The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Always looking for a good murder, that’s me. Throw in a strong female lead, an unusual setting, respectful cultural detail, history by the bucketful, and impressive writing chops, and well, I’m happy as a pig in a midden. Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Crime, 2018) is set in 1920s Bombay, and features a Zoroastrian (Parsi) female lawyer tracking a murderer, battling bigotry, and fighting for her female clients’ rights. Call me Porky.

It’s 1921, and Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman solicitor, is finishing up a property contract in her office in Mistry House. But oh, her path to success has been rocky. Her father’s a lawyer too, which enabled her become the first woman to attend law school at Elphinstone College. But when she becomes the second-highest -scoring student after the first year, she’s made the target of terrible harassment and academic sabotage by the male students, who are resentful she’s showing them up. After many twists and turns, Perveen completes her law studies in Oxford, and returns to Bombay to help her father.

While many refuse to deal with a woman, Perveen’s gender finally becomes an asset when dealing with a particular set of clients–Muslim ladies who are purdahnashins (followers of strict Purdah laws), who live in a zenana and must avoid men who aren’t close family. A rich Muslim man Mr. Farid, with a valuable house in ultra-posh Malabar Hill, has just died, and his three widows (the titular ladies) have just signed away their monies to be donated to the family’s wakf. (Acc. to Wiki, a wakf is “an inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law, which typically involves donating a building, plot of land or other assets for Muslim  religious or charitable purposes with no intention of reclaiming the assets. The donated assets may be held by a charitable trust.”)

Perveen suspects that the paperwork, handled by the household agent Mukhri, isn’t quite aboveboard, and decides to meet the Farid widows to ensure they haven’t been coerced into signing away their property. Mukhri turns out to be a sleazeball, and Perveen is justly worried for the wives’ fate. Even as she’s figuring out the best way to confront him, Mukhri turns up dead, stabbed in a particularly vicious manner. Whodunit? And will there be a real push by the (British) police to figure it out?

It’s a juicy mystery, but the real lure of this novel for me lies in Massey’s adept detailing of the socio-cultural context of the murder.  Here be Hindu, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Anglo-Indians, Jews, and the British, all boiling away furiously in the cauldron that is pre-independence Bombay. (Massey herself is German-Indian, was raised in Minnesota, and lives in Baltimore.) Each community has its own hierarchy, and its own markers of worth and respectability, but beware of making quick assumptions about liberation and progressiveness. The characters are complex individuals who are impossible to stereotype; while they are very much part of their religious and ethnic identities, they are much more than single stories. The British are colonizing India, but Perveen’s best friend is a queer English girl who is very willing to help Perveen. Parsis pride themselves on their progressiveness, but some rigidly sequester women during their menstrual cycles, to the extent of denying them the right to even clean themselves.  Muslim women might live in seclusion (voluntary or involuntary), but Muslim law allows widows to claim their dower against the husband’s estate even before the legacy distribution…

And oh, Massey’s research, and her attention to detail, are simply glorious.  For instance, we’re told Perveen has a golden-brown Swaine Adeney bridle leather briefcase, with her initials stamped in gold (it’s the case depicted on the book cover). Who can resist such specificity? I googled it, and yes, for a mere £1795 you can get Perveen’s case at Swaine Adeney Brigg, “individually created in [their] Cambridge workshop by a single craftsman”.  rac99tay_mediumAnd Perveen’s grandfather’s portrait hanging in Mistry House was done by one Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, who studied under Sargent. And indeed, this Poona-born Jewish painter, known for his portraits, married a Muslim lady, adopted Islam, and moved to Pakistan; check out for more about him. And did you know that under Parsi law back then, adultery was defined as “a married man’s act with a married lady who is not a prostitute?” It wasn’t adultery, but mere fornication if the man had sex with a prostitute–and not considered to be sufficient cause for divorce, or even legal separation.  I could go on and on, but seriously: read the book.

