“The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

the epic city

I picked up this book on the streets of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during my recent visit to the city. I was looking for something local to read and couldn’t seem to choose from among the scores of books by Indian authors at “regular” bookstores like Crosswords. Walking down Park Street, one of the most famous streets of Calcutta, I stopped at one of the streetside book stalls to browse through its collection. I had discovered some excellent books from streetside stalls like this when I was growing up in India, and history seemed to repeat itself. The bookseller handed me a copy of The Epic City and told me it was very good. I read the blurb, which was intriguing; I was also very impressed with the credentials of the author. But what really clinched the deal for me was this quote from the back cover:

 “Stop and ask for directions in Delhi and no one knows, because no one is truly of the city. Ask for directions on any Calcutta street corner and a half-dozen mustachioed men will appear out of nowhere. They may offer radically divergent views on the matter, a street fight may break out as a result, rival political camps may emerge, and traffic may be barricaded for the rest of the afternoon. But it is their city, their streets, their neighbourhoods.”

Not only was this so well-written, it described Calcutta to a tee!

However, The Epic City is not just an ode to Calcutta, glorifying all the wonderful things about it such as its history, culture, character, vibrancy, and the passion of its people. It is also an unvarnished look at the city, warts and all, including the dirt and grime, the poverty, the chaos, the overwhelming number of people, the crumbling infrastructure, and the sheer difficulty of getting anything done. While all of this can be said of any major metropolis in India, Calcutta, in particular, seems to be caught in a time warp, according to Kushanava Choudhury, the author of The Epic City. And yet, it hasn’t seemed to have kept him away. He was born in Calcutta and moved to the US when he was 12, but the lure of the city was so strong that he returned to Calcutta after graduating from Princeton to work as a journalist, went back to the US to do a Ph.D. at Yale, and returned again to write The Epic City. His first return was born from idealism, of wanting to make a difference; the second time, he returned simply to capture the essence of the city he loved.

As a result, we get to experience Calcutta through Choudhury’s eyes at three different stages of his life: growing up in an ancestral home as part of a large, close-knit family with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins; working as a journalist fresh out of college in The Statesman, a leading Calcutta newspaper; and finally, as a married young man attempting to be a writer. Needless to say, he has a wealth of stories to share about the myriad aspects of life in the city, all of which stem from his own personal experiences. Some that stood out for me include the attempted renovation of his ancestral home by his uncle, an architect trained in the US, who finally gave up because of the labor problems and red tape, and returned to the US; his grandmother’s death, which brought the entire extended family back together in the ancestral home for her cremation; his search for an apartment to rent with his wife, the news of which spread like wildfire and resulted in many people voluntarily coming forward with prospective apartments that were not remotely what they were looking for; chasing news stories as a journalist that involved trying time and again to have meetings that kept getting postponed; and participating in the omnipresent “addas” of people hanging out having fervent discussions about politics, books, sports, philosophy,  or literally, anything under the sun.

I found The Epic City a perfect companion for my visit to Calcutta, as I could relate first-hand to many of the experiences so eloquently captured by Choudhury and became familiar with several of the places in the city that he described in the book. But even for those not living in or visiting the city, it shows how it is possible for someone to love a place despite all the many inconveniences of life they encounter there, so much so that they would actually choose to live there instead of a much easier, comfortable, and less stressful life in their home country.

The Epic City may not entice you to move to Calcutta, but it certainly allows you to understand and appreciate those who do.

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: October 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories” by Catriona Mitchell (Editor)

Walking Towards Ourselves

This book is a brilliant mosaic of many feminine voices from India, a collection of short stories carefully crafted to present a consistent and yet diverse pattern of thought and emotion. From Ira Trivedi’s Rearranged Marriage to Sharanya Manivannan’s Karaikkal Ammayar to Urvashi Butalia’s Oxygen, the book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride that is both exciting and frightening. The voices are by no means weak or even similar – and no facet of the feminine experience is left untouched. From the embarrassment of dark skin, to the agonies of match-making, marriage, motherhood and childlessness, alternative relationships and alternative sexual identities, difficult choices and painful lives, this book leaves no stone unturned in its quest for free expression of thought.

