Friday, 27 May 2016

Saurbh Katyal’s ‘The Invisible Woman’, on the mobile





















Readers need books. Books need to be read. No surprise then that what were unimaginable media of reading, once, are now a reality. Where once it took heart to give up paper for screens, we’re now embracing reading even on mobile phones!  Saurbh Katyal’s The Invisible Woman is the first book I read on the Juggernaut App. Let me tell you how it satisfied my twiddling thumb, for I cannot dissociate the book from its medium this first time.  


We met Vishal Bajaj, the detective-protagonist of this book, in Saurbh’s previous novel ‘Seduced by Murder’. He continues how we remember him last - real, believable, intelligent and also vulnerable. With Pranay, his partner in solving crimes, he is ‘forced to work on any case that came our way’. Money is tight! Along comes Sangita one rainy afternoon, with what seems like a simple spy-on-an-old-lady-in-Juhu-and-get-me-a-picture request, in exchange for a huge amount of money. Obviously, there is nothing simple about this woman’s request. There are wheels within wheels, sub-plots inside the main plot and a thick rope of mystery looping around the handful of characters at a steady speed to finally tighten like a noose around the murderer(s). All this happens in 48 hours at breath-taking speed! But not before Saurbh Katyal delivers a murder mystery with his characteristic imprint all over. 

What are the elements of this characteristic style, which not just make his book an entertaining read but also well-suited to be read on a phone? 

A sepia-coloured simplicity, which takes you back to old Bollywood mystery movies, coats his stories. Those times from long ago when more than gadgets (unless a magnifying glass can be called one!) it was the detective’s ability which sniffed out a crime trail. Murder investigations had tools like the investigator’s hawk-like vision, intelligent foresight and a talking gut. A detective wore an over-coat, but it didn’t spill out radars or thermal goggles. It just helped him spy in the rain, or keep his face disguised. Vishal Bajaj is one such creation, and rather unique in his ilk. More often than not, it is the talent he has seeing two and two add up to three, and not just when he is delightfully inebriated, which helps propel the mystery forward in the urban belly of ‘The Invisible Woman’. 

I may be wrong but I want to be sure,’ says Vishal, before following a trail. Alongside we follow. The reader is Vishal’s constant companion, privy to his thoughts, observations and vulnerabilities much before anyone else. Like a confidante for his most unflattering thoughts about women or more importantly, the strewn clues to the murderer. The book is teeming with blink-and-miss details. There are scorpion tattoos on fair skin, people gone missing or secretly colluding, Aadhaar Cards and Facebook, gun shots and cliff hangers, motorbikes in the rain, dustbins and garbage, alcohol and organs, eyes in peep holes, corpses in Lotus position and then those innocent confessions of servants like ‘But when he was lifting the trunk and placing it on the carrier . . . I heard a sound of something moving . . . something rolling across the trunk . . . so I know that it was not completely empty.

A lot is going on, and the reader is not just involved but occupies a position of privilege I’d say, one which even Pranay does not. If Vishal could share a drink with us, he would, as freely as he does opinions in his characteristic I-don’t-care-if-you-judge-me style. I will ‘always remember that men in ponytails and tight pants are either yoga teachers or fashion designers. Not cops.’ Well, it helped him solve crimes, so!

The sparsely-populated story moves back and forth at a gripping speed, with short, snappy chapters closing on open threads, and quick-changing scenes taking us to myriad locales in Mumbai – from plush bungalows to apartments, from dangerous suburbs to seedy hotels where ‘the room was only supposed to be used, not admired.’  The story thickens as the role of every character in the bigger puzzle comes into sight and Vishal has to separate wheat from chaff, knowing how so many characters ‘talk a lot and say too little’. A well-laid plot leaves the reader match steps with footprints, with Vishal. The story of ‘The Invisible Woman’ is not as linear as that of ‘Seduced by Murder’, but it isn’t too fashionably complex to make you feel the effort either. 

Unlike in his previous book, Saurbh’s latest closes with a series of action scenes, the dhishum-dhishum kind! So while in ‘Seduced by Murder’ we saw little muscle about Vishal, endearing the readers towards this very ordinary yet extraordinary man, in ‘The Invisible Woman’ we see him landing blows and ducking bullets with a superhero-ish zeal. A filmy feel is predominant towards the end of the book. If ‘curiosity could never kill this cat’, it seems neither could a bullet hit Vishal. But then ‘I always submit to drunk, angry men who have tied me to a chair, so I sang like a canary.’ Which is to say, he always knows what he’s doing, and why.

Frankly, if I were to choose between the story and its detective, I would pick Vishal! 

