“Open Secrets” by Maloy Krishna Dhar

The full title of this absorbing book by veteran sleuth, the late Mr Maloy Krishna Dhar IPS, is ” Open Secrets: The Explosive Memoirs of An Indian Intelligence Officer”.  It was published in 2012 and I read the Kindle version recently. Mr Dhar was a senior intelligence operative and civil servant of the 1964 batch of the prestigious Indian Police Service (IPS). This version has been published after his demise on May 19, 2012 thanks, I believe, to the efforts of his son, Mainak Dhar, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad; a senior executive in an international firm and an acclaimed writer himself.

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“The Secret Diary of Kasturba” by Neelima Dalmia Adhar

While there is so much written ( including many books) about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, respectfully called the ” Mahatma ” and the “Father of the Nation”, relatively less is known about his wife, Kastur. We get glimpses of the life of Kasturba Gandhi (1869-1944 ) through a recent book titled, “The Secret Diary of Kasturba” by Neelima Dalmia Adhar.

Born Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia, in a wealthy family in Porbandar, in then British India, she was ( as was common in those days) married off at the young of 14. The bridegroom, who was a year younger than her, was Mohandas Gandhi. They remained man and wife for over 60 years and had five sons. The first son died shortly after his birth, but the others Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas, and Devdas outlived her. As the book reveals, quite often in their lives there was tension in the family because of the way Gandhi wanted the boys to be brought up. He had his own ideas of the kind of education they should have and the principles and life style they should follow, which was irksome to them and to Kasturba at times. The fact that the eldest surviving boy, Harilal became totally wayward was a direct result of the frequent conflicts he had with his father. The mother was torn between the two all her life.

Kasturba played a major role in Gandhi’s life and he could not have asked for a more suitable or devoted wife. While the world admired Gandhi for his deeds, the book describes the difficulties faced by his wife and children while he sought to conquer his inner desires and lead a life according to his own tastes and choices.

It was clever of Ms Adhar to have written the book in the first person singular as Ba. This has been done brilliantly. We can therefore see things through Kastur’s eyes, first as a teen aged bride, then as a young mother, and later as the revered mother or Ba as she was called  universally. The flip side is that since it is established that Ba had not penned her autobiography ( she was barely educated, in any case) the very title of the book is questionable.

It is a good read though and is well written. You will enjoy it, if like me, you are fond of Indian history, and biographies. The book is full of detail of the lives of the Gandhi family over many decades. It even goes beyond Ba’s death in 1944 to the time when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948. I feel that some notes of what became of the sons could have been added in the post script.

“Hippie Chick” by Ilene English

Before I begin my book review of, “Hippie Chick” by Ilene English, let me begin on a personal note: The Hippie movement started in the United States in the mid-60s – when I was a young teenager in Madras, in far away India. Yet many aspects of the movement fascinated us. During my college days my friends called me “Tripper” after the character in a popular cartoon column called, “Bringing Up Father.” I heard the name of the character was changed to “Groover” later as “Tripper” had connotations of drug usage. I, of course, had just the name and nothing beyond that !!!

I am grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book.

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Remember Harry Flash? A Tribute to George MacDonald Fraser

When I was at school decades ago, one of the text books we had was, “Tom Brown’s School Days” by Thomas Hughes. Set in the England of the 1830s it portrayed life at Rugby, one of the better known public schools. Studying in a public school myself,  I could quite easily relate to the ups and downs in the lives of Tom Brown and his friends. One of the memorable, or should I say, notorious characters in that book was the bully, Harry Flashman . He made life miserable for Tom Brown and his friends who had to “fag” for him. We know for certain that Flashman was expelled from the school for being drunk by the venerable Headmaster, Dr Thomas Arnold. Continue reading “Remember Harry Flash? A Tribute to George MacDonald Fraser”

“Freedom At Midnight” by Dominique Lapierre & Larry Collins

As we are in the month of August, the conversations in India often turn towards Independence Day coming up on August 15. We talk of the Freedom Struggle; of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and Sardar Patel; of Lord and Lady Mountbatten; and the horrors of Partition. I recently re-read ” Freedom At Night” by Dominque Lapierre & Larry Collins, which I had read decades ago. You may recall that this book was first published in 1975, less than twenty years after Independence. I re-read the same book in 2019, by which time so much had changed in the world around us. Yet, the haunting memories of Partition continued in the minds of thousands of families affected by that tumultuous  event. The conflict over Kashmir which continues till today is an old wound from that time which still festers. Continue reading ““Freedom At Midnight” by Dominique Lapierre & Larry Collins”

“The Indian Spy” by Mihir Bose

I thought I was reasonably well read about the Second World War but reading “The Indian Spy” by Mihir Bose showed just how ignorant I was! I had never come across any story about an Indian spy as famous/infamous as Bhagat Ram Talwar. I was truly astonished to know that during the War years, Talwar (or Rahmat Khan or Silver as he was often called ) was a spy for not only the British and the Russians but also for the Italians, the Germans, and the Japanese! How remarkable is that!!!