Mitali Saran writes, “This country worships phalluses, but women are raised to believe in their own shamefulness, and taught that female modesty protects the whole world’s honour. There are degrees, of course – perhaps you’re a rural woman who’s allowed an unrelated man to see her face uncovered, or you’re a city slicker showing too much cleavage – but shame is the monkey on your back, and when it shows up, it imperils your whole family’s reputation. It’s been a long historical fall from the erotic celebration of Khajuraho to the prudery of today.”

Bollywood belle Tisca Chopra writes of the legendary casting couch, “I have been asked, plenty of times — by actors, directors and producers. I play dumb. Smile and pretend I don’t get the hint. Yet, somehow, many men from the film business think it is their right to ask.”

Describing the near trauma of hunting for toilets in the Mumbai metropolis, Annie Zaidi writes, “The commute was tough, the deadline pressure insane, harassment was a possibility that lay in wait at every corner. But my greatest worry was not finding a toilet when I needed one. Which was several times a day every day. The city seemed to be lurching along anyhow, kidding itself that women didn’t get out much and, if they did, it was never long enough for their bladders to fill up. Mumbai was rumoured to have public toilets, at least at train stations, but to my dismay and fury, I found that most toilets were either non-functional or locked up, especially at night. The official excuse was that women didn’t use them anyway and that if toilets were open, they might be used for ‘other’ purposes.”

“Women were so central in the battle for independence, why did we hear virtually nothing about them afterwards? Or for that matter during colonial times?” asks Urvashi Butalia, the firebrand founder of the publishing house Kali for Women.

Salma’s account of her urge to write (translated from the Tamil by N Kalyanraman) and the vicious suppression she encountered is especially heart-rending. The reader is left wondering: Is this my Incredible India? “After hiding within the lime-coated walls of my parents’ home for several years, I moved to my husband’s family house on a neighbouring street and was enclosed by brand new walls, freshly coated with paint.” Salma’s predicament would shock the conscience of anyone who has a conscience. “Writing poems and reading books were considered serious crimes. My husband warned me to stop reading. He threatened that if he happened to see any books lying around the house he would burn them, and if he saw me writing he would break my fingers.” Salma didn’t stop writing. Today she is a celebrated author, and everyone knows her given name is Rokkaiyya Begum.

“Within a marriage, fighting back comes with its consequences. The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away. He is not the silhouette in the car park, he is not the masked assaulter, he is not the acquaintance who has spiked my drink. He is someone who wakes up next to me. He is the husband for whom I have to make the morning coffee. He is the husband who can shrug it away and ask me to stop imagining things.” This one is by an anonymous author – not even a pen name.

Saranya Manivannan writes, “In the long history of female silencing, the wardrobe was an instrument long before the pen.” And she elaborates, “In order to be taken seriously, in order to be left alone, in order to be perceived as neither desirable nor desirous, I twist my uncombed hair into a bun and leave my face bare and bespectacled, throw a loose tunic over pants and slip into pre-distressed chappals. Make no mistake about it: it is a cultivated look. It is a form of armour.”

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni remembers seeing the picture of ‘Sultana Raziyya’ in her brother’s history’ book and being impressed with the way the queen exuded power. “In this picture the woman sat on a tigerskin while a man knelt nearby, offering her his scimitar. Instead of flowing veils, she wore the male attire of the time: baggy pants and a vest. Instead of daintily sniffing at a rose, like the women in my father’s book of Mughal paintings, she leaned forward boldly to grasp the weapon offered to her.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories
EDITOR: Catriona Mitchell
CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS: Ira Trivedi, Rosalyn D’Mello, Mitali Saran, Urvashi Butalia, Annie Zaidi, Anjum Hasan, Salma, Anita Agnihotri, Tishani Doshi, Margaret Mascarenhas, Sharanya Manivannan, Tisca Chopra, Deepti Kapoor, C S Lakshmi, Nirupama Dutt, Chitra Banerjee Diwakarunni and one ANONYMOUS writer.
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy1

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was my first real insight into white working-class America – what he describes as ‘hillbillies’ from a poor Rust Belt town. The author gives a compelling explanation of why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to ‘make it.’ I picked up this book after the 2016 election to get an idea of the Republican base.

