Saturday, 26 December 2015

Wade Into Wilbur Smith's Ancient Egypt

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 26 December 2015


Majestic scenery, rich history, epic battles, heroic feats and interesting characters. Plus betrayal, murder, politics and a bit of comedy — all told by a snooty eunuch slave. Welcome to Wilbur Smith's ancient Egypt.

“River God”, 1994 edition by Pan Macmillan
I stumbled upon River God while browsing in a comic rental shop in the neighbourhood, which has since closed. It was so long ago, I can't remember if I'd put the book down or when I decided to get my own copy, which I had to ditch because it got so old and brown and the pages were warped.

But that world stayed with me, not just because of my interest in that bygone realm.

The novel's titular river god, Hapi, is said not to be the god of the Nile itself, but of the Nile's annual flooding, which ran like clockwork except for a few times in Egypt's long history. So he was a big deal, even if he isn't as culturally popular as Ra, Horus, Anubis or Isis.

From the details within, Smith's historic epic takes place somewhere in the Middle Kingdom period between 2000 and 1700 BC, but this has been contested. Salitis, one of the antagonists, appears about halfway through. He is believed to be the first Hyksos ruler of the kingdom, reigning during the Fifteenth Dynasty (around 1650 to 1550 BC).

So, yes, the timeline's off about several decades. However, this and other factual discrepancies (if you can find them) doesn't affect the flow and charm of the novel.

Many other characters appear to be fictional, such as Mamose VIII, the reigning pharaoh in the beginning of the novel. Gaps in Egypt's past, which are still being filled today, have become blank canvasses or pages for authors and artists, making for a richer, more fantastical historical account.

“River God”, 2007 edition by Pan Books
Smith's ancient Egypt unfurled like a miles-long mural, imaginary hieroglyphics and all, of a kingdom in decline, a foreign invasion, our heroes' exile and their triumphant return. Wedged in between are chapters on how our heroes: the eunuch slave Taita and his wards — the handsome young soldier Tanus and his mistress Lostris — played their part in it all.

Lyrical, immersive and vivid, with just the right amount of detail, Smith's writing puts us where the action is. In the harems, the rustle of fine linen and the fragrance of perfume. On the banks of the Nile, the splash of oars and burbling of water as boats skim across the surface of the great river. In the midst of battle, the cries of men and beasts rise above the rumble of war chariots and the clashing of weapons.

We are treated to sweeping vistas of endless desert, African savannah and mountain ranges in what could now be northern Ethiopia. We venture into the workshops of artisans as they labour on the pharaoh's tomb and, much later, follow a royal funeral procession to its destination. Our hearts tighten as we witness an elephant hunt go wrong.

And, oh, to watch an assassin's cobra being prepared and cooked by our somewhat unreliable narrator...

Taita's a treat. From time to time, the bombastic, vainglorious slave reminds us that the households and people he serves would be in even bigger trouble without him. Actor, strategist, spy, street magician, negotiator, painter, scribe, poet, playwright, inventor... he's done it all. To call him an ancient Egyptian da Vinci would probably not suffice.

Thankfully, this Marty Stu doesn't hog the papyrus. I've also come to admire the roguish, daredevil Kratas, an officer in Tanus's regiment and the young hero's wingman. Huy, a former bandit turned army officer and groom, steals the scene from Taita as he schools the self-proclaimed genius on the art of handling horses, a "new" animal in Smith's Egypt. Even the weak, vacillating Mamose VIII has his moments, including one where he looms like a thundercloud over a bunch of criminals before sentencing them.

I'm not surprised even our Tun M likes Smith's work.

Not long after I'd finished River God, I returned to the shop and borrowed the sequel. The Seventh Scroll takes place centuries later and details the search for the tomb of Mamose VIII by a more modern set of characters. This one was more of an action-adventure potboiler, like Those in Peril, so it didn't appeal as much to me.

Smith returned to Taita's Egypt years later, churning out more sequels where our slave turned hero becomes a real magician (Warlock and The Quest) and what appears to be an interquel between River God and Warlock. But I think the first novel will always rank among his best works.

