Archive for the Action / Thriller Category

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Posted in Action / Thriller, Current Affairs, Debut, Diaspora, Dictators, Espionage, Farce, Historical/Biographical, Humor, Military, Mystery, Nobel Prize, Pakistan, Presidents, Satire, South Asian, Terrorism, World with tags , on August 3, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Random House
Price: $29.95

Many people compare A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif to Catch 22, but I don’t recall enjoying Heller as much as Hanif. There are far too many pages where I was snorting and cackling and laughing till my sides ached. To desi readers, the cultural perspective lends exquisite piquancy to this tale of Who killed President Zia ul Haq? Twenty years to the date, it is still anyone’s guess why Pak One fell from the sky that summer, and Hanif steps forward with a multi-starring cast of possible assassins, with their own reasons to hate the dictator.

Underofficer Ali Shigri, the son of the revered and much-decorated, late Colonel Shigri, is our main narrator. He doesn’t believe that the colonel, found hanging by his bedsheet from the ceiling fan, has committed suicide. But he is in worse trouble when his roomate and best friend, Obaidullah goes missing, and he is hauled into interrogation into a Mughal dungeon by Major Kiyani of the dreaded ISI.

The most  engaging parts of the book are undoubtedly those that depict Zia, whose years of power have left him “fattened, chubby-cheeked and marinating in his own paranoia.” His piety is a chilling contrast with his violence, much like the opposing directions of his slightly cockeyed gaze. The man who breaks down during his prayers is the same despot whose prisons are full of dissenters. His frequent consultations of the Quran for meaning doesn’t mean he won’t order the stoning of a blind rape victim for adultery.  Was he a pious Muslim controlling what he saw as Pakistan’s moral decay, or an opportunistic leader who manipulated Islam to remain in power?

However Hanif also presents Zia sympathetically. There is something childlike about his need for attention from the First Lady, and his dependence on his ambitious and treacherous inner circle. His security chief “has done such a good job of conducting him  through the milling crowds, General Zia had started to think of himself as a man of the people.” America had made him into a hero in their proxy war against the Soviets, one of the 10 men standing as a bulwark between Communist expansion and the free world, so that he fancies himself as a receipient for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is hard not to feel sympathy for the slightly henpecked husband, squabbling with his wife. And how can you really hate a President who is forced to prop his chin on the national flag while having a taciturn doctor giving him a rectal exam?

Hanif makes brilliant sketches of the coterie surrounding General Zia. The information minister is “a devious bastard with a fake MBA, making his fortune by ordering useless books that never arrive for military libraries.” Military officers are the kind of men “who pick up a phone and a bomb goes off in a crowded bazaar.” And famously, The only person who voiced his thoughts was General Akhtar, a former middle-weight boxer, a clean shaven man of tribal origins, who was packed with so much dignity that he could have been born in any country in any of the five continents and he still would have become a general. His ability to carry himself with martial grace and his talent for sucking up to superiors was so legendary that according to a joke popular in the trenches, he could wipe out a whole enemy unit by kissing their asses.”

Mohammed Hanif exploded on the literary scene suddenly, putting Pakistan on the map, and the deceased dictator firmly into our collective consciousness. By now we have all heard about how he trained as an Air Force pilot, pounded the beat as a journalist, then moved to London to become the head of BBC’s Urdu Service. However, nothing one can say about Mohammed Hanif beats what Hanif has to say about himself, “Once upon a time, when I was 18…

If a book can make a wave, A Case of Exploding Mangoes has been creating turbulence ever since it arrived. It is not being published in Pakistan, where it may have ruffled a few feathers. Of course, there are omnious parallels with the present situation in the country – the war in Afghanistan, Americans running all over the place and another General as President. The powers-that-be do not like to be reminded of their blatant hypocrisy or deep-rooted insecurities. It has also made it to the Man Bookers Longlist this year, and I am rooting for this book.