I just loved the glimpse into Vance’s chaotic family history – his grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother dealing with demands of their new middle-class life while struggling with the legacy of addiction, alcoholism and poverty that is so characteristic of their part of America.

Vance’s grandparents moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them and to raise a middle-class family. When J.D. graduates from Yale Law School, he succeeds in achieving generational upward mobility – a story interspersed with its fair share of humor and colorful characters. He was mostly raised by his grandparents along with his half-sister because his mother was an addict who went from husband to husband and Vance barely knew his father. He did poorly in school and was lucky to get out of the cyclical poverty when a cousin pushed him into joining the Marines, which was an American melting pot. From there he went to Ohio State and then to Yale Law School.

At Yale, his mentor was Amy Chua – the famous ‘tiger mom.’ But he feels the disdain from his fellow-mates who come from a different socio-economic class and cannot relate to his ‘white poverty’ or his marine background. He meets his future wife, Usha, at Yale and finds much more

Vance doesn’t pretend to be a policy expert or offer solutions – he merely opens our eyes to them. But after reading the book, it did make me think about what can be done to create opportunity in poor communities, especially in ‘middle America.’

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J. D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: June 2016

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.

“Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel” by Tom Wainwright


I was at the Munich airport and had time to kill. I went to the bookstore and my eyes fell on a book with an intriguing name. I went ahead and bought it. And sure, I got my money’s worth.

I was startled to learn that this is the author’s first book. He sure writes like a pro. And he’s chosen a mind-blowing topic. I’ve read many books written by journalists, but this one’s the best of all. It’s a lesson in economics, sociology, crime and the dark side of human life.

We learn that the world’s taxpayers spend $100 billion a year combating the illegal drugs trade. “There is an overwhelming focus on suppressing the supply side of the business, when basic economics suggests that addressing demand would make more sense.”

The global narcotics industry has annual revenues amounting to about $300 billion and serves a quarter of a billion consumers. It closely resembles a professionally run multinational corporation. “Colombian cocaine manufacturers have protected their profits by tightening control of their supply chains, along the same lines as Walmart. Mexican cartels have expanded on a franchise basis, with the same success as Macdonald’s.”

Monopsony means ‘single buyer.’ While a monopolist can dictate prices to its consumers as it’s the only seller, a monopsonist can dictate prices to its suppliers, because it’s the only buyer. Drug cartels keep the price of coca stable by putting pressure on the suppliers who in turn squeeze the growers. So any production loss or destruction of crop affects only the farmers – those at the very bottom of the supply chain. On the international market the price of cocaine has remained steady for over two decades. So has the number of cocaine users.

“Prison is fabulously expensive. Sending a teenager to jail costs more than it would to send hint to Eton College, the private boarding school in England that educated Princes William and Harry.” For criminal organizations, prisons pay a pivotal role in the recruitment and training of staff. The La Nuestra Familia (our family), a California based prison gang was founded in the 1960s by prison inmates looking to protect themselves from another gang, the Mexican Mafia. The Aryan Brotherhood is another American prison gang. (Gosh, there’s a whole world out there that we’re clueless about!)

“Buy cocaine in Europe or the United States and it’s an uncomfortable certainty that you have helped to pay for someone to be tortured to death…” Drug cartels often seek publicity for their gruesome murders. The author was told that the worst time to step out in Ciudad Juarez (in the Mexican state of Chihuahua) is 5-45 p.m. because that’s when the gangs carry out their executions in time to lead the 6 p.m. news broadcast.

