Sunday, October 27, 2013

Thriller with a stutter

(A shorter version was in this month's The Hindu Literary Review) 
Saad Shafqat’s Breath of Death is quite the ‘thriller from Pakistan’ it’s positioned as. It’s also a socio-political commentary on Pakistan and an examination of the often fraught, rather complicated relationship between Pakistan and the US. 
And it is this relationship between the US, Pakistan and the larger Islamic world that provides the context for the book’s relatively straightforward plot. Dr Asad Mirza, a talented, youngish neurologist and Nadia Khan, an eager medical student, encounter a mysterious neurological illness in the wards of a Karachi teaching hospital. While attempting to solve the puzzle of this strange infection, the two walk right into the middle of a bio-terrorism plot against the US.
Both Karachi and the intricacies of the human brain are familiar territory to Shafqat, a neurologist who lives in the city. And this knowledge shows. He writes with authority and confidence about things that happen in the hospital and in the city.
The writing, though, is often jerky, with abrupt transitions. Yet, it’s also very descriptive and evocative, painting portraits of people and places. Shafqat has an eye for detail, and the images he builds are so powerful that I could almost see, touch and smell them.
Characterisation is one of Shafqat’s strengths and almost all the characters seem very real. Even the ‘bad guys’ like Hamza Kadri, the scientist who designs the bio-weapon and Malik Feysal, the zealous operative of the terrorist ‘Network’, are portrayed as multi-layered beings. Sample this description of the fussy, irascible, obsessive-compulsive Hamza Kadri: “Noticing a speck of grit on the machine’s shiny Perkin Elmer monogram plate, he flicked it off with a finger. Then he fidgeted with his trousers, adjusting them over his hips again. He stuffed in his shirt. Then, noticing a fold that wasn’t quite right, he pulled it out and stuffed it in again.” 
Shafqat, also deftly captures the love-hate relationship that many people in Pakistan — and South Asia perhaps — seem to have with the US. An equation that’s equal parts fascination and frustration. Even Asad Mirza, the book’s principal protagonist, who’s studied and worked in the US, is not completely free of this sentiment. As Shafqat writes early on in the book: “Deep down, all of them, even Asad, felt aggrieved by America’s overreach around the world although not everyone was willing to acknowledge it so openly.”
Yet, Asad’s disquiet with certain aspects of US policy does not prevent him from doing the right thing. Despite several challenges, he is able to alert the US authorities about the bio-terror plot and all ends well.
My one big grouse with Breath of Death is with the plot’s pace. Like many of the soap operas on television, it chugs along very sedately and then, before you know it, it’s all over. The ending is so hurried that it seems shoehorned into the plot.
In fact, the last few chapters of the book didn’t quite work for me; at least not in the way the early chapters did. For one, I found the whole sub-plot built around Nadia’s trip to the US to intern at a lab in Boston almost contrived. This thread doesn’t quite add to the story, expect, perhaps, to bolster the thesis about Pakistani disquiet with “America’s overreach around the world”.
Also puzzling is a lack of attention to detail that creeps in towards the end of the book. A telling example is how Nadia carries a biological sample in her backpack when she travels to the US. She’s got no clearance from the US authorities to do this and seems surprised when US customs confiscates the specimen. It is hard to imagine how Asad and Nadia’s hosts in the US, both prominent medical researchers, thought she could simply enter the country with a biological specimen in a flask of formalin.
I also do wish that Shafqat had given a bit more detail about how the virus designed by Kadri worked. I know the plot hinges on deploying an aerosol-based delivery system. But what is not clear is just how the virus was tested in Karachi. For instance, how is it that the test subjects alone were infected by the virus, while the people around them were untouched by the ‘breath of death’.
Despite these bumps, I quite enjoyed Breath of Death. It is an interesting and intriguing tale told rather well.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Snapshot: Battle of Colachal

