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Friday, February 25, 2005

In Memoriam

Remembering 'Gonzo Journalist' Hunter S Thompson (July 1937-February 2005)
By Deepika Shetty

You either loved or loathed his writing style that's likely to be best remembered in the form of his cult classic 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (published in 1972). I read it way back in the 1980's but was definitely not won over. The hazy Hunter dreams were evident in the exploits of 'fictional' writer Raoul Duke and his lawyer Dr Gonzo.

While I couldn't make much of their hallucinatory trip to Las Vegas what appealed in some small way was its central theme of the state of the American Dream. The lives of the rich and the decadent that were well captured in the book led to it being compared with another American classic 'The Great Gatsby.'

The book was later made into a film starring Johnny Depp as Duke and Benicio del Toro as Gonzo. It made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998. And while it flopped making just US $10 million, like the book, it won its share of followers over the years.

Thompson's claim to fame though came in 1966 with the publication of his book "Hell's Angels." This was the story of his infiltration of the then-feared Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, an adventure that got him savagely beaten.

While he was criticised in many quarters, no one could deny his contribution to what came to be called 'gonzo journalism'. Flirting between fiction and journalism, this form of writing saw the writer engaging himself and his personal views in the story. So rather than simply writing an account of the event itself, this hard-hitting style saw Thompson's capturing the mood of a place, an event and even being involved in the action.

Whatever his critics may have to say, he took journalism seriously and changed it forever by placing himself at the centre of his stories and commentaries. And for that he will always be remembered.

The Last Samurai

Saigo Takamori
was Japan's most renowned samurai. He helped to bring
down the Tokugawa shogunate and restore the Meiji emperor.
The story of the 'Last Samurai' inspired the movie starring Ken Watanabe
and Tom Cruise. Assistant Professor Gregory K Clancey who teaches
History at the National University of Singapore and is an author himself
took a walk back in time and told us all about the man behind the legend
on 'Off The Shelf'. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

(BOOK INFORMATION: The Last Samurai - The Life and Battles of Saigo
Takamori by Mark Ravina. Published 2004. John Wiley. Pages 265 -
Paperback. Price US $16.95)

Q : Who was Saigo Takamori?
A : Saigo was one of the samurai leaders of the Meiji Restoration, which
overthrew the Shogun and brought the Japanese Emperor to power in 1868.
But nine years later, Saigo led an armed rebellion against the Emperor's
government, and was forced to commit suicide on the battlefield. He
became a legend. His legend inspired the character Katsumoto (played by
Ken Watanabe) in the movie "The Last Samurai"

Q : Why did Saigo rebel?
A : The Meiji government abolished certain samurai privileges, such as
wearing special clothing, carrying swords, and above-all getting a
stipend from the state. Now many samurai went along with this, because
they retained their status and pay as officers in the new army or as
bureaucrats. Saigo couldn't go along, for complex reasons that book
explains. The irony is that he didn't want to lead the rebellion, but
the rebels appealed to him, and out of a sense of responsibility - and
maybe because of a death-wish - he agreed to lead, knowing it would be
his death sentence.

Q : Why has the legend of Saigo persisted?
A : People like doomed heroes - those who fight against impossible odds
knowing that they'll be killed in the end. Saigo stood and died on
principle, and was generally merciful to his enemies. Plus, the doomed
hero persona particularly resonates in Japanese culture. It proves one
is sincere. But Ravina demonstrates that like any good legend, the
Saigo one has been embellished.

Q : Was the film portrayal of Saigo's rebellion accurate?
A : Hollywood's accuracy usually stops with costumes. The film portrays
Saigo's samurai army as medieval - on horseback, dressed in armour, and
using swords instead of guns. In reality, they used western guns and
even dressed in western uniforms. Saigo had no trouble with modern
technology. Saigo and the rebels did throw away their guns in the end,
but only because they ran out of ammunition. Thus they raced down a
hill to their deaths with swords drawn, and they did kill each other on
the battlefield so they wouldn't be taken prisoner.

Saigo was later converted into an anti-Western figure. Actually he was
not. He praised western prisons, for instance, as being more humane
than Japanese ones, and he even conspired with Englishmen against the
Shogun. The book shows him as much more complicated than Katsumoto in
the movie. One thing that the movie portrays accurately, however, is
that Saigo was a generous, calm, and humorous man who strove for
simplicity. He was apparently admired by everyone.