And if you have the remotest connection to Bombay or Mumbai, you’ll loooove this book. The Widows… is an object lesson on how to perfectly balance a novel’s appeal between plot and setting.  “[The area called] Fort’s twenty square miles were once the East India Company’s original fortified settlement. Now the district was known for the High Court and the many law offices around it. Nestled alongside the British and Hindu and Muslim law offices were a significant number owned by […] Zoroastrians. Although Parsis accounted for just 6% of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they constituted one-third of its lawyers.” Here’s Perveen, buying sweets from Yazdani’s, an Irani bakery, before hailing a sunbonnetted rickshaw to Ballard Pier to greet the SS London. Here’s a mention of Lord Tata’s proposal for the development of Back Bay. One of the Farid widows was dowered with some not-so-useful swampland in Girangaon, where they’ve now built a mill or two or ten. There’s talk of Bombay’s Gothic architecture, and hey, Mistry House was designed by James Fuller, the  English architect who built the High Court. Queen’s Necklace, Chowpatty Beach…they’re all there, and how.

Perveen is based on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji, who was “the first female graduate from Bombay University, the first woman [of any race, I think!] to study law at Oxford University, the first female advocate in India, and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain.”  Wow. “Sorabji got involved in social and advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins, women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. In many cases, these women owned considerable property, yet had no access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it. Sorabji was given special permission to enter pleas on their behalf before British agents of Kathiawar and Indore principalities, but she was unable to defend them in court since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system. Hoping to remedy this situation, Sorabji presented herself for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897 and the pleader’s examination of Allahabad High Court in 1899. Yet, despite her successes, Sorabji would not be recognised as a barrister until the law which barred women from practising was changed in 1923.”

I’ve blogged about Massey’s excellent Rei Shimura mysteries earlier, but I have to say, she’s really upped her game with Perveen Mistry, and I’ll be HUGELY upset if after creating such a magnificent set-up, Massey isn’t slogging away at a sequel. And while I’m dreaming, maybe Netflix could make it a series too? Subaltern Phryne Fisher FTW!




Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

I’ve searched many moons for a nuanced kid’s book that explains India’s struggle with British colonial rule prior to the country’s independence in 1947. Supriya Kelkar’s middle grade novel Ahimsa (Tu Books, 2017) is that book. It provides a lucid, thoughtful explanation of the ethos and evolution of India’s journey to self-governance–and acts as a welcome antidote to Empire defenders with their rallying cry of “But the railways!” Nope, dudes.

It’s 1942, and Gandhi, jailed by the British, has urged Indians to go on a strike to compel the British to “Quit India” already. Gandhi has asked for peaceful civil disobedience, based on the principle of ahimsa or non-violence, to never hurt anyone. Young Anjali, all fired with patriotism, decides to paint a large Q (short for “Quit India”) on the local British officer’s house. After all, the British won’t hang a ten-year-old girl…or will they? Anjali’s mother used to be the officer’s secretary, but then resigned. Or was she let go? It’s all very complicated, but one thing is clear to Anjali: her duty lies in fighting injustice, beginning with a little well-intentioned vandalism.

And then the Gandhian movement comes to Anjali’s backyard, when Anjali’s mother becomes a freedom fighter. Ma’s first step is to burn all their British-manufactured clothes. (Why? Because India’s raw cotton was exported, at pitiful rates, to Britain, whose mills processed it into cloth that was sold right back to the hapless Indians. The freedom fighters vowed to hand spin their own yarn on a spinning wheel, and have that yarn made into coarse cloth locally, rather than patronize mill-made British cloth; many activists burnt their British-made outfits as a gesture of rejection.) Ma’s gorgeous wedding sari, her father’s work clothes, Anjali’s dresses–even her beloved gold-embroidered Diwali outfits– are all gone. And Anjali’s father isn’t happy–maybe those clothes could have been donated to the poor?

Anjali is courageous, stubborn, intelligent, and most importantly, capable of critical thinking. Even as she’s protesting the indignity of British rule, which treats Indians as unfathomably inferior to whites, she gradually realizes that many Indians are just as culpable of cruelty to their own people. The caste system she’s never questioned (she’s upper caste) treats low caste people (called untouchables) inhumanely—just as horribly as the British treat Indians. And once sensitized to injustice, Anjali is forced to question her own attitudes–towards Muslims, towards the caste system and its deep roots in Hinduism, and even towards Gandhi, whose Hinduism-based approach to helping lower castes might have more than a whiff of condescension.

