Category Archives: Books

Book Launch: Rashmi Bansal’s ‘I have a dream’

“I Have a Dream”, Rashmi Bansal’s third book in her series on Indian entrepreneurs, is her most idealistic one so far. “In fact, there was some apprehension that it might not do as well as the other two, since it wasn’t about people making money or being successful in the conventional sense,” says Rashmi, who was recently in town to launch the book at Landmark, Citi Centre. “But the stories are so inspiring, and each one so unique, that I was sure readers would respond to it.”

The book tells the stories of 20 ‘social entrepreneurs’, idealists who aren’t driven by the bottom dollar, but have started NGOs for social change, led movements for the greater good, or dedicated their lives to the service of others.

“Working on this was a different experience altogether,” says the journalist, blogger, motivational speaker and entrepreneur, who is co-founder and editor of Just Another Magazine (JAM). “Many of the people I featured were quite reluctant to even give me an interview, insisting the credit belonged to their entire team.”

Her personal favourite is Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International (an organisation that works for clean toilets and the rightful place in society for those who once cleaned them). “When you see someone who has devoted 40 to 45 years of his life to create a revolution in a particular area of society, it really touches you,” she says. “He was just another person like you or me, who was floundering and trying to find his way, but when the opportunity came to make a difference, he made a commitment to it.”

Rashmi’s own foray into writing on entrepreneurship happened almost by accident, when she was approached by her alma mater IIM-A to do a project on MBAs who’ve chosen to turn entrepreneur. “The book wasn’t even meant to be published,” she recalls. “They had just planned to make about 100 copies to distribute internally.”

But, it did end up being published — as “Stay Hungry Stay Foolish” (2008) — and became an unexpected success. “A number of people wrote into us saying it had either given them the courage to begin their own businesses, or the motivation to keep going through rough times,” she says.

This was followed by the equally well-received “Connect the Dots” (on non-MBA entrepreneurs), and it was obvious that Rashmi had struck a chord. “There’s a wave of entrepreneurship in India today, and perhaps people needed new role models,” she says. “Earlier, our only models were foreign successes such as Bill Gates, or a Tata or a Birla. But, when you read about 20 regular people who’ve made successes of themselves, people with backgrounds similar to yours, it’s easier to relate to.”

Times have changed since Rashmi turned entrepreneur back in 1995, when she started JAM along with friends. “We just felt there was a need for a youth magazine and got charged up,” she says, adding with a laugh, “We started in one room, with Rs. 50,000, which we used to buy one computer — we didn’t even know the words ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘venture capitalists’ then!”

But, her experiences have helped her speak to the youth of the country today — through her blog ‘Youth Curry’, her seminars, and, of course, through her books. “I didn’t plot or plan any of this; I’ve just been lucky that all my experiences have culminated in what I do today,” she smiles.

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Book Launch: Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’

Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Details of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile at St. Helena, the intricacies of Parsi-Gujarati slang, and the wonders of the ancient Guangdong province of China.

The recent launch of Amitav Ghosh’s “River of Smoke,” the sequel to his bestselling “Sea of Poppies,” covered almost as much ground as the epic seafaring tale itself. Anyone in the packed audience at the Ballroom in Taj Coromandel who’d not already read the book was left in no doubt of the sheer scale of the story, which travels from Mauritius to China and from India to Europe, and the remarkable breadth of Ghosh’s research in recreating an all but forgotten time.

Former Governor of West Bengal Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who was in conversation with the author, opened the evening by saying in his lyrical way that this was a book that could be read over and over again, and analysed for its language, characters and plot, but “couldn’t be mastered.” “Not because it’s heavy or because it’s long, but because it makes you encounter, hold and behold, and witness the enormous canvas that goes beyond the book,” he said.

Set in the 19th Century, “River of Smoke” tells the story of Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant from Bombay, his half-Chinese son Ah Fatt and others, and traces the period immediately preceding The Opium Wars, an event which Ghosh believes is of far greater historical significance than previously realised. “In the future, I believe people will be taught that their modern world began with The Opium Wars, and not the French Revolution, as we were told,” he said.

It is a time about which very little is known today, which is why Ghosh had to reconstruct it “brick by brick”, unearthing fascinating old documents such as the Laskari dictionary, outlining the forgotten pidgin language used by the seafaring Laskars and their European commanding officers (“I combed through the Harvard library and hey presto! There it was, written in 1812 and published in Calcutta!”). Then there’s the 1940s treatise on Parsi-Gujarati that he found, and the time he spent travelling around the “miraculous” 2000-year-old province of Guangdong…

How did he do it? That was the question posed to him by Gandhi and by the members of the audience. Did he feel weighed down by all that research? “Not at all,” Ghosh said. “The work is endlessly rewarding, whether it’s the pleasure of finding out new things or travelling to new places. I don’t know what I’d do without it!”