There’s a whole lot of interesting information:

  • In the early 1970s, Stanford University students used Arpanet (a precursor of the internet) for the first time to arrange a deal with the students of MIT. The subject of the transaction was a bag of marijuana. Today, on the ‘dark web’ of the internet drugs and weapons are anonymously bought with bitcoins, and contract killings are said to be on sale. A recent Global Drug Survey revealed that in the UK 22% of illegal drugs are purchased online.
  • Many hotels in La Paz, Bolivia serve coca tea to guest on arrival.
  • The UN estimates that the average coca grower in Columbia earns $2 a day.
  • Brazil is the world’s second biggest market for cocaine after the United States.
  • Spain is the main gateway to Europe for Latin American drugs.
  • New Zealand shuts down more crystal-meth labs each year than any country in the world apart from the United States and Ukraine.
  • “For criminals looking for an offshore base in the Americas, Guatemala has a lot to offer. But it faces stiff competition from its southern neighbour, Honduras.”
  • Guatemala’s president Otto Perez Molina, stated that, “Today more people are dying in Central America through drug trafficking, and the violence it generates, than are dying in the United States through the consumption of drugs.”

The book talks of the franchising of criminal brands, the manufacture of ‘designer drugs’, the emergence of “Frankenstein drugs’, and lots more. In short, it’s one deadly cocktail.

Overall Assessment: Absolutely brilliant.

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel
AUTHOR: Tom Wainwright
PUBLISHER: Ebury Press

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime

I am addicted to three late-night comedy shows — The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Late Night with Seth Meyers — all of which I record daily on my DVR and watch religiously the next day. They are essential for me to get my daily quota of laughs. While I heartily enjoy all three shows, the one that I invariably watch first is The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He took it over from Jon Stewart barely a couple of years ago, and Jon Stewart was so good that it was hard to imagine anyone being able to fill in his shoes. But Trevor Noah has taken the show and made it his own, imbuing it with his unique sensibility — he is from South Africa and is biracial, and is therefore able to look at events in the US as well as the world with a perspective that is very different from the traditional American talk show host. He also has such a natural fair for comedy, which, combined with an innate charm, makes him immediately likable.

Born a Crime is a memoir Noah has written recently that is primarily focused on his childhood growing up in South Africa, against the ugly backdrop of apartheid. While this inhumane system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination was ending as he was growing up — thanks to activists like Nelson Mandela — Noah was born at a time when it was still illegal for black and white people to have sexual relations, let alone procreate. Thus, as the child of a white man and a black woman, he was “born a crime,” which explains the title of the book. However, Born a Crime is far from being a dark and depressing read that is focused on the many horrors of apartheid and the fight to end it; instead, it is an account of Noah’s childhood growing up as a “colored” person in South Africa. He was raised primarily by his mother and had more or less a black upbringing, although the tone of his skin did set him apart and made him learn to be like a “chameleon” to fit in with different groups of people. At the same time, it robbed him of the sense of belonging that comes from fitting in squarely in one group.

We see both these seemingly contradictory aspects manifested in so many ways in the anecdotes that Noah shares in this book about his life, from the time he was a little boy being brought up by his mother — with frequent visits to her family where he got a chance to experience the full gamut of relationships including cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother, and even a great-grandmother — to his adolescent years — by which time his mother had remarried and had two more boys. By the time he was a young adult, he was well on his way to moving out of the house to a place of his own. He had his share of romantic crushes in school, just like any other adolescent, and also had several brushes with the law — mostly involving petty crime — which stopped when he actually ended up spending a few days in jail. Eventually, his natural flair for entertaining people and making them laugh is what led him to doing comedy for a living.

What I enjoyed most about Born a Crime are the stories of Noah’s early childhood, many of which would have been really sad and depressing but for his outlook and the manner in which he narrates them, which makes them funny rather than tragic. For example, the book starts with his mother throwing him out of a moving bus when he was nine years old and then jumping out of the bus herself with his infant step-brother. With an opening like that, how can you not be hooked? There is another story that is laugh-out hilarious, and that is to do with toilets, or rather, the lack of them. In Soweto, the place where Noah grew up, there were only communal toilets, and even those were little more than unceremonious holes into the ground, with flies a constant present. Noah describes how he always had “an all-consuming fear that they were going to fly up and into [Noah’s] bum.” There’s a lot more to this story which I cannot repeat here — it’s worthwhile reading the book for that story alone! — except this priceless observation, “I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forgot how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.”