Still, I didn't replace my own aged copy of River God when the chance came (sorry, Big Bad Wolf Books). Perhaps it wasn't time to revisit that world again and the painful chapters in it. Maybe it's the fear of being sucked back in there, just as I'm finding new things to read.

Or maybe it's just that these days I'm taking longer to muster the will to plough through anything longer than 500 pages.

But I urge you to. This is one adventure everyone needs to experience.


28/12/2015   One thing: There were times in Egypt's history when the banks of the Nile were not sufficiently inundated and fertilised by the silt-bearing waters. For the most part, the annual flooding ran like clockwork, until the Aswan Dam was built.



River God
Wilbur Smith
Pan Books (2007)
672 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 9780330449939

Amazon | AbeBooks | Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Back To The Wolf's Den

Last week, I told a friend I was skipping this year's Big Bad Wolf book sale - and went there twice and bought the most books so far during such a sale.

And the only books I read from last year's sale were by the late Terry Pratchett.


The Big Bad Wolf Books sale - and this is just half the hall


Last year, I also found a couple of titles by the Italian crime writer Andrea Camilleri. This year, there were more than a few.

When another friend (hi, Em!) mentioned liking the series, I went back a second time and picked up a few more. I initially hesitated because I'm not much of a series-muncher. I did, and came back with a few more other titles. I think they have almost the entire series so far - I think the latest is only available in hardback, so I left it there.

This year's was a bit of an adventure. I've always followed the Sungai Besi Highway from Bukit Jalil to reach the Mines Exhibition Centre, which doesn't take long. But the journey home was different, prompting me to wonder if I could retrace my way home, the same way I came.

There was, but the route back home can be gridlocked. I think I must've spent half an hour in the traffic jam before reaching the jam-free Pesiaran Serdang Perdana, lying between the Sungai Besi Highway and the North-South Highway, to return to the Bukit Jalil area.


This year's haul - perhaps the biggest to date


Parking was not a major issue for me at the venue, though maybe I was just lucky. After a couple of visits, I noted that the piles of books change often, almost guaranteeing that some patrons will return, at least once, to see what they missed - or what the BBW team hid - the previous day.

Categorisation of the book piles need refinement. Some piles were arranged "in alphabetical order", but it's not apparent. Better book-pile organisation would also help fellow book hunters return copies they decide to abandon to their respective places.

So I left Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant stay buried; couldn't find it on the second visit. Maybe I'll leave that "Constipated Man" novel alone too, when it eventually shows up.

And dammit, Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw is a memoir-slash-article compilation, not a cookbook. Probably why I couldn't and might never find Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter there and would have to get it from a bookstore.

Also, the Hong Leong credit card people were aggressive. A few would prowl the hall and accost patrons to get them to sign up in exchange for discounts or whatever. Have they always been like this, or does it have to do with the hard times and the recent lay-offs in some banks?

Monday, 14 December 2015

Book Marks: Still Feels Like Banned Books Week, Etc.

During the launch of her book, Dancing on Thin Ice, Marina Mahathir stated that as a writer, censorship is the biggest hurdle, according to The Malaysian Insider.

She also mentioned the threat of censorship that loomed over writers Faisal Tehrani and Farouk Peru, and considered the rape threat made to G25 spokesperson Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin as another form of censorship, particularly against women writers.

Funny that she brought up the C-word, because some related news items that caught my eye revolves around that.

A high-profile book publisher (more of a rabble-rouser, judging from what's being said about the stuff he publishes) whose work annoyed China's government disappeared in Thailand, and it's said that Beijing might be responsible. Some note that the MO is so North Korea.

Considering the impenetrability of China's bureaucracy, it's easy to accuse a government that does things like jailing dissenters and "disappearing" annoying people of such cloak-and-dagger shenanigans. On a possibly related note, a lawyer in Prague who wrote a political book has gone missing.

