Thursday, June 29, 2006

And Now You Can Go : A Novel by Vendela Vida

Category: Fiction - Literary

Publisher: Anchor

Format: Trade Paperback, 208 pages

Pub Date: August 2004

What would you do if a man with a gun accosted you in a public park telling you he would shoot if you kept walking? I am sure I would be paralysed into silence, but not the protagonist of Vendela Vida's debut fiction novel; she recited poetry to the man and then suggested they go read up some more poetry at the closest bookstore! With an opening like this, ofcourse I was curious to read the book, wouldn't you be?

Anyway, without giving anything away, the rest of the book deals with how this event dictates the rest of Ellis', (the protagonist), life - it completely consumes her, upsets her emotional balance and affects, sometimes disastrously, her relationships with friends and family. Since this story is set in New York a lot of readers have referred to the incident in the park as being a 9/11 kind of incident, a random attack,but I am not sure if that is what the author had in mind when she wrote it.

One of the most striking things about this book is its prose. Vendela Vida writes in short sentences and her style is succint and precise, there are no wasted words. There is a lot of wry humour and the narrator makes you smile with her seeming fondness for minute details and observations.

However, about halfway through I grew a little bored because apart from the protagonist's see-sawing emotions and the occasional fling with mostly unsuitable men, nothing else seemed to be happening, but then suddenly and most unexpectedly, the narrator takes a trip to the Philippines to help out at a "Doctors Without Borders" kind of program. This little gem of a travelogue inserted within the pages of the story completely changed the momentum of the book and I started to relish every page again.

Don't read this book if you're expecting a thriller because despite its thrilling premise, it is more a story of contemplation, human relationships and of refusing to play the victim. However, I would recommend reading it for its quirky prose.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation For Women and Islam

Free Press, May 2006

Hardcover, 208 pages

Genre, Current Affairs

I am currently reading
"The Caged Virgin" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I started off by enjoying it because I felt it helped me understand:

1. The role of women in Islam.

2. The roots of fantaticism.

3. The effects of Western policies toward Islamic countries and immigrant communities.

4. The lack of progress in many Muslim nations.

But, there's been so many controversies over Ms. Hirsi Ali's opinions, many raised by Muslim women themselves, that I have decided not to continue with the book. Instead I will give you two links - one is a pro-Ayaan article by Christopher Hitchens in the Slate and the other, by Laila Lalami in the Nation, who takes a critical view of the book. I will also link you with an interview that Ms. Hirsi Ali did with Alex Chadwick of NPR and let you arrive at your own conclusions.

But before all of that, who is Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

From a brief biography of the Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born 13 November 1969 in Mogadishu, Somalia) is a Dutch human rights leader, feminist, and a member of the Dutch Parliament for the liberal party. She is a prominent and often controversial spokesperson, author, film maker and critic of Islamism. Her movie “Submission” on abuse of women in Islam, directly led to the murder of the director Theo Van Gogh in November 2004. A death letter left on the body was addressed to Ms Hirsi Ali.

In 2005 Ms Hirsi Ali was chosen among the world’s 100 most influential people of Time Magazine and Reader’s Digest voted her ‘European of the Year 2006’. Meanwhile, she also receives heavy criticism on her views and approaches for change. Ms Hirsi Ali is under severe and permanent security protection.

-->Ayaan Hirsi Ali Interviewed On Channel 4

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Luminary Graphics

As many of you know already, I'm going away on vacation to visit family and friends back in India. I know it's not expected, but I do like to take my family little gifts from North America, however, it can be very hard knowing what to buy. Anyway, thanks to last month's "Pages" magazine I think I've found gifts for the literature lovers in my family.

Luminary Grapics has some great bags, cards, magnets, umbrellas, bookmarks etc. with caricatures of famous and well-known writers. I'm sure my aunt will love the bag with the women writers and my dad will not be able to resist the "Shakespeare" coffee mug. My sister, an aspiring writer, will be delighted with the writing journal and how could anyone resist those wonderful and useful bookmarks?

Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

# Hardcover: 208 pages

# Publisher: Algonquin Books (October 7, 2005)

# Laila Lalami's Literary Blog: Moorish Girl

In honor of World Refugee Day (20th June) I thought I would read Laila Lalami's (Moorish Girl) beautiful little novel, "Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits". Strictly speaking the characters in this book are not refugees as much as they are desperate people, who for mostly economic reasons, decide to make the perilous and illegal journey by boat (a glorified raft, operated by unscrupulous smugglers) from Morocco over the Strait of Gibraltar and into Spain with stars in their eyes, fervently hoping and praying that they will make it safely into the "land of milk and honey"

The book opens with the collective narrative of a group of about 30 people people on a boat meant for about 8 persons,heading for Tarifa on the coast of Spain, but in the chapters that follow Lalami tells us the individual stories of four of the main characters on the boat, their lives in Morocco and why they chose emigration as a way out and what happens after they return from Spain. There is Faten, a devout Muslim teenager but who finds it difficult to study and hence sees herself at having no prospects; Murad, an unofficial tour guide who, try as he might can never make enough money from his trade because there are more guides than tourists in Morocco; Halima, a mother of three from Casablanca who has an abusive drunkard for a husband and finally Aziz, a carpenter who loves his wife and family but sacrifices all of that to go to, what he thinks, are greener pastures.

I really liked that the author devoted more time to the characters, their lives, their hopes and dreams rather than to the journey itself. I also think she does a remarkable job of conveying the sights,sounds and even the culture of Morocco without taking away from the story which is about the fortunes of this small group of people.

While their journey to hope may have taken place along the Strait of Gibraltar, it could have so easily have been the Rio Grande, because the desperate situation of these Moroccon migrants are eerily similar to the undocumented Mexican migrants who turn up in droves on the borders of the US every day. There is no doubt that wanting to make a better life for oneself, no matter how perilous the cost, is a universal desire and intrinsic human quality.

In closing, I would say this book, although it is not intended to be a political one, does shed light on the poverty, the hardships and unemployment in Morocco which forces its people to risk their lives in the search for a better place to live, also, the wonderful characters that she has crafted has helped put a face, to a group of people the media and its readers normally clump together under the general "illegal aliens" title.

I wonder if Ms. Lalami will give us a book that explores the lives of these migrants in their new homes in Spain. I would surely like to know if life is indeed better for them once they get there? Do they achieve the economic success they have their hearts set upon? Are they allowed to become part of the Spanish society? The fact that I care to know all of that shows that I truly was touched by this book - I think you will be too.

footnote: According to the Christian Science Monitor, Spain has been seeing an unprecedented number of migrants from Africa in recent months and has requested the EU to help out as the large numbers of illegal migrants have threatened to overwhelm the resources of national police and local aid workers. Eight countries have agreed to assist Spain in sending boats, planes, and rapid-response teams to patrol the waters off Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal...

Also, please visit the PBS link to learn more about human trafficking the world over, but in particular, Morocco.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Oprah Magazine July 2006

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of the Oprah Show, I rarely read the Oprah Magazine and I can't remember if I've ever read a book recommended by the Oprah Book Club (OK, maybe I have, but not because she recommended it). I don't dislike her, no, not at's just that I'm not a fan.

However, I couldn't help picking up the July issue of the Oprah Magazine... no, it had nothing to do with the cover (which is always the same, Oprah smiling broadly into the camera as if in an advert for Crest white strips), but because it has been adverstised at their First Ever Summer Reading Issue, with 64 book recommendations! I've skimmed through the magazine and it does look good.

I look forward to reading "How To Read a Hard Book", where four literary professors walk us through four monumentally good, but sometimes hard-to-read classics, like "Moby Dick", Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" and so on.
Another article that caught my eye is, "Love At First Sentence" - all about books that grab you in the first few lines. I'm still waiting to find out if they have one of my favorite first sentences :

"I have never looked into my sister's eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I've never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I've never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I've never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I've never done, but oh, how I've been loved. And, if such things were to be, I'd live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially."

Lori Lansens in "The Girls"

I am also really looking forward to reading Harper Lee's letter to Oprah where the author reflects on how she first became a reader and what books mean to her now and Vince Passaro's essay on books and his devotion to the written word. Last, but certainly not least, I await their selection of 32 books for the beach. It's going to be exciting to see what I can find!