Q : Was the film based on the book?
A : No. The author, Mark Ravina, just happened to be researching and
writing about Saigo at the same time that Hollywood got interested. So
there's no sensationalism about the book. It tells the story in a
straight forward way. It's a good read. I highly recommend it.

"Where was Saigo Takamori's head? For one frantic morning in 1877 this
question consumed the Japanese government. The Japanese imperial army
had defeated Saigo's rebellion. They had reduced his army of thirty
thousand fearsome, disgruntled samurai to a few hundred diehards . . .
But the government's triumph rang hollow. The imperial army had Saigo's
body, but his head was nowhere to be found. Without Saigo's head the
government victory was incomplete."

(BOOK INFORMATION: The Measure of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey
that Transformed the World by Ken Alder. Abacus. Published 2002. Pages
435 -Paperback. Price US $10.20 for paperback. Hardcover US $27)

We also took a closer look at Ken Adler's 'The Measure of All Things:
The Seven Year Odyssey that Transformed the World'

Q : What's so interesting about the history of the meter? How can anyone
write over 400 pages about it?
A : It turns out that the meter is a product of the French Revolution.
The revolutionaries wanted to throw out all tradition and custom, and
base society on 'natural laws'. France had hundreds of different, local
measuring systems, as did every country. French scientists and
politicians decided to replace them all by a measure based in nature.
The meter would be one ten millionth of the distance between the North
Pole and the equator. Because it was based on nature, they reasoned, it
would be adopted by the whole human race, not just France. And that
utopian project was incredibly successful: the meter's now used,
officially, in every country except three - the US, Myanmar and Liberia.

Q : How could they measure the distance between the North Pole and the
A : They couldn't, but it turns out that if you measure about 10%, you
can calculate the whole distance, because the earth curves and they're
measuring an arc - a segment of a circle. So they set out to measure
France from top to bottom, and a little bit of Spain. But just as they
began - one scientist going north from Paris and one going South - the
Revolution broke out. What started as a peaceful scientific expedition
became an adventure story. And that's what the book is about - it
follows the separate journeys of two scientists as they conduct the most
painstaking and ambitious scientific project ever undertaken up till
then, but in the midst of the complete social chaos of war and

The contrast between what they were attempting to do and what was
happening around them was extreme. But on the other hand, without a
Revolution, there would probably have never been a meter. The meter was
itself a revolution.

Q : What happened to them?
A : Everything you can imagine. Because they carried strange surveying
instruments, they were considered spies in some places and thrown in
prison. In Paris many of the best French scientists were then being
guillotined, so they had to navigate shifting political winds. They also
had to take their measurements from high places, like church steeples,
and forts, but the revolutionaries were pulling down churches and the
forts were sometimes under siege, so everything had to be negotiated
Once they were surveying between mountain ranges while a battle raged in
the valley between them. But the generals on both sides gave them
passage in this instance because they successfully argued that it was
for the sake of science. You could still make that argument then: that
science and war were separate.

Q : The book also reveals, doesn't it, that there is a secret mistake in
the meter, one which has never been corrected?
A : Right, the author, Ken Alder, creates some mystery and anticipation
in the introduction by revealing that the meter is in error, that the
error was covered up by the surveyor who made it, and that he's the
first to discover a sealed box of letters which explain the whole
incident. One of the scientists took a mistaken measurement from a
fortress in Barcelona, Spain, but on realizing his error, he couldn't go
back and correct it because Spain and France were at war, and he was

So he returned to Paris consumed with guilt, but too worried about his
reputation to reveal the mistake. Eventually his mistake was discovered
by others, but by that time the meter had been set, and its never been
changed. Scientists long knew about the mistake, but Alder was the
first to read the surveyor's own explanations, describing in detail what
happened, and showing that he was so haunted by it that he was driven
almost mad. Eventually the man died trying to correct the mistake. But
it never has been corrected and likely never will. The meter we have
has now become customary - a tradition - which is ironic because the
whole point was to overthrow custom by appealing directly to nature. As
we now know, however, nature turns out not to be as exact as unchanging
or capable of being measured as 18th century scientists wanted it to be.

"It was an operation of exquisite precision for such violent times. At
every turn they encountered suspicion and obstruction. How do you
measure the earth while the world is turning beneath your feet? How do
you establish a new order when the countryside is in chaos? Or is
there, in fact, no better time to do so?"