“Young authors are told to write about what they know,” he added, “but I feel one should write about what nobody knows. These are vanished, evanescent worlds that you have to rebuild, and to me, that’s very exciting.”

His long, detailed reading from the book gave the audience a feel of the world of “River of Smoke”, as he took them onboard a sailing vessel with Bahram, then into Bonaparte’s home when in exile at St. Helena, all the while making them chuckle at the engaging dialogue marked by his unique use of language.

Not surprisingly, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India called “River of Smoke” Penguin’s biggest fiction book of the year. “It’s been launched to wide acclaim in the U.K. and is already topping the charts in India — all in just three weeks,” she said, speaking at the launch.

It couldn’t happen at a more meaningful time, as general manager of Taj Coromandel, N. Prakash noted: “This is the 25th year since Amitav’s first book, ‘Circle of Reason,’ was published, which makes this evening all the more special.”

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Book Launch – ‘R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music’

The smiles came instantly, the feet started tapping of their own accord, and heads swayed to the lively tunes. The enduring magic of Pancham da’s music was on ample display as a medley of some of his best-loved hits played before the launch of the book,R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music at Crossword recently.

Clips of songs such as ‘Aaja Aaja’, ‘Kaanta Laga’, ‘Chura liya’, ‘Chingari koi bhadke’, ‘Aaja piya tohe pyar du’ and ‘Oh majhi re’ played for mere seconds, but it was enough to set the mood for an event that was all about remembering R.D. Burman’s remarkable contribution to Hindi film music.

The walk down memory lane was lead by none other than the evergreen singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who talked about his decade-long acquaintance with the music director.

“We first met in the mid-1970s, when he’d come to perform in Chennai, along with Asha Bhonsle and Bhupinder, at the University auditorium,” recalled SPB. “Unfortunately, the sound system there was miserable on the first day, so I gave him my own sound system for the second show, and met him afterwards. I was literally just a ‘chhota-mota’ singer back then!”

The first song they did together was ‘Baaghon mein khile hain’ for “Shubhkamna” (1983), and their musical association lasted until SPB recorded ‘Aaja Meri Jaan’ in 1993. “It was the last song I did for him, and it’s a number that is still talked about in musical circles,” said the singer. “I get very sentimental when I sing it; I always keep it for the end of any stage performance.”

The packed audience was treated to a mini-musical biography of the great composer, as SPB talked about Pancham da’s struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, his genius with syncopation (“he was the human embodiment of rhythm”), his punctuality during recordings (“I once came 15 minutes late and really got it from him!”), and later, Pancham’s regrets over the way he was treated by some filmmakers during the low phase of his career.

The evening ended as it began — with music — as SPB fans in the audience requested him to sing for them. He obliged with ‘Khoya khoya chand’ and ‘Sach mere yaar hai’ (his duet with Kishore Kumar for R.D. Burman in “Saagar”), his voice soaring effortlessly over the hubbub at the bookstore (he drew the line at a request for his ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ songs, though, saying in his gentle way, “that’s not relevant”).

“My acquaintance with Pancham was not, perhaps, as much as that of some senior singers,” he said later, “but I grabbed this opportunity to speak about him because I still live with his music every day.”

 

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Book Launch: Jeffrey Archer’s ‘Only Time Will Tell’

And he’s back. Jeffrey Archer’s visits to the city have practically become an annual tradition now. For the third time in three and a half years, the British best-selling author returned in Chennai to meet his adoring fans, and, of course, to promote his latest offering.

“I’ll be travelling to five cities in six days, and I did 11 interviews just today,” said Archer, as he took the stage at Odyssey at Express Avenue Mall. “It’s non-stop work from plane to plane, but it’s worth it – I’ve just been told the book’s gone to number one on the bestseller list. This is why I love coming to India again and again.”

You really can’t blame the guy. Not only is this the country where he has the single largest readership, it’s also probably the only place on earth where the author with a somewhat murky past gets a standing ovation when he strides onstage like an aging, bespectacled rockstar. The crowd at Odyssey was somewhat smaller than that of the previous years’ events held at Landmark – there were actually empty seats at the start – but it did grow by the end, so Archer could say with some satisfaction before the book signing, “Look how many people there are!”

The book in question this year is ‘Only Time Will Tell’, the first of the five-part series, ‘The Clifton Chronicles’ that spans a hundred years from 1920 to 2020, and traces the life of Harry Clifton and the mystery surrounding his father’s death.

“This first book follows Harry’s life from his birth in the docklands of Bristol in 1920 up until 1940, when he has to decide whether he’d go to Oxford or to the war,” said Archer. “It’s only been out three days, but I’m sure some of you would have already read it; people in India are so fast, it’s frightening.”