Stefanie, of "So Many Books", wrote an open letter to Oprah with regard to the recent Summer issue. Read it here - it made me smile.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic

# Hardcover: 272 pages

# Publisher: Ecco (February 21, 2006)

# Language: English

# Genre: Fiction

(Translated from the Croatian by Michael Henry Heim)

When the ever- generous Janelle, of
Eclectic Closet , offered to share Croatian writer, Dubravka Ugresic's latest book with me, I jumped at the chance to read it because I saw it as a learning experience and an interesting way to read about the break up of Yugoslavia and the effect it had on the people.

The narrator of the book, Tanya Lucic, is originally from the Croatian part of Yugoslavia, but after the civil war and genocide that embroiled Yugoslavia, she moves to Amsterdam (self-exile) where she finds a job in the University teaching a course in Serbian-Croatian literature. With the exception of a few students, her class is mainly made up of other Yugoslavian emigres. The students are enrolled in this class not because of their love of literature but because a student's visa is the only way they can continue living in Holland (the country will not officially recognise them as refugees.)

Realizing the students' hearts are not in their books Tanja does not insist they study their course material. Instead, she encourages them to write personal essays about their time in Yugoslavia, hoping the exercise will keep their memories alive. It is through the teacher-student conversations and these very poignant student essays that the reader gains access to the memories of these Yugoslavian exiles and you see through their perspectives the impact of the war on their lives, their families, their culture and language. However, with everyone remembering all the bad that happened to them these exercises eventually created discord in the class and Tanja was forced to bring them back on track by re-introducing the official curriculum.

I found this book to be an engaging read. Engaging, not so much for the information it provides but for the questions it asks. For instance, how must it feel to be the citizen of a country that officially no longer exists? Think about it (in context to the book) - you are Yugoslavian one day and the next day, you're not and not because you don't want to, or were stripped of your citizenship, but because that country, the country you grew up in, no longer exists!

What about displacement? How does it feel to be forced to leave your home? To have to make a new life elsewhere? What happens to your identity in this case or your sense of belonging? From being Yugoslavian, you are now simply Croatian or Serbian; Bosnian or Slovenian - shouldn't there be a sense of mourning for the other parts of Yugoslavia that are now lost to you? A vaccum in the heart? A phantom pain?

What happens when the language you grew up speaking is slowly becoming invalid? Language is vital - history has shown that when conquerors wanted to successfully take over a land and its people, they would insist on making the colonised speak their (the conqueror's language). Depriving someone of their language is essentially taking away his voice, also, getting someone to write and think in a whole new language changes his/her personality. But, as Dubravka Ugresic challenges, is language even important to an exile? Is there any language that can truly give voice to their feelings?

It's been so long since a book made me think so much and I still don't feel like I've transferred all my thoughts into a cohesive review. I might have to return and tweak this post a little. I guess you could call it a review in progress. For a more complete review please check out Janelle's review at Curled Up With a Good Book.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Hand that Reads

When I saw the new Hewlett Packard advertisements in the TIME magazine last week, I was immediately reminded of Jonathan Safran Foer's cover art for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", ( both images feature a hand with the whimsical font) but, ofcourse, I put it down to coincidence. However, today's National Post confirms that HP used the same artist, Jonathan Gray, to do the images for their new campaign. The advertising agency contracted by HP felt that the iconic hand would help HP's new advertising campaign dubbed "The Computer is Personal", by generating a more human feel.

What do the people at Houghton Mifflin (Jonathan Safran Foer's publishers) think? Apparently they are happy with the ads.

So all that remains to be asked is, is there a cryptic message in JSF's novel that HP wants to convey to its customers? :) I hope not.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Attack by Yasmina Khadra

Translated from the French by John Cullen
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 257 pp., $18.95

I first read about "The Attack" on Moorish Girl's blog. She's a writer and journalist and does a great job of showcasing books and authors from the Middle East and Africa. I always look forward to her every post.

Yasmina Khadra is a pen name for Muhammed Moulessehoul, an ex-soldier from the Algerian army, turned writer. Some of you might remember his first book, an excellent one, titled "The Swallows in Kabul" about the war in Afghanistan.

