Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Book Review : Resonance written by Ajay Pandey

Image courtesy Ajay Pandey
Thrillers have been my favourite genre of books ever since I could read. After all,  the "Secret Seven" and the "Famous Five" series of Enid Blyton were thrillers too, in their own ways. And so were all the other adventure books of Enid Blyton, including "The Enchanted Wood", "The Magic Faraway Tree", "The Adventures of the Wishing Chair" etc.  With age and time, the adventures got transformed to the present day ones of Lee Child's Jack Reacher fighting all "single-handedly"; and those of spies and secret agents created by authors like Frederick Forsythe, David Baldacci, Clive Cussler and scores of others like Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben and Christopher Reich.

And this, my love for thrillers, is what led me to seek out this enticing book jacket peering out from book shelves. A pair of icy blue eyes, belonging to a face hidden behind a keffiyeh, promised a lot of thrills, and so with gusto I sat down to read it. Resonance : the work of first-time author, Ajay Pandey.

The thriller is based around the time the unfortunate Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11 happened. The plot centres around an ex-ISI General, Imran Shah Malik, who is unable to forget the defeat of the Pakistani army at the hands of the Indian armed forces in the Bangladesh war of 1971. Revenge is foremost on his mind and he starts dreaming of it, till one day he simply disappears and then a video surfaces showing him being thrown into the white waters of the Swat river from a mountainous height no human can survive. His son, Aban Malik, studying in the US, is suddenly arrested and then deported to Pakistan. He becomes a rebel and a poster-boy for Jehadist groups.

In the meantime, Siddharth Rana, a Joint Director in the IB, starts investigating into a possible terror attack on India, which is being plotted with the active participation of some traitorous Indians. He goes on from clue to clue trying to figure out what is "To Pak To", which were the last words of a dying CISF officer. And what he uncovers points to a chilling terror plot which, if executed as planned, would bring death and destruction to the country - a catastrophe of such proportions that its after-effects would destroy India forever. 

The book is a thrilling read from the beginning to the end. There is terror, of course. But what sets this book apart from the other stylish and taut thrillers of the West, is that the book does not indulge in demonizing any religion. The author has borrowed heavily from the Sufi traditions of India. Sufism itself evolved as a soothing and soulful blend of the best of Hindu and Islamic beliefs, and hence, the same soulful touch is found in many places in the story. Amidst all the plotting and terror, there is also the tender love story of Aban and Juhi. There are the beliefs of Nausheen Malik, Aban's mother and Imran Shah Malik's wife. There is symbology in terms of the use of Hindu gods like Brahma. There are the beautifully described landscapes of  the rugged mountains of the Af-Pak region and the scenic Swat valley. And of course, there is use of technology and of the force of nature itself, in the planned terror attack.

The author, Ajay Pandey, is an officer of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). During his long and successful career with the IRS, he has had several occasions to work closely with law enforcement. Other than taxation laws, which, of course, are his bread-and-butter work. This kind of exposure has given him a ring-side view of the world of terrorism, terror financing and economic offences, and that exposure has come into play quite evidently in this book. 

Over all, a wonderful read. A book which is special because it is written by an Indian in the Indian context. The locations, agencies and agent-prototypes are known and familiar. This is Indian Writing in a different genre, a different class. A good read for this holiday season? Definitely, yes.

First-time author Ajay Pandey

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Battle the Gun; Not People

Today is December 17, 2014. The whole world, especially South Asia, is still numb with shock. Yesterday, hundreds of school children aged 4-16 yrs, left home for school in the town of Peshawar, in Pakistan, in the morning. Some of them never made it home. Some are still hanging between the state of living and the state of non-being. The ones who made it back safe will never be the same again. Their childhood, innocence, sense of security and the way of viewing the world, have changed forever. Of course, some teachers lost their lives too, leaving their families shattered too.

There has been a spontaneous outpouring of grief the world over. This massacre was preceded by the killing of two innocent persons in Sydney the day before. The world is waiting in dread : who, what, where and how will be the next.

Whenever a terror attack or a massacre occurs, people are first shocked. Then voices speak out against terror. There are some chases and arrests. There are some token memorial services. And then all goes quiet. Till the next attack. Every attack is measured against the previous one for severity and heinousness. As if such immeasurables could be measured! There is jingoism. There are vows of revenge and avenging. There is finger pointing. There is even denial. Like the Pakistani officials denying India having offered help. And then, it is business as usual.