The evening was full of such asides – how quick people are in India, how many aspiring writers there are (“only in India will all the hands go up when you ask that question”), and how many young writers have already written a novel (a 14 year old girl in this case, which Archer called ‘typical’). Once he was up on stage, he was fond, benign old Uncle Archer, completely in charge and holding forth on writing tips, mock-scolding the audience, and generally having them eating out of his hand.

However, what did come across as truly genuine was his gratitude for the reception he gets here, and he patiently responded to all the questions he was asked, whether it was about his writing routine (he’s up by 5.30 a.m. and writes for eight hours a day with breaks every two hours) or his exercise routine (he has a personal trainer from New Zealand – “I can drop and do 25 press ups right now.”) He revealed that Columbia Pictures has sent him the script for the movie adaptation of his previous novel, ‘Paths of Glory’, but that he was afraid to read it (“I’m dreading not liking the script and feeling it could have been so much better”), and that he wouldn’t be writing a book on vampires any time soon, “though I’m told they’re in”.

The event ended the way his launches always do – with a throng of autograph seekers surrounding him. “I was mobbed back in Mumbai,” he said, trying to organise the crowd better here; but you got the feeling he probably wouldn’t mind being mobbed – at least a little – again.

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Author interview: C.P. Belliappa (‘Victoria Gowramma – The Lost Princess of Coorg’)

In a quiet corner of the Brompton Cemetery in London lies a 19th century grave partially covered by the undergrowth. The graceful stone cross above it is slightly broken, but the epitaph composed by Queen Victoria can still be read: “Sacred to the memory of the Princess Victoria Gouramma (sic), daughter of the ex-Raja of Coorg…”

That’s where the strange and tragic tale of Victoria Gowramma, the princess from Coorg who was raised Christian and became Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, ended in 1864. But her story has come to light again in all its fascinating detail thanks to C.P. Belliappa’s rigorously researched book ‘Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg’, which was recently launched in the city.

“Historical writings on Coorg – mostly gazetteers by the British who lived there during the 19th century – mention the story of Gowramma and her father, the exiled Raja Veerarajendra in a paragraph or two,” says Belliappa, author of ‘Tale of a Tiger’s Tail & Other Yarns from Coorg’ and ‘Nuggets from Coorg History’. “But the details were never there, and I got more and more inquisitive.”

His big break came when he accidentally stumbled upon three books written in the 19th century by people who know both the raja and his daughter. “I was able to download them – for free! – from www.archive.org, where old books are digitised and uploaded,” he said. “They were authentic, firsthand accounts, and comprised 75 per cent of the information I needed.”

The rest he found from the digital archives of the Times London – reports of court functions and events that contained all sorts of interesting titbits of information.

‘Victoria Gowramma…’ traces the intriguing series of events surrounding the princess’ journey to England with her father in 1852, and her difficult and often lonely life there subsequently. The various threads include the exiled raja’s attempts to reclaim the wealth the British took from him (his reason for taking Gowramma to England in the first place), and the grand plans by Queen Victoria to match-make between Gowramma and another young royal convert to Christianity, Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab.

“Queen Victoria believed that if two royals converted to Christianity were married, and their children were born Christian, it would encourage more of their subjects to convert,’ says Belliappa. “What’s interesting is that although the plan didn’t work, the queen continued to be fond of Gowramma to the very end.”

The book, then, is more than just a portrait of a princess; it gives you a glimpse into the political and religious power dynamics of the time. With its wealth of primary sources, it’s a solid historical work, though Belliappa admits that he was very tempted to go the historical fiction route. “I gave it a lot of thought, and decided finally that the facts themselves were so sensational that they didn’t need fictionalising,” he says.

Since the book’s release in England last year, the author has uncovered even more interesting nuggets of information – for instance, after a bit of detective work, he’s discovered that direct descendants of Gowramma live on to this day in Australia.

“I have enough material to add at least an epilogue in future editions of the book,” he says. “It’s been a very exciting time.”

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Book launch: Rahul Bhattacharya’s ‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’

Much like the book itself, the launch event of ‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’ by Rahul Bhattacharya was all about the Caribbean nation of Guyana – its people, its language and dialect, its colonial history and racial politics, and its decaying wooden splendour.

“It’s such a raw-ly beautiful country, with its red rivers and rainforests,” said Bhattacharya, in conversation with journalist and author Samanth Subramanian at Landmark. “I felt an instant affinity to its colours and dialects – it was so different from anything I’d experienced before.”

Delhi-based Bhattacharya is best known for his work on cricinfo.com and for his popular cricket book ‘Pundits from Pakistan’. ‘The Sly Company…’ is his debut novel and was also, in a sense, was born out of cricket.

