Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Murder with Bengali Characteristics by Shovon Chowdhury




Shovon Chowdhury’s ‘Murder with Bengali Characteristics’ wears a spectacular jacket. In the dark it glows. In the light it reminds you of Mithun da’s hero uniform, but that could be because there’s ‘Bengali’ on the cover and fish all around it. The red could also signify a certain political party, or bloody murder which follows close on political heels, especially if we are to believe what the blurb says about the story. 

This novel, it says, is ‘gripping, wildly inventive and laugh-out-loud funny’. I took this as method in all the madness that ensues. And I will tell you if it is indeed all of that. 

Wildly Inventive’ 

It is the future, many years beyond 2021, and the Chinese have taken over Bengal (You heard that right).

Calcutta had never been nuked, and had kept it that way by inviting in the Chinese. It was ten years since the war. The Indians had rebuilt New New Delhi, but the area where Mumbai used to be was still radioactive.

Now, ‘the black-and-red flag of the Bengal Protectorate has a silhouette of the Poet Rabindranath with his hand on the head of a tiger. It was the only flag in the world featuring a beard’. Bengal has transformed from ‘British to Communist to Chinese, with little bouts of anarchy in between.’ It is now under weepy Governor Wen’s rule, who wants the people to ‘fulfill the Chinese Dream’. India is a bordering half-country and the Competent Authority, its ruler, is busy provoking hostilities with China. There is a rising threat of war… 

In the meantime, Inspector Li is busy solving the mystery of a teacher’s murder, in a village near Calcutta.  Who could have killed Barin Babu? The New Thug Society, religiously determined to free Bengal from Chinese oppression, under Amalendu Lahiri? Resurrected members of the Bengal politburo, who are stalking the land? The CPI (Marxist) leader Bijli Bose? The Maoists in the jungle (still), led by Debu? Also around doing something is Verma, the mining magnate and Agarwal, his assistant. Crazy Wu, the Information Officer working underground, loves chocolates and is helping Li, somewhat, but Propagandist Wang wants Li to stop. 

Law and order remain the missing ingredients in this geo-political soup served in Bengal. But what to do? All fish have been caught in a racket, and so Bengalis are out on the roads! Also in this highly invented milieu drones deliver electric shocks to make tardy sweepers sweep faster. Paper is old-fashioned. Magazines blare and speak. Telepaths are reading brains. Cars fly and have tentacles to attack or defend or cuss. 

What you see is a brand new world in a brave new novel. Change. Everywhere. 

Its sudden onslaught left me confused, till I made some notes to keep track (you, dear reader, may just c.f. to my review. You’re welcome). 

BUT … 

What about Bengali Characteristics. Can they change? 

Of course not! Shovon agrees. 

It was a Calcutta thing. They lived in a world where time had no meaning.

The air in Calcutta is still ‘full of smoke and intellectual banter’. Men like Phoni-babu still carried ‘a deep aversion to work’ and everything is ‘always about politics.’ Agarwal says ‘Bengalis are very excitable, sir. Historically they have caused many disturbances. Traditionally their attitude is poor. Right from Mughal times there are reports which confirm this,’ and the current situation confirms that’s still the case. Calcutta’s walls are still covered in writing. ‘It was how the city spoke. Like its people it was talkative.’ And most importantly, the Bengali love for books still remains the best sign of a ‘very cultured … thinking person.’  

The world created in the novel is so different it will take us sometime to lend it reasonable plausibility, yet there’s much in this Bengali setting that is timeless. What? Why, “Bengaliness”! 

Laugh Out Loud Funny

Shovon Chowdhury is a man of Satire. The proper wala satire and not its puerile versions out to offend. ‘Murder with Bengali Characteristics’ is a superb socio-political commentary which uses wit and LOL humour to draw attention to the follies and vices that define our country’s masters, and us as its people. 

An impractical idealist’, a sincere, hard-working man who cleared his files in time and aimed to teach kids the good changes the world needs, has been murdered. Sad. So sad. But, you are meant to roll with laughter as you read what comedy transpires around this mysterious death. Shovon’s satire is all-encompassing and omni-present, sparing no rods and making you laugh, quite like you are laughing at your own self. Uncomfortable? Yes.

Each character you meet will remind you of a political leader, or a film star, or even a chief minister. You’ll be putting faces to names like Bijli Bose, Junior Khan of Kolkata Light Striders or Pishi who is ‘ebhrywhere!’ and ‘nebhar difited’.  