I remember observing with regret the last time around how Pranay as his detective partner simply faded away to finally vanish out of the readers’ range in ‘Seduced by Murder’. Now, ‘The Invisible Woman’ begins on a note of great camaraderie between the two partners of the agency, but yet again, though Pranay is around, he somewhat recedes into the background. For instance, even in the deadliest of scenes where Vishal could simply call him for help, he doesn’t think of keeping Pranay in the loop. Why? Some other problems I saw as I read are to do with descriptions of gory scenes not being, well, gory enough and Vishal's physical description totally missing in the book. Also, when all the threads are being tied up, I wish we weren’t eased into the revelations but awed into them. That bit fell flat on impact. 

The Invisible Woman’ does carry forward Saurbh’s classic mystery-writing style, and one which I as a reader enjoy with nostalgia in a world of overtly convoluted and complex crime thrillers. What is also apparent, and Saurbh always has an underlying “point” to his mysteries, is the aim to remove facades – which hang like expensive drapes or appear like cheap lipsticks – from our urban living. To really show what lives and transpires within. Just like his star detective, Saurbh’s stories come from our very Indian context, showing much more than just telling a tale. Certain social issues form the premise on which a woman’s revenge unfolds in this book. Once all threads are tied up we are left musing over the very human foibles that form each of us, the questionable motives that can drive us and the conscience we must keep alive, at the end of the day. 

Made for a quick, unpretentious, entertaining and marginally thought-provoking consumption, my expectations of a mystery-on-the-mobile were met rather well with ‘The Invisible Woman’.

'The Invisible Woman' by Saurbh Katyal is published on the Juggernaut App, 2016.

[The review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The Life of the Over-Anxious Types



Some people get ‘too worried’ about too many things. The list of things which gets such over-anxious folks, well, over-anxious, seems endless to others. Even if there are just 957 items (and counting) on the ‘List of Worries’, those around such palpitating folks prefer saying ‘you have to worry about EVERYTHING?’ It isn’t everything we worry about, but truth be told we do worry about a lot!

We? Okay then. Time to own up, confess and also confide. I am the over-anxious kind, but because there is comfort in numbers, let me use ‘we’ instead.

We like the usualness of the everyday. We are low-maintenance that way. A routine sans ‘interruptions’ is good for our hearts’ health. Interruptions? They come in all sizes, and the XS ones are present even in the normal day-to-day. For instance, those to do with timing. Waking up 10 minutes after the alarm sends us into a tizzy. No, we are not sure we are late but we worry that we can be because 10 minutes of usual get-the-house-folk-ready time has been lost. We berate ourselves, beat the coffee harder, bathe like standing on live coals and generally go scurrying about the house like rats. Worrying rats! ‘We are all going to be late!’ While we do that, those around us go about, or certainly seem to go about, at a shamefully languid pace, staring at the rampaging monster frothing at the mouth. ‘Can’t you do your potty fast? You are late!’ Needless to mention, by the time the bye-byes happen, usually still at the O’clock, even the sweat droplets on the nose are fatigued from the work-out. They simply want to drip away. 

This worry to do with keeping time extends to bus depots, railway platforms and airport terminals too. On an average, we reach our places of departure an hour in advance; that is after spinning like a crazy top while preparing for the trips. All lists crossed out two times over. Our bags packed for WW III. Our pockets worried full of peanuts in case a dinosaur blocks our car en route. And anxiety tucked in the top pocket, with the tickets. By the time it’s departure time, we have moved ourselves so much we don’t even realize the train is moving. And then ‘Do you think it will be raining there? We haven’t kept an umbrella!’ That's a size M for the rest of the journey.   

Then there are the Size L interruptions. Like exams! As teenagers the gut takes the kick. As adults, Lomotil becomes your best buddy. Anxiety for scoring well makes your hands shake, your hand-writing drunk and your examiner impatient, and thus often plummeting your scores. (Not for me though. I was always above average!) Vicious circle. Invoke your favourite gods, chew your nails, wear your lucky shirt, do what you may. With eyes stuck on the clock and mind on the consequences, you lose all control on your nerves. And bladder, if it’s Physics, Class XII, Board. Similar to your wedding day, cold feet included!

But some of us have not felt The Anxiety till our kids fall ill. Sneezes to infections, flu to grazed knees, weird worst-case scenarios drawn from Google or Biology books make traumatic appearances in our over-anxious eyes. Perhaps, this is why I confide today …

My son got the tummy bug a week back and has been languishing at home, with no appetite for food or fun. His parents have been doing what is needed, but it is his mother who has been doing more than what is needed. Or in other words, what is generally considered 'not needed'. I have been poring over poop and pee, pressing his tummy to generate reactions, putting each morsel in his mouth with shaky hands (Will it stay? Why won’t it? WHEN WILL IT?), touching his forehead every 30 minutes and making lists of questions to ask the doctor on the next visit. Obviously, my over-anxious behavior is generating reactions. My son’s response to ‘How do you feel?’ has gone from ‘I feel fine’ to ‘Fine!!’ My husband with his well of patience has, as usual, asked me to not worry for ‘how will it help?’ about 899 times and is now metamorphosed into his quiet helpless presence around me, passing ORS, indulging the kid with Battle Ship, sending SMSes from office and generally  trying to be helpful.

