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Aarushi-Avirook Sen: 11/52 ( Set in a place where I’ve lived)

Infuriating

Aarushi

First, repeat after me : My name is Reader and I am not a Judge. I am reading a book, not hearing evidence. I promise to read with an open mind, an open mind and nothing but an open mind so help me god. 

Ok. Yes, I’m a fan of American legal dramas and I wish that this book had been written by John Grisham or the case had been argued by Eugene Young, Plan B-ed and all. But then, who needs fiction when you have Life

This book reminded me again of why and how much I detest Noida, NCR and North India in general. Noida was still synonomous with the Nithari killings when I was planning to move there. A week after I moved, a former airhostess Sheeba Thomas was shot dead for, allegedly, her mobile phone. Two days later, there was a shootout in a society near my place. Less than a month later, Aarushi happened. And the nation still hasn’t recovered from that. I lived in Sector 25 for some time, and made sure I took only the bus to work. But then, that was when I believed that buses were safe and December 2012 hadn’t happened. Later, I moved just across the road from my office building, but I still can’t get over the fear and tension I felt just walking across the park back home on dark winter evenings, looking left and right for Pan Paraag haired men who might rob, rape and kill. Paranoid? Maybe. But NCR continues to haunt my nightmares even now

That day in May 2008 and what followed is still fresh in my memory. The murder, the shock, the pandemonium on TV that night and then the verdict by a rag (TOI or HT?) the very next day, complete with a graphic representation of how Hemraj murdered Aarushi. A few days later, the media verdict was re-verdicted, complete with a graphic representation of an Aarushi in a ‘compromising’ position with Hemraj and an enraged Rajesh Talwar killing them both. (Seven years later, still not having learnt to calm the fuck down, rags will continue such graphic representations; the latest being the Sunanda Pushkar case where we saw a reconstruction of the scene,compete with a floppy haired Shashi Tharoor graphical man). Then came Nupur Talwar’s interview on NDTV where she spoke, calm, collected and cold faced. Yes, I admit it; the fact that she didn’t break down weeping on national television did seem a little unnerving. We all commented on that. But then again, we are a generation so used to seeing public meltdowns on TV when a participant in a dance competition gets eliminated.

This book takes you back to that day in 2008 and tells you the story once more, but this time it tells you what the Talwars want you to hear. There is nothing new actually, most of this has already been reported in some website or the other. Ofcourse, it paints the picture of innocent Talwars. You have little pieces of information passing off as casual narration, but you will read later about how this ‘casual moment’ becomes crucial to the evidence. Like how Aarushi went to bed that night and undid the naada on her pajamas because ‘the elastic was enough, she thought’. An entire section later, you will learn that the undone naada would be invoked by a witness to imply that the pajamas were pulled up after the murder. Or how a golf club, one that would later become part of the actual murder weapons, was ‘casually found while clearing things out and replaced in the set’. Anyway, this book is from the Talwars point of view and this is what you should expect. (Repeating the first line again and moving on)

But it also opens the Pandora’s box of the ugliness of the entire legal system in India, right from the lowly policeman who photographs the evidence and dusts for fingerprints and then says ‘‘Dhyan nahin hai’ to all questions asked in court to the honourable (?) judge who writes about Hemraj’s ‘turgid willy’ and ‘swollen pecker’ in the judgement. Sweepers whose statements are taken as authority in postmortem reports, bloodstained pillow cover evidence that gets mixed up due to ‘typos’, mysterious women and a curious magistrate (who had no business to be there) doing casual disaster tourism to survey the crime scene, multiple lab reports with jarring contradictions, judgmental witnesses who talk about Nupur Talwar’s dressing sense and her ‘looking at herself in the mirror’ at the murder scene, sick mindgames like sending emails to Rajesh Talwar from an id ‘hemraj.jalvayuvihar@gmail.com’ … the list is endless. The casual way in which crucial evidence was mishandled makes me believe that since the police thought they had a clean cut case of Hemraj killing Aarushi, they took it too easy on Day One. And that initial inefficiency and bumbling had a domino effect that went all haywire and led to this. This being Nupur Talwar and Rajesh Talwar in jail, convicted and sentenced to life for honour killing their only daughter. Sounds heavy when you actually spell those words out.