This can all seem a bit preachy, but Kelkar paces the novel beautifully, sans info-dumps–we learn about India and British colonial rule along with Anjali. Perfect reading for 7-14 age group. And the problem Anjali faces is a universal one–people resisting change when it results in the loss of their (unfair + unearned) privilege and power. It’s lovely to watch Anjali’s  speedy transformation from one of the NIMBY crowd to a principled fighter who does the right thing even when it’s hard physically, intellectually, and emotionally. And it’s equally satisfying to witness the journeys of the supporting characters. Take Ma, whose attempts at caste integration begin as well-meaning but insulting charity. But by reflecting, and listening to other perspectives, she moves from token gestures to genuine empathy.

Sometimes Ahimsa feels a bit like it’s ticking off boxes–Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, she has a pet cow (who’d make the perfect emotional-support animal!), and she lives with an ultra-conservative great uncle who freely vocalizes on the dangers of women working outside the home, disrupting caste barriers etc. etc. Kelkar, however,  injects the plot with enough twists that it never feels predictable, and in all, she does a superb job of balancing historical detail with the honest-to-goodness confusion of a ten-year-old figuring out her role in a turbulent world. Ultimately, Anjali captures our hearts with her vulnerability, her compassion, and her determination to be the change she wishes to see. And we learn, along with Anjali, to never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.


Kelkar was born and brought up in the Midwestern United States, and for readers unfamiliar with India’s freedom struggle, she’s included a helpful Author’s Note which provides a more detailed social and historical context for the events in the book. Fun aside: the author’s great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale was a freedom fighter who worked with Gandhi. She “was imprisoned for civil disobedience, fought for women’s rights […]. After independence, [she] went on to become a two-term Congresswoman.” Woo-hoo!


Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne

I posted a grand total of 3 book reviews on this blog last year, and hey, all the books were by brown women! I’m going to continue with that demographic trend for 2018, so here’s the first of my BIPOC women authors for the year–Livia Blackburne, author of the YA novel Rosemarked. From her site: “I was born in Taiwan, raised in Albuqurque, and spent my twenties in Boston, where I earned an A.B. in Biochemical Sciences from Harvard and PhD in cognitive neuroscience from MIT.” After graduating, Blackburne switched to writing full-time. STEAM, yawl, not STEM.

Seventeen-year-old Zivah is a healer, equally adept at blending herbs and at extracting iocane-style venom from spiders/snakes/scorpions. Zivah is of the Dara people, who’ve been colonized by the Amparan empire. The Dara must pay taxes to the empire, and house and feed any battalions of the Imperial Army passing through. As with all Empire types, the soldiers wear “arrogance like mantles over their shoulders”, and far too many look at her in a way that makes her “want to scrub their gazes off [her] skin”.

The head of the forces stationed at Dara, Commander Arxa is arrogant but not creepy, and when his soldiers fall ill, Zivah willingly helps out–it’s her duty as a healer. The soldiers have caught the Rose plague, a horrible disease which usually leads to death. Survivors either develop immunity (they are recognized by their umber scars, and known as the umbertouched) or house the disease for a few years till their death. The latter are known as the rosemarked, and are instantly recognized by their blood-red rash, and are banished from society as they are contagious. (I think Blackburne modeled the rose plague on leprosy–consider the fear of contagion, visible marks, the long incubation period, and the existence of rosemarked isolation colonies. It’s all fascinating, and her world-building and the details of the disease are very painstakingly done.)

Zivah cures Arxa, but catches the disease and is rosemarked. Damn. Arxa, however, offers Zivah a place in the rosemarked compound in Ampara, where she can continue her healer studies. She could research the origins of the disease, find a way to slow its spread, and maybe even concoct a cure for the rosemarked.

Meanwhile! Eighteen-year-old Dineas is an umbertouched rebel attempting guerilla warfare against the Empire from his home of Monyar, near Zivah’s hometown Dara. Dineas holds Dara in contempt for surrendering peacefully to the Empire–they should have fought, right? The leader of the rebel forces however suggests an alliance with the Dara. Zivah will take Dineas along with her to Ampara, where she’ll introduce him to Arxa as an amnesiac fighter. Dineas will join the Amparan army,  spy on their plans, and report back to the rebel leader in Monyar. Zivah will be living in Arxa’s house with his rosemarked daughter–yet more opportunities for spying.