While few people would refer to our bodily functions so crudely, at least in writing, it is so characteristic of Noah to share his observations so bluntly, without any attempt to sugar-coat them. The other stories he narrates are in a similar vein, and I could literally hear his “voice” as I was reading them, with the same tone and manner of speaking that he has on his show — it comes through loud and clear.

What also comes across is his love for his mother, a truly remarkable woman who was extremely tough as well as fiercely independent, who had him when she wanted to have a child but without the traditional marriage to a man in her community and the subservience that goes with it. She left home at a young age, found a secretarial job at a time when this was impossible for black women, found a decent man — who happened to be white — to father a child, and then raised the child on her own. This is how Noah came to be — a biracial kid brought up by his black mother, who couldn’t even be seen with him in public when he was small because it was illegal. His mother did eventually get married to a black man, who turned out to be abusive, but she never stopped being tough and independent, the rock that supported him. Quite simply, he was lucky to be her son.

I enjoyed reading Born a Crime and getting a chance to learn about the back story of someone whose comedy I thoroughly enjoy and who has made it so big in the US. It was also illuminating to hear a first-hand account of someone who has lived though the waning years of apartheid. Over and above all, it’s always fascinating to get a chance to see how people end up doing what they do.

Born a Crime
Author: Trevor Noah
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: November 2016

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” by Frank Bruni

Where You Go

New York Times best-selling author Frank Bruni shows why rejection from an Ivy League college does not spell disaster but may even be a blessing in disguise. In his book, Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Bruni takes on the myth that getting an Ivy League education is not only necessary for success as an adult, but also a stepping stone to wealth and prosperity. He examines the chaos of the college admissions process in the US, looking at college rankings, SAT scores, and acceptance rates of elite colleges.

Bruni connects the mayhem of admissions to the emphasis on privilege and branding, which ends up categorizing people by their race or their family’s income. Too often, admission into a top college becomes the number one priority, while trying to go to a school where you get the best education takes a backseat. Crafting a student’s resume begins as early as in preschool, as community service, sports abilities, and other extra-curriculars all contribute to where the student ends up attending. Students can only relax when they are finally accepted somewhere.

Bruni writes, “The sale is more important than the product,” as he uses his own personal experiences to show that being rejected from Ivy League colleges may, in fact, be a blessing. Bruni uses Arizona University as an example of a great school that is not in the Ivy League. Arizona offers high quality education, with a faculty that includes two Nobel and five Pulitzer Prize winners. Getting an education from your top choice, even if it is not in the Ivy League, is still the best option, but rejection can lead you off the path, where you have to learn to be self-reliant and more flexible, increasing your chances of success.

Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be is a must-read for students heading into colleges, as it reminds them that just because a college may be higher ranked or has more prestige does not mean it’s a better place for their education. Written in a dynamic style but containing a lot of valuable information, this is a book that families and students cannot overlook as they get into the bedlam of college admissions.

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
Author: Frank Bruni
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: March 2015

Reviewer: Sahil Kurup is a high-school student at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California.

“Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China” by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls

This book is partly about factory girls in China and partly about the author’s own family history. The two parts don’t blend together and the reader often feels the lack of cohesion, although the book is well-researched and well-written. It reveals the inner workings of China’s economic miracle of recent decades – and for this reason alone it’s worth reading.

I really relished the parts where the author carefully tracks the lives of several young girls who leave their homes in rural China in search of a better future and find their way to the factories in large towns and cities. Their dreams and aspirations, successes and disappointments, factory-hopping and dating games make interesting reading.

From Wu Chunming’s diary, the author shares many entries. An entry made on May 24, 1994 reads: “We start work at seven in the evening and get off work at nine at night. Afterward we shower and wash our clothes. At around ten, those with money go out for midnight snacks and those without money go to sleep. We sleep until 6.30 in the morning. No one wants to get out of bed, but we must work at seven.” Another undated entry reads: “RIGHT NOW I HAVE NOTHING. MY ONLY CAPITAL IS THAT I AM STILL YOUNG.” Chunming had migrated to Dongguan from a village in Hunan province two years ago when she was seventeen. The author met her when she was nearly thirty.