And Professor Clancey says: "I like this because we often assume,
incorrectly, that scientific revolutions take place in periods or
circumstances of calmness and placidity. In fact its often been the
opposite. Wars, revolutions, and generally unsettled times have often
been productive of great changes in the way we see nature."

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Witty confessions

Dubious yet witty confessions

Tales from a Broad: An Unreliable Memoir
by Fran Lebowitz. Bantam. Pages 345. Singapore $28.

When you pick up a book with a telling subtitle that reads ‘An Unreliable Memoir’, you should pretty much have an idea what you are headed for.

So that’s what this work is — a memoir that began when Fran Lebowitz landed in Singapore seven years ago as an expatriate wife. The adventure or misadventure if you’d like to read it that way was to have lasted just three short months. But things weren’t meant to be that way.

One thing leads to another and her husband Frank’s assignment in sunny Singapore is extended to three long years. That means Fran has to leave her happening life in New York as a literary agent behind, grapple with her two kids and somehow manage to find the time to always be on the run.

Something that is inevitably hard enough for someone who lives at the breakneck speed that Fran does. So her tales take on a frenetic pace, making it often hard to keep up with all the activities that she manages to squeeze in for herself and for her family in a mere 24 hours. She keeps herself busy trying to forget all about her New York life, while she goes about making friends from virtually all nationalities in her new multi-racial abode.

There are quotes gleaned from her childhood which are great laughs as Fran never fails to point out that she stuck out like a sore thumb though that did help her win the heart of the charming Frank — a copyright lawyer — who is in the midst of a failed attempt to establish his company’s presence in Singapore, and there are their delightful children Sadie and Huxley.

Just about everything they do collectively as a family comes fraught with an abundance of wit. And nothing escapes her wry hand, though that is bearable as she has the ability to laugh at her own weaknesses more than once:

"I look at the phone. I start the manuscript. It’s short. It’s called ‘The Heartland’. It’s a picture book about sad hearts and happy hearts all living together in harmony. I know I’ll pass it on. And the lucky author will be a bestseller. It’s my gift to publishing. If I take it on, you’re destined to be a mediocre. But if I hate it, it’s good."

The author also uses all the descriptive skills at her disposal to tell us about how she looks. "I blow out my hair real big and am generous with my make-up." Her description about Singaporean food might tempt you to get on the next flight to sample the delectable fare which she says is "thousands of tastes in each divine bite." Her observations about the searing humidity that could end up with first-time visitors constantly eyeing the pool are more than accurate as are her delightful comments on the perfectly maintained expatriate wives. "Their supple, tanned bodies marinate in the shallow end of the kiddy pool," a place where they fix their next lunch or tea date and exchange news about their travels, their children and the world they left behind.

Then there are all the adventures with maids in Singapore. "The problem with finding help in Singapore is that it’s pretty much a live-in-maid-only world - expats, locals, people in public housing, even maids have maids. Because having a maid is commonplace as owning a coffee maker, there just isn’t much call for part-time work." Fran’s maid adventure begins when she realizes she is being ripped off by the part-time help that she has got.

Expectedly with all these elements, the book sometimes moves faster than you’d like it to. The sentences and events fly at almost the same pace at which Fran religiously completes her daily runs.

Well, I knew when I picked up this book, that this wasn’t something to be taken seriously. So if you read it with that in mind, it’s an enjoyable read, something that can be finished in three hours flat while sipping your Diet Coke next to the languid pool waters. It sort of begins and ends there, after a few laughs it’ll end up on your shelf with a marked certainty that this is one book you won’t be revisiting any time soon.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Off the shelf

• The Broker (John Grisham)

THE BROKER By John Grisham

Hardcover: 357 Pages,
Publisher: Doubleday (January 11, 2005)
Price : $39.90 (Singapore)

Review by Deepika Shetty

The only time I found John Grisham hard to read was when he left the legal terrain, albeit briefly (mercifully), to delve into 'A Painted World'. That work chronicled his childhood, which might be a fascinating read for some people but it was something that certainly didn't work for me.

So I'm only too glad that his offering this year has a lot to do with travel, food, legalese - yes there is a lawyer and time in a prison. 'The Broker' which can already be visualised into a rather dramatic motion picture has all these elements and a whole lot more. Its the story of Joel Backman, an extremely powerful lawyer who is sent to federal prison for treason.