To make Dineas’s role truly convincing, Zivah will concoct a herb+venom drug to give him amnesia, and another to temporarily return his memory. The returned memory will include the new memories Dineas has made after taking the initial forgetfulness shot. He’ll lose his memory again organically by the next morning. (Dr. Blackburne’s cogsci background is coming in handy after all; there’s talk of muscle memory and the like. ) Then there’s a third potion to permanently return his memory.

This is all getting a bit fiddly–Dineas glugging potion after potion, remembering and forgetting and remembering endlessly. Blackburne grounds her story  by focusing on her characters’ emotions rather than on plot mechanics. She sets up imaginative conflicts centering around Amnesiac Dineas (hereafter known as AD) versus Original Dineas (OD). AD’s loyalties lie with Empire, while OD is all about defeating them. OD is moody, complex, and resentful of his dependence on Zivah and her potions, while AD is an easy-going chap who falls in love with her…

The love story, while easily anticipated (girl, 17, and boy, 18! in a YA novel!) is nicely done, because their attraction is truly inconvenient, even dangerous, for them both; Blackburne is very good at showing how they fall in love despite themselves. If these two have a Happily Ever After, they’ll really have earned it.

Will they have a HEA? So….I picked up Rosemarked without knowing it was the first of of a duology. I HATE waiting for sequels but it turns out that Umbertouched is out this year, so the anticipation isn’t too dire. Also,  Rosemarked is Blackburne’s third book, so I plan to read her earlier work during the wait.

Finally: there is so much dross in the YA novel world that I’m truly grateful for this thoughtful, carefully plotted work that respects a reader’s intelligence. The characters are well-realized, with minimal emphasis on their looks, and much is made of their resourcefulness and stoicism. The triangle-free romance actually moves the plot along. The conflict between margin and empire, colonizer and the colonized, is a time-honored one, and provides a solid setting and context for this story. And there’s so much in this book that resonates with the state of the world today. Living in a world where you’re visibly marked by your skin as an outsider, check. The powerlessness of the marginalized in the face of state-funded armed might, check. The machinations of the powerful to preserve their wealth and power at the cost of the poor and the powerless, check. Power grabbed and held through betrayal, spin and lies, check. Blaming all woes on outsiders, check. Female vulnerability–and female resourcefulness, check. Hopefully, Umbertouched will hold out some cheer for those of us whose ancestors battled empires–and won.

Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

In 2010, intrepid young London journalist Monisha Rajesh decided to travel around India on 80 trains, mostly because she could. As a 9-year-old, Rajesh had lived briefly in India when her parents, both Indian doctors, had moved from Sheffield to Chennai in 1991; the family fled back to England two years later. Now older and wiser, and wanting a re-do of her relationship with India, Rajesh decides to explore the country over the course of 80 train journeys; the number pays homage to Phineas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. Rajesh’s Passepartout for the journey is a cute Norwegian photographer dude friend. I know what you’re thinking: Will this friend provide benefits? You gutter-minds, buy the book to find out.


See, my favorite newspaper is The Guardian, and I follow Very British Problems on Facebook, and my best beloved author is probably Richmal Crompton. There’s a certain British sense of humor that sets me a-quiver, and that humor formula–which I believe can be approximated to (intelligent puns + extravagant Wodehousian similes ) X healthy dose of self-deprecation–is showcased in all its glory in this book. Rajesh is funny as heck, and despite her admitted partiality for Chetan Bhagat novels, you’re in good hands. Here’s a sunburnt Passepartout, who’s “adopted a cowboy swagger to prevent his inflamed skin from rubbing against his trousers although the desired effect was less James Dean and more piles sufferer. The surface of his skin had come to resemble patches of tissue paper, which had now started to flake off around the seats like an early spring flurry of snow.” About her pilgrimage to find the finest cup of tea, “…travelling to Assam felt to me what a trip to Colombia must mean to Charlie Sheen.” She’s particularly skilled at describing the quirks of the people she meets on her journeys–here’s Pradeep, “…who thrived on gathering useless trivia. His specialist interest was cash points [ATMs], but this also extended to enquiring about rucksack straps, our blood types, the expiry dates on English breakfast condiments, and star signs. At one point, he tried to scratch a mole off my right ankle, insisting it was dirt.” And her detailed descriptions of falling victim to Delhi Belly and her subsequent bouts of diarrhea on the Bhopal Shatabdi Express aren’t for everyone, but by god, they are magnificently chronicled.