Here's a brief review of his outstanding new book, "The Attack":

Amin Jawaari is of Arab extraction, but a naturalized Israeli citizen (there are a lot of Israelis of Arab descent - even the three sisters of the current Hamas party leader are Israeli citizens). Amin Jawaari is a very successful surgeon in a hospital in Tel Aviv; he and his wife Sihem (also of Arab descent) are well-respected in the community and live the good life. With his job being all-consuming Amin tends to stay away from politics, but all that changes when one day there is a huge explosion outside his hospital. Apparently a female suicide bomber with explosives strapped to her body entered a fast-food restaurant and detonated the bomb she was carrying leaving at least 19 dead, including 11 schoolchildren celebrating a classmate's birthday. Later in the evening Dr. Jawaari finds out that his wife's body was among the dead, not just that, the injuries on her body seemed consistent with those of a suicide bomber...

Ofcourse, this shocking news changes his life completely. He never realized his lovely and intelligent wife felt this sympathetic to The Cause. He couldn't believe that he knew so little about someone he loved so much!

He gives up his job at the hospital and goes in search of why anyone, but his wife in particular, would be motivated to carry out a suicide attack. Being a non-practising Muslim himself it is very hard for him to understand what drives radicalism. He travels to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jenin and along the way, after meeting a whole cast of interesting characters, he begins to learn something about how not having a land to call your own is humiliating and how humiliation can lead to a lack of self-esteem, which in turn leads to hate. "...there is no worse cataclysm than humiliation; it's an evil beyond measure". Amin never really comes up with a concrete reason why so many young men and women are prepared to become suicide bombers, but one can deduce that since they don't feel worthy in life, they try to aim for a worthy end(martyrdom).

The author has done an excellent job of staying neutral but at the same time, shedding light on the Israel-Palestininan cause, and even if one is not interested in politics, I would beseech you to read it just to revel in the language, the imagery and the masterful way Yasmina Khadra can tell a story.

Another novel with a similar theme is John Updike's new novel titled "Terrorist". This book, too, asks the same question: What makes an Islamic terrorist?

Read a review here

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books

Hooray, school will be out soon (in some states in the US schools have already closed for the summer) and families will be planning their vacations. Our family hopes to visit in India in July with stops in London and Dubai enroute. One of my most favorite things to do as we plan our summer vacation is to read travel books, but often I find myself wondering which travel books to read...

World Hum (travel dispatches from the planet) have put together their Top 30 Travel Books. Scroll down a little to see a list of their picks. If you follow the link to their site, you will be able to read a short summary for each of the 30 books and their readers' comments as well. I am sure many of the books on that list will be familiar to you. What I would love you to do is to add to that list - what are your favorite travel books and why?

One of my favorite travel books and which I didn't find on the list at World Hum is:

"A Fortune -Teller Told Me" by Tiziano Terzani

(Warned by a Hong Kong fortunte teller not to risk flying for a whole year, Tiziano Terzani - a vastly experienced Asia correspondent - decided that if he couldn't fly he would have to find some other way to travel. So travelling by foot, boat, bus, car and train, he visited Burma, Thailand, Laos, cambodia, Veitnam, China, Mongolia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Consulting soothsayers and shamans wherever he went, he grew to understand and respect older ways of life and beliefs now threatened by the crasser forms of Western modernity)

Here's the World Hum List:

# No. 1: “Arabian Sands” by Wilfred Thesiger
# No. 2: “The Road to Oxiana” by Robert Byron
# No. 3: “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux
# No. 4: “The Soccer War” by Ryszard Kapuściński
# No. 5: “No Mercy” by Redmond O’Hanlon
# No. 6: “North of South” by Shiva Naipaul
# No. 7: “Golden Earth” by Norman Lewis
# No. 8: “Video Night in Kathmandu” by Pico Iyer
# No. 9: “The Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain
# No. 10: “In A Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson
# No. 11: “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen
# No. 12: “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin
# No. 13: “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck
# No. 14: “Riding to the Tigris” by Freya Stark
# No. 15: “Europe, Europe” by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
# No. 16: “City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple
# No. 17: “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” by Eric Newby
# No. 18: “All the Wrong Places” by James Fenton
# No. 19: “Hunting Mister Heartbreak” by Jonathan Raban
# No. 20: “River Town” by Peter Hessler
# No. 21: “Road Fever” by Tim Cahill
# No. 22: “When the Going was Good” by Evelyn Waugh
# No. 23: “Behind the Wall” by Colin Thubron
# No. 24: “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere” by Jan Morris
# No. 25: “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor
# No. 26: “Baghdad Without a Map” by Tony Horwitz
# No. 27: “The Size of the World” by Jeff Greenwald
# No. 28: “Facing the Congo” by Jeffrey Tayler
# No. 29: “Venture to the Interior” by Laurens van der Post
# No. 30: “A Turn in the South” by V.S. Naipaul