Then there is that intriguing first line, “there is an ancient saying that when lovers fall out, a plane goes down.” I was reminded of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s words about Pakistan’s souring love affair with America. They have  been  rendered immortally by Noor Jahan here:

The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Posted in Action / Thriller, Amitav Ghosh, India / Indian, Mystery, Science, SF, Southeast Asia, Supernatural, Suspense on February 7, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

Let’s admit that the railroad incident was the creepiest thing I ever read. The lumps of clay shaped like rudimentary pigeons were also bizarre, and the rituals and secret worshippers of colonial India were entirely, chillingly, plausible. Yet that alone does not a great novel make, and how this book won the Arthur C Clarke award for SF is beyond me.

Sure, it has a great start, some interesting ideas, is fast paced, has a shadowy secret society, a conspiracy – but it is convoluted and confusing. By the last page, you have run smack into a brick wall.

Antar, a low-level data analyst comes upon the lost and battered I.D. card of a man he once knew, a man who vanished without a trace somewhere in the teeming excess of Calcutta. Strangely compelled, Antar initiates a search into the facts behind the disappearance of L. Murugan, and is drawn into a bizarre alternate history of medical science.

Leaping backward in time we join Murugan in Calcutta as he follows the twisted threads of science, counter-science and ritual, back a hundred years further to the laboratory of Ronald Ross, the British scientist who discovered how malaria is transmitted to humans. It seems the real-life Ross wasn’t trained in medicine, yet his independent research led to a Nobel prize.

Obsessed with the weird, fortuitous coincidences that led to Ross’ groundbreaking discovery, Murugan has stumbled upon evidence of an impossible ongoing experiment in controlled destiny, protected by a powerful unseen society that moves the world in secret and in silence. This shadowy cabal seeks to use the malaria virus in their schemes – to what end?

The atmosphere is surreal and Ghosh is a good writer, but The Calcutta Chromosome ends up as a mishmash of fever, delirium and some discovery, but I am not entirely certain of what.

The Broker by John Grisham

Posted in Action / Thriller, Italy, John Grisham, Suspense on February 5, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

A dumb and incompetent departing US President [the other kind being the completely corrupt ones] makes a last minute pardon of a high-powered Washington lawyer, known as the Broker.

At one point, the Broker had over-reached himself, and was forced to choose between going to jail and being bumped off, so he opted for the former. The pardon has been engineered by the CIA, who confidently expect that, now that the Broker is out on the street again, someone will shoot him. But they want to see who does the job, in order to find out who was behind a plot to take over control of some very advanced spy satellites.

The remainder of the stringy plot deals with the question of whether the Broker will survive or not after he is whisked off under an assumed identity to Italy, where he has to learn the lingo and blend in with the locals – which means never making touristy booboos like ordering cappucino after 10 a.m, but rather, espresso which can be drunk all day and night. 

The plot is half-baked but the meals are not. The Broker makes a pilgrimage from fabulous Italian restaurant to restaurant – and there are a great many in Italy. After he learns the language by total immersion, he goes out for sumptuous meals on government expense. Then he starts touring the churches, cathedrals, towers, museums with his beautiful and enigmatic language tutor. We get descriptions, all the while stopping for cappuccinos and espressos a dozen times a day. And huge meals – with stuffing. 

If you really want a travelouge on Venice and Bologne, read the considerably more gripping Dan Brown novels, particularly Angels & Demons.

The Day Watch

Posted in Action / Thriller, Fantasy, Horror, Translation on March 21, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

The sequel to The Night Watch follows much the same form of three short stories which drive the larger plot forward. And here the similarity ends. If the Night Watch was taut, suspenseful and thrilling, full of fresh ideas and novelty, by the time we reach The Day Watch it has become dragging, trite and increasingly annoying.

The first story tells of the doomed love story between Alisa, the dark witch, and Igor, the light magician. Previously, Lukyanenko was successful in depicting Anton Gorodetsky’s inner conundrum about how the good side must repeatedly compromise with the evil in the interest of the Balance. This time around, he fails to present Alisa’s moral conflict, or even Igor’s ambivalent morality. We feel no empathy for the Dark ones, or even for Alisa’s situation. The love story meanders until the inevitable challenge between the two, and the duel ends in the death of Alisa.