Egypt's state security, meanwhile, forced Egyptian novelist (and critic of the Egyptian government) Alaa al-Aswany to cancel his public seminar, "Conspiracy Theory: Between Reality and Illusion".

And more Mein Kampf woes: Marianne Taylor makes the case for publishing Hitler's notorious manifesto in Germany for first time in over seven decades. But it still seems to be problematic in the US, as the copyright is set to end.

Also in the US, Jessica Herthel, the author of I Am Jazz, a children's book based on a real-life transgendered girl, confronts the bigotry that forced a school to cancel a reading of her book, possibly due to pressure from a conservative group calling itself Liberty Counsel (yes). And schools in America are still grappling with Huckleberry Finn.



The Malaysian Education Ministry ordered a publisher to reprint a Year Six History textbook that placed the state of Melaka somewhere in Kelantan on a map. Some people are befuddled at this error, since this publisher, which I assume is local, is neither CNN nor Fox News.

Then someone pointed out that a local news portal incorrectly said that Bintulu is a city in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, adding, "Sarawak is almost as big as the peninsula, and Sabah is this huge state with a distinctive map-shape & STILL U CANNOT GEOGRAPHY?!"

I'm so saving "U CANNOT GEOGRAPHY" for future use.



Are rude rejection letters from publishers holding back the next JK Rowling? "Codswallop", goes one commentator. "Could publishers be nicer? Probably. So too could literary agents. But they're ploughing through hundreds of thousands of words looking for the good ones. Often the only word they don't want to use, despite them being pretty snooty, is 'no'."

I'm inclined to agree. The worst are probably those who want an explanation of why their 'scripts were rejected - and dismiss it anyway because "Do you know what I went through to write this?" and other reasons.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

"Publish More Books"? Can We?

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 10 December 2015


What should I make of the Deputy Prime Minister's call to publish more books to make Malaysia a quality publishing powerhouse by 2057?

Has he had a long, hard look at the situation with the local publishing industry before making this exhortation? Is he aware of certain issues that might impede this drive to meet what I feel is just another in a long list of key performance indexes (KPIs)?

Will meeting this KPI of 1,000 titles per million population in developed countries, as defined by Unesco, really bring Malaysia closer to developed-nation status? Or will this index just be used as window-dressing at the next meeting, event, or the tabling of some report on development goals?

And if book production by local publishers does ramp up in the coming years, how much of the output will be read by locals? Will the increase change our reading habits in any way?

Has anyone researched what's behind the average publication to population ratio in developed countries? How did Unesco come up with that ratio? Has anyone ever thought about why the publishing industry in developed countries appear to be better or more productive than ours at the moment?

Could the education system in developed countries have something to do with the quality of what's being read, written or published there? Is anyone willing to get the relevant authorities to look into steps to revamp certain education policies to match those in developed countries?

Do the titles for meeting this KPI also include hagiographies, article compilations, "romance" novels, academic journals, coffee-table books, books with religious themes and tomes that peddle Arab-centric conspiracy theories?

If the above is insufficient, what about engaging the independent book publishers? Are certain parties in government averse to this option? Why? Is it because some of those involved in indie book publishing tend to be young, daring, socially savvy and forward-thinking individuals who are most likely to balk at the boneheadedness displayed by some of our officials?

Shouldn't these independent operators receive some form of support or encouragement, instead of being branded as "anti-establishment", subversive and whatnot? Is this how we see the next generation of leaders, publishers and writers - and, perhaps, our future hopes for international recognition?

Also: are writers in developed countries as restricted in what they say or write as many of us are over here? Do they have censorship laws that seem to be based on checklists that work more like Internet filters? Do they even filter the Internet over there?

How efficient are censors in developed countries in screening books and banning those deemed detrimental to national security and harmony? Are there cases where books are banned after, say, a year or so after publication and after hundreds of copies have been sold? Hell, do they even ban books over there, like, say, the way we do?

Is our DPM, who's also the Home Minister, willing to advocate for a loosening of these restrictions if it would help Malaysians write and publish even more? If he does, will we put aside our apathy and cynicism and rally behind him?