The author’s grandfather travelled to the US to study and subsequently returned home only to be killed in Manchuria in 1946. Later he is turned into a martyr, but again the tide turns and his grave is desecrated. The grandmother stoically brings up her five children, moving them to Taiwan in 1948, and sending them to the US one by one. The author herself is born in America and works in Beijing as a WSJ correspondent for several years. She begins a serious investigation that culminates in this book.

Are there any revelations? Well, here are some insights and observations:

  • In traditional Chinese genealogies, a family traces its lineage back to the “first migrating ancestor” who settled in a new location.
  • Widows who remarried after their husbands’ deaths were often omitted from a genealogy, as were childless concubines and sons who became monks.
  • Chinese history museums have grey areas. Ancient civilization is glorified but we are reminded that it was also feudal and backward. Modern China was ravaged by foreigners. China triumphed in 1949 when the communists came to power. But dark events such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 were blacked out.
  • Chiang Kai-shek breached the dikes of the Yellow River and unleashed a flood to stem the Japanese invasion. But the flood killed several hundred thousand Chinese farmers as well.
  • Though the government promoted cremation and charged each family a hefty fine for a burial, many villagers simply paid up and proceeded to bury their dead.
  • A fake degree from a vocational college cost around $7.50 while one from a vocational high school could be obtained for half that price.
  • “The mobile phone was the first big purchase of most migrants. Without a phone, it was virtually impossible to keep up with friends or find a new job…….. In a universe of perpetual motion, the mobile phone was magnetic north, the thing that fixed a person in place.”
  • “People referred to themselves in the terminology of mobile phones. I need to recharge. I am upgrading myself.”

The human suffering that triggers migration and the inevitable emotional cost is clearly spelt out. In the author’s own words, “My grandmother pushed her children to leave. She felt that Taiwan was too small; America was the only place for further education. But the journey by ship across the Pacific Ocean was too costly to be taken more than once. Every time she said goodbye to a child, she knew it was for the last time.”

There is pathos, there is humour, and there is some measure of confusion. Three chapters stick out of the book like a sore thumb: “The stele with no name”, “The historian in my family” and “The tomb of the emperor”. They have nothing to do with factory girls.

Overall Assessment: Worth reading despite the complexity.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
AUTHOR: Leslie T Chang
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Mafia Queens of Mumbai ” by S. Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges


There is high drama, there is intrigue, there is gang warfare, there is crime and punishment – and in the midst of it all, in the soft dark under-belly of the Mumbai underworld. there are ‘crime madonnas.’ We in India have heard of the notorious triumvirate that ruled India’s commercial capital then known as Bombay – the Tamilnadu born Haji Mastan, the Chennaiite Varadharajan Mudaliar and the Afghanistan born Karim Lala – until the Emergency intervened to bring about a reversal of their fortunes. When Vardha (as Varadharajan Mudaliar was known) died in Chennai in 1988, Mastan chartered an aircraft to bring his body back to Bombay for a funeral that any king would have envied. Mastan was the darling of Bollywood and we have seen pictures of him with Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Madhubala and countless others. We have also heard of Dawood Ibrahim, Chota Rajan and other sundry characters, many of whom are absentee ganglords, rather than hands-on local dons. But the names of the women in mafia-land are new to us. Thus this book is an eye-opener in more ways than one. It tells us the mafia is not a male club.

Take Jenabai (Zainab) Chaavalwali, who participated wholeheartedly in the Independence movement and opted to remain in Bombay with her five children in 1947 when her husband Darwesh chose to migrate to Pakistan. In times of acute grain shortage, she acted as a middle-woman between wholesale grain merchants and dealers. Wow! Later she married Iqbal Gandhi but never called herself Mrs. Gandhi. She met Vardha who initiated her into the art of bootlegging in the early sixties. Soon she became rich and famous as Jenabai Daaruwali. Vardha introduced her to Mastan. Dawood Ibrahim was then a teenager and his parents Ibrahim Kaskar and Aamina were close friends of Jenabai. It was Jenabai who intervened to bring about a truce between the Pathan gang and the Ibrahim brothers, Dawood and Sabir, sometime in 1980. The truce was short-lived, but Jenabai herself lived until the ripe old age of 74.