I had of course read about how Rahmat Khan helped Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, acting as a deaf and dumb man, escape from India to Kabul during the early years of the Second World War. Little did I know that Netaji’s guide for this trip was the man who Mihir Bose describes as the ‘Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II”.

Talwar was first initiated into spying by the Italians in Kabul, which even then was a hot bed of intrigue and politics. He had initially wanted to work for the Russians as he was a member of the Kirti Kisan Party, a little known Communist party active in those days in the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province of an undivided India. Spying for the Germans then followed as they were the allies  of the Italians in the Second World War. Netaji Bose had by then reached Germany and Talwar became a full time spy shuttling between Kabul, Afghanistan and the Punjab and the North West Frontier of India.

He was soon asked to work for them by the Russians. Talwar’s ties to the Russians was based on his fascination for the Communist ideology. What amazes me is how gullible the Germans or at least his handlers in Kabul were! Talwar cheated them for years without their knowledge. He invariably briefed the Russians soon after his meetings with the Germans, and gave them whatever he got from the Germans!! Ironically, the Germans helped him the most monetarily and he served them the least.

India was ruled by the British in those days and soon Talwar was engaged by the British. Incredible as it might sound, the Russians shared their knowledge about Silver with the British as Russia and Britain were then Allies against the Axis forces. Without knowing about his links with their enemies, each of these countries trusted Talwar. They extracted whatever they could from him, much of which, of course, was misinformation!!

In the later years of the War, the Italians crossed over to join the Allies. By then, the Japanese had joined the Axis and Germany had lost all interest in the Far East and South East Asia. It was inevitable that Talwar became a spy for the Japanese as well.

The author covers in much detail how Talwar transformed himself over the years from being an amateur in the game to becoming a master spy. Equally interesting is the role of Peter Fleming ( brother of spy writer Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond ) who was his handler for the British in India.

Talwar apparently lived on in post-Independence India right up to the early ’80s. He even took part in a seminar on Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose which was held in Calcutta in 1973!!

All in all, I found this book to be extremely interesting.

My end note: This is not written in this book but left me wondering……….Talwar seems to have lived in the state of Uttar Pradesh where the mysterious Gumnami Baba also lived. Many believe that Gumnami Baba was none other than Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose! Given the personalities of both of them, is it not likely that Netaji and Talwar were in touch with each other in those post- War, post -Independence days? I like to think they were!!

“Don’t Tell The Governor” by Ravi Subramanian

I have read a few of Ravi Subramanian’s books and have quite liked them. I was therefore eagerly waiting to read  his financial thriller, “Don’t Tell The Governor”, published by HarperCollins in November 2018. I must confess I was totally disappointed. The story was like one developed by a re-hash of the newspaper headlines in India over the last couple of years. The characters were strikingly similar to real life people only too well known to be named. The reader is left wondering whether her guesses were right in assuming who they were. Some had corny names like, if I remember correctly,  Runvijay Malya, and Mehul Modi which left little for the reader’s imagination to identify them.

The character of the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India was, in my view, quite shallow. He must have been an absolute idiot to do all that he did. The story of the glamorous couple of Vicky Malhotra and Pallavi Soni was more true to life. The characters in the IPL match fixing, once again, left little to the imagination of the reader. Using names very close to real life characters, I feel, does injustice to them. The reader who knows their real life exploits/issues/scandals through a barrage of media coverage tends to imagine them do the same in the author’s story.

The plot had real life incidents like the hijack of IC 814 to Kandahar, the dramatic demonetization announcement on November 8, 2016 and many other real life incidents thrown in to create a jumble built on a base of banking and finance. Overall, it failed to grab my interest and left me very disappointed as a reader.

“The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing Volume II” : Ed. Jean M. Fredette

All of us who love writing, and reading of course, can do with periodic reminders on how to hone our writing skills. That there is no end to learning is well known. In this context, I was happy to recently read, ” The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing: Volume II“, edited by Jean M. Fredette. 

This collection of articles on short story writing was published by the well-known Writers Digest Books in 1991. I came across this book in our Club library. It is striking that all the points made still remain relevant though nearly three decades have gone by since the book was first published. It is edited by Jean M. Fredette , who was an Acquisitions Editor of Writer’s Digest and has edited several of their books.

The only thing that has changed has been the process of submitting a manuscript. While the principles remain pretty much the same, much of the process has got simplified thanks to the progress in technology. We can now submit manuscripts over the internet, no longer being bound to print and send the manuscript in physical form in many cases. However, do check the submission guidelines mentioned by the publisher.

Seven chapters encompass a wealth of material in this book, covering sections such as, ” Getting Started”, ” Craft and Technique”, and ” Marketing The Short Story”. Each of the chapters have contributions from distinguished authors who have generously shared their experience and expertise. Principal amongst them are Adela Rogers St. John, Lawrence Block, and John Updike.