(Out of curiosity, what do citizens of developed countries think about some of our output, which includes so-called "romance novels" that feature firemen, students, religious preachers and security guards? Why don't we have such works translated and marketed overseas so that internationals can sample and critique them?)

If affordability and quality are also issues, why are they? And if publishers can't blame the "soft market" for low output, who should they blame, then? Why does it seem so hard for Malaysian publishers and writers to break into the international market?

Or do Malaysian publishers and other book-related agencies have their priorities a little skewed of late, like this article (in Malay) suggests? A "Tastes of Malaysia" theme? At the Frankfurt Book Fair?

And has anyone delved deeply into the reading habits of Malaysians? What comes to mind first when selecting reading materials? Am I wrong to say that Malaysians - including myself — prioritise price above all else, judging from the reception we give to warehouse sales and the like?

Am I also rude to suggest that Malaysians in general are neither adventurous nor courageous when it comes to reading materials, since we seem to prefer following the herd (like how we "investigate" food places), reading what entertains us and justifies our prejudices and world views, rather than the challenging and discomfiting stuff?

Given all this, are we as a nation ready for the shift from in publishing developing to developed status? Should we wait for the government to lay everything down in place before we take the leap, or do we find the courage to take the plunge ourselves?



Okay, ran away with this so fast I'd forgotten about the textbook flap that was reported some time ago.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

A Dream Undone

I found Golda Mowe's Iban Dream enjoyable - re-readable, even - and the story ended nicely. So I was surprised to learn of its sequel because I'm not sure if it needs one.

Though the storytelling still manages to breathe life into the verdant world of the Iban as we follow in the characters on their journey, I felt that the magic has waned. One does not expect novels in a series to sound exactly the same throughout, but the differences between the two are jarring.

Was it the apparent increase in the chunks of exposition, which now feel tediously encyclopaedic, albeit informative, in an academic way?

The meandering pace of the lulls in the storyline? The stilted dialogue, as if recited in front of a classroom, which was less of a problem in the prequel?

Or might it just be the protagonist?


A frustratingly fallible hero
The hero of the prequel, Bujang Maias, became a father and chief of his own longhouse. But a pirate attack on his homestead left many dead, and his wife was made pregnant by one of the raiders.

Against local taboos and his people's wishes, Bujang raised the child, Nuing, as his own. But father and son would learn that the curses of men are just as potent as those of gods.

Ostracised by almost everyone from Bujang's longhouse, Nuing eventually leaves with a friend, Gunggu, and establishes his own community with a group of "cursed" individuals like himself.

But in the process he incurs the wrath of some antu gerasi, a race of giant demon huntsmen. Certain of his victory, the leader of the demons gives Nuing and his people a few years' respite before he wipes them out.

Though a fairly competent warrior, Nuing's hunger for acceptance and validation drives him to take shortcuts in establishing his house and prepping himself and his brethren for the impending battle with the demons.

When things don't work out, the first thing he tends to do is either flee or beg the gods for help. His mortal failings, worsened by his low morale, grate on the gods and spirits who are striving to help him while toeing their own lines.

One or two gods - including Pulang Gana, the god of rice, who was a notably kind grandfatherly figure to Bujang - note just how anti-Bujang Nuing is, which doesn't help because it reminds the poor lad that he's not really his father's son.


More factbook than fable
Iban Journey, according to the author, "is a work of fantasy fiction based on the folklore and existing superstitions of the Ibans of Sarawak ... a journey into the customs and taboos of rainforest culture", much like its prequel.

In that vein, it is through folklore and superstitions that the Iban accumulate and store all they know of this culture. So there is a palpable fear of the loss of this culture as the old ways die out.

But I'm at a loss to explain how and why this work of fantasy fiction feels more factbook than fable, other than a pressing need to publish as soon as possible - perhaps before the last of those familiar with the old ways fade away.

Or is the author trying to inject more contemporary realism into this sequel by making the protagonist less of a "Disney prince" and more of a flesh-and-blood human being?