The pillar commemorating the Battle of Colachal
The pillar was not much to look at; a grey column of stone, with a plaque at its base. It stood on a sandy, scrub-filled lot, flanked by a water tank and a crumbling building sprouting a banyan tree. Several hundred metres away, on the other side of a sandy knoll, was the Arabian Sea.
Appearances, though, can be deceptive. Unassuming it certainly is, but the pillar marks a very important event in the history of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore and, indeed, the Dutch empire — the Battle of Colachal.
Colachal harbour
It was somewhere in this area, in August 1741, that Travancore's army commanded by Marthanda Varma routed Dutch forces led by Eustachius De Lannoy.
For Marthanda Varma, arguably Travancore’s greatest ruler, the victory at Colachal was one large step towards consolidating his rule over southern Kerala. For the Dutch, writes historian A. Sreedhara Menon in A Survey of Kerala History, “… the battle of Colachel shattered for all time to come their dream of the conquest of Kerala.”
Ruins of the chapel in which De Lannoy is buried

The canny statesman that he was, Marthanda Varma was able to charm De Lannoy and some of his Dutch aides into joining Travancore’s army. De Lannoy spent the next 36 years of his life serving Travancore — training local soldiers in European military tactics and shaping the kingdom’s military strategies.
It seems he never returned to the Netherlands and when he died in 1777, was buried within Udayagiri fort not too far from Colachal. The story of De Lannoy’s Travancore years though, is a tale for another day.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Cities rediscovered

Goubert Avenue, Pondicherry on a quiet evening a year or two ago
This month’s issue of National Geographic Traveller India looks at urban renewal in the country. At how cities across India are changing and how some neighbourhoods in some of these cities are attempting to repurpose themselves. Or as the introductory note puts it, in this issue “we look at localities that are seeking new futures without destroying their pasts.” It’s an interesting mix of stories by writers from across India and it’s great to have two pieces of mine in this section. For more, head here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Spy games

Entire authorial careers (and reputations) have been built on the Cold War. But surprisingly, not many writers have tapped into the rich vein that is the often fraught relationship between India and Pakistan.
Over the past several months though, there have been half-a-dozen or so books, written mostly by Indians, that have focused on South Asia and the India-Pakistan equation. Of these, Shatrujeet Nath’s The Karachi Deception has an intriguing plot, with a nice, punchy twist at the very end. The book itself is, however, a frustratingly uneven read. More in this piece I did for last month’s The Hindu Literary Review.   

Saturday, July 20, 2013

This way please

My last visit to Padmanabhapuram Palace was several months ago, while writing this story for National Geographic Traveller India. Wandering through the complex, these very unique signboards caught my eye.
They’re quaint, but also revealing of the extreme casualness with which we in India approach our cultural heritage. We talk about our ‘heritage’ ad-infinitum and throw a fit if we even suspect that someone has  ‘insulted’ it, but beyond that our commitment to our heritage falters. 
It was sad to see these ad-hoc signboards in one of the most important cultural sites in this part of the country. How hard is it to make the investments needed to ensure that the palace complex has the infrastructure it deserves, including proper, meaningful and well-maintained signboards?

Perhaps new signage has been put up in the palace since my last visit, but the signboards with a difference popped up in my mind when I saw this report about efforts to get Padmanabhapuram onto UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. 
If Padmanabhapuram does make it to the list, there will be much celebration. But what will that recognition mean on the ground? And, more important, will we celebrate and cherish Padmanabhapuram even it doesn’t make it to any heritage list?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The palace affair

(A version of this was in National Geographic Traveller India’s May issue. The story’s not on the Nat Geo website, so there’s no link.