The second story tells of Vitaly Rozoga, a mysterious Dark magician who lands in Moscow, a stranger with amnesia and a nose for trouble, who is following some unknown inner compulsion. A few important characters die during the events of this story, where Rozoga is handed Fafnir’s Talon, an artefact of untold power, stolen from the Inquisition. The story here would have been vastly more gripping had the countless songs and verses been streamlined – they added needless sentimentality and dragged the proceedings quite a bit.

The final tale talks of Light, Dark, the death of Alisa, even the coming of the great enchantress Svetlana, the boy without a destiny Egor, the hearing of Igor’s duel by the Inquisition, the coming of Vitaly Rozoga, Fafnir’s Talon, Armageddon and the final coming and Czech beer. This is where the novel finally comes into its own. After a lengthy hunt for clues about what the heads of the Watches, Gesar and Zabulon are up to, it is revealed that Svetlana and Anton’s daughter is destined to be the great enchantress, the messiah who will permanently alter the Balance in favor of the good guys.

And thus the plot is set for the third part of the epic, The Twilight Watch, whose preview can be found here. Thankfully, it promises the return of the inimitable Anton Gorodetsky.

The Night Watch

Posted in Action / Thriller, Fantasy, Horror, SF, Translation on January 8, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

Night Watch

by Sergei Lukyanenko

Translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield

489 pages

$16.95

Anchor Canada – Random House

***

All That Stands Between Light And Darkness Is The Night Watch. With a tagline like that, this series is poised to become a phenomenon.

Hipper than hip and cooler than cool, it has all the elements of a great epic. A centuries old war between Dark and Light, good and evil, the Others with supernatural powers who can slip into another Twilight dimension. Their war could annihilate the world, so the two sides coexist in an uneasy truce. A Treaty outlines the terms, and each side swears to leave the human race alone. The Dark Others keep the Day Watch, the Light ones guard the Night Watch, and they monitor each others’ activities and enforce the conditions of the Treaty.

And yet, things are not simply Light and Dark, but a large and undefined boundary exists – the twilight of the soul, so to speak. Anton Gorodetsky, the protagonist and young Night Watch agent, is very much haunted by this grey area. The plot revolves around Anton’s struggle to protect a young Other with tremendous power and an undecided destiny, and help Svetlana, a woman with a powerful curse hanging over her head, a black vortex with the magnitude and ferocity of an inferno.

There is something primal about its themes of Light and Dark, like a rollicking good comic series meets Star Wars meets Harry Potter in Gorky Park. All speculative fiction deals  with the idea that there is something more just under the skin of the world that we don’t encounter in our day to day existence. The Twilight is an extension of this, and it is an exquisitely detailed and powerful environment. I was completely fascinated with this book – the pages didn’t just keep turning, but I even forgot to blink for large stretches.

Rejoice – it is only the first domino from the quartet. Nochnoi Dozor, the film, is said to be the highest grossing film from Russia to date claiming more at the box office than even The Return Of The King. The only thing I am howling for now are the sequels – lucky for me, they’re on their way. And don’t forget to watch this trailer.

Sacred Games

Posted in Action / Thriller, India / Indian on January 3, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

Sacred Games

by Vikram Chandra

Publisher: Harper Collins

Hardcover, $27.95

928 pages

They wanted jobs, and justice, and blessings. I gave them all that, and water, and electricity over wires pulled from the lines near the main road. I lived in a pucca house at the foot of Gopalmath hill, we had built it with two bedrooms and a big central hall, and on the steps outside every morning a crowd gathered, seekers, supplicants, applicants and yes, devotees. They came to ask for things and lower their heads. “We just wanted your darshan, Ganesh Bhai,” some said, so I gave it to them, and they gazed and folded their hands and retreated, storing goodwill against certain disasters of the future. And their blessings came to me, and money, cash from the shopkeepers and traders and garage owners and dhaba-owners of the area, and we kept them and their establishments safe. Businessmen caught up in quarrels and wrangling came to me, and I listened to all sides of the case, and gave a decision, a fair and fast ruling that would be enforced by my boys, with force if necessary, and for this mandvali and for being able to avoid the endless and useless law courts, all the disputants paid me a percentage of the contested value as fee. Money came in and went out. -Ganesh Gaitonde

