Around India in 80 Trains: Monisha Rajesh

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Monisha Rajesh wakes up one morning and decides to replicate Jules Verne’s classic novel, except that she aims to travel around India, and in trains. She finds her Passepartout in a Swedish photographer, and they spend three months travelling across the length and breadth of the country.

The book is interesting, in parts. Rajesh’s voice is wry and witty, and she has a knack for observation. She travels a variety of trains- the toy train in Matheran, the Lifeline express which is basically a hospital on wheels, the Golden Chariot from Mysore to Goa, along with a bunch of passenger trains, locals, Rajdhanis and Shatabdis- as she goes to the furthest points serviced by the Indian Railways, from Kanyakumari in the South to Udhampur in the North, from Dwarka in the West to Ledo in the East.

While Rajesh’s writing is commendable, I had some gripes with the book. She never really lets go of her NRI attitude, with the typical distaste for Indian heat and dust, which seems geared for a foreign audience. She travels mostly in air-conditioned compartments, and while there is nothing wrong in that, I can say, from personal experience, that most of the local color and liveliness can be found in non-AC sleeper coaches. Hence her book is devoid of interesting characters, and is more of an ‘I went here and saw this’ type of narrative.

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Flash Boys: Michael Lewis

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Who would pay $10.6 million for access to an optic fibre line that reduces signal transmission time from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to the Nasdaq in New Jersey from 16 milliseconds to 13 milliseconds? Why would Goldman Sachs call the FBI on a programmer who had copied some code, based on open source code, to his personal library? Michael Lewis searches for answers to these questions and more in this highly interesting book.

If you, like me, have wondered what new method banks found to make billions of dollars in profit after the 2008 crisis, here is part of the explanation. High frequency trading is the name of the game, where the game is played in micro and milliseconds, and middlemen take all the money. Dark pools are another trick, exactly what the name says, private stock exchanges run by banks where money goes in and money comes out and nobody knows what is happening.

The book follows Brad Katsuyama, founder of the Investor’s Exchange, as he tries to unravel what is happening to the world of trading in the US, and fix it. I found it interesting that it was a Canadian guy working for a ‘nice’ Canadian bank, who exposed the new twistedness in the US financial system- it seems that the Americans were too busy chasing after the money to give a damn. Lewis writing style is simple and engaging, and does not require you to know high finance to understand what’s going on.  He also points to a few other books that explore the new murky world in more detail, and I will try to read those sometime; the numerous ways banks try to game the system is indeed morbidly fascinating.

Mistborn- The Hero of Ages: Brandon Sanderson

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Ruin has escaped his prison. The end of the world is near. Ash covers the earth, plants are dying, giant earthquakes rock the landscape. Amidst near destruction, Vin, Elend and their band fight on, trying to decipher the Lord Ruler’s messages to help, trying to find a way to defeat Ruin.

What I enjoyed most in this final instalment is what I have enjoyed most in this trilogy- the explanation of the magical systems. Sanderson links the two threads- the development of the three types of Allomancy and the battle between the gods Preservation and Ruin- and provides quite a satisfying explanation for all the different elements of the world he has created. Each element has a part to play, and the twists and turns kept me interested, especially the concluding one.

Pacing is much better than the second, though I still had problems with some of the plot points (masquerade balls during a siege, really?). Character development has been, for me, a weak point of these books- despite Vin being the sort of spunky heroine I like, I’ve never really felt too much for her. This, to me, has always been a shortcoming of Sanderson’s work- plot development over character development- and while they make his books interesting and move quickly, they stay with you for a shorter time.

Mistborn- The Well of Ascension: Brandon Sanderson

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This book begins a year after the events of The Final Empire. King Elend Venture’s shaky control over Luthadel is threatened by the arrival of two armies at his doorstep, one belonging to his power-hungry father. Vin is by Elend’s side, but even the most powerful Mistborn known cannot battle all the forces that threaten her world.

The major issue I had with this book was pace. Nothing happens. On the surface, it does- lots of action scenes of Vin using her enhanced abilities, introduction of a new creepy creature family, Elend’s attempts at democracy- but none of them are actually interesting. If you look at how much the plot advanced by the end of the book, it’s probably the distance from your bedroom to your kitchen.

Some of the new characters are interesting- Staff Venture, Elend’s father, has similarities with Tywin Lannister, but others, like Vin’s mysterious sparring partner, didn’t engage me. The book is all about Elend’s character development, and while you know it’s going to be a slow process, you already know what’s going to happen and feel like, dude, get on with it already! The book is like many middle novels in trilogies are, placeholder, stage setter, and, frankly, expendable.

 

Mistborn- The Final Empire: Brandon Sanderson

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Vin is a street urchin, a thief, whose key life skills are trusting nobody and eluding those who would beat her. But when a noted thief Kelsier recruits her crew for a job, she discovers that she is Mistborn, one of a rare breed who have the power of Allomancy, the ability to gain abilities like super speed and strength by burning metals. She is drawn into Kelsier’s grand plan, to overthrow the Final Empire and the Lord Ruler, an immortal tyrannical god who has ruled the land for the last thousand years.