Monday, June 05, 2006

Body Brokers : Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains by Annie Cheney

Category: True Crime/Non Fiction

Publisher: Broadway

Format: eBook, 224 pages

Pub Date: March 2006

A few short months ago, the most popular exhibtion here in Toronto was "Body Worlds" and it was hosted by the Ontario Science Museum. The exhibit, which features cadavers stripped of their epidermal layer so that one can observe the inner workings of their bodies as they do "everyday" things like playing chess, skating, and so on, is controversial enough, but a few days before the show was to begin some critics alleged that the person responsible for the exhibition, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, had somehow managed to receive bodies of executed prisoners in China for use in the exhibition. Gunther Von Hagens denied the claims insisting that every cadaver in the exhibition were consented donors, but there were many who believed that Von Hagens used a body broker to procur his corpses. So, when I saw Annie Chenny's book "Body Brokers" peeping out at me from the non-fiction section of the bookstore, I knew I wanted to read it.

(Warning: If you're squeamish, you might not want to read further)

Human Price List:

According to journalist Annie Cheney every year in the United States, tens of thousands of corpses meant for anatomy classes at medical colleges, burial, or cremation are stolen and make their way into the underground cadaver trade. The players in this business are unusual, in that, they have no reverence for a dead body, they are able to view it as a commodity, a very valuable commodity at that, where a head could fetch $550-900, a shoulder $375, a leg $700-$1000,Five grams of skin, $US803 and a whole body could cost anywhere from $4,000-$10,000!

Why is it so expensive?

It is illegal to buy and sell dead bodies, but the law allows companies to be compensated for their costs, which makes life very easy for brokers. By inflating the amount they spend on labor, transportation and storage of bodies, they can easily charge hideous amounts for body parts. With so much money to made and more demand than supply, players in the trade are not always scrupulous about where they acquire their corpses.

So, where do cadavers come from?

Most corpses that enter the cadaver trade are acquired legally with consent from the deceased person or his/her family, however, some in the trade employ deception and some, outright theft to acquire bodies. Bodies bound for cremation are particularly vulnerable because only 10 percent of states in the US inspect crematoria, making it very easy for crematoria workers to get on the payroll of cadaver hunters. And, when it comes to ashes there's no way for a family member to ascertain if all the body parts have been burned.

Who buys these cadavers and why?

Medical companies need them to develop and test new surgical equipment and also to use them at promotional venues/ seminars for doctors and surgeons who want to learn how to use the equipment. Hospitals buy them to use in transplant surgical procedures and researchers buy them, well, to do research...

This is morbid stuff, I know, but it's important to know that not everything is above board when it comes to the "death care" world and Annie Cheney does a wonderful job of taking us into the underground cadaver trade by talking to suppliers, brokers and buyers of bodies used for medical education and research. Be prepared to be disturbed and disgusted, but you will come away with a new awareness for a trade hidden in plain sight and also a desire to work in your small way towards insisting there be more federal oversight of cadavers, so that when loved ones and friends have a desire to donate their bodies to science, you know that their bodies are safe and not going to be bought and sold as a commodity.

For a critique on the book read Mary Roach's (author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) review.

A related story in the USA Today...

And Body Snatchers on NPR's OnPointRadio

Sunday, June 04, 2006

1st Birthday Celebrations!

I feel like a bad mommy. I've only just realized my blog celebrates its first birthday this month! It's been a fantastic year - I've had the opportunity to read a lot of books and to make a lot of friends. I've been racking my brain for all of 5 mins thinking of how I can celebrate this anniversary and the best I can come up with is a book giveaway for some lucky readers!

So this is what we'll do. Please go to my virtual bookshelf at and pick any two "Available" books. Then send me an e-mail with your request. Your name goes in a box and on June 4th, if I pick your name, I will send you any one of the two books you picked. I plan on picking two readers, so, please, send me your entries (via e-mail) and help me celebrate! Thank you, kindly! :)

This is open to anyone regardless of where you live, so do write in with your requests...