Moreover, Rajesh is an outsider-insider, which is of course a decided bonus for a travel writer–she has a depth of understanding originating in lived experience, as well as a keen nose for the new and the odd. But for her ‘satiably curious fellow travelers, the least of her outsiderish-ness is her British passport, or even her twenty-something single woman traveller status. Nope, the real issue is that she’s so hard to slot. Monisha…now that sounds North Indian, but she doesn’t look like one, and her last name, Rajesh, could be from any part of India, could be Hindu or Christian. Such ambiguity is maddening for the average Indian, who would like to pinpoint your ancestral village to, say, a mere five centuries ago. Add to this the lack of mummy-daddy or brother-sister in the vicinity, the absence of a color-coded excel sheet for the 80 journeys, and throw in a male companion who’s neither brother nor husband, and you have a first-class enigma huddled in a tatkal second-class coach from Chennai to Kanyakumari.

Rajesh doesn’t gloss over India’s unhappy bits–there’s the overabundance of creepy predatory men, the racism, the xenophobia, the shadism, the cockroaches, the crowds, the public performance of bathroom ablutions, and oh, the sheer anarchy.  In one instance, her bus’s “headlamps failed and the driver opted to drive in the blind spot of the car ahead, using its headlamps to guide him, while ploughing oncoming drivers off the road.” Sounds about right. Equally, Rajesh is quick to note the warmth of the people, and the kindness of strangers, who gladly share their meals with her, sacrifice their comforts to keep her safe, and arrange warm receptions at the remotest destinations, all without any expectation of return favors. And of course, there’s India’s over-the-top scenic beauty, from the northern Himalayas to the ocean at Kanyakumari. In all, Rajesh provides a real insight into how rewarding–and maddening!–the country can be.

The conflict in the narrative (apart from Rajesh’s struggles to get a grip on India) is provided by the great divider–religion! Passepartout turns out to be a militant atheist, while Rajesh considers her mild affiliation with Hinduism to be a product (and talisman) of family and culture. Depending on how you look at it, India is  the worst or best country in which to hash out this sort of disagreement, and after one temple too many, Passepartout turns into an ass, partout, and the two go their separate ways. Do they get back together? Do they finally…like I said, read the book.

I have two gripes with Around India… First, even toddlers know that when you have a Dora and her Boots, you NEED a map. Less than a 100 pages in, I lost track of which train they were on and where they were headed, and there was no map, index or appendix to ease the pain. To fulfill the 80-train constraint, Rajesh and her companion zigzag back and forth across India, doubling back to a familiar place and then plunging off again, and after a point, the chatter about a train originating in Barmer, boarding at Bikaner and heading to Kalka might as well have been the BART from Tatooine with a stop at Loompaland before heading to Mylapore. The publishers ponied up for illustrations of monkeys and and samosas and Thums-up soda at the beginning of each chapter, but apparently couldn’t stretch to an informational subtitle. This book is begging for an appendix detailing the name of the train, origin and destination, and the particular segment of Rajesh’s journey, and while its lack thereof didn’t quite derail my reading experience, after finishing the book, I have a very hazy idea of the routes travelled. And I grew up in India.

My other issue is that while Rajesh is a whiz at describing her adventures, she can be incredibly irritating when pronouncing generalities to explain India. “If you give an Indian a chance he will take it.” There’s an authoritativeness about her opinions that seems misplaced at best, coming as it does from someone, um,  not-so-seasoned about India. “In addition to their penchant for arguing, Indians love a good monologue…” Hmmm. “A country’s greatness cannot be measured by its size, but the standard of living of every individual.” Get me on the rush hour local out of this clichéland, quick. And consider this: “When I had just left university, I did a work experience stint at a magazine in Delhi. Initially they gave me copy to proofread, but as soon as I started to pick out archaisms and anything else that was incorrect, they looked put out. They ignored my changes and gradually stopped giving me work.” While I have scant respect for India’s mainstream media, would you *really* expect a bunch of cynical, seasoned journalists to thank a young amateur for pointing out that their writing didn’t meet her standards?