Reading Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is an experience akin to watching a huge Bollywood blockbuster unfurl across your retina, replete with color, confusion, noise, sex, violence, and hyperbole. It has less the feel of a novel, and more of reading an enormous film script, with the explosions and special effects and the works. The author’s breadth is dizzying – the story goes from the murky world of the Mumbai mafia-style underworld, to international terrorism, to the workings of the Indian bureaucracy, and the intelligence services investigating Islamic fundamentalism, to the traumas of the Partition, to the inside workings of Bollywood, the complex and violent strife for survival. As the story unfolds with surprising twists at every turn, the great game takes shape, confounding all expectations. Winning is an illusion, and all are pawns struggling to regain control of their destinies.

And now he was shitting twelve times a day, and he said he was very afraid he was going to keep huggoing until he died on this bhenchod white throne in this maderchod Malyali city in this harami cesspool of a country.

Chandra’s extensive use of Bombay street slang, incorporating several dialects including English, and liberally sprinkled with cussing and swearing is powerful, colorful and overpowering. To readers who are not of Indian ethnicity, translation will afford difficulty as well as reduce the scope of amusement, and appreciation of the sheer vitality and attitude of the language.

Sacred Games follows the fortunes of two opposing characters, the jaded Inspector Sartaj Singh, and Ganesh Gaitonde, a famous don. A confrontation between the two opens the novel, with Gaitonde taunting Sartaj from inside the protection of his strange bunker. When they break into the bunker, the police find Gaitonde dead, with the body of an unidentified young woman. The course of the investigation is promptly taken over by RAW, and Sartaj struggles to trace Gaitonde’s movements and motivations through a complicated web of intrigue, while taking on cases of murder, blackmail and neighborhood quarrels. It throws up unlikely cross-connections between Gaitonde, his friend Jojo the madam who supplies aspiring starlets, Zoya Mirza, successful film star, politicians of the ruling party, and Sridhar Shukla, the wily guru with an international following and a sinister plan.

Sartaj is divorced, weary and resigned to his post, complicit in the bribes and police brutality that oil the workings of his city.

He knew now that he wasn’t going to be the hero of any film, even the film of his own life. He had once been the promising young up and comer, marked for advancement. Even the fact that he was Sikh in a department full of Marathas had been an advantage as well as a burden, a marker of his separateness… journalists loved to write about the handsome inspector. But the years had worn away the shine, and he had become just like a thousand other time-servers in the department.

Gaitonde relates the riveting tale of his rise to fame and power, and we come to an understanding of this fearsome don of G Company, ravager of women, taker of boys, recruit of the Indian Intelligence, the maker and lover of a movie star, the self-taught street fighter, “whose daily skim from Bombay’s various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes.”

I had no future, no life, no retirement, no easy old age…a bullet would find me first. But I would lie like a king. I would fight this life, this bitch that sentences us to death, and I would eat her up, consume her every minute of every day. So I walked my streets like a lord of mankind, flanked by my boys.

And so I maintained my grip, my reign. Fear was part of it… The truth is human beings like to be ruled. They will talk and talk about freedom, but they are afraid of it. Overpowered by me, they were safe and happy. Fear of me taught them where they could live, it made them a fence, inside which was home. And I was good to them. I was fair, and didn’t ask for so much money that it hurt, and I taught my boys restraint, and above all, I was generous… my name was known in my raj, and there were many who blessed it.

The two men ruminate on the meaning of life and death, and Chandra connects them as he connects all the big themes of the subcontinent – the animosity towards Muslims, towards other castes and the outsider and the immigrant, the poverty, the prostitution and mainly, the criminal elite who control their fiefdoms from outside the country.

Far too many authors today sacrifice an honest description of prejudice on the altar of political correctness. It is to Chandra’s credit that he gives his characters free reign to make remarks about caste or religion that will illuminate their beliefs, hate or prejudice. Bipin Bhosle, the radical Rakshak politician says of Muslims, “We’re going to show these landya bastards. The order came from the very top top. Show these maderchods, so we’re showing them.” Later, Sartaj’s assistant Kamble, a Dalit had things to say about OBCs and Marathas and Brahmins.