Uglier, are the character assassinations. Building a character judgement based on a teenager’s Orkut communication, getting cheap thrills at the thought a wife swapping group, and using a confession about an extra marital affair during a narco test to blackmail are just the tip of the ugly iceberg. But here again, the author casually drops in bits of information about the caste of the investigating officer to emphasise the point that he takes honour killings for granted.

Did Rajesh and Nupur Talwar do it? I don’t know. Did Krishna and Rajkumar do it? I don’t know. I may never know what happened, but I also don’t know what to believe. There is evidence, lack of evidence, planted evidence, missing evidence, destroyed evidence and then, the truth.

I have grown up, so I am not going to play judge, jury, executioner and gossip columnist. But one thing that this book has proved beyond all doubt is this: The justice system in India is fucked up beyond redemption. And there is no hope.

The Dove’s Lament- Kirthi Jayakumar :10/52 (Book by a female author)

Painful. Reality.

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When I was asked to review this book, I groaned. Yet another chicklit, I thought to myself and rolled my eyes. But a quick search told me that this wasn’t chicklit. It wasn’t even fiction.  It is a book about something so real, something so horrifying, something so sad. And something that we think is so far away, but it is something that is actually knocking at our doors.

Each story begins in a place that need to be magnified on the world map, places that most of us can’t identify offhand. Can you point out to Israel on the world map? Wait. Palestine. Wait. Umm…that area. Maybe. Rwanda? Somewhere in Africa. Bosnia? Is that still even a place? And that country in South America? No idea; I can only identify Brazil in that entire continent. So there you go. Lesson One: Geography. But that’s not what this book is about. It is about history. And current events that will someday be buried in the dusty archives of history.

And it is not just history. Or other people’s conflicts. Or war. Last year’s headlines, the Peshawar massacre is retold through the eyes of siblings who have just discovered each other. You take a diversion from the more known horrors of a Taliban-suppressed Afghanistan and are shown the ugly world of Bachha Baazi, a market where young boys are sold to be dancing ‘girls’ for the rich and perverted. And closer home, the horrifying reality of the Balika Badhus whose stories aren’t as lovable as Anandi’s. There is the never ending saga of the Israel-Palestine conflict; one story, For the Love of a Motherland, shows the irony of how one man’s oppressed is another man’s oppressor. And of course, a book about horrifying conflicts won’t be complete without Kashmir and Srilanka.

The format of this book is interesting, a short-story set in the backdrop of a shameful era of human history like the Srebrenica Massacre ( Go Google it) or the Rwandan Genocide which is then followed by a write up about the the actual conflict. And given the nature of these shameful eras in history, most of these short-stories may not even be fiction.

I remember the 90s when every single day the news reader used to talk about a bombing in Bosnia, a headline that I had no idea about. Fire in a Ring of Ice throws light on an issue that has been so vague to me for the past two decades. A friend’s grandmother used to watch Ulaga Seidhigal for news about Kashmir where her grandson was posted; she thought Kashmir wasn’t a part of India. Is it? I still don’t know. Even in this book, Kashmir has a sad story of its own. With a separate map.

The writing is very good, but I found that the parallel tracks of narration in every story were a bit repetitive and somehow predictable. That style works better for novels; in short stories, there isn’t enough time and space to bring out the depth of each character this way. Though they are all independent short stories, they are gripping enough to keep you going from one to the other without a pause. Makes you  want to know if the next horror is more horrifying than the horror you just read about, and so you keep reading till the very end.

What bugged me? The the urls as footnotes in the print version of the book. It made no sense. Like hashtags on paper or carbon copies in emails. Also, I didn’t understand the cover. Maybe I am not arty enough for it, but I would have preferred a more jarring cover, one that reflects the sadness and pain of the tales inside and stands out so that you take notice of the book in crowded stands.

It is a small book but it covers the entire world. Fly with that dove in search of a safe place to perch, find none, and lament. No, I won’t say that there is hope. I don’t believe in blue skies and rainbows.  I’m a pessimist, so I’lI say that this book has scope to become a trilogy.

You can buy the book here.