But on the whole, I liked this book A LOT, and recommend it wholeheartedly for those interested in travel writing and/or India. And while I didn’t exactly feel inspired to click on to, the book left me awash in nostalgia as I read about passengers whipping out balaclavas when the temperature hit 65 F, about Rajesh being addressed as “Aunty” by a random child, the inquisition into her father’s name (a thinly-veiled attempt to find out one’s caste), about feeding Marie biscuits to a stray dog…and about her dawning realization of the impossibility of forming a single-line queue in India. Plus ça change, etc. My edition was published by Roli Books and sourced from India, but a new $10 edition is available in the USA. Check it out!






Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins has a godly talent for taking on big issues in unfamiliar settings and turning it all into absorbing, magical Middle Grade stories. I admired Bamboo People, and adored Secret Keeper, and I’m firmly in the love end of the like—>love scale for Tiger Boy (2015). This novel tackles  profound moral dilemmas involving integrity, ambition, and sacrifice, all in Perkins’s trademark preach-free manner. And it’s set in the Sunderbans, an archipelago of islands that’s home to a unique mangrove forest, all of which straddles the southern part of Bangladesh and a small bit of eastern India.

Landsat 7 image of Sundarbans, released by NASA Earth Observatory , from Wikipedia.

The Sunderbans (“beautiful forest” in Bengali) is home to the Bengal tiger, whose population in recent years has dwindled so much that it’s considered an endangered species. The low numbers are partly due to deforestation and the rigours of a shared habitat with villagers, but mostly due to poaching for illegal trade in body parts and skin. Yep, we humans mostly suck.

Young Neel lives in near-poverty in an island village in the Sunderbans. He’d rather be swimming than studying for the scholarship exam for admission to a prestigious Calcutta boarding school. Oh, the English and Bangla exam portions are fine, but Neel (like a certain other young protagonist) has met his Waterloo in geometry. Moreover, he doesn’t want to go away to the city–he loves his family and his village. “The sights, sounds and smells of the Sunderbans were as much a part of him as his dark skin and curly black hair.” But his father, although a skilled carpenter, is short of work, and Neel’s scholarship (and his subsequent professional career) could be the ticket to a better life for his family.

Just as the headmaster catches Neel playing truant, big news comes their way–a tiger cub has escaped from the nature reserve nearby, and it’s hiding in their village! Neel is immediately aware of the danger–the mother will come in search of her cub. And there’s an additional menace–a rich city dweller named Gupta, who’s been buying up land in the forest, often forcibly evicting the occupants and wantonly cutting down rare Sundari trees, is searching for the cub too. Gupta is offering a large bounty for the tiger–and it’s not out of altruism.


Neel and his sister Rupa (who would have been deemed an awesome scholarship candidate if she were but a boy, you know?) set out in secret to search for the baby tiger. Since this book is called Tiger Boy, you know that Neel (aided by geometry, no less!) finds and rescues the cub. His family could sorely use the reward money for his mother’s medicine, but Neels knows he must return the cub to the forest rangers. Can he avoid getting his father into trouble, dodge Gupta and his evil henchmen, and hand the tiger over to the rangers — and pass that terrifying geometry exam?

Since this is an MG novel, everything works out, but not once does Perkins sacrifice nuance, and the ending features a hugely satisfying yet unforced tying-up of loose ends. I really relished the elegant plotting, and I love her characters. As always, they’re mostly helpful, good-hearted people doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, and if they behave less than well, it’s usually due to ignorance or duress, rather than spite. And yes, it’s hinted that greedy Gupta gets his comeuppance. The text is accompanied by lovely illustrations from Jamie Hogan.

