I expected to see just another exhibition with posters and other information on the theme. I was in for a huge surprise.

Having registered ourselves, we were allowed to choose one of four bookmarks in various colours on which our names were typed in Braille. We also had a tag around our wrists to note our scores. Nupur, a Xavierite volunteer, announced that she would be my escort at the exhibition.

I don’t need an escort, I protested. I’m an ex-Xavierite, I could find my way around with my eyes closed. In response, Nupur smiled with the wisdom of someone who knew what lay on the other side of the enormous black curtain that hid the exhibition from us.

I was asked to wear an eyemask, soft cloth shades that let me see my feet, if nothing else. For best results, you must shut your eyes, said a volunteer, at the opening in the curtain. My first thought was to disobey. After all, I didn’t know what they had rigged up on the other side. But then again, I thought, there must be some purpose behind these props. If I am going to do this, I am going to do it right.

I was handed a white cane, and ushered into the hall. I heard someone say, “Follow my voice, and do as I say. It’s not difficult at all.”

“Nupur, is that you?” I asked the disembodied voice. Suddenly, all my sureness was gone, and I was left feeling completely disoriented, and dare I say it? Afraid.

My eyes were now resolutely shut. Peeking out, I had already decided, was not an option. It was strange how the blindfold on my eyes and the white cane in my hand made me feel so vulnerable. Every step, every board, felt like a great climb. Every drop a precipice. The fear of the unknown, of what lay ahead, was very real. And above it all, the black darkness all around.

I stepped ahead gingerly, tapping my cane in nervousness, trying my best to follow Nupur’s voice, which seemed to have receded into the distance. Suddenly, “Chai, chai,” someone began to holler into my ear. “What are you doing? Can’t you see that I can’t see right now?” I yelled.

“Ma’am,” the voice shouted back, “I run a chai shop on the footpath and you have walked into my shop.” I apologised, even as the Voice (Nupur’s) said, “Follow me. Walk straight on.”

Having traversed this hurdle-ridden course, Nupur led me on to complete a series of eight activities. The first activities involved the Penalty shootout. I had to kick a football into the goalpost. The football was specially designed. According to the International Blind Sports Federation rules, this ball must weigh 1.25 kg (about 2.76 pounds) and have eight holes and noise bells contained within. The ball's circumference is around 76 cm (about 30 inches). The noise bells serve to announce their presence out loud, enabling the visually impaired to locate the football. Luckily, my kick took the ball home. It was a fluke. But I was pleased with myself.

The next activity, called Financial Access, involved two small bowls, one filled with old coins of Rs 5, 2 and 1 and the other with newer coins of the same denominations. We had to feel the coins with our fingers and make up a sum of Rs 11 out of each bowl. It was the first time that I realised the difficulties that blind people go through when it comes to counting money. The older coins had distinguishing marks in terms of size, smoothness or roughness of face and the irregular boundaries. The newer coins are utterly uniform in appearance and are a source of confusion, even to the sighted. Once again, I passed this test well.

The third activity involved drawing a geometrical figure such as a circle, triangle and rectangle on a special paper with a special pen. The use of this particular pen and paper caused the drawn object or the written word to rise up in relief against the rest of the paper, giving the impression of being embossed upon the paper. I passed this one too.

In the fourth activity, called Talking, typing teacher, I was stationed in front of a regular keyboard, with my fingers on the a-s-d-f-g and h-j-k-l-; keys. A recorded voice dictated certain letters which I would then have to type. I learned something new through this activity. Did you know that the upraised dashes on the letters F and J are meant for the benefit of visually impaired persons using a regular keyboard? I got a few of the letters right here, but not all. Strange it is that I who can easily type without once looking at the keyboard should have lost my bearings here.

The science experiment, activity number 5, involved a large bowl containing magnets and objects made of plastic and metal. I had to use one of the magnets to separate the contents of the bowl into three separate bowls. This one went off smoothly too.

The Pen Friend, the sixth activity, required us to find a particular printed sheet which had been filed away in one of a number of plastic folders in one of four plastic files. All these plastic files and folders were labeled. I had to use a special pen to press an upraised point on the labels. When pressed, a recorded voice in the pen would indicate the name of the folder or the file. I didn’t do too well here.

The seventh activity, OCR (optical character recognition) involved a voice reading software. I had to listen to the recording and answer some questions. I could barely hear over the din in the college auditorium, but I managed to glean the answer.

The last activity involved throwing darts at a dartboard. The only positive thing I can say about my performance was that no living beings were harmed during this activity. Unfortunately, no non-living thing was hit either, and that includes the dartboard.