An element of haste pervades the text. It could have been more stringently edited, and its aspects - storytelling, exposition and dialogue - better stitched together. The threads holding the three are all-too visible, heightening one's focus on the other flaws and deepening the rift between the aspects.

I was also baffled by how the climactic battle was wrapped up - too neat and inexplicably convenient. Overall, the result looks like something cobbled together by someone too time-starved to polish the seams in the joinery.


A dream falls apart
Frustrated by all these, one can easily miss the noteworthy aspects of the novel.

From both books, it's implied that a mortal can overcome the curse of a deity, which is sometimes part of a test, and that the outcome of an endeavour might not be influenced solely by luck or the divine, but also by one's own efforts and the support from one's people - or a lack thereof. Ultimately, it is mortals who make their own luck.

Nuing's lack of self-confidence and backbone, plus the condemnation of mortal men, blind him to the aforementioned - as well as his own potential and that of his people. Watching him miss the cues he's been given is painful, but thankfully he gets better towards the end.

Sadly, I can't say the same about the novel. After the delight that was Iban Dream, Iban Journey came as a shock.



Iban Journey
Golda Mowe
Monsoon Books (2015)
263 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-981-4625-21-0

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Sometimes The Yolk Is On Us

Interesting as the salted egg-yolk saga was, it hit close to home.

Because I did the same thing to another establishment years ago (the original article in The Star appears to have vanished since the online portal was revamped and restructured).

The restaurant tended to be empty every time I went. I'd eaten there several times. I'd taken pictures. And I was sort of charmed by the ambience - and the picture of Anthony Bourdain with the chef.

So I wrote the review and submitted it to the paper.

Back then, it was about the writing, the minor sense of accomplishment in seeing my name in print. It was different from the day job, so I had fun with it. The few bucks I got in payment covered the total tab over the past visits, and if I had a bit left over, neat.


The now-infamous molten salted egg-yolk croissant from Petaling Jaya
bakery Le Bread Days, source of Le Attention et Colère of many
since Le Crème runneth over


Of course there was some worry over whether the place could cope with the increase in patrons following each review. But I was not prepared for what I saw when I returned, about a week after publication.

The place was so packed, people had to share tables. And I did - with two other now-former colleagues. "Oh we read about this place from somewhere," one of them said.

I kept quiet.

The manager claimed that people had been lining up outside the place before opening - until the end of the block, which I'm almost certain was an exaggeration. Those who could not eat were upset. Expletives were slung, along with "I came from out of town to get here!" or "I came from outstation for this!"

Plus, the review was published around the school holiday season.

I couldn't control that, but still ... I felt bad. I don't remember apologising, but I could have. I should have.

This was not what I'd call "helping".

When I left, people were waiting outside. I think I took a picture - not sure if it's still around.

The buzz did not last. About three weeks after that, the place was "empty" again. Watching the once-busy waiters idle around the dining room raised another kind of pang.

Since I learnt to make my own pastas, I never returned. It's been, what, four or five years?

These days, it's still about the writing. But it's a bit more about the money (economy is bad, 'k?) and less for the privilege of being in print. And it still feels nice, being able to contribute stuff: to restaurants, publications and people.

It's fine if it's not viral. I'd much prefer it that way.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Chicken, Curry And Cheesecake At Charlie's

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 04 December 2015


My makan kaki got off the phone, relieved. It was raining that evening and we were stuck in traffic, en route to a new favourite stopover.

Would you believe that she'd called the place to get them to save her an order of chicken chop?

I would learn that the practice is not uncommon.


The homespun Charlie's Café serves some modest yet mouth-watering fare


In a rare instance of role reversal, I had introduced this place to Melody. My first visit to Charlie's Café at Taman Bukit Desa wasn't particularly memorable. The place looked like a canteen with its thin-legged, mostly plastic furniture, staffed with helpers in thin caps and, recently, even mouth guards.