The women in the book are spectacular – and that’s a gross understatement. Kudos to Zaidi for bringing them into the public gaze! Ever heard of Gangubai, the matriarch of Kamatipura? Well she owned a black Bentley and met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to lobby for the decriminalization of prostitution. She smoked bidis, drank Ranichaap (whatever that is!), chewed paan and gambled to her heart’s content. And yet, they say she had a heart of gold. She never married but adopted several children.

Did you know that from the early nineties the Mumbai drug trade (vaguely estimated at 1000 crore) was dominated by a female troika – Jyoti Adiramalingam, Mahalaxmi Papamani and Savitri? You won’t find them on Wikipedia. Google their names and you’ll draw a blank. But the authors actually met two of them. Sapna Didi, who tried her best to avenge her husband’s murder by Dawood’s men and lost her life in the attempt and Bollywood starlet Monica Bedi, the love interest of Abu Salem, are also featured in the book, perhaps to attract new-gen readers.

Is the female of the species more deadly than the male? Read the book and find out. Written by India’s best known crime reporter, “Mafia Queens” delivers a lot more than it promises. The style of the master storyteller is unmistakable. Faction and fiction are artfully blended together to present a fascinating experience. “Mastan called for his black Mercedes and walked Jenabai to the car. As the car left Baitul Suroor, the lights in the villa gradually dimmed and faded to black.”

Overall Assessment: Not to be missed.

Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands
Author: S Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges
Publisher: Tranquebar Press (an imprint of Westland Ltd.)
Date of Publication: 2011

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy” by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko


It’s evident that extensive research has gone into the making of this masterpiece. Thomas J. Stanley studied wealthy individuals for decades before he co-authored this book along with William D. Danko. There are quite a few ‘get rich’ books on the market. This one is undoubtedly special.

The good news is that anyone with a decent job can accumulate a fortune over time. The bad news is that high income does not automatically translate into great wealth. What do the wealthy folks in America have in common? Have they merely inherited a fortune? Not so, say the authors. One thing they all have in common is frugality. We all know of Warren Buffet, but hey, there are dozens of others! And the rich are not who we think they are.

The authors state that affluent persons tend to answer ‘yes’ to three questions they were asked in routine surveys:

  1. Were your parents very frugal?
  2. Are you frugal?
  3. Is your spouse more frugal than you are?

“Most people will never become wealthy in one generation if they are married to people who are wasteful. A couple cannot accumulate wealth if one of its members is a hyper-consumer. This is especially true when one or both are trying to build a successful business. Few people can sustain profligate spending habits and simultaneously build wealth.” So high living is just not cool.

Tighten your belt folks! Take a deep breath. Do you really need that new Lamborghini?

You can also learn new ways of calculating what your net worth ought to be. “Multiply your age times your realized pre-tax annual household income from all sources except inheritances. Divide by ten. This, less any inherited wealth is what your net worth should be.” Check it out. Do you pass the test? No? Then buy another copy of the book and give it to your spouse.

Overall assessment: Wanna become rich? Try this one!

The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“So Long a Letter” by Mariama Bâ


This book by a Senegalese woman writer in French was widely acclaimed and translated into several languages. The English translation was published in 1981, the same year the author died following a tragic illness.

“To warp a soul is as much a sacrilege as murder.” The status of women in polygamous social structures is gracefully outlined in this teeny weeny semi-autobiographical novel that appears in the form of a long letter from a woman to her friend. Sensitive, without being sentimental, it recounts the tragic story of a woman’s life in the simplest of ways. As a woman born into a patriarchal conservative Islamic society with all its inherent contradictions, Ramatoulaye remains stoic through multiple childbirths, watches helplessly as her husband takes a younger second wife, and later battles the emotional storms of widowhood.