“I was on my first international cricket tour to the West Indies, and my first port of call was Guyana,” he recalled. “It was a very boring week of test cricket – it always rains there during matches – but my affinity for the place stayed with me, and I decided to follow that feeling nearly four years later.”

He ended up spending a year there – unusual, to say the least. “No one goes to Guyana,” he said laughing. “Everyone flees Guyana – it’s such a desperate, struggling place.”

But it’s also a fascinating place, with its volatile racial mix of Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Portuguese, its grid of canals and trenches, and its sagging wooden houses with zinc roofs built by the Dutch. “I knew I’d write a book on it, but I didn’t what that book would be,” said Bhattacharya.

The book eventually took the shape of a novel (“I’d start with facts and then tell a whole lot of lies”), but the author still struggled with the non-fiction elements he needed to include.

“So few in India know the historical context of Guyana – how it was created entirely by colonial powers who brought in slaves and indentured labourers, and how its reality is shaped by what happened once the colonial powers left,” he said. “I had to reconcile these non-fictional elements with the storytelling – that was challenging.”

‘The Sly Company…’ tells the story of a young man from India who goes to Guyana in search of escape from ‘the deadness of life’, and embarks on an adventure with Baby, a diamond hunter. Slow paced and filled with dialogue in Guyanese dialect, the book isn’t always easy to read. But it did come alive during a long, dramatised reading by the author, who did a remarkable job in re-creating the distinctive rhythms of Guyanese speech (“I became quite good at it; people could mistake me for Guyanese by the end!”).

“When I came back, the dialect was bouncing in my head so hard – the vivid phrases and the very visual way of speaking were addictive,” he said. “A lot of the narrative in the book was in that style initially; I had to be reined in by my editor who felt it would be incomprehensible to readers.”

Naturally, much of the q-and-a session that followed focused on race and politics in Guyana. The turnout at the launch might have been small, but those present walked away with a deeper understanding of the Caribbean nation.

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Author interview: Rudra Krishna (‘The Onus of Karma’)

His novel ‘The Onus of Karma’ may have just been released recently, but Rudra Krishna started writing the story a long, long time ago. At the age of 12, to be precise.

“It was the first story I ever wanted to tell,” says the 28-year-old author about the fantasy adventure novel. “But every time I started, I felt I was writing pure drivel. I really struggled to find my style.”

Fast forward 10-odd years to 2006, and Rudra was ready to tackle the story once more. And this time, he meant business. “I finally had the style down, the plot mapped out and the research done, and when I sat down to write, I finished it in seven weeks,” he says. “I guess it had been fermenting in my mind a while!”

So what was so special about this story? Well, it’s based on the legend of a swashbuckling ancestor of Rudra’s – his great-great-great-great-grandfather (“I’ve lost track of the number of ‘greats’,” he jokes), Tharuppukal Ramaswami Aiyar, a fearless bounty hunter who turned his back on tradition and ended up making the family fortune.

“He was the last of seven children in a family of purohits, who decided he didn’t want to be a priest, and trained in sword-fighting, archery and martial arts instead,” says Rudra. “He ran away at the age of 17, and famously captured the feared dacoit Arunachalam. He was a total free spirit –he just disappeared one day at the age of 38 or 39 and was never seen again.”

Around this fascinating ancestor, Rudra has spun a tale of mysticism and intrigue, involving the Sri Chakra, the divine wheel of awesome power given to man by Lord Shiva, and historical figures such as Haider Ali and Lord Hastings.

“The bits about the chakra are all fantasy, of course, but the historical facts are entirely accurate,” says Rudra, a Masters in law from Cardiff who now edits legal books. “My mother, Dr. Nandita Krishna helped with all the research – she read a few hundred books for a year.”

‘The Onus…’ – which touches upon issues of caste, class, religion and race – has managed to ruffle quite a few feathers since its release. “I never meant to hurt anybody but I’ve managed to offend everyone from old Mylaporeans (including my extended family) to my English and Muslim friends,” says Rudra ruefully. “But as long as I’ve offended everyone equally, I guess I’ll doing all right!”

In fact, he’s quite happy to have gotten people talking about some of these sensitive issues. “These are real problems and too many people pussyfoot around them,” says Rudra, a non-conformist who has, at various points, been a heavy metal musician, a poet, a supervisor in a construction site, a factory worker and an English teacher.

His next few books (he’s working on seven novels at the moment) are likely to ruffle more feathers still – coming next year, for instance, is “There’s a Jihadi in My Curry”, a contemporary comedy based on his friendship with a Pakistani in the U.K.

“That one is extremely politically incorrect too,” says Rudra. “My goal isn’t to tell people what to think but to give them something to think about. Sometimes a slap in the face isn’t a bad thing.”

His renegade ancestor would certainly have approved.

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