But I had a good bowl of rich and spicy curry noodles with fishballs that broke up and bounced in a good way inside your mouth as you chewed.


The Sarawak laksa, with the painstakingly prepared #seafoodstock
that's good to the last drop. Unfortunately painstaking means it's
only available from Thursdays (last I heard) to Saturdays.


I sneaked back weeks later to find Sarawak laksa added to the menu. "Four hours of preparation #seafoodstock", a sign proclaimed.

Hashtags. Hashtags everywhere.

But the laksa was damn good. Shredded omelette, shredded chicken, more of those fishballs and prawns with a slightly translucent sheen, piled on thin rice noodles swimming in that fragrant, tasty deep-brown #seafoodstock. To ensure I emptied the bowl, I dropped by hungry.

That evening, we learnt the chicken chop was worth the phone call. The moment we showed more interest in the dish, the guy in charge (Sonny, not Charlie) began extolling the beauty of his chops and explained how he brines the chicken with herbs to make the meat tender, flavourful and juicy, and puts a lot of effort into the batter that coats it.


The chicken chop is apparently a crowd favourite


We were also regaled with the exquisiteness of the limited-edition "Harum Manis" mango cheesecake (made with Indonesian Harum Manis mangoes, apparently) and Musang King durian cheesecake.

The flavours of the fruits in both were subtle (maybe too subtle); as with the durian cheesecake, you don't see loads of mango within the cheese layer.

I've since learnt that Sonny was formerly a salesman—boy, did he pitch like a pro. As I understand it, no Charlies were involved in the setting-up of the café, though there might be one in the payroll.

The tom yam noodles also deserve special mention with its spicy and fragrant soup, as does the "ultimate" dry chicken noodle, which I reflexively called kolok mee (it isn't).


It's not kolok mee, but the Ultimate Dry Chicken Noodles will do in a pinch


We also liked their nasi lemak serai wangi, which I feel was best paired with the ayam goreng berempah. I think we sampled about half of what's on the menu by now.

What intrigued me the most was the claim that Charlie's is a social enterprise. Sonny told me he's making efforts to buy produce from Orang Asli communities in Malaysia for his dishes. No middlemen involved, he added; he will deal directly with the leaders of the indigenous people.

For now, he's getting several types of veggies and herbs like bunga kantan (torch ginger flower) from a place in Hulu Langat. Plus, something about flying in ikan bilis from Sabah. Logistics is a major problem, and Charlie's is still new, so this social enterprise thing is moving slowly.


Nasi lemak with ayam rempah goreng, a quintessential
Malaysian favourite done right


Another social aspect of the business is the Pay It Forward initiative. For RM5, patrons get a receipt they can stick on a corner of the café; each receipt is a voucher for a free meal the homeless and the poor can claim. But wouldn't it be a lot of work to climb up to Taman Bukit Desa for it?

Charlie's Café
29, Jalan Bukit Desa 5
Taman Bukit Desa
58100 Kuala Lumpur

PORK-FREE

Mon-Sat: 7:30am - 9:30pm

Closed on Sundays

+6012-816 0003

Facebook page
In spite of its soup-kitchen vibe, Charlie's already has a following. This was Melody's third attempt at getting the chicken chop, as the dish had run out the first two times she's been there. The boss even classified his clientèle based on what they usually order.

He points out two Indian men sitting near the counter. "This fellow, he came here first," the boss said, adding that this patron orders clear soup stock, often without noodles. "Then he brought his friends, and one day some of his family members came with him."

As if we needed more proof that this unassuming café has some #awesome stuff.

Melody and I have been here so often we're starting to get bored, but we do keep Charlie's at the back of our minds. There's always something that snags our interest, like a cookie-shaped brownie that caught Melody's attention that evening and was sold out; all six remaining pieces were bought by one patron.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Life, Larceny And Love Commandos: Vish Puri's Next Case

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 03 December 2015


My pursuit of the latest adventures of a certain fictional Punjabi private eye took a back seat to work, despite having bought the book almost two years ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

And I wasn't disappointed.