One afternoon soon after I turned 21, I found a stack of black and white photographs on the desk in my neighbour’s study. Noticing my very obvious interest in the pictures, my neighbour gave me the whole bunch. Riffling through, I found an image that made my heart race — an alluring, mysterious black pool, its surface alive with oddly-shaped patterns of light. I was smitten.
Later, Sushil Pillai, my neighbour and a retired army officer with a diverse portfolio of interests, explained that the mysterious black pool was actually the glistening black floor of the ‘hall of the princesses’ in the royal ladies’ wing of the Padmanabhapuram palace. And the patterns that so enthralled me were created by sunlight falling through the carved wooden screens that run along one wall of the room. This matter-of-fact explanation, however, did nothing to douse my interest in Padmanabhapuram, which from around 1550 to 1790 was the capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore.
And so, I set out to dig up as much as I could about the palace, which when I look back, wasn’t very much. Using the ‘Automobile Association Map of South India’ I figured out that it was located about 55 kilometres south of Thiruvananthapuram in a village called Kalkulam in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, close to the town of Thuckalay. Another discovery was that though geographically in Tamil Nadu, Padmanabhapuram palace is an archaeological museum maintained jointly by the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but run by Kerala’s archaeology department.
Historians, as they often are, are divided about when the palace was built. Some say 1335,others 1550. Either way, by the middle of the 14th century a mud fort and a palace of some sort existed in Kalkulam. The palace, called Darpakulangara, was probably little more than a large house built in the traditional Kerala nalukettu style, with four wings around a central courtyard.
It was only in the 18th century that substantial changes took place. Marthanda Varma, one of Travancore’s greatest rulers, rebuilt the Darpakulangara palace and the fort that guarded it. In 1744, he renamed the fort and the palace Padmanabhapuram in honour of Sri Padmanabhaswamy, the tutelary deity of Travancore’s royal family.
Fascinated as I was by the palace and its story, I actually got around to visiting Padmanabhapuram only a few years later. But that first visit and the several that followed over the years were, strangely, whistle-stop affairs which I remember little of. 
Then almost a decade later, I stumbled upon a story in my wife’s family: R. Vasudeva Poduval, my wife’s great-grandfather, who was director of the Travancore State Archaeology Department was supposed to have been involved with efforts made in the late 1930s to restore the Padmanabhapuram palace. A stone plaque in the palace’s forecourt apparently recorded his association with the restoration.
That’s when I knew I really had to return to Padmanabhapuram — to spend some quality time exploring the palace and to hunt for the plaque. So early one weekday morning last December, I set off on the two-hour drive south from Thiruvananthapuram.
As my car makes its way through Kalkulam’s narrow streets, there is little to show that the palace is around the corner except for some remnants of the fort’s walls. A turn or two later I am at the palace gate.
I enter the palace’s forecourt. And what immediately catches my eye are the Veli Hills, as the Western Ghats are called here, that loom over and guard the palace’s eastern flank.
I spot a few plaques cemented into the walls of the antiquities museum nearby, but none of them say anything about Vasudeva Poduval. It’s still pretty early in the day, there’s no one in the palace’s administrative offices. So I decide to defer my quest for the plaque. Instead, I buy a ticket, stow my shoes in a rack and head off barefoot to rediscover Padmanabhapuram palace.
One of two cavernous oottupuras 
 or dining halls in the palace.
Like every visitor, I climb several steps and enter the palace through the poomukham or entrance hall with its carved pillars and wooden ceiling. This is where the king met and, perhaps, entertained guests. A granite cot and an ornate throne-like chair, adorn the poomukham, but it is upwards that my eyes go. For the poomukham’s real treasure are the lotuses carved into its ceiling — 90 of them, each carved in a different design establishing the craftsman’s mastery over wood.
From the poomukham I scramble up a narrow staircase, through a trapdoor, to the mantrasala or council chamber. Easily one of my favourite rooms in the palace, this airy hall with its red- and ochre–stained mica windows was where the king met his ministers and special visitors. A broad wooden seat with a receptacle beneath it runs along one side of the room and wooden louvers set in the seat let air in, helping to keep it cool. On hot summer days, this receptacle was filled with aromatic herbs and sandalwood sprinkled with water, filling the chamber with a fragrant breeze.