Backman, is 'The Broker', the highly influential lawyer who was once making 10 million dollars a year. In fact, in his heydays his reach was so great that he could open pretty much any door in Washington. Things feel apart when he tried to broker a deal selling access to the world's most powerful satellite surveillance system to the highest bidder. Caught between the proverbial devil and wild sea, Backman accepted a life behind bars, since that was pretty much the only way to stay alive. Anyone would if they had the Israelis, the Saudis, the Russians and the Chinese gunning for their life.

Just as Backman convinces himself there is no life beyond prison, things change rather dramatically. It all happens six years after his incarceration. That's when the director of the CIA convinces a lame duck President to pardon Backman. While many would be happy in the change in circumstance, it can't entirely be said of the broker. He is at once a free man, a man on the run with secrets to hide and many people gunning for his life so that their secrets could remain safe with him.

Once The Broker is set free, the book takes a lovely leisurely pace that transports the reader into the lanes and by lanes of Bologna. There is food, history and the character of the place that come perfectly alive through Grisham's almost cinematic writing:
"In a country where a three-hundred-year-old house is considered new, time has a different meaning. Food is to enjoyed, even in a small deli with few tables... So he absorbed the roar of life without trying to understand any of it. He enjoyed its rhythm and cadence and laughter... Watching the families and friends made him lonely, though he refused to dwell on it."

If this isn't entirely your cup of coffee, fret not, because once Grisham is done with describing the heartily appetising Italian fare, the book takes on a course of its own in classic Grisham style. The thrilling cat and mouse chase pits him against the numerous agencies and countries than want him dead. Which, inevitably sees the protagonist make the bold move to get back what was once his life:
"If people were still dying, then it was urgent that he learn the verbs and adjectives scattered on his bed. Language meant survival and movement."

With language comes the romance, when Backman is transformed into Marco Lazzeri, an imperative for his very survival. It is his language teacher the icy Francesca who melts with his charms and helps make the run from Bologna.

Then there is the major subplot with involves Joel's secret dealings with his son to help him escape. It all begins with some carefully orchestrated letters that are passed on to unsuspecting travellers. One of the letters that he passed on, does get mailed and reaches his son and explains the desperation of his current situation:

"Dear Neal:
I'm safe for now but I doubt it will last. I need your help. I have no address, no phone, no fax, and I'm not sure I would use them if I could. I need access to e-mail, something that cannot be traced. I have no idea how to do this, but I know you can figure it out. I have no computer and no money. There is a good chance you are being watched, so whatever you do, you must not leave a trail. Cover your tracks. Cover mine. Trust no one."

But will this be enough for him to cover his tracks? Will this help him make the dash to real freedom and will he get another chance to broker the best deal of his life - one that'll guarantee his freedom.

Well, that's a lot of questions that can be best answered by the well-paced 'BROKER'.

Today, John Grisham is the undisputed champion of the legal thriller.

But things weren't always this way. Way before his name became synonymous with the modern legal thriller, Grisham was clocking in close to 70 hours a week at a small Southaven, Mississippi law firm.

While he had harboured dreams of being a professional baseball player, his future as a writer was made at the Dessoto County courthouse.
It was here that he overheard the harrowing testimony of a twelve-year-old rape victim. This inspired him to start a novel exploring what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her assailants.

Thus was born "A Time to Kill".

It took three years to write, several rejections followed and eventually it was bought by Wynwood Press. The conservative print run was 5,000 copies and it was eventually published in June 1988.

Undeterred by failure Grisham started work on 'The Firm', the story of a hotshot young attorney lured to an apparently perfect law firm.
The book stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 47 weeks to become the bestselling novel of 1991.

Since then, Grisham had written one bestselling novel a year. Little suprise then that the Publishers Weekly dubbed him the "the bestselling novelist of the 90s".

He usually sticks to legal thriller, though with 'A Painted House', he moved into entirely new terrain. To quote Grisham himself, this novel had "not a single lawyer, dead or alive." Instead, Grisham relived his childhood through this quiet, contemplative story, set in rural Arkansas in 1952.

Grisham was born on February 8, 1955, in Jonesboro, Arkansas to a construction worker and a homemaker.