She was once a tall leader of Bengal, although size-wise she is very small. She is a fighter. She is not scared of anyone, except Maoists…If you require gadar, whatever the opposition, there is no better candidate. Unfortunately she is currently in a mental institution.’

They will seem familiar, these characters, from prime time or trending on #scam, but they remain uniquely created entities in this mad, mad world. After all, we’re way beyond 2021. These guys you are reminded of ought to be dead by now, ought to be, no!? 

No.

Too many familiar bells will ring in your head. 

Clean white dhotis … for goons to hide behind’ are still in fashion. The Public Security Bureau is ‘like Scotland Yard with lathis, and a greater tolerance for paunches.’ Crazy Wu, the information Officer, spent all his time ‘making knowledge disappear’; suppressing reports, comments, paintings, memes, and ‘anything that contained the wrong type of thinking.’ If you hear gunshots in a distance, know ‘it’s just the students’ union. It’s election time … they use country revolvers.’ There is also an A-card, which the government uses to locate anyone any time they want!

Favouritism still abounds. Why else will an umpire of a match the principal of a school is playing turn out to be the principal’s cousin? And thanks to the ‘jiggery-pokery with the admission procedure, nowadays it was all somebody’s nephew and somebody’s grandson’. 

Crime is aplenty, though naturally grows ‘some amount of adjustment between goonda class and police people.’ Organisations which murder have registered offices – ‘how religious people work here. They are a vital component of society. They are protecting the sentiment….their leaders are well respected in society. Chief Ministers have tea with them. Police commissioners hold open then car doors…Some of them become Ministers.’ As for the thugs, ‘they’re upper-class Hindu type. Their work is never finished. Driving backwards always takes more time.’ (Those familiar bells in the head becoming gongs, yet?)

But be as amazed as Crazy Wu to spot ‘Honest men in the Party! Who could imagine such a thing?’ Financial deficits are not improving, but so what! The ‘accuracy at estimating the deficit has improved by over 22 per cent.’ Are these two the only rays of hope in Bengal Protectorate? Write to me if you find more.

Shovon’s imagination has run wild to create this setting, but even then it could not step beyond the contemporary political reality we are surviving. Is he saying then that an unchanging continuum exists, of human vices, mindless violence and utter silliness, the effluents from which will flow right into our not-so-near future? So while we may have automatic maids, and speaking visiting cards, common sense and humanity are hard to manufacture – for VIPs and for the aam admi.

He could be saying that, really.

Lastly, ‘Gripping’? 

Here I give the fancy jacket a re-look after reading the book. I enjoyed the satire and relished the funny moments. I rest impressed, I do. But did the story per se in the book come to me full of suspense, gripping my insides with curiosity enough to follow Inspector Li from one suspect to the next? No. Two reasons:

One, the entries of various characters are so convoluted that if you have read this review carefully you will know by now that I had to make notes – of who is who and doing what and is Big Chen and Sexy Chen  the same person. Perhaps, a key at the beginning of the book would have been good, for us slow ones, who never before imagined a China in Bengal. Totally our fault!

Two, at all points in the novel, tongue-in-cheek satire and mood for fun surpass in prominence the peak points of twists and turns in the narrative. You are enjoying Shovon’s social satire and wit so much you forget that actually this is a novel, which has a story and a thick plot and a victim and a murderer. But, even though you may have a frolicking time while you’re at it, you feel no urgent need to know what happens next!


Everyone’s guilty,’ said Li

Books like ‘Murder with Bengali Characteristics’ are rare. They fool you with the fun and games as if they were written over a plate of hilsa and two smokes. But, they come from acute observation and understanding of ‘things as they stand’.  Shovon’s insight about how deep the pit of dung in which Indian polity drowns is spectacular. Without sounding like a cynic on a prime time news panel, he has told us exactly what stink tomorrow holds for us, and especially if we continue to murder the Barin Mondols of the world.

In the end, one wonders what he thinks. Does he agree with Pishi that ‘Rebholushan! Neshan requires eet!’? Or, bemoans with Governor Wen ‘How is this the City of Joy? Where did all the joy go?’ Or, is he giggling at his writing desk, repeating the jungle guide’s ‘It’s all theatre!’ slowly nodding his head? 

A book for all ‘common pipool’, and also for the ‘bold and visionary, thanks to IAS training’! 


