Review of The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz

thelongwalkIt was about nine o’clock one bleak November day that the key rattled in the heavy lock of my cell in the Lubyanka prison and the two broad-shouldered guards marched purposefully in. I had been walking slowly round, left hand in the now characteristic prisoner’s attitude of supporting the top of the issue trousers, which Russian ingenuity supplied without buttons or even string on the quite reasonable assumption that a man preoccupied with keeping up his pants would be severely handicapped in attempting to escape.” That is how the book begins. What follows is an absolutely engrossing narration of a true story – Slavomir’s imprisonment and escape through the frozen tundras of Siberia, the severe Gobi desert, onto Tibet and finally freedom on reaching India. Serving as a Lieutenant in the Polish Cavalry of the Russian army in the 1930s, he is imprisoned after being accused of spying for the Polish. Removed from the Lubyanka, he is packed into a freight car on a train along with dozens of other prisoners. As the train sets off on its long and arduous journey, rumours abound about their destination – the worst case scenarios being The Kamchatka salt mines of Siberia or the Novaya Zemlya islands on the Barent sea. After a month of traveling in a train huddled like cattle, they arrive at a nondescript outpost from where they are made to trek for many weeks to a camp that is hundreds of miles from the North Siberian capital of Yakutsk.

Seven prisoners plan their escape from this freezing prison by crossing the Lena river. Enroute, they run into a seventeen year old girl called Kristina – a fugitive on the run. The bond that these seven men form with this girl – like fathers and guardians, is very poignant and each of them look out for her safety in their own way. The devastation they undergo when the girl dies, unable to take the harsh trek through the Gobi desert with absolutely no food or water, is gut-wrenching. That any human can survive such an impossible situation is amazing and a testament to human spirit and survival.

Only four of them make it to India in the end, where they meet up with the British army. The camaraderie amongst these men and the hardships that they survive makes this a truly fascinating read. Slavomir’s narration is simple and touches the right nerves. Gives a great glimpse into pre-WW II Russia and the paranoia that pervaded the world at the time.

Who should read it: If you enjoy gritty survival adventures (especially real ones), this is one of the best. When the escapees keep a pebble in their mouth and suck on it to substitute for food and water, you can feel the most basal of our survival instincts kick in.

What it is not: Though it is set in pre-WW II Russia and a lot of political battles were brewing, the book gives only a fleeting glimpse of that. So, if you are expecting heroic tales of war or pre-war espionage, this is not the book you want.

Overall rating: 4stars

Review of monkey-man by Usha K R (Penguin Books, India)

The synopsis on the back cover of this book is plain misleading. It sets an expectation that the book is about a strange creature unleashing chaos on an unsuspecting city, but in reality the creature is just a red herring (it does make the occasional cameo) and the story revolves aroumonkey-mannd a few characters in a city (Bengaluru) that is transforming from a quiet town to a bustling metropolis. Add to that, there is a radio-jockey whose show spins a thread across these myriad characters. There is no story or plot to speak of but a series of disjointed anecdotes in each of the character’s lives.
The characters themselves are very richly woven and for that, the author deserves her due.  There is Shrinivas Moorty, the typical Bengaluru Brahmin who works as a lecturer at a college and his self-indulgent wife. Another whimsical character is Neela Mary Rao, administrative assistant to a peculiar Dr.Subramanyam and her disdain for Pushpa Rani, the typist. I can go on, but I think I have made my point – characters, not story is the only highlight in the monkey-man. But that is simply not enough to make this book interesting.
And there is the not-so-subtle ersatz for well known parts of Bengaluru to old-time residents such as yours truly. Like Ammanagudi vis-a-vis Basavanagudi, National Trust College for National College and a few others. Quirkily nostalgic, especially for expatriates who miss the good ol’ garden city.
But again, not enough to make the book a worthwhile read. Nevertheless, I did read it cover-to-cover and a 2008 Hollywood satire’s title sums up the feeling I was left with : “What just happened?”

Who should read it: Tough one. If you love reading about complex characters and/or like reading about middle-class life in Bengaluru, this might be your pea soup.

What it’s not: Not a tale about a strange creature that seizes the imagination of a city. Talk about false advertising!