Afterwards there was a fun activity which involved walking on a tightrope, commando style. This one was fun. Nowhere as difficult as I imagined when Nupur first told me about it. We were then shown a video which sensitised us to the fact that the visually impaired were just like us. Watch it HERE.


We then walked through the exhibition area of the event where a series of posters and resources sought to educate us on the various means that could help to make life easy for the visually impaired. These resources included scanners, special keyboards, calculators, voice-reading software and ATMs specially designed for the visually impaired.

Afterwards I made it a point to go look at the course that had daunted me so much just a short while ago – this time with my eyes wide open. I wondered why my mind had made such a fuss. No climb up or down was more than a step here and there.

I came away from the exhibition, my mind refreshed, my vision clearer than it has ever been.

Antarchakshu was meant to give us an insight into what the blind, whether partially or wholly so, go through every moment of their lives. They walk into dangers, depending on the grace of God and the goodness of fellow beings to look out for them. In the midst of this cruel, insensitive world, they walk on alone. For them, life is a battlefield. For me, the event was an eye-opener.

Sure, I’ve always offered to help the visually challenged to cross the street or to put them into a bus, auto-rickshaw or train, but that was done, at best, without a thought, at worst, a sort of my-good-deed-done-for-the-day.

I am ashamed of myself for not having ever given more than a passing thought to this earlier, but this experience helped me to understand the sheer faith and courage with which the visually challenged live their lives every day.

Thank you, Antarchakshu, for a beautiful and enlightening experience. I’ll be back next year. As for you, St Xavier’s College, it’s always lovely seeing you.

Thursday, October 04, 2012


Title: The Shadow Throne
Author: Aroon Raman
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 332
My GoodReads Rating: 

I just got off a fantastic roller coaster ride. The Shadow Throne by Aroon Raman is a masterful thriller, complete with the twists and turns required to keep you on edge. Reading this book gave me an indication of just how much the Indian thriller, with its own compulsions and context, has grown.

A group of people, rogue elements from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), one of India’s many intelligence wings, are willing to go to any lengths, including staging the Shadow Throne, a nuclear strike on Indian and Chinese soil that will re-organise the geo-politics of the Indian sub-continent and more ambitiously, the world. The effort, they know, will cause the West and China, two of its biggest allies, to break off all ties with Pakistan and strip that country of its nuclear arsenal, effectively destroy the enemy. But Pakistan itself has no idea of where, how and when such a catastrophe will be engineered.

It is the murder of a man from an ancient race that provides the clues to the conspiracy. Inspector Syed Ali Hassan seeks the help of freelance journalist Chandrasekhar to understand the mystery behind this strange death and the even more strange murder victim. Just as the case gets interesting, Inspector Hassan is taken off the case by the RAW.

What follows is a deadly game of life and death, as Pakistan seeks their help to prevent this disaster from occurring. Meenakshi Pirzada, a history professor at Delhi University and best friend of Chandra’s dead wife, helps them decode the clues. Very soon, Chandra and Hassan are spirited into Afghanistan to find the location of the nuclear missiles, trace the coordinates of the area being targeted and thereby prevent a sub-continental nuclear holocaust. 

It is a dangerous task. Will Hassan and Chandra succeed in saving millions of lives or will they themselves die in their effort to save the world as we know it? And is Hassan what he says he is? Or is he a traitor to the nation?

The writing is masterful and taut, and the research sharp and impressive. Raman’s descriptions of the Bamiyan in Afghanistan are beautiful, and serve to evoke the scene right before your eyes.

The author shows himself to be equally adept at handling the first person point of view of Chandra and the third person omniscient narrator’s point of view on behalf of the other characters in the book.

His description of Meenakshi, Chandra and Hassan helped ground the characters, moor them to earth, in their close similarity to ordinary people, not some fantastical notions of what a romantic hero should look like. Chandra is out of shape and overweight and Meenakshi is petite. The fact that some of them are battling their own demons makes them even more real.

The only false note is sounded by the questionable editing. Sadly there were just too many grammatical and spelling errors, which were annoying.

I also felt that there were some questions that were left unanswered. Despite being told that there was a high-level mole who was aiding the rogues, the identity of the person remains unrevealed.

I also appreciated the fact that Indian words like vetal, and a smattering from Tamil have been snugly given their due in the narrative, without resorting to a translation or even the customary italicisation. That’s a true tribute to Indianness, not having to explain the everydayness of things we take for granted.

Despite being rooted in Indianness, Raman shows a rare finesse when it comes to talking about things that we have so far seen in Western thrillers alone.

Time to say, desi thrillers, Zindabad!

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