Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. Sometimes when you wake up, you fly.
With 166 dead and around 300 injured, the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai was one of the most ghastly and sinister experiences of independent India, which shook both the nation and the world, with the perpetrator count being a mere 10 fidayeen(Lashkar-e-Toiba’s units which are ‘trained to sacrifice’).
Google Earth, Internet telephony network and satellite TV were what kept up the attacks and the slow response of the higher authorities was what scaled it to monstrous levels, searing its existence into all those who were unfortunate enough to witness or become a victim to it. For most of us Indians, it was something that just happened, like so many other events. It was something we saw on our Television screens, with the news reporters in the forefront drawing our attention to a burning Taj in the background. Not that it was needed, it was already impossible to tear one’s eyes away from it; the Taj was a sight to behold. The mighty hotel with smoke ensuing out of it, perhaps, was a metaphor to the Indian Institution which had bitterly failed in its duties to its citizens for both combating and later, investigating the horrible attacks. For all those involved in it, all those who lost their loved ones to it, or were injured for life, it was something which they probably cannot forget for all of their remaining lives.
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark did a wonderful job of piecing all the events that happened before and during the 26/11 attacks into a linear timeline. They then began at the very start, the recruiting and training of the 10 fidayeen soldiers and ended at the retaking of the Taj by the Indian NSG(National Security Guard). The NSG was deployed to Mumbai a full 10 hours after the commencement of the attacks and in the meantime, it was the local authorities(who were helpless devoid of proper ammunition to face the loaded and battle trained fidayeen units), the Taj security guard and the Taj staff that held the fort, losing their men to secure guests who were stuck in the hotel. The Taj staff went out of their way to ensure the security of their guests, even going as far as risking their own lives.
To attribute a genre to The Siege, I would call it a thriller. But it is a thriller like no other. It is a thriller in which a reader already knows what was going to happen, but the question that is answered a little with each turn of the page, is how. It is chilling to the bone because after every few moments it hit again that everything written down in the book actually happened. All the carnage and horror inked down in those pages is not a figment of someone’s imagination, but infact a story of people who actually lived(or gave their all to live) through it.
The absence of the police force coerced the people into taking matters into their own hands. A pair of soldiers successfully led a large group of foreigners(largely Koreans) out of the Taj Towers with the help of a Taj Security Chief member, a Taj General Manager did the same and then went back in to assist other guests, and the most wondrous of them were the Chefs who built a human chain to safely escort the guests through corridors. One of the staff members who was stuck inside a room was kept alive by a stranger who kept her conscious by talking to her through her mobile phone for all the thirty-six hours she was stuck there. In the midst of all the terror and cold ruthlessness, there were people who demonstrated such courage and selflessness that make you wonder at human tenacity.
What the The Siege does is relay the untold story of all the innocent people who were caught in the wild schemes of an organization which ultimately sought to serve its own goals of terrorizing the world, and these also included the young people who were allured with warped promises and assurances of religion and carefully trained to die. A particular exchange still rings in mind:
(Ajmal Kasab after being shown the mutilated bodies of his comrades)
“Ajmal turned furiously to his police guard, his world imploding:’Take me away’. He was driven back to his solitary cell, where his interrogator was waiting for him. ‘So, Ajmal,’ he said, smiling. ‘Did you see the glow on their faces and smell the fragrance of roses rising from their bodies?’
Bitterly, Ajmal wept.”
Here are two of some other incidents mentioned in the afterword:
At Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where Ajmal Kasab and his accomplice gunned down fifty-eight commuters, wounding another 104, a thirteen year old boy was saved from the firing and taken to a hospital where doctors calculated when to tell him that his parents, an uncle and three cousins had perished.
After the bodies of thirty-two staff and guests were recovered from the Trident-Oberoi Hotels, a Turkish Muslim couple, Seyfi and Meltem Muezzinoglu, held captive for eight hours, recalled how they burst into mourning after watching the gunmen execute a group of female hostages. “We stepped forward, opened our hands and said our prayers out loud,” Seyfi said. “And you know what happened? One of the gunmen was staring at us with big eyes. He didn’t believe it and started looking at the floor. He was ashamed. We spoke our prayers in Arabic, and we spoke them loud, hand in hand in front of those bodies.”
The Siege is the first book of its kind that I liked. I have a hard time reading journalism books. I find them hard to appreciate. But this one is an exception, maybe because the events were carefully arranged into how a storyteller would tell them without compromising the facts, or maybe because the stories themselves surpassed my aversion to these kind of books. Whatever the reason, the Siege gives us a box office view of the Taj Attacks, revealing facts and heart-wrenching stories and feats that our television sets failed to. Above all, it is a book that should be read once, atleast by every Indian.
“God sometimes tells lies. We spread our hands out to these lies and live with them”
In what seems to be a long long time(even though it was just three days). I have finally reached the end of A Fine Balance. What remains now is a profound sadness, but also a slight confusion, that I try to dispel as I write.