What no one ever does is go to the very root of the problem. Of course, questions like who helped create and nurture these armies of terror, who used them towards what geo-political game, and who is still creating one horror to counter another horror, are too complex and convoluted to be discussed on this humble blog. I have seen Indians living in those same countries outcry the outcomes, but never question the global policies and practices of their adopted "homelands".

However, another issue which never is discussed, involves the instruments of terror - the guns and the bombs. Who manufactures them? Who markets and sells them? Who buys them and how? How do they procure money for buying the human-killing machinery? What happens to the money which the sellers receive? Which economy does this money finally get invested or channeled into? 

Surely guns and bombs do not manufacture themselves. Yet, why does no one ever raise these questions? The answers to these questions are vital if we are going to keep our promise to the slain children that their deaths are going to be avenged. Or the promises to our own terror victims and their families. Because the only way to stop weeds from growing is to uproot them. Promising flowers that we will fight weeds does nothing. And these questions can easily be answered if the right pressure is put on the right Banks in the right countries. But that requires geo-political clout. And if countries with that kind of clout are not doing it, there is something that they intend to keep away from the eyes of the world.

Food for thought. Why not strike where it really hurts rather than just beat about the bush and engage in tokenism, which will mean something to the victims and their families of this massacre, but will do nothing to stop the next one? If you take out one terrorist, a hundred will take their place. But if they don't have the instruments - the guns- what will they kill with? And the same logic can be applied to the frequent gunning in schools and community centres in the US. People cry hoarse about gun control, but I have never seen a single discussion on stopping production of arms. We call terrorists all kinds of names, but what about people who put the gun in their hands? Is their liability any less?   

So amidst the mourning, which people will forget in less than a week, when they go on to Christmas and New Year bashes, here is something to think about.....

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Lingua Indica

Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash
I am no scholar of linguistics. My knowledge of languages is limited to two - Hindi, being my mother tongue, and English, being my tongue. Yes my tongue, thanks to a convent education. And so the entire German-Sanskrit, three-language formula, four-language formula, five-language formula etc have left me quite amused and huff-puff.....breathless too. Counting the number of languages in the formula is no less of an effort than actually learning them.

My proficiency in German consists of..ahem...knowing the meaning of all of TWO words - Achtung ("Attention" - who can forget the U2 song Achtung Baby?!) and Das (meaning "the"). My understanding of "Das" is courtesy Karl Marx - Das Kapital, and Volkswagen - Das Auto. Of course, I thought Volkswagen was pronounced as it was written in English, till I saw the Hindi signboards. And actually, when I first came across "Das Kapital", while mugging up 'Books and Authors' in General Knowledge books as a child, I thought it meant Ten Capitals (of maybe ten countries in the world! Das means ten in Hindi, you see).

Sanskrit is another story. Shabd Roops and Dhatu Roops kept getting complicated. The difficult level was an upward rising curve, from 5th standard to 8th standard. Needless to say that the marks were situated on a downward sloping curve. One positive aspect of Sanskrit education was that finally, after 6 years of formal schooling, I could understand why the last consonant of the Devanagari script अः (Ahh) existed - of course, to be used in Sanskrit! It is said that Sanskrit is the mother of Hindi. So, like all rebellious daughters, Hindi used her mom's favourite Ahh sparingly and most spitefully. And so we have Ahh appearing in horrible words like प्रातः "praatahh", meaning early morning. Who loves early mornings, pray? But how was a small, primary school girl to understand that? I was still hanging on to my mother's pallu then.

A new language came into my life when I went to reside in the "only one of its kind" linguistically divided state - Tamil Nadu. Tamil...! No தமிழ்  Thamizh. Anyways, from not knowing a single word of it, I can now speak a few words. My early experience of living in தமிழ் நாடு Thamizh Nadu helped improve my acting skills. You see, I was communicating wholly and solely through mime. I guess the same happens when Tamil students come to Pusa Institute, Delhi, for studying agriculture. They have perfected the art of mime and so, no cultural programme in any Civil Services academy is complete without a brilliant mime by Tamil civil servants, mostly from the Pusa Institute! 