But what helps an over-anxious person? Can something?  

If it is a man they call him a birch-rod ‘disciplinarian’ and if it’s a woman on the go she’s got to be a reactive ‘menopausal’! Our worrying and worried persons are seen as child-like, predictable and unreasonable and our often shed tears common and thus needing no one’s hankerchiefs. All our worries are either unfounded or balderdash. Our very presence itself is believed to add to the grim (to us!) situation rather than take away from it. Even the doctors must be whispering under their breaths ‘Here she comes again!’ readying their best placating methods for the child’s mother’s child-within.

We over-anxious kinds sound like awful people to be around. Don’t we?

But you know, it is equally awful to be this kind too. Pretty painfully awful. Taxing! That too to be punctual, or concerned! Oh, helplessness!! To not be able to control your disorderly heartbeat even if it’s about bringing the house to order in the mornings. To not be able to not sweat when the ticket screams a departure time. To keep the hands from shaking while entering the exam halls. To not be able to fully-freely enjoy your own weddings, parties, farewells and book launches because ‘what if…?’ To not panic when the kid pukes. To not cry when he does it again...Yes, EVERYTHING! GRR!   

What helps an over-anxious person not feed on worry? Can something? 

Hm. No one’s answered that satisfactorily yet. But of course, if you’ve read this and you worry for my BP, you’re welcome to gift me a weekend at the spa in the hills or fly me for a solo beach holiday. 

(Um, what time exactly does the flight leave and which Terminal, please? Just asking. I guess.)




Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Once, at this museum in Delhi…


When news of a midnight fire destroying Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History broke, and images of the building’s façade black with soot went viral, I was struck with a strange sense of loss. Strange it seemed, for neither did I grow up in Delhi for my childhood memories to feature trips to this museum, nor was it among the popular places I frequented as a student of Delhi University for five years, and later as a journalist. Why was I sad then? What was it that made me lament the mishap as if the loss of a museum is a personal loss? Was it because it made me remember a visit to another museum, once…

The National Museum, New Delhi, was the first museum my son saw, one afternoon in the month of April. He had just turned two. My husband and I had strapped him in the car and converted an otherwise lazy afternoon into one where we were ‘doing things’ with our bubba. I had teased him for his nine years in Kolkata, which that day proved him a Bengali-parent-type by taking a tot to teach in a museum before the said tot’s molars were out! He in turn had smiled and ventured with conviction how much fun it’ll be. Come on! So I packed a WW III survival kit with finger foods, juice, hat, spare shorts, mosquito repellent cream, wet wipes, water and his favourite book. I knew I would be sitting reading to him in a cool corner, as his father fulfilled his own childhood fantasies, not having got enough of those while growing up with his face shoved inside a museum window in museum land! 

And guess what? The book wasn’t needed at all! 

The feet which climbed the few stairs at the entrance went thappad-thappad, excited just to be climbing. But the steps matured into slower taps once inside. Suddenly, the roof was soooo high, the huge room had more than the usual four walls (one, two, three, four, FIVE, SIX…) and the shiny corridor leading us in was lined with rows of statues. Hello! Are you stone?

Suddenly, there was so much to see! Further and further in and up and up towards the sky. 

The moment we entered the grand building, my son entered his own grander world of imagination seldom disturbed with facts or need to eat or pee. Curious. Quiet. Contained. With his head turning angles to really, poperly see. With his toes taking his weight so inside exhibits he could do peep-peep. With ‘what’s that and that and that?’ the only question, whispered so as not to hear his unnerving echo, and with an enthu-father ready at his service with simplified answers. Enjoying the company of his thoughts he walked. Enjoying his ‘serious’ side we followed like followers. 

He had to see everything, right till the tiniest of artifacts which never before had seen so much attention. And we saw everything too through his eyes, as we looked at him seeing and describing everything in his limited vocabulary but with limitless joy. It is a joy I fondly remember when I think of it. I look at these to remember it…




























Those who are remembering their visits to the National Museum of Natural History probably have memories of the place to turn back to in their most boring, idle, happy or lonely times. But no more do they have the same place. A lot of history has been lost in this fire, of course. Objects of immense value, which preserved within them a lifetime of stories, reduced to ashes. And then comes a question...   

When places vanish into clouds of smoke or wars of time, what happens to our personal histories; individual histories created as we live? Isn't it good to believe that even though places of note may be no more, or change faces like our hometowns, or be named anew on a whim, our memories of them cannot be taken from us? They are ours to own, like undocumented, dormant, sometimes silenced but always intimate thoughts which make precious home in our hearts and minds. Those bits which remain inside us till we remain, like unwound movie reels, sometimes forever, and other times flowing before our mind’s eyes in high speed. Triggered into limelight. Woken into remembrance. 

Just like this morning, when I watched one museum burn, I stepped into a different one. That was the first museum my son saw…

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