Next door is the oottupura or dining hall. The two cavernous halls, one on the first floor and another on the ground floor, were designed to feed 2,000 people at a time. As I walk through, I can almost see rows of hungry diners feasting on mounds of steaming rice, vegetables and curry, all washed down with buttermilk and water drawn from one of several large stone troughs positioned across the halls.
Across from the oottupura is the thaikottaram or mother palace, the oldest part of the palace. At its south-western end is a pillar that has been carved from a single jackfruit tree. A deep coffee brown, it is believed to be the first pillar to have been erected when the palace was being constructed.
Like many buildings of the time, Padmanabhapuram was built mostly of local material — chiefly wood, laterite bricks and stone. Its gleaming black floors I first fell in love with, are built on a base of brick or laterite stone, plastered with a mixture of lime, egg white, tender coconut water, burnt coconut shells, sand and the juices of several herbs.
What I find striking — and appealing — about the Padmanabhapuram palace is that it almost never overpowers. There seems little desire to dominate or demand attention. Instead it exudes a quiet confidence, possibly born from the subordination of the kingdom to a higher, divine force — Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
Once these stone troughs in the oottupura held 
water and buttermilk. A tradition that seems to 
continue, in part at least, today!
If there is one part of Padmanabhapuram that proclaims ‘palace’, it probably is the four-storey upparika malika, which was the king’s turf. From his bedroom on the first floor, the king could look to the courtyard below and watch men being selected for Travancore’s army. In the courtyard, mounted on a pillar, is a round stone that supposedly weighs 38 kilograms. Young men aspiring to join the army had to be able to raise the stone one hundred times to even be considered for selection.
Elegant austerity is the leitmotif of the king’s bedroom that is dominated by a four-poster cot supposed to be made of 67 different medicinal woods. A flight of stairs leads up through a trapdoor to the second floor bedroom, which the king used when he was fasting or performing other austerities. Further up, on the third floor, is the prayer room, its walls decorated with murals and a cot for Sri Padmanabhaswamy. It is believed that the Lord still uses the room, and lamps are lit and prayers offered in the room every day. Entry to the upper two floors though is now restricted.
From the first floor of the upparika malika, a corridor leads off to the vepumootu kottaram or the palace of the neem roots where the royal women lived. Airy and spacious, with wooden swings and large Belgian mirrors, this ‘hall of the princesses’ has floors that still glint like a pool of black water.
By this time, I’m feeling very hot and thirsty with all the walking and climbing. I’ve forgotten to bring a bottle of water and ask one of the palace’s staff if there’s any way I can quickly slip out to get a drink. However, she says I need to finish the tour if I want to leave. So I press on and quickly head to the navarathri mandapam.
Arguably the most beautiful part of the palace, the pillared navarathri mandapam came alive with dance and music during the festival of the nine nights or navarathri. And though the glistening floor of the mandapam or hall has been scarred by the ravages of time and human effort, it still retains some of its original allure.
I’m tempted to linger, but lose the battle to thirst and head out. Once I’ve had a couple of tender coconuts I head back to the administrative offices and meet R. Jayashree, the museum assistant. I explain my mission — the hunt for the plaque — and she’s as helpful as can be. She takes me into an adjacent office where there’s a plaque hidden behind a stack of boards; but it has no mention of Vasudeva Poduval. Sensing my disappointment, Jayashree reassures me that she has seen his name in the palace’s files and departmental correspondence. My quest for the plaque ends right there, but I decide to stay a while longer, anyway.
Back out in the forecourt, I watch the crowds of visitors, the symphony of the palace’s roofs and the ever-present Veli hills in the near distance. It strikes me that the master builders who designed and built the Padmanabhapuram palace have achieved a deft balance between material, space and light to create a very sophisticated yet self-effacing building. 
As Sushil Pillai tells me later, Padmanabhapuram palace represents a very unique Kerala sensibility; an innate sense of proportion and elegance and the subordination of the individual architect. What, I ask, is it about Padmanabhapuram that draws him. He pauses for a second or two and says: “It’s a bit like falling in love.” I can’t but agree.