What I can say about the book is that it drips with life, or better, tries to replicate life itself: complete with its miseries, struggles, incomprehensibilities, meetings, joys, stagnancies, and of course, goodbyes.It begins with a meeting, which, while pulling the characters out of their immediate predicaments, ends up as a prelude to unforeseen but consequential events.Fate brings them together and need binds them, albeit with a cord so frayed it threatens to break at the slightest of innocent pressure.
Still, like the memories that refuse to be forgotten, the book keeps bringing up their pasts, which they uselessly try to put behind them. A curious group of misfits(a middle-aged widow trying to live without depending on her brother; a college going student who has weathered severe bullying and violent student unions; a kind-hearted man and his hot-headed nephew, who have dearly paid the casualties of being in the lower chamaar caste in their native village), the house where they live becomes a haven to them which they viciously protect.
From the beginning, Mistry makes us fall in love with the characters. It has been a while since I’ve empathized with the characters to the extent that I’m impatient to know where their lives will take them next; and yet increasingly reluctant as the end approached, maybe because I could sense the impending doom and recognize the subtle forebodings.
All people are but a product of their circumstances. They all have their own reasons, beliefs, stories, moral codes and breaking points, and Mistry does well to explore these to their darkest depths. The setting of the book (1970s – 1980s) when India was fraught with political uprisings, caste based riots and, above all, the consequences of the Emergency (forced sterilization camps, destruction of slums, and effectively, the withdrawal of all human rights for those without money or powerful backing) helped this generously, but was not half-heartedly done. Above everything else, Mistry shows India ruthlessly, glorifying in all its twisted sensibilities and heartlessness, but all the while preserving the kindness and love people inherently retain in their hearts, perhaps to prove their humanity to a society which will not give them their due.
The book does not have a happy ending, so to say. There is, after all, a limit to how far people can walk a tightrope while continuously glancing behind their backs. Their pasts inevitably catches up with them and smashes them back to where they began. Yet, that does not refute the short refuge they enjoyed when together with one another, making it one of the most beautiful time of their lives.
And what do I myself have to say about the time spent reading the book? Simply that, along with giving an interesting glimpse into the 1970s India, it taught me a lot of things I had no other way of knowing. I am a different person now from when I picked it up, and for that it deserves my respect and gratitude.
HEADS-UP: Look forward to plenty of unusual allegories and motifs, but not to a happy ending. Take your time savoring this book, it has a lot to offer(literally, it’s 614 pages, in fine print). It’s gonna get an easily accessible place on my shelf. And most importantly, do give it a shot, but remember, it is not for the weak-hearted.
QUOTES: A Fine Balance is more of a paragraph-quotes book, if you know what I mean. Still, here are some of my favorite picks:
As always, feel free to discuss your opinions/suggestions.
 Kamisama ga uso o tsuku by Kaori Ozaki
So, I finally got around to reading a Murakami book and for no particular reason, I ended up picking Norwegian wood. It was a pretty decent read, and quite different from my usual fantasy novels.
What I liked the most about this book was, well, the writing style. Murakami has this way of drawing you in. Of course I haven’t read any of his other books, I have them on my to-read list already, because he doesn’t seem to be a disappointing writer. The characters were another strong point of the book. I liked how the protagonist refrained from categorizing characters, since no person can be fairly tagged with a single adjective. Murakami himself didn’t indulge in explaining each and everything everyone in the book did and he left a fair portion of the people in the book a mystery to the reader, just like in real lives. More than anything else, he presented an amazing variety of characters, who I found a little weird in the beginning, but got used to very quickly(not to mention one of them closely resembled one of my friends). To put it simply, Murakami’s characters were strange. They were easy to fall in love with, and they felt real.
That being said, the plot didn’t seem a very huge aspect of the novel. It was fairly predictable, but that didn’t make the book any less appealing. The characters were constantly juggling with love, death and life(and sex). A lot of death and sex. Quite a few of them ended up killing themselves and almost all serious conversations ended up with sex. The suicides were off-putting for me. I’m a fairly optimistic person, and suicides never seem to be the right choice to me(I may be naive in thinking so, but that’s my take for now). Death is too extreme, and, well, it ends all other future options, and I can’t help but think that there has to be some other alternative. This was probably why I couldn’t like the book as much as I wanted to.
Anyways, it had many good quotes, and here are a few I liked…
The main themes of the book: life and death.
For all of us who love to experiment different book styles, here’s a legitimate reason.
Harder than it sounds. If only the characters followed through with it…
A unique way to put it. I’ll be using this for sure.
That does it. No more am I gonna pity myself.
Makes sense. It would be too easy in a perfect world to push ourselves beyond our abilities.
The sad truth..
It was really a heartbreaking story. Funny how they are always the most moving.
A great self-description. I started liking Nagasawa after this, though it didn’t last for long.
And that’s it. Norwegian Wood is a story about different people, how they reconcile with their pasts, and decide on the path they want to follow. It has a sad tone to it, and it obviously is not a very good choice when you’re looking for a thriller. There were some parts of the book that I absolutely loved and others that I didn’t feel strongly about(and a few that I disliked) , but it definitely got me thinking about a lot of things. It’s a book that I’d like to discuss.