From very basic points which we sometimes overlook ( like repeating words/phrases so often that they jar) to more sophisticated aspects like Sentence Structure, Transitions, and Dialogue, this book has tips for the novice and the experienced writer alike.

Reading this book reinforced in me why writing is really a craft. The material in this volume really applies for any kind of writing . It is not restricted to short story writing as the title implies.

“Bill Marriott” by Dale Van Atta

I was delighted to read a pre-release copy of the well-known journalist Dale Van Atta’s book on J. Willard Marriott, Jr titled, “Bill Marriott: Success Is Never Final” thanks to NetGalley. #BillMarriottSuccessIsNeverFinal. This is being published by Shadow Mountain Publishing and is scheduled to be released in September 2019. You can pre-order it on Amazon.

All of us have images of the quintessential American tycoon from stories we have read or what we have seen on television. In this book, the author gives us an intimate and in depth view of what it is to be born in a family of a leading American businessman of his times. J. Willard Marriott, a first generation entrepreneur, was the founder of the Marriott group of enterprises, and a pioneer in many senses. Like the children of every super star, be it in business, in sport or in the movies, J. Willard Marriott, Jr ( the subject of this book) had to face the crushing burden of family and society’s expectations of him. Their relationship was often stormy leading to severe stress the son faced at the hands of a domineering father. It is of immense credit to Bill Marriott, now aged 87, that he grew the business empire he inherited from this father multifold to what it have become today. The Marriott International chain is the largest hotel chain in the world by far with 7000 properties in 130 countries with 176,000 employees all over the globe. It had revenues of $ 20.75 billion in 2018 with net income of $ 1.5 billion.

More than just the story of his business successes, the book throws light on the personal characteristics that made Bill Marriott so successful. He lives a life following a set of sound values, many inherited from his parents. Of course, there were differences too, some very significant. The senior Marriott was a product of his times. He had seen the miseries brought about by the Great Depression of the 1930s at close quarters. This led him to shun debt of any kind. The younger Marriott realized that debt in itself was not evil. On the contrary one could leverage the debts depending on the rates of interest and the business opportunities open elsewhere to make investments. He had a flair for innovation and took what his father felt were too many risks that could be avoided. To young Marriott’s credit, most of the business decisions he took were the right ones.

The book also tells us of the Marriott family’s upbringing in the Mormon faith with their own values, traditions and cultural practices. Throughout his career Bill Marriott,  even as he had major business responsibilities, never hesitated to play a leading role in church activities. He believes his steadfastness to his religion helped him overcome health issues on many occasions. These include a dramatic fire accident which could have killed him in 1985 only a few weeks after the death of his father.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and found it quote absorbing. I would recommend it to those who wish to gain insight to how Marriott grew his business to its present position of eminence in the world of hospitality. It also underscores how Marriott consistently made profits while displaying the highest standards of customer service and integrity.

“The Garden of No Sorrows” by Deepthi Nair

Deepthi Nair has chosen to begin her story with the flashback format in her delightful book, “ The Garden of No Sorrows“. As you would know, in this style the writer describes a present scenario ( in this case events in the year 2020) before plunging into the story which begins decades ago. At the National Defence Academy, Aarcha is caught up with many emotions watching her only son Arjun pass out from this prestigious institution to begin his career as an officer in the Indian Army.

I liked the book for the author’s detailed descriptions of life in villages /small towns in Kerala, like Kolachal and Marthandam; of the people who live there, and their approach to life which is very different from the one shown typically by city bred folk. Ms. Nair has a good grip on both scenarios! The part about the letter to Yamuna was quite striking as is the description of Bhargavi Kunju.

The central character of the story is a lady called Aarcha. We see how she grows up, sharing time, possessions and secrets with her only sibling, her elder sister, Priya; and how she is brought up by her parents, Sharada and Aravindan Pillai, who again have very different outlooks of life. Aarcha, at a young and impressionable age is attracted by Govind, a doctor preparing for his MD. He was in his late twenties and had been through a failed marriage.

Although she does not love him, for various reasons, Aarcha marries Govind only to discover how different he is as a person when seen from close quarters. By then of course it was too late for her. She has to resign her job on discovering that she is  pregnant. Later, a few years after the birth of her son, she resumes her career and makes a success of it. Her marriage was giving her no happiness whatsoever.  Govind was becoming more difficult to live with as the days went by.

Her quest for someone who would appreciate her for her qualities is fulfilled by a chance meeting at an airport lounge. She meets the famous author, Jehangir Ansari and this changes her life forever. He of course is already married. He is famous, but like her, is unhappy. The two are attracted to each other despite knowing the constraints faced by them in their respective marriages.

Deepthi Nair has made an impressive sketching of her characters. The story has a bit of a slow start but picks up as we go along and ends with an interesting climax. Overall, I thought it was a good read and I look forward to reading more from this author.