Much incidental information about tigers, conservation and the Sunderbans has been gently infused into this fast-paced, gripping novel, and there’s also a substantial afterword that includes plenty of learning resources. Tiger Boy won the 2016 South Asia Book Award for Grades 5 and Under, as well as whole other bunch of prizes; color me unsurprized. Check out more about the book at

This Truck has Got to be Special by Anjum Rana, Sameer Kulavoor, Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan

When Tara Books asked if I’d be interested in reviewing any of their new releases, I picked This Truck has Got to be Special, judging the book solely by the explosion of color and glitter on its cover. And oh, what a smart choice it was. TThGtbS is the story of Pakistani truck driver Chinar Gul, who’s finally paid off the loan for his vehicle; what better way to celebrate than having his truck newly decorated by his artist friend Zarrar? But not with any random designs in beige or oatmeal (or the more daring forest green or burgundy). Nope, this truck will be special.

(The gold bits on the cover are reflective, and super shiny.)

Author Anjum Rana, an interior designer by profession, writes on her website “…Pakistani Truck art is not only a legitimate and distinct folk art, but also represents the values and aspirations of vast majorities of Pakistanis”. The exuberant colors, the abundance of motifs, and the lavish application of glitter are all constituents of a deliberately flamboyant style that’s been honed over the years (some say it dates from the 1950s). Rana does a wonderful job of capturing Chinar Gul’s excitement and anticipation as he waits for his precious truck to be painted, and it’s all depicted without a hint of patronage.

Chinar Gul drives his truck along the Karakoram Highway, aka the Pakistan China friendship highway, aka the highest paved road in the world. It’s a tough life, albeit leavened with camaraderie with fellow drivers, and moments of stunning scenic beauty. As a poor young boy whose family could not send him to school, Chinar Gul worked as a truck cleaner (a”cleander” in the local dialect). When old enough to get a license, he began driving his boss’s truck,  becoming a driver-cleander-mechanic all in one. And now, after 30 years of being on the road, and driving his truck for 5 years, he finally owns the truck outright. The truck is his home; painting it makes it welcoming, “like a  decorated bride who is waiting for you at home”, says Gul.


The progress on the truck’s decorations runs parallel to the story of Chinar Gul’s life. The truck artist, Zarrar, is a truck painting ustaad (maestro), who, like Chinar Gul, began as a lowly assistant at a very young age, but who now has complete control over his art. Chinar Gul doesn’t tell him what to paint on the truck, other than two requests–on the front, the words “Mashallah’, the name of God, to keep the driver safe, and on the back, “Pappu yaar tung na karr”– an admonition to those driving behind him which translates into Pappu, Man [dude!], don’t hassle me. Someone on Etsy make a decal, quick.

After much deliberation, Zarrar decides to paint partridges and mountains on the side panels, while the wheels and the bumper will be decorated with reflector tape (chammak patti), disco style. The cabin ceiling will be painted too, and the seats will be clad in multi-colored velvet, with applique lace and gold braid. The large painting on the rear of the truck is a joint decision requiring much deliberation. Chinar Gul’s wife asked for the portrait of her favorite singer, his older son for his cricket hero, and his younger son wanted an airplane. Read the book to find out what the final choice was 🙂


Trucks on the Gilgit Skardu road. (Pic credit : By Hollern1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The illustrations bring alive the setting– here’s Chinar Gul’s wife and children fishing for rainbow trout in Swat, and then there’s Gilgit’s bustling market, with a signboard for “Mobile Repair” cheek-by-jowl with soaring minarets. The truck designs are exuberant and fun–there’s much use of hot pink and fuchsia and parrot green, along with plenty of gold. And the story itself is at least as appealing as the visuals, with Rana’s respect and affection for this art form imbuing every page of the book. In all, I was struck by what a lovely team effort TThGtbS represents, with two Pakistani truck painters, Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan, providing the truck designs, a Pakistani writer Anjum Rana working with a Mumbai-based illustrator Sameer Kulavoor for the story, and a London-based graphic designer pulling it all together. Quite fitting then, that this California-based blogger loved it to bits.

Soylent Coffiest: only technically, coffee.