Our Moon has Blood Clots- Rahul Pandita: 58/52

…and still bleeding. Silently.

To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to the issue of Kashmir Pandits. Mainly because it is one of the Whatabouts that the rabid rightwing on Twitter invoke everytime anything about anything is discussed. That argument when you use the atrocities against one minority to negate the atrocities against another minority. But now, after reading this book, after reading this book in two extended sittings because it was so gripping, I realize that this is a story that needs to be told in louder voices. Louder, saner, sensible voices. Voices like Rahul Pandita’s.

I’m on a voyeuristic journey these days, reading about wars and genocides. Humanity’s greatest mistakes, history that should teach us lessons. But this exodus of the Kashmir Pandits is not yet history, it is just two decades old. It is not a horror that happened in another era to another people. It is something that happened during my lifetime, in my country to people from my generation. It is a wound that is still raw, bleeding. No, the blood has not yet clotted.

All that time when I was living a carefree life in the safe south, complaining about the ‘same old’ Kashmir headlines in the news every day; laughing at the old woman who watched Ulaga Seidhigal for news about Kashmir, where her grandson was posted, thinking that it was not part of India ;romanticizing Azaadi based on Pankaj Kapur and Aravind Swamy, a boy almost my age was uprooted from his home and thrown into refugee camps where he would be handed half a tomato as part of the rations. He would then be shuttled from room to room, hotel to hotel, house to house more than seventeen times over the next two decades, never finding Home again. Just because he was not one of Them.

Rahul Pandita’s Hello, Bastar was good. It was to the point, well researched and well written. But it was someone else’s story. This book on the other hand is his own story. A story of the teenage boy who lived in the house with 22 rooms and the apple tree. A house with the kitchen garden and the soon-to-be-renovated attic full of ‘costly deodar wood’. A house he would return to after years, and seek permission from strangers to enter. A house where he would then search desperately for traces of the life he was forced to leave behind. The story of the teenage boy with a cousin he hero worshipped, the cousin whose death he dreamt of a decade before it happened. The story of a teenage boy who was Kris Srikanth to his best friend Javed Miandad, best friend before he did something to break them. The story of the teenage boy who looked out of his window one night and saw people dividing up the neighborhood among themselves, laying claim to his house while his whole family cowered with fear inside. The story of the teenage boy whose mother grabbed a kitchen knife, ready to kill his sister and then herself if those people outside entered the house. A chilling story of a people caught inside someone else’s fight for freedom. A people killed for no reason other than the fact that they were not one of Them.

No hate is spewed in the book. It is largely neutral, actually, too neutral given that it is a first hand account of the exodus. He is allowed some hate. But there is so much dignity in the writing.There is pain in each word and that pain is more powerful and effective than hate. Facts are laid out, clean and clear. Names of the people killed, how they were killed. Plain facts enough to let the reader decide what is right and what is not, who is right and who is not. And who is to blame. It is such a shame that the people of the country’s first Prime Minister are living in exile for the past two and a half decades, largely ignored by both the media and political parties. I won’t blame the rightwingers now for being vocal about this. They seem to be the only voice for these people.

The Visitor summed up the KP Conundrum perfectly here

The Rape of Nanking- Iris Chang: 57/52

The forgotten Holocaust. One of the forgotten Holocausts

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I swore off all real war book after This Divided Island. But then, the masochist-voyuer in me didn’t allow it. I wanted to read about more horrific horrors that happened  in other wars. So I Googled to find more such books. And I realised that there is no dearth of such books and such horrific horrors and such wars in this world.

This book happened in between my trips to China and Germany. It shook me up badly and I wanted my emotions to settle down a bit before I wrote about it. But then I went to Germany and visited Dachau Concentration camp. And suddenly I wasn’t too sure about which horror was more horrific. The relatively unknown WW2 horror of Japanese soldiers slaughtering Chinese civilians in killing competitions and bayonet practice or the well known WW2 horror of gas chambers and Hitler’s Hate. And again, I waited for my emotions to settle down. But now I’m actually too numb and that moment of horror has passed. One more war book and I think I’ll be vaccinated for life against Feeling. So what I write now is not what I initially felt.

