Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Truth and reconciliation

Harsh Mander, uncommonly, quit the IAS in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots of 2002. In this consistently shocking book, he elicits the reasons behind his disenchantment with the civil services and the stories of hope that continue to dot the land.

Mander’s gravelly voice matters, since the events that have unfolded in the wake of the riots — including the contradictory findings of two commissions set up to look into the causes of the fire that broke out in coach S6 of the Sabarmati Express — have brought us no closer to the truth about the incidents of that dark time.

As Gujarat makes great strides in progress and investment, Fear and Forgiveness is a timely reminder of the need to shun fear and seek forgiveness for past injustices.


Harsh Mander
Rs 299; 219 pages

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Price of Everything

After a series of books that explain the mysteries of free-market capitalism (if only someone had foreseen the credit crisis), here comes a novel — a novel, yes — that brings home, yet again, its virtues.

It revolves around two people — Ruth Lieber, an economics professor at Stanford, and Ramon Fernandez, a tennis champ who was brought from Cuba to the US as a child. By way of an interesting plot, Roberts drives home his viewpoints on everything from the “chaotic order” at the heart of the global trade to the beneficial social effects of free market economy.

As a novel, The Price of Everything is no great shakes. But as a vehicle to convey ideas that need renewed currency in today’s troubled times, it is a promising attempt.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Dreams and disappointments in multiracial London

The title refers to the shop run by Zaki Khalil in London -- a place that embodies both the dreams and disappointments of a man who left his native country in his youth, but now, staring old age squarely in the face, finds himself doing the same things and being the same person he tried to run away from. It is this sense of a missed life that draws Zaki to an illicit affair -- with his bored, midlife crisis-battling daughter-in-law Delphine. Set in the heart of multiracial London, a territory made immensely recognizable by such writers as Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith, Corner Shop tackles familiar themes of exile and the grip of the past in a new and invigorating fashion...Read more>>>

Sunday, March 08, 2009

'Little Bee' straddles poverty, globalization, guilt

Chris Cleave is destiny's child, granted not the favorite. Cleave's first novel, Incendiary, about an al-Qaeda attack on a London football stadium, arrived in bookstores on the morning of July 7, 2005, the day terrorists stormed the London Tube and killed more than 50 people and injured close to 700. The book, unsurprisingly, did not set the cash registers jingling.

While such an experience may daunt a less brave writer — or worse, affect the quality of his subsequent work — Cleave is not that writer. His second outing, Little Bee, is a thought-provoking examination of the collision of two diverse cultures. The Western gaze on the Dark Continent has launched a stable of Conradian books, but seldom does one come across a work that so freely straddles poverty, globalization and the workings of post-colonial guilt.

The pivot around which Little Bee turns is the chance encounter on a Nigerian beach between a 16-year-old local and an English couple on holiday.

Andrew O'Rourke is a celebrated journalist battling a private crisis that his wife, Sarah, a magazine editor, cannot be bothered with. Safe in her private world that comprises a rollicking extra-marital affair and her Batman-obsessed son Charlie, Sarah's life is set to turn topsy-turvy by the arrival of young Nigerian Little Bee at her doorstep.

The book begins with Little Bee's harrowing account of an immigration center in Essex where, chiefly, she must keep herself safe from the advances of men. But there is something darker behind her sadness that, Cleave hints, has some relation to the O'Rourkes — the couple from that long-ago encounter on the beach.

Cleave's ability to keep the book's compass pointed to that incident — a brilliant set piece of effortless violence — is reminiscent of John Banville. But his leanings are expressly political. When in alternate chapters, we hear the tragic voice of Sarah, the great divide between Africa and the West is immediately apparent.

Yet Cleave is too nuanced a writer to convey that life in the English suburbs is "easier" than the blood and toil on African streets. Apart from the writing, this is brought out in the strange neuroses that the O'Rourkes inhabit. In due course, Andrew commits suicide, while Charlie falls deeper into the abyss of his strange imagination.

By now, the book is on course to a startling finish. Cleave, unsatisfyingly, falters a little, dipping into contrived plot devices and the too-easy pull of melodrama. But the end is justifiably happy in a book that would not do without redemption. To that extent, and given the overall tenor of this work, Little Bee is a loud shout of talent.


This review appeared in Chicago Sun Times.