“My voice has known thirty years of silence, thirty years of harassment,” the epistle states in a matter-of-fact tone. “It bursts out, violent, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes contemptuous.” When her husband’s much-married brother proposes to wed her in accordance with the prevailing custom, Ramtoulaye reacts, “Did you ever have any affection for your brother? Already you want to build a new home for yourself, over a body that is still warm. While we are praying for Modou, you are thinking of future wedding festivities.” Not content with this admonition she goes on to question the social order with its unfair tradition of unearned male privilege: “What of your wives, Tamsir? Your income can meet neither their needs nor those of your numerous children. To help you out with your financial obligations, one of your wives dyes, another sells fruit, the third untiringly turns the handle of your sewing machine.”

When Daouda, a former suitor, now a distinguished member of the National Assembly, turns up at the funeral, Ramatoulaye brings up the subject of women’s representation in the august house. “Four women, Daouda, four out of a hundred deputies! What a ridiculous ratio! Not even one for each province.” Daouda’s response is as meaningful as it is amusing. “But you women, you are like mortar shells. You demolish. You destroy. Imagine a large number of women in the Assembly. Why, everything would explode, go up in flames.”

The oppressed woman’s yearning for freedom is subtly and powerfully expressed in crystal clear language: “Daouda Dieng was savouring the warmth of the inner dream he was spinning around me. As for me, I was bolting like a horse that has long been tethered and is now free and reveling in space.” Ramatoulaye’s letter delivered by a messenger to Daouda and his reply are both heart-breaking.

The novel is entertaining, thought-provoking and soul-stirring. It undoubtedly has feminist overtones as it highlights the imbalance between the sexes and the helplessness of women. Every woman will love it.

The translator, Modupe Bode-Thomas, deserves commendation for the professional touch that makes the book so very special.

Overall Assessment: Well worth a read –especially if you are a Muslim woman.

So Long a Letter
AUTHOR: Mariama Bâ
DATE OF PUBLICATION: French original in 1979, English translation in 1981.
PUBLISHER: Waveland Press

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Everything about this book is shocking. The words are gentle, yet the message is powerful and the story spectacular. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman’s birth in Somalia, growing up in Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Ethiopia, and migrating first to the Netherlands where she is elected to Parliament and then to the United States, where she is on a mission to exorcise the ghosts of Islam.

“We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mindset of the Arab desert in the seventh century,” she writes. “We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.”

The author’s account of her early life in Somalia is hair-raising. She gives a blood-curling description of her experience of forced circumcision at the age of five, as also that of her elder brother and younger sister, all performed on the same day at the initiative of her maternal grandmother. “Female genital mutilation predates Islam. Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic. But in Somalia where virtually every girl is excised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam.” Though she squarely condemns FGM, she does not ask the question why boys need to be circumcised.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks of her stay in Saudi Arabia, where gender based segregation was strictly enforced and public beheadings were commonplace. “It was a normal, routine thing: after the Friday noon prayer you could go home for lunch, or you could go and watch the executions. Hands were cut off. Men were flogged. Women were stoned.” The author points out that the Prophet did say, “Wage war on the unbelievers.” She adds, “Christians can cease to believe in God. But for a Muslim, to cease believing in Allah is a lethal offence. Apostates merit death: on that the Quran and the hadith are clear.”

She prayed five times a day and wore the veil. But soon she began to question her own beliefs. Was her religious instructor Boqol Sawm translating the Quran properly? “Surely Allah could not have said that men should beat their wives when they were disobedient? Surely a woman’s statement in court should be worth the same as a man’s?” She describes her gradual loss of faith, her life in Europe where she learnt that human rights and dignity were cherished values, her outspokenness and the heavy price she had to pay for it, the murder of her friend Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands, her persecution by religious extremists, and her eventual escape to America, the land of the free.

Today she continues to write and speak out. Fearlessly – but with bodyguards. Her speeches and debates are all over Youtube. As there is a fatwa against her anyway, she can keep writing anything and it can’t get any worse. She says in the Introduction to this book: “People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no: I would like to keep on living. However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.”

Overall Assessment: Thought provoking. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is possibly one of the most impressive voices of the 21st century.

AUTHOR: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
PUBLISHER: The Free Press
Date of Publication: 2007

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.