Category Archives: Books

Behind the scenes, at the CAG

Not Just An Accountant – Diary of the Nation’s Conscience Keeper

Rs 500, Rupa Publications, New Delhi. 2014

Author: Vinod Rai

Vinod Rai’s voice is one of reason; more sober than sensational. His analysis on Coalgate and 2G scam in this book should not be missed. His argument is piercing and book reads like a thriller He slowly builds up, solely based on facts, the now famous accusation that lakhs of crores were lost in these scams.

When it comes to gas exploration and drilling, Rai unequivocally hits out at Reliance. With ample proof, he establishes that government departments toed the Reliance line under the guise of being corporate-friendly.

The book starts with a one-page forewoaccountantrd by former President APJ Abdul Kalam, where he calls upon people to act with righteousness in the heart and excellence in their endeavors. (Kalam, sadly, is no more)

In the preface, Rai lays down the contours of the book and its various case studies.  In a short chapter, he recalls his journey to Delhi after working in Kerala and a couple of other places. The book begins in earnest only after he was appointed Comptroller and Auditor General.

He repeatedly points out that had the government taken a different stand on the various scams, we would be on a different level economically. He eviscerates the various decisions taken during the rule of UPA II, most of during which Rai was CAG.

He also records his correspondence with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on various subjects, including leaks to the media.

He takes us behind the scenes of the CAG’s office and also questions how media leaks happened frequently and were in many cases before the final draft had been drawn.

He also exposes how civil aviation ministers considered Air India to be part of their fiefdom and expected bureaucrats to fall in  line. When anyone opposed, they were shunted out to unimportant posts.

He also bemoans the corruption in the holding of the Commonwealth Games. He accuses the government of withdrawing supervision enabling the organizing body to indulge in corruption.

His steadfastness, persistence and honesty are to be appreciated. I hope this book is widely read.

Why ‘My Name is Rajinikanth’ is a utter disaster

The Name Is Rajinikanth was published in 2008. I bought the book six months ago, almost. I have read it over the last week, finishing it seven years after publication. I bought the book from a store in Express Avenue in Chennai. I guess I can’t change the fortunes of how well the book will do in the initial market, which would have been saturated by now. But here’s my two-bit anyways.

The book costs Rs 495 and has 379 pages. Om Books International has published it. The book ends with describing the success of Shivaji and has a small note on three other movies.

The bacactork cover of the book has quotes from former Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi, actor Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth himself. These quotes are meant to propel sales of the book, but after perusing it I find them unjustifiable.

Gayanthri Sreekanth, the author, doesn’t bother to source any of the information. That is the glaring lacunae that bothered me while reading the book. Rajinikanth hasn’t been directly quoted , which is weird.

There is a conversation between gods, blessing him and foretelling the future, at the time Rajinikanth was born. Why this tamasha?

Gayathri also romanticises the poverty in the actor’s life till be finds a break in the movies. The poverty must have been there, but isn’t in the least bit unusual as thousands converge on Chennai, hoping for future in cinema. The author cuts between this terrible past to the life Rajinikanth enjoyed during the shoot of Thillu Mullu. The author also describes in great detail his first meeting with Lata. However, it remains unknown whether the author met the actor’s wife.

Thankfully, the book doesn’t avoid writing about Rajini’s drinking and smoking, and his psychotic breakdown. I am lead to think that the author records these events as they are already in the public domain. One event has the actor purportedly going to a whore. Another records his demand for divorce from his wife. He later changes his mind after director K Balachander, who writes the book’s foreword, intervenes.

The book didn’t satiate my interest in the actor’s life. The author is given to hyperbole and this bugs me to no small extent. The film world is portrayed as a benign place, which from personal experience I know to be completely wrong. The infantile egos in the business must have caused trouble, but the author never takes you behind the scenes.

The standards set when it comes to writing a biography are quite high in the west. The way biographies of Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein were written is a case in point. We need to play catch up. Otherwise the details of even the life of someone like Rajinikanth will remain elusive. I beg the actor’s fans to stay away from the book.

Ramayana and Mahabharata

After a long time, I am reading C Rajagopalachari’s Ramayana again. In my childhood, I read this book without the criticism running parallel in my head and it was, in a way, more of a pleasurable read. Now, I realise that the translation, quite famous and widely read, is perhaps not the best. I wonder if Mahabharata, which sits next to Ramayana on my book shelf, would pale in comparison to the countless times I have read it in childhood.

But despite the translation (which I should say does have its merits, like its simplicity, for example) , some of the epic’s true greatness shines through, and I was left awestruck at the power of a story that I and most Indians know like the back of their hand. Despite the fact that I knew every plot detail, the little details jumped at me. Minor characters, quite forgotten, assumed a life I didn’t know they had before.

So, as one of the most pleasured reads of recent times — Love in the time of cholera — lies unattended next to my bed, I am pretty sure to plough through the rest of Ramayana in pretty good time. And that I will finish a book for sure this time around, (something that I rarely do) is such a heartening thought.