Do you like eating? do you like coffee? then read no further. But if breakfast is but the step between drought-mindful shower and miserable schlep, then fill your bunker shelves with Soylent.

drink_300x400-e74e606ebde4 Soylent, as you may know, is “healthy, convenient, and affordable food” that provides “all the protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients that a body needs to thrive”. Soylent is a meal substitute, and is available as a bar, a powder, and a bottled drink, the latter  in  regular and coffee flavors. The bar was recently found to cause explosive diarrhea for some wretched souls, but I had no such issues while drinking Coffiest. In fact, it was quite the reverse, as you’ll see if you read on…

Unlike food–which is cooked or dished up or blended or roasted or baked–Soylent, the makers stress, is ENGINEERED.  The words used to describe its origins include “intelligently designed”,  “food system innovation”, “Food 2.0”, and “exploring the frontiers of food technology” — all deliberately evoking visions of astronaut rations. It’s all about technology–the bottle looks like a docking station for a nanobot (if such a thing should exist). When you unscrew the cap, you’re momentarily surprised it hasn’t unfolded into an Amazon drone. The formula could have been unearthed from a crater in Roswell. This Soylent is not green, people.

Soylent is targeted at a busy human without the time to slap together a PBJ-Sriracha sandwich or chew an apple. (Note: this person is probably so very busy as s/he works in TECHNOLOGY, and lives in the Bay Area.) S/he is concerned with good nutrition, is well-informed about gluten, and knows that granola bars are candy dressed as health food.

This post is written with the clear understanding that I meet few of the above criteria. I’m old-ish, and prioritize leisure over most activities. I’m not a serial thrill experiencer  whose brain and skills are so much in demand that I have no time for food other than as fuel–heck, I see your CTO promotion and I raise you my thrill on slicing open an avocado at its instant of green to yellow metamorphosis. I admire and respect a good meal, I do.

I’d never subsist on Soylent, but would I consider it for an occasional meal substitute? I tried Soylent Coffiest, sourced for me by my tech-genius nephew.


My big, big problem with Coffiest is that it fails miserably on the coffee front. First, it is goopy, practically coating the back of a spoon like dilute custard, and its emollient consistency makes it the opposite of the texture I associate with coffee. And second, the coffee taste is of very low quality, and by low quality, I mean shitty. It’s got that burnt bean taste, and that sour metal aftertaste, and it reminds me of the worst coffee I’ve had in my life (back in an Edinburgh Starbucks in 2003, if you must know).

Coffiest is best cold. When it’s hot, it raises the vengeful ghost of the latte you might have had. When it’s room temperature, it tastes like the tears of Elon Musk. It’s oobleck all gussied up in a tuxedo–liquid down your throat, and then solid in your gut for hours after consumption. I’m slightly nauseous after half a cup; drinking a bottle (400 ml) at one go would be too disruptive to my inner bay areas.

BUT it’s nutritionally magnificent. The main ingredients are “Soy Protein Isolate, Algal Oil, Canola Oil, Rice Starch, Oat Fiber”, and the combination of soy and algal oil (yes, from algae)  gives it the optimal combination of protein and carbs and vitamins and minerals for humans. It is the healthiest bottled beverage on this planet–you could probably postpone death and reduce taxes if you drank this daily. It has 400 calories per bottle–a lot, until you remember that it’s a meal substitute and not a nutritional supplement. I don’t think you could get this level of nutrition within this calorie count from any traditional food combination at this price–approx. $3.25 per bottle.  It’s vegan and nut-free, though not gluten-free.


The beverage is dark, chocolatey brown,  but you’d likely never know that as you’d chug it straight down, being too busy to pour it from bottle to glass, see?

I can totally understand (and even second) the choice of Soylent if you must skip a meal and the alternative is junk food snacks and/or soda. Heck, I figure Soylent is much closer to food than, say, Coke or Pepsi, which I hear make for excellent toilet cleaners. But anything more than occasional consumption of Soylent seems unbearably joyless when you think of the pleasure foregone by skipping that rolling-pin burrito, by not slurping down chole with a hubcap-size bhatura. As with most things in life, moderation seems key; drink Soylent responsibly, folks!

Soylent Coffiest can be ordered from the company website or Amazon. 12 bottles for $39.