“I am learning, Sardar-ji, I am learning from people like Parulkar only… Parulkar Saab is my guru, even if he does not know it. I am like Eklavya, except that I am going to keep my thumb and my lauda and every other maderchod thing.”

Perhaps the greatest impact Chandra has is not only in humanizing the criminal, but also in depicting how the law enforcer is equally criminal under the skin. Commissioner Parulkar has climbed his way to the top on the backs of several corpses, making shady deals with opposing gangs, betraying friends, defecting from camp to camp due to political expediency. Police inspectors not only bleed the citizenry dry, same as the bhais, but brutal execution of prisoners in “encounters” is all in a day’s work. The saving grace of the police force is apparently the do-gooder cop’s soul – sadly, too deeply buried for most, except in rare individuals like Katekar and Sartaj.

The money was welcome, of course, but there was also the desire to serve the public. Yes, really, Sadrakshanaay Khalnigrahaniya. Katekar knew he could never confess this urge to Vishnu, because fancy talk of protecting the good and destroying evil would elicit only laughter. Even among colleagues, this was never to be spoken about. But it was there, however buried it may be under grimy layers of cynicism.

However, in the end, the entire stratum of law-enforcers is steeped in corruption, and complicit in violence and illegal raking of money.

Mumbai in all its sprawling, seedy glory is at the center of Chandra’s novel. It nurtures and nourishes its many economic immigrants, and individuals live crowded uneasily together distrusting the stranger, despising the immigrant and constantly aware of caste and social standing. On a yacht in Thai waters, Gaitonde muses,

Their bodies missed Bombay. I know because after an year away from Mumbai I still got attacks of yearning, I craved the spittle-strewn streets of that great whore of a city, while waking up I felt that pungent prickling of exhaust and burning rubbish at the back of my nostrils… when you are far away from the jammed jumble of cars, and the thicket of slums, and the long loops of rail, and the swarms of people, and the radio music in the bazaars, you could ache for the city.

Bollywood plays a huge role in this book. From the aspiring actress, Zoya Mirza’s rise through body altering plastic surgery to Gaitonde’s boys discussing what a Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and a Kishore Kumar ditty stands for, to the Indian penchant of humming a tune for every situation. The connection with the film industry is not imaginary. Chandra co-authored his brother-in-law Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir with Suketu Mehta. Chandra’s mother, Kamna Chandra scripted a number of Hindi films and his sister Tanuja Chandra is a director and screenwriter. Another sister, Anupama Chopra (who is married to Vidhu Vinod) is an authoritative film critic for India Today, and author of Sholay: The Making of a Classic, arguably the best movie book published out of India.

Vikram Chandra’s first novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the David Higham Prize for Fiction. His collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Eurasia Region and was a New York Times Notable Book. But one cannot help admiring the author whose audaciousness is matched with charm, as he makes Gaitonde say,

Writers are pathetically susceptible to praise. I have worked with gangsters and holy men, and let me tell you, none of these can compare with a writer for mountainous inflations of ego and mouse-like insecurities of the soul.

The Portrait

Posted in Action / Thriller on November 29, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Do you see the coldness I have put in around your eyes? The cruelty of the mouth, the calculation of the chin? The background is entirely dark, for there has never been anyone in the world but yourself.

A short, taut, cerebral thriller. A monologue, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes laced with real menace. The story and characters grow out of the nature of painting. I loved the way in which Pears simultaneously reveals the characters along with the progression of the portrait – both take shape simultaneously! A multilayered examination of an ego-driven man, a critic, and an examination of the art critic’s role as opposed to the artist’s creativity.