And here's a quick look at some of his life's work:

A Time to Kill. New York: Wynwood Press, 1989.
The Firm. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
The Pelican Brief. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
The Client. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
The Chamber. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
The Rainmaker. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
The Runaway Jury. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
The Partner. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
The Street Lawyer. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
The Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
The Brethren. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
A Painted House. Oxford, Mississippi: The Oxford American (2000). New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Skipping Christmas. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
The Summons. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
The King of Torts. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Bleachers. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
The Last Juror. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
The Broker. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

Motion Pictures:
The Firm. Director - Sydney Pollack. Paramount Pictures, 1993.
The Pelican Brief. Director - Alan J. Pakula. Warner Brothers, 1993.
The Client. Director - Joel Schumacher. Warner Brothers, 1994.
The Chamber. Director - James Foley. Universal Pictures, 1996.
A Time to Kill. Director - Joel Schumacher. Warner Brothers, 1996.
The Rainmaker. Director - Francis Coppola. Constellation Films, 1997.
The Gingerbread Man. Story by John Grisham. Director - Robert Altman. Enchanter Entertainment, 1998.
A Painted House. Director - Alfonso Arau. Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions and CBS-TV, 2003.
Runaway Jury. Director - Gary Fleder. New Regency Pictures, 2003.
The Street Lawyer. Director - Paris Barclay. Touchstone Television and ABC-TV, 2003.
Mickey. Director - Hugh Wilson. Original screenplay by John Grisham. Mickey Productions, 2004.
Christmas with the Kranks. Director - Joe Roth. Skipping Christmas Productions, 1492 Pictures, and Revolution Studios, 2004.
Based on the novel Skipping Christmas.

Television Shows:
The Client. 1995-96. Based on the novel and movie.
Deepika is a Producer with Prime Time Morning

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Thinking Allowed

They say if a child can't read before they turn six, chances are he/she will never really make it in life. Well, I wasn't that bad but the only stuff that I read till I was 15, was Noddy, a whole lot of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew. I only seriously started reading when I entered college at the age of 15. Rid of the pressures of scraping by in Mathematics and Science, my adventure with books well and truly got underway. I read just about everything that was available in my college library, took part in virtually every creative reading contest, won a couple of inter-collegiate prizes along the way....

One thing truly led to another. It was during the course of my Masters Degree that I made my foray into the fascinating world of book reviews. Handing me my first book for review on Electoral Politics was my then Professor Yogendra Yadav. I took almost two weeks to complete it, had a couple of sleepless nights thinking of the retribution that awaited me for maybe what could be viewed as unwarranted criticism. Nothing of that sort happened, but the offer of do a second review for The Tribune came along.

The temptation of course, was the chance to read yet another book for free and be able to comment on it. That too was published, after it had been given the finishing touches by the then Book Editor T K Ramasamy. Five published reviews down the line, over-confidence became over-bearing and I ended up reviewing an entirely forgettable book on advertising. That was quickly followed by a summons to the editor's office.

Being a naive 19 year old, the first thought that crossed my mind was that this would be a job offer of sorts. But that meeting was anything but. Put face to face against the demanding Mr Ramasamy, I knew it was going to be nothing but trouble with a capital T. Which is what it was. He tore up my review and I think if he had been a little madder those scraps of paper would have come flying into my face. The next line was something that stayed in my head forever: "Never write about anything that doesn't touch you."

It's something that has stood me in good stead right through my journalism days at The Times of India, India Today and now at Channel News Asia.

These happen to be truly exciting times. As I get ready to launch a new book segment 'Off The Shelf' I can't help back but think of those days and those times when it all began. So for a start here are some of the articles and book reviews that have been published over the years.

Thinking's Allowed, so keep those brickbats flowing. Hear from you soon!

Fielding a Diarist
Review by Deepika Shetty
{Bridget Jones’s Diary
by Helen Fielding. Picador, New York. Pages 310. Singapore $ 16. Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding. Picador. Pages 341. Singapore $16. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding. Pages 422. Singapore $16.}

SOMETIMES you really do wonder why one book manages to get exceptional critical acclaim, while another one in the same genre, by the same author in the same era is not quite talked about.

Take Helen Fielding, for instance. The first I heard of her (and I do tend to keep my ears glued to the ground in search of that perfect read) was when there was all the hype and hoopla about the famous diary that provided interesting takes on singlehood. In fact, I loved the book so much that each day I read a page at a time so that there would be some way of extending the drama of the diary. I still recall laughing out loud in the bus when I went through the devilishly witty text.

Sample this excerpt from "Inner Poise" for instance:

Tuesday April 4: "Determined now, to tackle constant lateness for work and failure to address in tray bulging with threats from bailiffs, etc. Resolve to begin self-improvement programme with time and motion study.