When I think China, I think of only Tiananmen Square, Bamboo gulags, Inhuman Rights. The land without Twitter and Facebook and Google. Enemy country. I don’t know anything about Chinese history before 1989. And when I think of Japan, I think of hard work and perfection. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tsunamis. A country of phoenix birds rising from the ashes to greater heights each time. The victims. Our friends. But now, I can think of just one thing when I think China. Nanking. And when I think Japan, again, Nanking. (  A Tale for the Time Being had that chapter from the Kamikaze pilot’s life. I wasn’t that moved then. But now I should read it again to understand Japan’s cruelty. )

The most horrific part of the Rape of Nanking is not the cold blooded massacre of 50000…100000…300000…prisoners or war and civilians because the Japanese Imperial army didn’t know what to do next; not the rapes of women from 8 to 80; not the killing competitions or the mass burial grounds; not the mountains where the  soil turned into metallic red slush or the Yangzte river that turned red with the blood of the beheaded. The most horrific part of the Rape of Nanking to me, is the fact that most of the world is still unaware about it even now.

It is like a ten line article tucked into page 30 of the WW2 newspaper where the Jewish holocaust and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are on the headlines. More sad is that China itself has tried to forget and remove all traces of the horror and move on to other self inflicted horrors instead of throwing open their doors for the world to see. And saddest is that the USA, self appointed guardians of humankind,cared only when Pearl Harbour happened, and even afterwards only made amends for their own wrongs to Japan instead of telling the world what Japan had done to their neighbours. And Japan, Japan with its denial, false propaganda, school books with twisted history and a right wing that still intimidates anyone who wants to share the truth. Oh, Japan, you’ve fallen from that pedestal I had you on. And how.

On my next trip to China I wanted to plan a quick visit to Nanjing. But after Googling a bit, I decided against it. Even if I can make that overnight train or expensive flight for the weekend, I think I’ll be going into a city that has erased her scars and painted herself over with a new shiny gloss. A city that has buried its past and moved on to the future. But then, maybe that’s what China is all about. And to some of us here, Nanking will continue to be nothing more than that authentic Chinese restaurant.

Edit: On the anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, I got some uninvited attention on Twitter from some Japanese. Some keywords led them to my tweet about the book. I was open to discussion and they shared some photos showing the Japanese-Chinese ‘friendship’ in Nanking. Three happy propaganda photos do not erase the horror that it actually was. These were some of the links they shared to debunk the ‘myth’ of the Nanking Massacre.

This–> http://www.howitzer.jp/nanking/page01.html Seriously? If you say so.

This, obviously, is the Ginling College Safety Zone –> http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15799coll123/id/33881/rec/50

This, I don’t understand the language, but yes Chiang Kai Shek was to blame too. Although he was just a pawn in the bigger picture –>  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c66d9WKRwk

This Divided Island- Samanth Subramaniam : 55/52

Is It really over?

There are some types of hate that I totally don’t get.

‘If we even step into the country they will kill us’, said the janitor in my Oslo office in that amusing singsong Srilankan Tamil accent. This was in 2008, before the war ‘ended’. Who is They, I wondered.  Are They tracking the movements of this nondescript man standing in front of me with the mop in his hand? How could They hate him so much? I didn’t get it.  He told me about his  annual trip to meet his parents the next month. They would fly in to Chennai from Srilanka and he would fly into Chennai from Oslo. They would meet for a fortnight in a hotel in Vadapalani, laugh , cry, pray, enjoy togetherness as long as they could. Then they would bid goodbyes with  the hope that they would meet again the next year; sametime sameplace, godwilling. And they would go back home. The parents, back to their home in some war torn town near the equator, and he, back to his destined life closer to the north pole.

In another country, a few months before it all got over, a gentleman was just leaving a friend’s house as I entered. ‘He’s a puli. He rushing to meet someone with some money’, my friend whispered to me. Maybe my friend was exaggerating and the man was just a sympathiser, a refugee, but a shiver ran down my spine.

I read Reef this year, it had some mild mentions about the War. And I read Blue before that, it had nothing about the War.  That’s all I knew about Srilanka till a week ago. I blindly supported The Cause, outraged over Rajapakshe’s visits, made the obligatory noises over that John Abraham movie and such things because I felt that it was the thing to do. But now I know.

