Thursday, November 19, 2015


Title: Indian Maidens Bust Loose
Author: Vidya Samson
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 347

Indian Maidens Bust Loose by Vidya Samson was a fun, quirky and charming read, and I enjoyed it very much. Vidya’s style is cute and funny, sometimes quietly, so you find yourself chuckling, at other times outrightly so you find yourself laughing out loud.

Vidya’s humour is contagious and before long, you find yourself a fly on the wall of the Desai household, the unseen guest at their board, where much of the fun takes place.

The story concerns the four-member Desai family, Papa Rasik, Ma Meena and daughters Nisha and Vinita, who live in the home of Meena’s mother, Naani. Meena’s father has died, and it is the death of this stern patriarch that causes Damini, the other daughter who ran off with her American musician-lover to the US, to consider a visit home to India after 25 years of being away.

The impending arrival of Damini, Meena’s sister, with her daughters, Lauren and Amber throws the Desai family into turmoil, providing the girls a respite from the steady stream of ineligible and loser suitors, and the faintly discouraging and dysfunctional family. Papa and Ma both rant against the lack of Western values.

The stage is set for a confrontation.

The adventures pile on thick and fast from the time the Americans land at Ahmedabad airport. The trusted Maruti 800 adds to the fun, pitting the family against a crazy mob. These events are followed by the theft of Damini’s bag at a local expo, followed by the subsequent nabbing of the thief, power outages, interminable suitor visits, much to the consternation of Nisha and Vinita, a peaceful protest, outside the municipal authority to demand water, which ends up in the four cousins being thrown into jail, not to forget the rescue of an urchin at a garbage dump, an elopement from a marriage pandal, and a cow adopted by Papa as a mascot that would bring wealth to the family. 

The book has all the ingredients that might be completely easy stewing in a Bollywood potboiler, sewn together by Vidya’s humour and charming writing.

First person narrator Nisha Desai makes flippant and irreverent remarks that make you think. Dinner had the feel of a condemned man’s last meal.

About her father’s overeagerness to get her and her sister married , she says, Apparently he resented the food we ate.

What I had long ago taken for granted, what had become all but invisible to me, now loomed large and embarrassing. This refers to the mandatory judgment of India by Western eyes.

There are antagonists galore. There is the BSR, short for Bharati Sanskruti ke Rakshak, modeled on a real life organization. Fictional, its antics are scarily real. The name loosely translates to Protectors of Indian Culture, and you know how dangerous that can get. Unlimited power in the hands of the rabid.

There is Gita, whose gossip can destroy reputations and homes.

There is Papa, who disapproves of almost everything that his daughters do, and Ma, who does not have a loving and affectionate relationship with her daughters.

And then there are the other characters, who drive this book on.

They include Damini, and her daughters, Lauren and Amber. These three women are the core of the book, and the daughters especially push the action forward with their forthright attitudes and their outspokenness. Their behaviour is refreshing in contrast with the Desai girls, who are inhibited by circumstances and family compulsions.

The lines that the characters speak are all funny. An additional element of humour is brought on by the strange English spoken by Papa, Ma and Naani. But generally between Damini with her new-age science, Naani and her proverbs, Papa’s BSR leanings and rabid philosophy, the, there is plenty of food for amusement. Some of the most laugh-out-loud moments are brought on by the cousins’ introduction to the Indian toilet.

The chapter names are quirky and colourful, as are the cast of characters. Only Nisha comes across as insipid in comparison with the others. She was a foil to the others, whose actions were the plot of the story.

Such a pity, since we know she is far from boring. Her thoughts are so interesting, but that didn’t stop me from feeling disappointed in her as a character.

Nisha wants to work, preferably in the US, but her dad won’t let her. Her reasons for wanting to live in the US are unconvincing.

She tries to ingratiate herself with her aunt and cousins, in the hope that they will support her American Dream, when her Papa clearly won’t. This was another thing that appeared selfish. If her father wouldn’t let her work in a TV channel in Ahmedabad, she could have considered moving to another city. 

Harbouring dreams of living and working in the US seemed too far-fetched, and the means she adopted to achieve her dreams, cosying up to her cousins when she is not being shortlisted by a rich American suitor, aren’t at all the sort to endear her to us.