Since encountering, enjoying and evaluating the first two Vish Puri novels by Tarquin Hall in 2011, I've been chomping at the bit for more. The fun continues with the fourth instalment, The Case of the Love Commandos.

(Oh look, recipes at the back, “from Vish Puri's family kitchen.” Mmm, Lucknow Mutton Biryani...)

In a blog post, Hall describes a meeting with “a middle-aged, part time journalist” and the head of the actual Love Commandos, a bunch of people in India who help star-crossed couples in love elope and start new lives. The encounter inspired the main plot for Love Commandos.

“It would be set, I decided, in rural India and the plot would centre around a couple of absconding lovers: she from a high caste family, he from an untouchable, or Dalit, one,” Hall blogged. “How, though, was I going to get Vish Puri involved?”

The solution: A phone call from Facecream, the Nepali femme fatale who's one of Puri's undercover operatives. The portly private investigator is surprised to learn his mysterious employee moonlights for the Love Commandos — specifically, as a getaway motorcycle rider — during her spare time.

In this case, Facecream helps Tulsi, a girl from a Thakur family, escape her father's watch and run off with her beau, a Dalit boy named Ram. But when they arrive at the place where the lovebirds' marriage ceremony is to take place, the boy is missing.

Her call comes at a bad time for Puri. An apparently perfect burglary has him so stumped, he ignores his masala chai and favourite coconut biscuits.

Then, when he excuses himself from a family pilgrimage to a famous shrine to attend to Facecream's case, he gets soaked by rain and is pickpocketed. The latter incident fixes Puri's mother on the trail of a suspect whom she believes is about to rob said shrine. Will she succeed in nabbing him?

Puri's case, meanwhile, is complicated further by the presence of arch-rival Hari Kumar, who was mentioned in the first novel. Amoral, suave and arguably better-looking than Hall's protagonist (good enough for the Indian edition of GQ, yaar), the former spy is also searching for Ram at an unknown client's behest.

And there's even a Dalit politician, who reminded me of a real-life female counterpart. Plus, some possible shenanigans involving a foreign genetics research company.

We also get to see more of Facecream. We are reminded that she once joined the Maoists in Nepal but became disillusioned with the movement and, after a bunch of other adventures, ended up working for Puri. At one point, she was even married.

So it's perhaps not surprising to see a feminist and maternal streak in the steely woman, during her undercover stint as a schoolteacher in a poor village under the thumb of another high-caste landowner. She even takes a village kid under her wing — a future operative for Puri's Most Private Investigators?

The lively tone that defined the first two books had begun to fade by the third, though the clever and charming storytelling retains that cartoonish feel of the series (so far) — and makes it easy for film adaptation.

(Though some might struggle to suspend disbelief, I am convinced that Facecream can forge credible-looking documents at an Internet café and create an ID with “half a potato, her trusty switchblade, a red ink pad and a laminating machine.”)

The social commentary, though, is ramped up here, what with “millennia-old caste prejudices,” the tyranny of some higher-caste landowners, and even the exploitative practices of Western firms coming under the spotlight.

In the course of his investigations, Puri must also contend with how the rapidly changing times are challenging his stand on certain things, such as caste and the traditional family values. The ex-army man's pride in his kshatriya (warrior) caste appears threatened by what he learns about genetic research and DNA: “It seemed simply incredible that from a single drop of blood scientists could tell you more about yourself than you had ever known.”

Also, just like in the real and imperfect world, not every baddie in the case gets his just desserts. At least one unsavoury character escapes justice, leaving some loose ends untied — teasing a remotely possible resolution in the future. Well, one can dream...

Still, this novel still retains some of the bounces and bumps that made the previous three such a joy. Mummy-ji's antics are a delight as she endears herself further to the readers, to the point of stealing her son's thunder, and deservedly so. Such an awesome family can't possibly have just one hero.

And such a stupendous series can't possibly end here.



The Case of the Love Commandos

Tarquin Hall
Arrow Books (2013)
310 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-091-93742-3