Russia’s Greatest Poet. The Most Beautiful Woman In St. Petersburg. A Handsome, Bisexual Cavalry Officer. An Illegal Duel To The Death. These are the ingredients that make up the fascinating story of the fateful duel that killed Alexander Pushkin in 1837. In an ironic twist to Pushkin’s life, he was shot by a French cavalry officer, Baron George d’Anthes, a mercenary in the pay of the Tsar’s army, in a scene that comes straight out of Pushkin’s own poem, “Eugene.Onegin”. He was just 37 years old, his wife, the beautiful Natalya Goncharova, just 24, and their four children were left without a Father. Quite how Pushkin got himself into a duel with a crack shot remains a strange story, and one that would haunt both Puskin’s wife, and d’Anthes, for the rest of their lives following his death. It had certainly been noticed by St. Petersburg society that d’Anthes was flirting with Natlaya, and not unreasonably, Pushkin took offense, albeit in a manner that warranted a duel. D’Anthes however, was in the wrong, and should have been honor bound to at least allow Pushkin, a mere poet unfamiliar with handling weapons, a decent crack. Missing would have seen honor served on both sides. But d’Anthes didn’t miss, and Pushkin lay crumpled in the snow.
Sam Miller is the Delhi correspondent for the BBC, and has lived in Delhi on and off for close to 20 years. Confessing to having hated the city when he first arrived, Miller now regards it as his home from home. I was fortunate enough to catch up with him at his recent book launch in Mumbai, and as a self confessed “Delhi-ite” myself (as opposed to being a “Mumbiker”) it was fun to catch up and share stories. And what stories they are that Miller brings to life in his observations about the city. Delhi is of course split into two – New Delhi, designed by Edward Lutyens to show off the glory of the British Raj (which is does with considerable style) and Old Delhi, sadly reduced to teeming streets and slums opposite the imposing Red Fort, but previously itself the life and soul of the city. Much to my delight, Miller retells the sordid activities of the Connaught Place Shit Squirter – a scam which has befallen me on more than one occasion. Connaught Place, a circular park (now a roundabout with subterranean walkways) is home, high above, to Jacaranda trees, and the occasional Rhesus Macque – large aggressive monkeys that are better left alone. Below, hawkers ply their wares, including the local shoe shine man. Yet ignore him at your peril, because, walking past and down to the subway, someone will occasionally point out a large lump of what looks like monkey shit on your shoe. The phantom shit squirter has struck again. The shoe shining scam has apparently been going on for 25 years – yet the squirting is crafty, unspotted, and deadly accurate. Miller even took a team of undercover BBBC cameramen down to see if they could catch the squirter in action, but all to no avail.
A strange, yet compelling novel, “Solo” is the account of a 100 year old man from Bulgaria, eyesight failing, as he daydreams and remembers his exotic past. Ghosts drift in and out of the pages as he recalls a land whose history is a mix of European and Asian. It is full of engaging spin-offs as ideas, such as the flock of parrots, who had grown used to mimicry and would copy and speak the language of a remote tribe. When the unfortunate tribe is wiped out in an earthquake and floods, linguistics descend upon the parrots to try and understand the roots of all that remains of a unique language. The novel is Gupta’s second, and he maintains his position as a writer to be on the look out for.
Salman Rushdie can be an infuriating writer, not just to the Muslim population whom he largely offended with his book “The Satanic Verses” (whose title revisits the ancient Christian myth that parts of the Koran were anonymously whispered by the devil to the Prophet Mohammed as he was tired and taking down messages from the Archangel Gabriel) but also in his varying quality of prose. Maybe it’s just personal taste, however I prefer Rushdie’s writing when it is both historically based, set in times of travel and trade and features India. Never has a writer been able to describe the aromas of Indian spices as well as Rushdie, but his works are also erratic. I am pleased then to report that “The Enchantress of Florence” is a return to form, and up there with “Midnights Children”, and “The Moors Last Sigh” as a spectacular yarn. Taking in the crafty, yet handsome, self styled “Mughal of Love”, the Mughal relates the tale of Lady Black Eyes – a woman so beautiful that she is believed to possess powers of scorcery and enchantment as men fall, besotted in her wake. We meet characters such as the skeleton, a prostitute so thin she resembles one, yet whose love-making arts make her a valued, and highly expensive escort. Lady Black Eyes too, has a servant, aptly named “The Mirror” – almost – but crucially not quite – as beautiful as she. As Shahs and Kings fall for the Lady’s sublime affections, a tale of eroticism, dark magic, and travels forced by war begin to unfold. It’s a magnificent tale, and represents Rushdie at his finest.
Touted as “novel of the year” in certain Indian literary circles, Shanghvi’s work certainly makes a strong case for him as a novelist to look out for. However, although “Flamingoes” does have an entertaining tale to tell, its ultimate effect is one of depression, and of helplessness. A more comprehensive editing job would also have cut out some of the more tedious metaphors that litter the books otherwise fine prose. Set in contemporary Bombay, the book charts the rise and fall of Karan, an up and coming photographer who gets swept up in Bollywood glitterati and its procession of gleaming peacocks (many of them the lost flamingoes of the title), when an intense close encounter with the murder of a local starlet, and it’s subsequent unraveling of both his life, and the rising to the surface of the seamier political side to Bombay starts to engulf him. It’s not a tale for the fainthearted, his gay, retired pianist friend is dying of AIDS, while retributions and warnings not to testify at a trial lead to graphic descriptions of a dogs death, whisked away on it’s lead by a passing car and deliberately dashed against a street light, its eyes popping out upon impact provide both strong visual images, at once both disturbing, yet compellingly believable. However, ultimately the book disappoints, and as a tale of contemporary Bombay sleaze, is rather wide of the mark. Nonetheless, the author has proven himself as a strong voice in urban Indian literature, and if the content can be difficult to digest, he makes a good case of a story well, if somewhat luridly told.
Harif was born in Pakistan, and now heads up the BBC’s Urdu language service, which broadcasts to Pakistan. He also served as a pilot in the Pakistani airforce. This, his first novel, is a witty and detailed tale loosely based the circumstances leading up to the last flight of Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, which crashed shortly after take off in 1988. “Exploding Mangoes” is a delightful farce and will appeal to anyone with a sense of Asia and contemporary Muslim writers. I thoroughly enjoyed its biting satire of incompetencies and inflated ego. 7/10
Simply one of the funniest and heart-warming stories I’ve read in some years. Jacobs is a New York based, non-practicing Jew, who decides to spend an entire year living to the standards and requirements of both the Old and New Testaments in the Bible. Everything from the right type of material to wear, growing his beard, not touching his wife during menstruation and an amusing episode when he stones a stranger in Central Park for admitting to having committed adultery, Jacobs year is both fraught with religious instruction, laugh out loud funny and immensely inspirational. 9/10