Henry MacAlpine, a poor Scottish painter has it made as a portraitist in early 20th century London. After years of suffering from the vitriolic William Nasmyth, an implacable, heartless art critic, MacAlpine has the chance to paint his portrait at the artist’s home on a remote island in Brittany. The two men are polar opposites in background and character, but their lives have been interwoven. Each has cheated the other, and betrayals loom large in their relationship. Nasmyth has tried to crush the spirit of a fragile-seeming woman painter whom MacAlpine tried to befriend when she was a fellow student in Paris. As The Portrait takes shape, Henry MacAlpine tells his friend and erstwhile mentor his reasons for leaving London for exile in remote Brittany and what will bring him back.

I need no models now; I haven’t painted any woman under forty for some time. They guard their womenfolk carefully here, and it is a small island. Besides, I don’t find all these lacy coifs particularly appealing, and they don’t go about with their heads uncovered. Nor, for the most part, are they particularly appealing subjects, unless you like to paint weather-beaten faces and the effects of back-breaking work or scant food. Not the sort of subject matter that usually appeals, and they are not open-faced; you would have to know them much better to penetrate their minds and turn them into something worth looking at. Still, beauty can flourish in even the most inhospitable terrain. There is one girl I would love to paint; she has the eyes of the devil. But we have done no more than exchange glances over an expanse of church. I fascinate her, I know. I am to her what you were for me: a new world, full of opportunities, offering everything she wants and cannot win by herself unaided. She wants to leave this island, to see and be different things. She dreams at night of what it must be like, to be something other than she is. She longs for freedom, and is hated for it by many on this island. Her desires have made her difficult and unsympathetic. It will eat away at that beauty soon enough.

If I intervened, her fate would change: whatever happened, she would go, would not marry the honest fisherman who is her destiny, would not be aged before her time by hardship and pregnancy. Lord only knows how she would end up. But high or low, part of her wants to take the chance, to roll the dice. Anything but what is mapped out for her here. If only I would force her hand. Goodness, I see the temptation! But I won’t; it is not for me to change her future. All she has to do is get on the boat and not come back. It’s simple. If you can change someone’s life you have a responsibility to them forever; it is a heavy burden which you must not shirk. Do you not agree, William?

I have painted one portrait, though. Still life might be a better term. It’s unfinished, like most of my work these days. But not through laziness; it cannot be completed. About a year ago, a boy was washed up at the place called Treac’h Salus, a fine sandy beach, about twenty minutes’ walk from here. No-one knew who he was; not from this island certainly. Perhaps he’d been swept off a fishing boat in a storm the week before, but no-one had heard of such a thing. Perhaps he was a cabin boy on one of the passing steam ships, a stowaway, even. Enquiries were made, but he came from the sea—that was all anyone ever discovered. Those who know such things thought he’d been in the water a week or so, not much longer. I was having a morning walk when I saw the small group of islanders gathered around him in the distance; there was something calm, reverential, about their pose; they were praying. You remember Millet’s Angelus? The way the woman’s head inclines to the ground, the way the man fiddles nervously with his hat, both lost in thought? The intensity of prayer depicted so simply and effectively?

My curiosity disturbed them as I approached over the sand, but I could not keep away; I needed to see what was producing that perfect pose. My reaction was quite different to theirs. They were reflective; I was fascinated. They were resigned; I was excited, stimulated. The brilliant colours of decay, the complex bundle of angles and curves on the twisted body, half-eaten and swollen. The green tint, reflecting purple and red in the sun that crept over an exposed leg, so recently young and strong. The way the majesty of the human form, God’s image, could be reduced so easily by the sea to the obscene and grotesque. And the eye—one only, for the other had been eaten out of its socket. One eye was preserved, a pale sky blue shining like hope in that jumble of mouldy, stinking carcass. It still had personality and life, something which seemed almost amused by its predicament. And not fearful or distressed; perfectly calm, almost serene. An echo of the soul which survived despite everything that had happened. I could see it watching me, seeing how I would react.

Haunting. Literally so, because I could think of nothing else for days; I felt I knew it, had seen it looking at me before. I came back in the afternoon with a sketchbook, but the disapproval would have been so intense it wasn’t worth trying to settle down. And for some reason I could not draw it properly without actually being there. All I could get down was that eye, which drowned out the rest of the scene like a brilliant light in the darkness. Even though the image was fixed in my mind, the composition just so, the rest of the boy kept slipping away from me.