Anyways, the mime soon changed into some pigdin Tamil (not Thamizh). Whenever I speak Tamil in front of my North Indian friends, and family, they are so impressed! They look at me in amazement and compliment me on my "fluent" Tamil. I enjoy all the compliments and strut about with my chest all puffed out. Why do they need to know that if my Thamizh friends had heard what I had said, they would have had to take some anti-spasmodic to stop the stomach-ache they would have got from laughing. May be they would have given their maids a day off as the house would be clean because of their rolling on the floor laughing (ROFL in Internet-ese), and they couldn't possibly eat because of the stomach-ache explained before. So no cooking required either.

However, I have had my share of Tamil-shocks too. A few months in TN and someone asked me if I would like to eat Sholay for lunch. I was shocked. How could anyone eat a movie? A little more use of my bird brain horrified me further. What if "Sholay" is code or short for "Kalia : Sardar maine aapka namak khaya hai...Gabbar : Toh ab goli kha!" ?!  Mercifully, what appeared at the lunch table was the good old innocuous "chholey"..........and I learnt that in Tamil, 'sa' , 'sha', 'cha' and 'chha' are all interchangeably used. In fact, in Thamizh, there is only ச  'cha'. Still, this concept took a while to take roots in my mind. And so, during my first posting in Madurai, when someone brought a file concerning a "church" case, I kept looking for a church in it. Alas, I could only find a tax-evading financial company, which had been searched under Section 132 of the Income Tax Act, 1961 : hence a "search" case! And in the next few months, I did see a lot more of these "church" cases.

Every language and dialect has its own peculiarities. In Bihar, my home state, there is no difference between "pen"and "pain". Probably, someone in the early days of English education, during the British Raj, did not like to write; and so termed the "pen" as a big "pain" in his life, and the pronunciation stuck. In the Hadauti region of Rajasthan, "sa" is pronounced as "ha", much like in Asom (Ahom). So "Bachche So rahe hain" (kids are sleeping) becomes "Bachche Ho rahe hain" (kids are being born)!

In Bihar, the words "Kaahe ka" mean "why?". In UP, "Kaahe ka" means "made of what?". So, when my mother-in-law, from Lucknow, first came to visit my husband and me, she would sit at the dining table and ask me "Kaahe ki Sabzi hai?" (What is this vegetable curry made of?) Poor, foolish me kept thinking "Doesn't she know why vegetable curries are made? To eat, of course!" But in India, the Saas-Bahu game is always on, and I thought maybe it was a quiz she took to examine my philosophy with respect to food, poverty, hunger, healthy eating etc. I guess the UPSC hangover is hard to get rid off!

So, with all this experience under my belt, my relationship with the latest language in my life,  ગુજરાતી Gujarati, has so far been quite amicable. Except in the beginning, when a shopkeeper called me મોટી બેન  Moti Ben. OMG, was the shopkeeper rude and impudent! How dare he call me fat! (Moti means fat in Hindi). Had he ever looked in the mirror and seen his own pot belly? Or was he delusional, thinking that it was actually a pot that covered his six-pack abs?! (Happy New Year had not been released by then and a six-pack, not an eight-pack, was the gold standard for male figures). I didn't want to create a scene, and so, I managed to keep all my knives, daggers, swords, drones, RPGs and IEDs, and even Sunny Deol's hand-pump, inside my imagination. The next day, I started on a vigourous diet-and-exercise regime. Two days later, I was back to snacking on potato chips slumped on the couch before the TV. I had, by then, discovered, that "moti" in Gujarati means "big"or "elder". Hence, "Moti Ben" meant "big sister" or "elder sister" !

Anyways, whatever the outcome of the present German-Sanskrit debate - doesn't matter to me. What matters is that I'm way past school and don't have to learn either !! Language was made for communication and for creating understanding among people. But all I've seen languages creating is confusion. Maybe the cavemen's pictorial script was the real language. My kids have been practicing it quite a bit as evident from the walls of our home. Who knows, before they reach the stage when the German-Sanskrit debate becomes real for them, the pictorial script may have become a game-changer...?!!

Image courtesy : Sharang Prakash and Aadyant Prakash
Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Enlightenment

Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash

The night was dark, my spirits low. I sat on the pavement, near the seashore, musing. I had tried sleeping without success. My restlessness had forced me out of the house - into the darkness of the night. It was dark and humid. Not a leaf stirred anywhere. The air was still. Sultry. The present state of my mind was in harmony with the night, both blending into each other. And this wasn't the first time either.

