The author of The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age worked as a journalist in Mumbai and was able to interview many of the fabulously rich people portrayed in the book — and was invited to a fabulous wedding or two! I could have done with fewer portraits of the fabulously rich, but the descriptions of how they built their (always family) business empires are fascinating. Equally fascinating, if terrifying, is the way they seem more or less immune from the laws of the land, how they control politicians, anyhow widespread corruption allows such behavior to continue unchecked, for now.
Nur Jahan, the subject of Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan was the twentieth wife of a Mughal emperor who, despite behind cloistered, at least in theory, and not exactly high-ranking as a wife (although it seems that her husband had wanted to marry her for years), managed to share her husband power, have coins minted in her name, led troops into battle, and even shot a few tigers (with a monstrous-looking musket; the illustration is amazing!) The last quarter of the book, with the political intrigue surrounding the end of her husband’s life, is as tedious as one can imagine, but the rest of the story is vivid and full of details about the life of the Mughal sovereigns, from their amazing wealth to their herds of elephants, to their vast empire and their conflicts with their neighbors. Nur’s life was amazing, and I wish the book did not constantly try to make it more amazing than it was. It’s very clear that her power derived from the one she had on her husband (remarkable for the time, and considering the unlovely custom of the harem), but the minute he disappeared, she was out, too.
The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai collects the stories of three Mumbai couples, from courtship to about a decade into their marriages. They have different religions and ages, and all middle class. And they struggle, with affairs and stepfamilies, and general unease at having married someone they no longer recognize. I suppose one could enjoy the voyeur’s view of these couples’ lives. I found the stories mostly dull.
In Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, the author tells the story of her family, focusing on her parents and especially her mother and her siblings, who were born untouchables, very poor, but luckily educated by Canadian missionaries. They also came of age during the early days of an independent India and her older uncle was a member of the Communist Party and student activist.
I found the lengthy recounting of historical movement rather tedious but the family history fascinating, especially how the caste system condemned all its members to being exploited, homeless, and generally kept down. (And women had it even worse, educated or not!)
The Windfall is the hilarious story of an Indian middle-aged couple who, after selling a successful website, move from a crowded apartment building into a luxuiours house, discovering a very different lifestyle. It could be a simple nouveau-riche satire, but it’s a lot more than that since the heroes are not blindly trying to imitate their rich neighbors and have a very balanced approach to wealth and the ridiculousness of spending extravagantly. There is a funny subplot of their son, who is consuming more drugs than studying at a second-rate American business school. Won’t change the literary world but the story is entertaining, and deeper than it seems at first.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness opens with a transgender woman living in a cemetery — and renting out “rooms” there, which is to say that the cast of characters is unusually diverse and offbeat. It is, however, centered on the Kashmir conflict and the shadowy role of a few militants and their families — and guerrilla war can make for pretty tedious storytelling. Fortunately the characters are, indeed, idiosyncratic and complicated and the strands of the story are artfully woven so I enjoyed the book, mostly, but don’t do looking for a fast-paced plot.
This time, still in Mumbai, Aravind Adiga tackles the great Indian passion that is cricket. Selection Day focuses on two talented brothers and their rival and friend who, unlike them, comes from a privileged background. The story also stars their obsessed father, who has trouble relinquishing his overbearing iron grip on his sons to their coach, a love interest, and multiple intermediaries in the cricket world, all expecting a little black money from the deals.
There are some wonderful observations of sibling rivalry, the seven kinds of Jain truths, and how decisions that are good for the family may not be so good for the individual — but too many pages describing the second day of cricket matches with 256 runs did me in.