'Murder with Bengali Characteristics' by Shovon Chowdhury is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015

[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Heen-credi-bull ‘Sept-Opus’ by Jyotin Goel



There’s a new super hero in town, and no, this one doesn’t come with underpants in the wrong place. This one comes with seven-and-a-half tentacles and an unusual supply of intelligence, enough to make Jyotin Goel write this almost-octopus’s adventures in ‘Sept-Opus’. He’s called Rot8 too; you know. Rotate – Rot8, because thanks to his missing limb he tends to spin and boomerang back to where he’s running away from, including a killer whale’s killer jaws closing in on him and … but that’s the suspense you need to read for yourself. I’m only going to tell you a wee bit more!

The story in this children’s book takes place in the Goa Sea World, where Rot8 lives with his family and other water creatures. Now, Rot8, ‘a civilized octopus’, is already quite something. ‘His family’s musical vein ran rich in him’, and he was a smart one too. Tumboo, the turtle, is his best friend and not just because she never makes fun of his half-limb, unlike Rot8’s other friends. One day, something happens (It’s a secret!) and Rot8 lands in the lab of vet Reena Ronaldo and the mad scientist Subbu Swami. ‘Heen-credi-bull’ events ensue and a new superhero-with-tools is born! And where there’s a superhero, there’s got be an adventure close behind him, isn't it? Except here, it’s in the tank where Rakshus, the killer whale, is swimming angry and very hungry …

As much as the book made me feel 8-years-old again, I need to tell you in grown-up language why books like ‘Sept-Opus’ are great for young readers who are looking for novelty in their everyday reading.  Jyotin Goel has created memorable and witty characters and set them in a suspenseful story in a very real monsoon-rich Goa. But what he has also achieved with this book is connecting with his young readers and involving them, almost reading their mind to take them along, and even asking them to guess what happens next with three bullet-ed options! 

Conversational but highly invented language, man meeting animal, the humour all over and interesting trivia to make parents happy are the USPs of this book. The novelty of the story is also in that it doesn’t lecture with a clear ‘thou shalt not’ moral at the end of it, but subtly eases kids into a revelation  - the “power” of disability. 

Man and Animal Talk

There is no dearth of invention and imagination that has gone into this book. Have you ever met ‘eight-legged blobs of goo’ called Irrit8, Overw8 and even Po8, who writes verses? They speak ‘Octopi’, just like blowfish speak ‘Blowish’. For that matter, every single character in the book, human or animal, speaks differently from the other. 

So, if Reena’s helping hand to Rot8 and Tumboo sounds like ‘Letto meeaaloo hellapoo yaouula’, Dr Subbu Swami introduces himself as ‘Dr Zubbu Zwami, proztheticz h’expert.’ It’s a world where ‘no one speaks Fishy well’ and human speech sounds like ‘gobbledygook to all creatures.’ Just imagine the confusion! Yet, they are all communicating (though some like Clumsy Claude are bumbling-fumbling too!) and making themselves understood. When Reena talks to Rot8, ‘he didn’t understand her words, but her meaning was clear.’ 

In ‘Sept-Opus’, rather beautifully, all creatures are meeting in their truest best sans a shared language, or accent. It is where ideas of sibling love and loyalty, communal support and friendship, loneliness and heart-break, silly mistakes and forgiveness cut across the two defined Kingdoms as we know it, and bring Man and Animal on a common plank, whether above or below sea level. 

(Okay, killer Rakshus may just be an exception. But ‘his mind had shrunk to contain just one thought – the last, deepest thought of a killer whale: to find its prey, to hunt, to kill’. Shall we excuse him?)

Humour

And this is how the book begins, in peace-time:

‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls … for the Final, Fantastical Act of the Goa Sea World show, preeeeesentinggg the Cleverest Creatures in the sea – the Octopi!’

That announcement had two mistakes. As every octopus knows, the plural of ‘octopus’ is ‘octopuses’, not ‘octopi’ (Octopi is the language octopuses speak). The second mistake was calling octopuses ‘the cleverest creatures in the sea’ – they’re NOT. They’re the cleverest anywhere!’

And this is how it is, in panic-time:

Whale …tail…jail…fail…’ Po8 muttered, terrified.

‘W…what are you doing?’ Irrit8 whispered.

‘C…can’t help it…bit…sit…When I’m scared, I rhyme…time…mime…dime… It’s poetic reaction…faction…action…

While in another corner of the pool, Tumboo has been badly bitten but let alone by the shark with a ‘Pthoooh! Taste terrible!’ Giggly Tumboo pops her head out, ‘I’ve never been so insulted!’ And the kids are breathing again. The book spirals into nail-biting action sequences towards the closure, but little readers will be laughing their lungs out even as they chew their nails. (Parents take note.)