The Terror travels from Colombo to Canada to London with Tigers, ex Tigers, disillusioned Tigers, resigned-to-fate Tigers and non-Tigers telling their tales. Scattered across the world, they still yearn for the life they dreamed of, the life they left behind.  And then the book moves to The North, the defeated country. Jaffna, a town stuck in an automobile timewarp, haunted by the ghosts from the Terror. Nameboards scrubbed clean of Tamil. Kandarodai is now Kandurugoda, Hindu temples are overshadowed by Buddhist viharayas and Mahinda Rajapakshe’s creepy smile overshadows The Buddha. A mosque that refuses to erase the bullet holes from a Tiger attack, a mosque inscribed with the names of 103 victims of a Tiger attack. A tale of an eight year old boy shot in the mouth by a Tiger.

The Faith broke my faith in Buddhism. I thought Buddhism was a religion of peace. But turns out that it is much like the other Religion of Peace: violent and fanatic. It also takes on the shades of that ideology from Germany when the Sinhalese talk about Aryan supremacy. The Sinhalese are apparently the Aryans who came with Buddhism from North India and the Tamils are the ugly dirty Dravidians who deserve to be wiped out. And it also reveals shades of the current trend of hatred that is taking over India these days with  monks dressed in various  hues of saffron invoking kings and events from two millenia ago to justify the ethnic cleansing today.

The book ends with the Endgames, where the futility of it all hits you. Villages full of families clinging on to the hope that their loved ones snatched away by the Tigers are still alive somewhere. Wives refusing to let go of their missing husbands, either running from NGO pillar to post for answers or challenging the gods by flaunting the symbols of their marriage with the hope that their dead husbands will return. On one hand, you seethe with anger at the Tigers for grabbing unwilling men and women, boys and girls to fight the War, but on the other hand you also wonder at the selfishness of families refusing to participate in the war , a war that is theirs as much as it was Prabhakaran’s.

I was a Tiger sympathiser until I read this book. But I still don’t hate them as much as I feel sorry for them. Like all Causes, this one also started off on the right track, for the right reasons. And went horribly, horribly wrong  somewhere. A war is not lost when the last bullet hits your leader, it is lost when disillusionment sets in. And that, it seems, happened long before 19th May 2009. In every line of the book there was the undercurrent of the frustration and the helplessness of the cornered Tigers, the frustration that made them lose their minds long before they lost the war.

Samanth Subramaniam writes so beautifully. Like  tiny flowers blooming on a battlefield, his metaphors brighten up the depressing storyline. He has traveled the length and breadth of The Divided Island on rickety buses, autorickshaws, motorcycles and on foot to speak to the people whose voices need to be heard; voices of  anger, frustration, sadness. Voices of hope and hopelessness.  He treads carefully throughout the book, telling the tale without revealing his sources, most of them initials and pseudonyms. Because, though it is 2014, They might still get to them. He doesn’t take sides in this book, but at the end, the reader will. And that side will be the side of the civilians. The ones who didn’t have a choice.

Orange Is the New Black-Piper Kerman: 53/52

A Malory Towers for big bad girls

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There are some TV shows that I blank out on. Like when the whole world was raving about Breaking Bad, I didn’t give a damn. Same thing happened with Orange is The New Black. I just didn’t get it, and since I’m not one who watches shows online, I didn’t bother to keep up with the hype. On a flight last month, I caught a couple of episodes and was intrigued. But I realized that this show will never see the light of day in India. In a country where the word ‘beef’ is beeped out and cleavage is pixellated, I won’t expect a show with topless transgenders and dialogues with the C word to make an entry. And so I picked up the book instead.

Piper Kerman writes like she’s an observer from the outside, not like the convicted felon that she actually was. She writes like the white-blonde-college-educated-woman-from-a-privileged-background that she is rather than the convicted-drugmoney-carrying-lesbian-lover-of-the-drug-trafficker  that she was. And so it somehow came out shallow and patronizing all the way rather than being a heartfelt prison memoir that I wanted it to be. Ofcourse, the book is the true story and the TV series is a fictionalized version, but the blandness of the book bored me. Maybe  I expected something atleast like Tracy’s experiences in If Tomorrow Comes.