For weeks together I had stalked the seashore, trying to find some meaning to life, in the rhythm of the tide breaking on the sands. Only tonight, it was darker and more sultry. Even the little pieces of silver, sewn on the black satin overhead, seemed to be shrouded. No breeze. My mind - too weak and dull, after weeks of brooding. Still I had no clue as to why I was a living being. Why life at all? Why my life?

A kaleidoscope of images whirred past me. Images from the past. The future? Life had always been comfortable. But why life at all? What would have happened if I hadn't been? Probably nothing different from what was happening now. What if I don't live till tomorrow? Nothing different again. I had heard arguments. Life is enjoy. to create, to revel and to be happy. To establish yourself as "somebody". To be different from the ordinary. I was not convinced. Why be different? What is so great about greatness? What is happiness? Why to be happy? Why life at all? Why?

So there I was. Back to square one. Back to that night. The dark, airless night. There were few people around me - some on the pavement, some down below on the sand. Yet, I hardly noticed them. Neither did I care for the few headlights, which used to appear suddenly from the dark and vanish again into the darkness, with amazing speed, blinding me for a few seconds - disturbing my communion with the night. So it was hardly surprising that I missed a dark shadow that crossed me for a second maybe. But the trailing hysterical scream was too loud to be missed. The source of this high decibel scream was a half-bent, frail kind of figure. The light from the street lamp was not sufficient to make out his features. Yet, the urgency of his manner was too obvious.

"What's the matter?"  I asked in a calm and steady voice.

The reply was hardly coherent. Yet, I could make out something about someone running away with money he had saved all day to buy medicines for his sick wife. The unfairness of it all struck me full force. The coordination between my mind and the night was phenomenal. The roar within me was answered by a rumble in the canopy above. In a moment, I was off in the direction towards which a crooked and shaking finger of his was pointed. Soon I could make out a medium-sized figure steadily gathering speed. But his speed was no match for mine. To come out of it the best way, he dropped a small and dirty cloth purse and sped away into the night. I waited to catch my breath. Then, slowly, I picked up the dirty object from the pavement and headed back towards its owner. As I handed it over to him, amidst the rumble, lightening flashed. Just for an instant. But that instant was enough. Enough to see his face. Enough to read the expression on it.

And even after that instant was gone, I remembered it only too well. It was like Prince Siddhartha becoming The Buddha. I had this strange feeling of elation within me. Pit-pat-pat. Big drops had started falling on the pavement. The latter, having weathered the sun for days, devoured the rain with a vehement hiss. The few people, who were still out on the street, started running for cover. But I walked on at a leisurely pace. 

It was pouring now. I couldn't have welcomed it more - yet I couldn't have cared less. For I had known, just for that instant, what life was. What happiness was. And, for that moment, I did not bother to add 'why'.

(First published in Vibes '97. The blogger was a 1st year MBA student then.)

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Cosy Reading Nook

Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash

The sun beams beckon to me, "Come, sit a while;
Put your feet up and just feel yourself smile........."

I look at the chair, all comfy, with bright-hued cushions;
Calling out to me for a few restful reading sessions

The peonies and the gerberas; yellow, pink, red and coral
And some roses, ahh....such delicate fragrances floral

Sitting seductively, with green wraps, in a glass vase or two
Or maybe a large ceramic mug, the colour cerulean blue

A bookcase to one side, again like an indoor rainbow
With book spines arranged neatly to complete the show spirit soars at the sheer visual treat
I drink in the colours and sink into the cushioned seat

I let the sights and smells completely drown my senses
All that remains is the present, there are no other tenses

I close my eyes, and just let the sun warm my heart
For letting go and relaxing is no less an art

What lies before the eyes is just blackness, and more of it
But the darkness lies....and I'm so sure of it

I know that there are sights beyond, the black itself has shades
Reds, yellows, and oranges, curled softly around the blades

I open my eyes, and let the aroma of coffee drift in
The mug a beautiful sculpture itself of  fine porcelain

And, finally, I pick up my read for the day - a  tome
A little intimidating, the subject and the huge volume

Yet, nothing, can throw a shade over the warmth I feel within
At my reading nook, with coffee, a book - sheer bliss, a piece of heaven.