Superhero

Children love one, don’t they? And Rot8 is special, not just because of the “powers” he acquires in the lab or that he heroically ‘clamped to the whale’s fin’, but also because he is not usual. He has only 7 and a half limbs. And ‘Sept-Opus’ stands for the idea of how every lack comes with a special something in stead, and how disability thus becomes a specialty. 

A lovely message without making it sound like one! Should make the parents happy, apart from the fact that the book is also teeming with scientific trivia about camouflage and inks, octopuses swimming at 70 kilometres per hour but not surviving 5 mins in the air, and that ‘what is loud for an octopus (under water) is shattering for the whale.’ 

Wait, I’m entering spoiler territory now. ‘H’EEM-pozzi-bull!

Swimming to a conclusion then, ‘Sept-Opus’ is a children’s book that has it all. It will make them laugh, maybe go sniff-sniff in some scenes, keep them interested, entertain them with illustrations and plant a tiny moral seed in them too. It will be a treat to read aloud, thanks to how it has been written, and even more to be read aloud to. I would really love that!


'Sept-Opus' by Jyotin Goel is published by Red Turtle, Rupa Publications, 2015

[Review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]

Friday, 7 August 2015

Tooth Sensitivity and a Sensitive Sister


[This article has been brought to you with the support of GSK Consumer Healthcare. However, the views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of GSK Consumer Healthcare.]

I just spent a week with my kid brother in my home town. While I call him my kid brother, knowing he’s some years younger than me, secretly I know he has surpassed me in the department of studious grey cells. He’s a dentist, with a couple of fancy degrees. Dentists. Those guys you and usually avoid, till the drum-beats of tooth ache reach our knees.

While I had no intention of opening my mouth wide before his poring eyes, knowing how I bullied him as a younger sib and fearing he may want to take it out on my teeth, I couldn’t help it this time. I felt that shudder over our favourite vanilla ice cream and mango one evening post-dinner. He noticed. (And I swear I saw an evil smile on his face right then.) The next day, with a glass of iced tea in hand, he approached me. Same evil smile in place. Yes, I had been caught red-handed with my tooth sensitivity. And this time I had to refuse my favourite drink only to go ‘aaa’ before his bespectacled gaze.

A short and not-so-sweet conversation about tooth sensitivity ensued…

I always knew you as hyper. Didn’t know it translated into you brushing with so much gusto. Do you use a very hard brush and brush with too much force? he asked. I had little choice but to be honest. Because leg-pulling apart, I was saving some money by ‘consulting’ my brother in the comfort of my childhood home.

Oh please, I retorted with an incredulous expression.

Then it’s probably because you don’t know how to brush. Plaque build-up can cause tooth sensitivity, you know.

I’ve been brushing a good three years longer than you so don’t try to act smart, okay? I was already questioning why I agreed to this “check-up” when … 

Hm, then it must be all the teeth you ground at me when we were little. You see, tooth-grinders wear out their enamel which leads to tooth sensitivity. Some even do it in their sleep. You need a mouth guard to stop it. It may help in keeping you from talking too much too!

I don’t grind my teeth, thank you! Is this all that you’re capable of? Not very professional of you, really. I was confused if he meant what he said or was inventing causes for tooth sensitivity.

Finally, perhaps because my expressions reminded him of those times I play-punched him and won pillow-fights, he chucked the smart-ones and gave me the deal straight. I, in turn, lowered the magnitude of my own touchiness to hear him out. 

I was told how, apart from the above mentioned reasons, tooth sensitivity can be caused by using teeth-whitening pastes. Special desensitizing toothpastes like Sensodyne should be used in case of tooth sensitivity.  

Oh, and before I forget, said he, eat less! I mean acidic foods. Use your common sense and stick to foods which don’t cause shuddery moments. Which is to say, the left-over vanilla ice-cream is all mine!
And I saw that evil smile, yet again, just before I delivered a mock-punch. After all, going home means reliving childhood memories to the t, no? 

But the test of patience made way for a real one soon after. My brother asked me to test my teeth, literally. While I thought it was a green to finally chew his neck down, he had this in store for me.


Go ahead! Click, confess your toothy troubles and simply check the result. Diagnosis made easy.



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