UPDATE: Angela and Susan (Italy) are the winners of the book giveaway! Congratulations, ladies!!! Angela wins "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding her Inner French Girl" and Susan wins Pat Chapman's "A Taste of the Raj:A Celebration of Anglo-Indian Cookery":".

Thank you to everyone who participated! You made my blog's first anniversary so much fun!!!
I plan on having more book giveaways in the future, so stay tuned.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani

Category: Fiction; Publisher: Doubleday Canada;Format: Hardcover, 320 pages;Pub Date: March 2006;Price: $29.95

In the past I would read books for the oddest reasons: perhaps I was seduced by the cover and couldn't resist picking it up just so that I could caress its smooth exterior and show it off; at other times I would read a book only because it was on the bestsellers' list ( I guess we've all done that at some or another, so perhaps that's not so odd), and there was an occasion when I read a book simply because it leaped out at me (literally) as I was browsing; but hear this, I once read Anosh Irani's debut novel, "The Cripple and his Talismans" only because everyone claimed he looked like a former boyfriend!!! To be fair to Anosh, "The Cripple and his Talismans" was a great novel but I wasn't so much into the magic realism genre at that time and I remember plodding through it wondering if I would ever be able to figure out the fables and clues that would supposedly lead to the narrator's severed arm.

But, things have changed now. I have the "so many books, so little time" syndrome and can afford to spend time on books only when the subject matter interests me - not the glitzy packaging! Anosh Irani's latest book caught my attention, because he has set this novel in one of my favorite places: the big,brutal, bad, but bewitching city of Bombay.

It reads almost like an Indian Oliver Twist with an interesting cast of Dickensian characters. Chamdi (Oliver), the central character, is a 10-year old naive, innocent orphan boy who runs away from his orphanage to look for his father and the "real" Bombay, which in his childlike innocent way he imagines is "Kahunsha" (the city of no sadness). But without the protection of the orphanage, he finds himself on the streets of Bombay where he is forced to seek the friendship and protection of a ring of beggars. He forms close ties with a brother and sister: 13-year old polio victim Sumdi who has deep scar that stretches all the way from his right lip to his ear and 10-year old Guddi ( a little girl in a brown dress that is too large for her, orange bangles on her wrists, dark circles under her brown eyes, sunburnt hair curls). It is Sumdi (Jack) that teaches him the tricks of the trade.

Chamdi and the brother and sister all work for
Anand Bhai, the Bill Sykes-like character and crime lord who carved off Sumdi's ear. The story takes place against the backdrop of 1992 Bombay Hindu-Muslim riots, which the author author lived through thus making his story even more realistic.

Anosh Irani has a wonderful descriptive voice and a sharp eye for detail. As he takes you into the gritty world of Bombay's underbelly with its beggars, pimps, drug lords, the mentally impaired and slum dwellers, you get a ringside view of how Bombay's 12m abandoned children live. This is not cheerful stuff: deliberate maiming of children so that they become beggars, not even being able to claim 2 sq. feet of a public footpath to sleep on at night unless you pay off a local goon, is all very distressing, and yet it is compelling.

According to the author, the characters in "Song of Kahunsha" were all developed from people he had seen on Bombay's streets, and I believe him, because reading through the book I felt a rush of deja vu - like I had seen this all before and indeed I had. Irani's book brings memories of those characters back to me.

My favorite passage from the novel is when Sumdi is giving Chamdi his first instructions on how to beg:

"...a van goes past and blows smoke on Sumdi's face. Instead of shielding himself from the black smoke, Sumdi inhales deeply. Then he turns to Chamdi and shouts, "Take it all in, it wil make your lungs strong!". He starts coughing. "Good way to get tears," he says, "to let smoke go in your eyes. Dirty your face, it's too clean. I wouldn't give you a single rupee! Stop walking like you own the world. Carry the world's weight on your shoulders. In a day or two you'll feel it anyway! Then Sumdi laughs, and Chamdi feels it is a strange sight indeed, to watch this boy walk with a limp, a face black from smoke, and the widest smile in the world."

Also, isn't the cover one of the most arresting we've seen in a while? Even though I have since moved on to another book, the eyes of that boy still haunt me for much of my day.