Books downloaded from the web hit stores

Writing that first appeared on websites of Tamil writers, in particular of a trio of ‘superstars’, is storming the world of alternative Tamil publishing as the 33th Chennai Book Fair gets underway in the city on Wednesday. As a result, two different media — the internet and print — seen in popular perception as being vastly different, are depending on each other in a singular fashion in Tamil media. Also contrasting styles adopted by different publishers over what to publish and what to trash has triggered a debate over the quality of the books published off the net. Continue reading

In Cold Blood

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In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s non-fictional novel on the ghastly murder of the Cutter family in 1959, also happens to be the book that launched “new journalism”. On November 15, 1959, Richard (Dick) Hickock and Perry Smith, two ex-convicts murdered Herbert Smith, an influential and widely respected small town farmer of Kansas, his wife Bonnie, who was depressive, their daughter 16-year-old Nancy, and son 15-year-old Kenyon.

The duo had believed that the rich farmer owned a safe, which they would rob. However, the information provided to them by a fellow convict at the Kansas State Prison turned out to be wrong. Perry later told Capote that he thought that his victim Herb was a nice gentleman and was soft spoken. “I thought so until I cut his throat,” Perry recalled.

Capote begins his story a couple of days before the murders. Using extensive interviews with the townsfolk, he puts together the last day of the family in astonishing detail. Capote’s research is exhaustive and overwhelming. In the film in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Capote, the writer is shown as boasting of an over 90 per cent recall. This means that he can recall over 90 per cent of whatever is told to him in the exact words as spoken to him.

In the late 90s, Modern Library put together a list of great fictional and non-fictional works. In Cold Blood is featured in that list. I have been wanting to read the book ever since. Now I have both read the book (about 10 pages are left) and seen two movies connected to book: In Cold Blood, a black and white film, and Capote.

If you are a journalist or love creativity of any sort, this book is a must read for you.

 

(The other great exponent of new journalism was Tom Wolfe. It seems a crime not to mention his name in a post about In Cold Blood)

Norman Mailer dead at 84

Norman Mailer is dead. I hope you got to know that without me telling you about it. But most probably you may not have listened to this interview done by NPR. Wished we had an NPR equivalent in India. It’s unfortunate that we don’t even have one on radio.

Echo Park by Micheal Connelly

Micheal Connelly, creator of 11 Harry Bosch novels, is out with Echo Park, which finds the detective, now nearing 60, in the Open-Unsolved Unit of the Los Angles Police Department. This time around Bosch, with his ox-like detective skills intact, has to match wits with a serial killer he has been hunting for 13 years. He has to also come to terms with his own guilt in letting the killer Raynard Waits slip past him and murder seven more women, all of them prostitutes and runaways.
Connelly, a former crime reporter with LA Times, has all through this remarkable series let Bosch age in real time from his early 40s. The detective, who first appeared in 1992’s The Black Echo is named after the famous 16th century painter Hieronymus Bosch and is unlike any other in modern crime fiction. The quality that endears the average reader to Bosch is not his stunning intelligence like say, Hercule Poirot, but his ability to plough against the odds. Add to this the devil-may-care attitude and courage bordering on recklessness, the combination is irresistible.
This recklessness costs Bosch his girl in this book. Rachel Walling, the FBI agent, who helps Bosch nail Waits finally leaves him saying she can’t live with someone she knows may not return home that night.
The murder Bosch is investigating is of Mary Gesto, which has haunted him for years. Her “murder book” sits on Bosch’s table where he keeps reading it in fear that he may have missed a clue. When the public prosecutor’s office calls him to confirm the confession of the serial killer Raynard Waits, Bosch has to come face to face with the man he dreads. Reynard means a male fox and he is caught near Echo Park while transporting the cut-up bodies of two dead women. He has confessed to nine murders in return for a lesser lifetime sentence that his lawyer is bargaining for.
Connelly is at his best writing the police procedural. Though his latest offering has enough political intrigue and legal drama, at the end it is the author’s intimate knowledge of flatfooted police work that is most attractive. As layer after layer of lies and deception peel off, the reader is left open mouthed with surprise and admiration.
Connelly unlike many masters of crime fiction isn’t insular to politics. That this thriller is set against the election of the public prosecutor of Los Angles gives the author ample chance to dabble in democracy. Often enough, Connelly’s books have also targetted the Los Angles Police Department. Echo Park is no different.
His unsentimental, straightforward narrative style has kept Connelly, a self-confessed admirer of the inimitable Raymond Chandler, at the forefront of American crime fiction. His books have been widely translated – 31 languages at last count – and continue to be bestsellers. He has also won the Edgar and Anthony awards.
Though Connelly has often charted outside the Bosch territory, most notably with The Poet in 1996, he keeps returning to the “true detective”. What attracts both author and reader to Bosch are the same qualities. Like his namesake, Bosch may be fighting the eternal darkness, but his uprightness keeps our faith in life alight and burning.