Nisha also has a penchant for reading romances, and towards the end of the novel she takes to likening real situations to the plots of the novels she reads. Had this happened throughout the book, it would have been more consistent. As it is, it only shows up towards the end, making it appear to be a hastily contrived device.

Even the beginning of her tentative relationship with Jay, the neighbour’s nephew, seems hastily added on, to give her a happy ending. In contrast, I admired Vinita for taking risks to ensure that her marriage with Ashok became a reality.

The end of the book seemed totally forced, and I found my interest flagging as a result. I wished the Americans didn’t have to return. They kept this book simmering hot, and it was fun while they were around.

Much as the ingredients seem like they belong to a chick-lit novel, and the title also gives that impression, I would hesitate to call this chick-lit. There is so much more to this book.

Vidya effectively manages to raise a number of serious issues through her funny book and does complete justice to them too. These include the differences between the East and the West, the perennial debate about the lack of moral values, the relationships between sisters across generations, superstition as a way of life, and the lack of basic rights such as water, among other things.

If only the narrator had been a stronger character, I’d cheer even more for this book.

Vidya Samson, take a bow!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Good Conductor

We didn’t know his real name, and it didn’t occur to us to ask.

Taklu Conductor was the highly uncomplimentary name that one of the girls gave him. And it stuck. Before long, we were all calling him that. It was a name inspired by his bald pate, taklu being the streetside Bambaiya Hindi word for bald. As smooth as a baby’s bottom his head was, we told ourselves giggling.

He was the conductor on the school bus that took us from home to school and back. Other conductors were indistinguishable, their buses known by a landmark on their routes. Ours proudly went by the name of Taklu Conductor’s bus.

And rightly so, for Taklu Conductor was miles of streets ahead of the others who did the same job.

As a conductor, his duties weren’t all that hard. Maintain law and order in the bus, and assist the driver when he was reversing the bus to ensure that no one was hurt as the bus reversed. But it was the dedication and delight with which he performed these simple tasks that won him hearts.

He took charge of us, ensuring that no one put their hands out through the bars of the window. Fights over who got how much window space, and who had the window seat and who had to make do with the aisle seat didn’t last long either when Taklu Conductor was the mediator. On his watch, girls learned to share window space. Those who sought to push the window panes forward or backward learned soon enough that it didn’t please Taklu Conductor.

Woe betide anybody that dared to tease or belittle any of us girls. Taklu Conductor would be Fury unleashed, an angry father, no less.

With him on board, boring rides on the city streets were transformed as Taklu Conductor regaled us with interesting anecdotes about things that had happened in his village. We marvelled at the different kinds of adventures he had had, the wondrous events that had befallen him. At other times, he led us in singing the latest Bollywood melodies and the oldies with equal felicity, transforming the bus into a great Picnic-on-wheels.

Once an unexpected digging on the roads led the driver to take an unscheduled detour and route to drop us off at our stops. Taklu Conductor fretted non-stop, suggesting alternative routes that would get us home at the earliest. This was pre-cellphone era.

A girl once vomited inside the bus, an action that provoked the wrath of the driver and frightened the girl even more. Taklu Conductor cheerfully offered to clean up the mess, provided the driver shut up and stopped upsetting the girl.

For our sake, he stored in the bus cabin a fully stocked first aid kit, which came in handy, whenever somebody was hurt or whenever somebody attempted acrobatics in the bus.

Many a school girl afraid of her teacher and keen to play hooky changed her mind about bunking school at the thought of missing Taklu Conductor. The girl who did so anyway received a stern lecture on the significance of the education she was receiving, something he never had growing up.

But he was learning. He had a copy of the English primer, probably something his little daughter, who also studied in our school, had outgrown. Taklu Conductor would try to teach himself to read and write with it, with us, his volunteer-teachers, egging him on.

It wasn’t for nothing that we were the envy of our other school mates.

Today when I see my children off at the school bus stop, I am not entirely at ease regarding their safety and I quell my anxious fears through prayer. Back then, none of the parents of the girls on Taklu Conductor’s bus had the slightest doubts or fears about their children’s safety. Taklu Conductor inspired that kind of confidence.