There were too many characters who came and went, I couldn’t keep track of who was whom. Who was in for what was never explained. Yes, it is not likely that she could have known, but it just left me hanging. I couldn’t feel anything for any prisoner. Everyone was described at surface level only.  It was all about commissary goods being bartered, goodies being sent by friends, books, radios, yoga, trade school and some Larry love. Blue skies and lollipops. Boarding school. Bo.Ring. Even the ‘horrors’of the camp she was sent to towards the end weren’t hard hitting. And since I’m a person who likes closure, I would have loved to read an epilogue, something about whether she connected with her fellow prisoners after she left or what happened to some of them. Even Girl, Interrupted had an epilogue that told us what happened to Lisa. Would have been nice to know if Piper is still in touch with the Miss Natalie, Pop or Yoga Janet now.

On my flights last week I managed to stay awake most of the time to finish watching the entire Season 1 of the TV show. Absolutely loved it. Watch the show. Skip the book.

 

Unrelated: Tamil Actress Kausalya and Taylor Schilling seem kind of sameguy. 

Amen: The autobiography of a nun- Sister Jesme : 48/52

Turning water into whine

Blame me for expecting something explosive. This was nothing more than the long rant of a disgruntled employee. The fact that she was a nun is just an added bonus. As a saying goes, if there’s a devil residing in the roof of every normal household, there’s a devil residing in each rafter in a convent. A house full of women where everyone is everyone’s mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, the stuff Ekta Kapoor’s dreams are made of.  And the poor husband, Jesus Christ, looks at the drama from above helplessly, and shakes his head in despair. And no, divorcing him isn’t as easy as divorcing a human husband. A Convent, Hotel California. Same thing.

Sr. Jesme is a PhD in English, but this book reads like a ten year old’s What I Did During My Summer Vacation essay.It is written in present tense, a flashback while she’s on the train as a fugitive ,on the way to hand over her resignation. It just rambles on and on with one phase of her life flowing into the other without a pause.  There are too many references to Provincials and Generalities and church specific bureaucracy  without saying which one was which or whether they were the same person throughout the book. Almost ten words on every page were within quotes, like why should ‘ plus two’ be within quotes when referring to plus two students.

Sr. Jesme , or maybe she’s back to Memy now, paints herself as the goodiest of goody two shoes that ever walked the earth. Barring a single faltering when she’s alone in the room with a priest, she is goodness personified. She is a socialist who mingles with the lower strata of kitchen nuns freely, she is a liberal who watches movies and makes movies, she is so honest that she is the only one who stands up against capitation fee, she is the saviour of poor students, she’s so Jesuslike that she always shows the other cheek. She’s so everything that she actually deserves a YoSrJesmeSo set of jokes.

Agreed. The rot inside the church runs deep. You have corruption, sexual liaisons, petty jealousies, politics that will put our parliamentarians to shame, mind games , rampant sexism, racism and good old simple hate. She herself seems to have been victim to a ‘special love’ with another nun and almost succumbed to the advances of a priest. But I somehow am not able to bring myself to blindly believe her version of all the events in this book. Why would she be forced to take psychiatric treatment if there wasn’t something that made the rest of the congregation believe she needed help? There must be something more to that part of the story, especially that incident which was the breaking point which made her leave the congregation. But hey, who am I to judge. If she’s happy now, free from the shackles of the Convent, good for her. I must Google for some follow ups about her life.

Afternote: My sixth standard teacher had joined a convent and left, but before she became a full fledged nun. I wonder what regrets or relief runs through her mind till this day. Two of my classmates have become nuns. One I met after a few years and she was cheerful and happy. It was awkward, the confusion whether I should call her by name or call her Sister. The other one joined the more difficult Pentecostal nunnery, haven’t heard anything from her since the day she told me she’s becoming a nun. I hope she’s happy.

While a Sister Act-like Mary Clarence will be super cool, the  Catholic church should loosen up a bit and let nuns be human. They allow their priests to be anyway. Nuns like this one, may her tribe increase.