I enjoy the worlds Sanderson creates; there is some amount of scientific logic in them. Magic isn’t merely waving a wand and doing voodoo, there are methods and rules and limitations. His story progresses at a reasonably fast pace, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked. These are the Sanderson characteristics- dialogue and action heavy, a major twist you won’t see coming, plucky heroines and a reasonably smart cast of characters.

However, as much as the plot keeps you hooked, the writing still seems slightly stilted, and character building is more of the ‘telling, not showing’ type. I did miss the descriptive world building a la GRRM or Rothfuss. Sanderson’s books occasionally seem like reading the novelisation of a TV show; they aren’t as richly developed as the former’s. I wonder if it is to do with the amount of time taken to write each book. Sanderson is known to be a quick writer, working on multiple projects and churning out a book every year or so, while we all know what the great GRRM does. Gaiman is the only person I’ve seen doing a good balancing act between speed and content, but I don’t think he’s done any epic fantasy, so I don’t know if he would do any better or worse on that aspect.

 

Curfewed Night: Basharat Peer

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Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots and Peer’s Curfewed Nights are two sides of the same story, and that is why I read them back to back.

Peer writes about his childhood growing up in Anantnag near Srinagar, just as the violence was beginning in the Valley. He talks of militants and then armymen visiting his school, how he almost joined the JKLF, the stories of people who actually did and what befell them. Growing up, he moves to Delhi to study but comes back, to write about the Kashmir he left behind, the Kashmir of half-widows and rapes and Army atrocities in camps like Papa-2.

It is certainly interesting to read this book just after Pandita’s, and you see the same event from two different eyes. The sloganeering of “Hum kya chahte? Azadi!” which terrified the young Pandita, the young Peer participated in. The India-Pak cricket match, where Javed Miandad’s last-ball sixer off Chetan Sharma’s delivery left Pandita in tears, was a moment of celebration for Peer and his village. But like Pandita says in his book, their stories diverged after 1990, and that is where Peer’s book becomes difficult to read.

“Srinagar is being in a coffee shop, in an office, outside a college, crossing a bridge and feeling, touching, breathing history, politics and war, in unmarked signs and landmarks. It is seeing a bridge, a clearing, a nondescript building and knowing that men fell here, that a boy was tortured there.”

It is indeed difficult for me as an Indian brought up to believe that what was done in Kashmir was right for the country, to read about how the Army actions affected the people in the state. Peer has collected stories across Kashmir, of those beatings and burnings and physical disfigurement in Army interrogation camps, of rapes like those of Mubeena Ghani, who was raped by paramilitary forces on her wedding night, of soldiers sending children into militant hideouts holding bombs. Some of the stories made me sick; I cannot imagine how it must have been for the ordinary people, to live with these stories around them, continually under the shadow of daily violence and death.

Peer’s book is also not without its problems. He never really explains the motivation behind the deep hatred Kashmiris nursed for India, even before the conflict began in the Valley. Traces of that antagonism seem to remain in Peer, and though he tries to present matters in a reporter’s voice, the book is much less critical of the militants than it is of the Indian Army. The violence in Kashmir was a two-way street, instigated by militants, and I cannot accept the view of them being freedom fighters as Peer would like us to believe. He does soften up at the end, sounding hopeful at the launch of the Srinagar-Muzzaffarabad bus service. I do believe, though, the book does an important task in shining light on the Army’s role in the 25-year old saga of violence, and giving a Kashmiri’s opinion on the events that occurred.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which I think summarizes the idea of the book.

“The Line of Control did not run through 576km of militarised mountains. It ran through our souls, our hearts, our minds. It ran through everything a Kashmiri, an Indian, and a Pakistani said, wrote and did.”

Our Moon Has Blood Clots: Rahul Pandita

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The discourse on the exodus of nearly 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in the late 1980s has been commandeered by Hindu fundamentalists to justify their own excesses against Muslims.  Pandita’s book is a story of the people who actually lived through those times, and the times they faced after that.

January 19, 1990. The day defines the author’s life, and the book. It is the night mobs surrounded his home in Srinagar, the night his mother stood all night with the kitchen knife in her hand, ready to kill her daughter and herself if they breached their home. That night his family makes the decision to leave their home, and the sorrow of displacement permeates the memoir.  Woven through the personal narrative are the stories brutalities against other Kashmiri Pandits- loot, murders, rapes, lynchings. As the tragedies hit closer to home, Pandita’s mother goes into a slow decline, mirroring, in part, the decline of her home state.

Pandita’s story, of a teenage boy losing his home and seeing his world crumbling around him, cannot fail to move you. He shows numerous instances of Muslim neighbors being complicit in the atrocities, and it is those stories that I found most disconcerting, of how an ideology permeated so much into a community that they were willing to turn on people they had known most of their lives. My knowledge of history, of that time’s events are shaky, and this book helped provide some perspective into one of India’s under-reported  events.

Pandita’s story is not without its flaws. It is exclusively one-sided, but to be fair, it is a personal story, and the one-sidedness would be inevitable. Even so, I would have liked some commentary on how the violence against the Pandits fits into the entire picture of violence in Kashmir. And not to sound insensitive, but Pandita did have it easier than other families. He did lose his home and some of his close family, but his parents did have a steady income due to their government jobs, they never had to live in a refugee camp, and they managed to regain some semblance of their lives. I would have liked a bit more light shone on the lives of those who lived in the refugee camps; one of their voices would have strengthened the narrative.