7 am: Get weighed

7.03 am: Return to bed in sulk over state. Head-state bad. Sleeping or getting up equally out of question. Think about Daniel.

7.30 am: Hunger pangs force self out of bed. Make coffee, consider grapefruit. Defrost chocolate croissant.

7.55 am: Open wardrobe. Stare at clothes………

10.35 am: Leave house

Three hours and 35 minutes between waking and leaving house is too long. In future must get straight up when wake up and reform entire laundry system. Open paper to read that convicted murderer in America is convinced the authorities have planted a microchip in his buttocks to monitor his movements, so to speak. Horrified by thought of similar microchip being in own buttocks, particularly in the mornings."

There is all this and a whole lot more in a diary that is guaranteed to make even men laugh. A zeitgeist of single female woes it touches at the humour strings by providing a dazzling urban satire of human relationships in our age and time.

Reversal of history

The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher J. Koch. Penguin Books. London. Pages 278.

ALMOST 17 years after the controversial film ‘‘The Year of Living Dangerously’’ was banned by the then Indonesian President Suharto, there has been a role reversal of sorts.

The book written by Tasmanian author Christopher J. Koch attempts to be a fictional account of what was happening in Indonesia but the parallel to the regime that reigned was too plain to miss. So the controversial book that took the avtar of an even more controversial movie was banned by President Suharto even before it was made.

Now the film and the book are in spotlight yet again with the lifting of the ban on its screening. The book that is a compelling tale of romance amid the political turmoil of the 20th century Indonesia attempted to capture the former President’s tumultuous rise to power.

The year was 1965 and the fiercely nationalistic government of god-king Sukarno had brought Indonesia to the brink of chaos. The political commentary woven into a tale of romance tells readers how events in Indonesia were shaped in that telling year and how thousands of suspected communists were almost wiped out from Indonesia.

Journalist Guy Hamilton of the Australian Broadcasting Service (ABS) is sent to report on Indonesia in times of change. "Indonesia was once again the major story on the world file, as it so often was in that era before the Vietnam war swallowed everything." On arrival he meets the hard to miss Chinese-Australian cameraman Billy Kwan. "There is no way, unless you have unusual self-control, of disguising the expression on your face when you meet a dwarf." That is Billy Kwan for you. But let not his height be a give away. He understands the wayang (drama) that is unfolding in the country perfectly well. In addition to his impeccable contacts, he also maintains a dossier on almost all correspondents and key players in Indonesia.

Kwan not just opens the doors for Hamilton when it comes to the government; he also shows him the places and people he needs to meet to understand the full impact of the events in Indonesia. His disillusionment with his hero Sukarno propels him to encourage Hamilton report on the poverty and misery in Indonesia. By reporting about Indonesia beyond Jakarta, which Kwan firmly believes only Hamilton can do, driven as he by his fresh perspectives and his recent arrival in the country, Kwan hopes to fulfill his social responsibility. So it is that Kwan injects romance into the novel by ensuring that Hamilton continues to meet Jill Bryant who was introduced to him at a party. "Privacy was difficult to find in Jakarta," even though Jill happens to be the woman both he and Hamilton love.

With this begins the complex drama of loyalty and betrayal that is played out in the eye of a political storm. "Swift evening spreads across Jakarta….explosions, flames of overturned cars, satisfying smash of glass. Konfrantasi in action. Fear." Even as Hamilton acquires information about the dramatic changes that are taking place, Jill who has access to key information through her job at the British Embassy providing assistance to Colonel Ralph lets it slip that something "terribly important happened tonight".

It all happens as Jill apologises to Hamilton for being late. One thing leads to another. In this case love leads to trust that is only to be betrayed. Jill knows she would lose her job if the news leaked and lets Hamilton know of it as well. The news that she breaks up would end up breaking a lot of other things as well. Breaking news, breaking relationships.

So to prove she believes in Hamilton she lets this information slip: "Our Hong Kong people have passed on some information about a ship that’s just left Shanghai. Apparently, its on its way here with some secret consignment, courtesy of the Chinese Government." This only goes to reveal that the take-over has some major backing. Hamilton is thrilled with the news but disappointed that he cannot use it. Not for long though.

Jill tells him about the uprising and insists he leave the country with her. But Hamilton has a change of heart, the reporter speaks and he ends up leaking the information to the world. Despite the looming perils, he does not leave but moves up north to face mobs and find out more about the uprising. Here he ends up losing an eye when bashed in the face by a rifle weilding soldier.