He was a Mother Hen on whose watch nothing untoward could ever befall his wards. A simple man, who had the undisputed affection of all the girls who took his bus.

When I came to know about Tata Motors’ contest, inviting bloggers to talk about a person who has touched their lives, a simple, ordinary person who is #madeofgreat and who touched others with his simplicity and goodness, I was reminded once again of Taklu Conductor.

Today’s school children, and parents too, need more Taklu Conductors on their buses, and in their lives.

If you were touched by my account of Taklu Conductor, and wish to leave a comment, the organisers of this contest would like you to answer a simple question: 

What do you think of Tata Motors' association with Lionel Messi?

The best comment can win you an Amazon voucher worth Rs 750.

So go on, answer the question, and don't forget to say something nice about Taklu Conductor while you're at it. Wherever he is, the Good Conductor has certainly earned every bit of praise he can get.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Book Review: BELLMAN & BLACK

Title: Bellman & Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Pages: 337

There is an air of foreboding all around Bellman and Black, but it is not enough to justify calling it a ghost story.
There is far too much of the menace that is sought to be attached to the rooks.

The omniscient first person narrator pulls us into the story from the very first line. He/she offers us bite-sized pieces of philosophy in the manner of the writers of old. It is a technique which serves to establish the period which is somewhere in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. 

It was a time when professions long forgotten in time, such as the corderwainers were important, and a spinster did not have the pejorative connotation it suffers today.

As a 10-year-old boy, William Bellman aims his catapult at a rook and, in an act of childish cruelty, kills it. With the killing of the rook, we get a sense of something having altered irrevocably for him, thought its impact does not show itself, until much later.

William’s uncle, Paul, offers him the opportunity to work at the family Bellman cloth spinning mill, and William joins him with gusto, discovering within himself a talent for doing business and managing people. He grows in stature at the mill; later, he marries and has children and his life is full of joy.

When his mother dies, and then his uncle too, he plods on, enabling the mill to grow and make greater profits. Years later, an epidemic claims the lives of his wife and three children. Dora, his firstborn child, too falls prey to the epidemic.

At each of these funerals, William sees an unfamiliar man, dressed in black. This man makes William a very strange offer, which William accepts and Bellman and Black, a mourning emporium, comes into being.

William puts into Bellman and Black the same energy that he had once put into the running of the mill. The opening of the store galvanises many aspects of the local industry.

I found the chapter in which William is introduced to the workings of the mill particularly interesting. Bear in mind that this is a time when the spinning jenny has transformed industry.

The writing is compelling and forceful and I enjoyed it. Particularly, when the subject was the rooks, the writing took on a deeper, more poetic hue. These sections started off with an ampersand at the top. While they offered a beautiful and eloquent insight into the habits of the rooks, culminating in a grammar lesson on the collective nouns for them, there didn’t seem to be much point to this section of the story.

You can’t help but be impressed by the quantum of detail that Diane has put into the telling of her story. As also by the words she has used to depict every mood, experience and situation. Always the right word. 

You get the feeling that this author has made the language her own, and searched always for the right word, and not rested until it is found, never settling for second-best to express anything.

This detail is seen in the description of the mill, and of the construction of the mourning emporium, which is done with respect to the period.

The characterization and the plot show the change in William from the 10-year-old boy who killed a rook to the 50-year-old man of business who lets his obsessions get the better of him. Gradually, he becomes a hardened man, looking to business to satisfy all his emotional needs.

It is at this point that the novel suddenly gets a little darker and more than a little worrisome, but not enough to be called a ghost story. In fact, for the greater part of the novel, we don’t even see the supposed spectre, Mr Black, and when we do, it is always through William’s impressions, and we’re never sure if Mr Black is real.

Left to itself, I liked the book, but the weight of expectations raised by the publishers, the weight of being called A Ghost Story, that’s something that this book doesn’t quite recover from. And just for that reason, all the effort is undone. And the end comes across as a huge disappointment.

Not that I regret reading it. The writing was worth it.

 (I read a Kindle version of this book on NetGalley.)


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