In the end though there are happy endings as Hamilton gives up the biggest story for love. When the communist coup fails and the Indonesian military starts its infamous massacre of communists, Hamilton returns to his love and his child with a new vision of the future.


Daughters, difficult and defiant

Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur. Penguin India, New Delhi. Pages 262. Rs 250

THE opening line of this novel is a steal. "The one thing I had wanted was not to be like my mother." This is Virmati’s daughter Ida speaking. Ida who is without a husband, child or parents. She is embarking on a voyage of discovery to find out more about her mother and the journey begins at Amritsar, a place she had always associated with her mother.

Manju Kapur’s sentimental story "Difficult Daughters" follows the journey of Virmati, a woman torn between family duty, who has the desire to study but is caught in the trap of illicit love and all this is happening to her at the time of partition. What better setting could one ask to tell the story of Virmati, who the author describes as strong, independent and as someone who knows exactly what she wants and how to go about getting it.

But first there is Kasturi, Virmati’s mother who was married off at a tender age. In a marriage spanning 17 years Kasturi bears 11 children, the eldest being Virmati, on whose shoulders the tough role of mothering for her siblings falls. While childbearing takes a toll on Kasturi’s health, child rearing, studying, managing household chores and being an arbitrator in the innumerable fights between her siblings takes a toll on Virmati.

A welcome break to Dalhousie to recuperate works well for both mother and daughter. It is here, in the midst of the hills and the quiet, watching the sun colouring the snow on the distant mountains of the Dhauladhar range that Virmati gets to know her cousin, Shakuntala Pehnji, better. A liberated woman of her time, Shakuntala lives in Lahore where she teaches. Virmati’s imagination is fired by the desire to be independent and like Shakuntala be able to wear what she wants to wear and not look around shyly for approval each time she spoke or acted.

With her as role model, a rather saddened Virmati returns to Amritsar as managing two separate households in two different places was proving to be a rather expensive proposition for her family. Back in Amritsar, when there is talk of getting a separate house for Kasturi and her growing brood, Virmati’s aunt also begins the battle for her rights and the patterns of a communal life are to be disturbed forever with separate houses for the two families.

The transition from Tarsikka to their new dwellings Leppel Griffin Road will also mark the beginning of tumultuous changes in Virmati’s life. It is here that her cousin Somnath finds tenants to rent a portion in his side of the family house. The arrival of the British educated professor who teaches English literature and who happens to fall hopelessly and helplessly in love with Virmati who also happens to be his student in college. To complicate matters, not only are the families different but the professor is already married and has a child from his first marriage. His wife dotes on him but the professor himself is driven to Virmati as he seems to be unable to carry on any conversation with his wife.

This leads to Virmati calling off her arranged marriage, attempting suicide and finally leaving Amritsar for Lahore to do her bachelors degree. But the professor follows her there and their rendezvous at his friend Syed Husain’s home leads to an untimely pregnancy followed by an abortion. Virmati is finally convinced that the professor is not interested in her. After getting her degree she agrees to take up the principal’s post at a girl’s school in Nahan. Here she throws herself wholeheartedly into her work and then again the professor surfaces leading to her untimely dismissal from the school.

Driven to desperation, Virmati again asks to be legally married or tells the professor to end the relationship forever. Finally, just as she has made all plans to leave for Santiniketan, there is a coerced marriage and Virmati finds herself trapped. The professor’s eventual marriage and installation of Virmati in his Amritsar house, next to his furious first wife, helps her towards the course of furthering her studies in Lahore but this is small consolation for her scandalised family who disown Virmati entirely.

Then there is partition and the pain and by the time the professor’s first wife finally leaves Amritsar for Lahore, Virmati has realised that she has created irrevocable lines of pain and partition around her.

While the well-researched novel begins well, Manju Kapur seems to be in a hurry to end the book. "Difficult Daughters" also falls flat in its attempt to portray Virmati as a woman who breaks rules and defies traditions to get something she always aspired for — independence. In the end all Virmati wants is to be the professor’s legally wedded wife and a happy home. Her daughter’s marriage ending up in a divorce and the deduction that being Virmati’s daughter meant such things could happen to her, just seem to be an over-simplistic deduction. On the whole, the book is a fairly interesting read though the story does tend to drag at times, especially when the exchange of letters between the two lovers is presented.

If Manju Kapur can pepper her text with a little more humour, her work will certainly be worth watching out for.