Overall Rating: twonhalfstars

Birding at Thattekad

Thattekad is in a small hamlet (Kothamangalam) nestled amidst lush green teak and banana plantations. A ninety minute drive from the town of Ernakulam / Kochi in Kerala, it is known for the Dr.Salim Ali bird sanctuary that boasts of over two hundred species of migratory and non-migratory birds. We arrived there on a sunny winter morning in the December of 2013. Our overnight bus trip from Bengaluru and the subsequent taxi ride to our destination did leave us weary. But once we arrived at the Hornbill Camp, which was our chosen place of stay at Thattekad, all our exhaustion melted away as we sized up the quiet and cosy camp by the serene backwaters of the Periyar.

The camp staff gave us a warm welcome and quickly showed us to our tent – an African style luxury tent that would give any hotel room a run for its money. A quick shower and breakfast later, we were raring to start. Unfortunately, it was too late in the morning to do the famed birding trek, so we decided to save that for the next day. For now, we picked canoeing with one of the guides. As we pushed out onto the calm water,  I ensured that the 300mm prime lens I had rented and the 70-300 that I had recently purchased were ready to see some action. Fifteen minutes of paddling brought us to a lagoon where we made our first exciting sighting – an Osprey sitting atop a lone dead tree that stuck out of the water like a sentinel. The bird obliged us by diving for fish and the only regret I had was that I couldn’t capture this wonderful bird on camera – the canoe was bobbing and I had no way of getting the lens out without getting it wet. The Malabar Giant squirrel was next on the list – we caught it scampering up a tree as we glided by a small island. .
A couple of cormorants and kingfishers were the only other birds that had ventured out that sunny afternoon.

After some much-needed shut-eye on the heavenly river-side hammocks outside our tent, we went for a stroll around the camp and struck gold. First, we spotted an absolutely gorgeous racquet-tailed Drongo. After following that around for a bit, we spotted a flame-backed woodpecker atop a coconut tree. After using many megabytes on the camera with a trigger-happy finger, we continued down the meandering road. One of the guides at the camp had told us about a spot near a Shiva temple where, if we were lucky, we could spot the Asian Paradise Fly Catcher. Turns out, we weren’t so lucky, but then not completely unlucky either – we ended up spotting a pair of beautiful treepies that were busy devouring the fronds of an areca nut tree.

The next morning, we started early for our much-awaited trek and it did not disappoint. The Salim Ali bird sanctuary itself is a small swathe of forest that is fenced off and visitors are no longer permitted inside. So, we have to make do with other patches of forest in the same area. Thankfully, the birds don’t seem to know the difference and are found in abundance well outside the sanctuary as well 🙂 Down a forest path with some of the tallest trees I’ve ever seen, we went. A kilometre or so later we arrived at a hillock and our guide took us half way up the hillock and asked us to get our cameras and binoculars ready. A fluttering orange minivet was the first to make an appearance. Quick to follow was a well-hidden male Koel, a stunning vernal hanging parrot and the startling bright pompadour green pigeon. But the star attraction of the day were the pair of Malabar Grey Hornbills which showed up on a nearby fig-tree and hung around till pretty much all the fruits on that tree were polished off.

On our trek back, our guide ushered us into a thicket to show us another exotic and hard-to-spot attraction – the Ceylon Frog-mouth. A very odd-looking nocturnal bird, it hides in the thickest of thick bushes during the day and we were lucky that we spotted one. During the night , they flit around with their frog-like mouths open and make a meal of whatever unsuspecting insect flies in.

After crossing a sparkling brook with invitingly  clear water, we ran into a pair of white-bellied woodpeckers climbing a gigantic chini tree that was soaring into the sky. As far as woodpeckers go, these were the biggest I had ever seen – they looked enormous even as they shyly scurried up.

That afternoon, another canoe trip to spot the Osprey proved to be less than fruitful – the majestic bird was nowhere to be seen. A bicycle ride however proved to be quite exciting as I got to spot a colourful Eurasian Kingfisher, the dainty Malabar starling, a pair of smoky little pied kingfishers and dozens of noisy river terns.

Our two nights were done quickly and we returned with wonderful memories of tracking and capturing our feathered friends on camera. Would highly recommend Thattekad to all you birders out there – a veritable paradise for those with a camera or a pair of binoculars in hand. Oh and a book of Indian birds might come in handy unless of course you are gifted with an eidetic memory.

Review of Skeletons of the Zahara by Dean King

Zahara

I picked this up and read it in the winter of 2010 and it is one of my favorite historical adventures that is also an incredible story of survival. In summary – it tells the story of an American brig called the Commerce that set sail from a port in Connecticut in the early 1800s. The vessel was headed to Cape Verde Islands to haul salt back to America. On its fateful journey via Gibraltar and the West African coastline, the Commerce is shipwrecked at Cape Bojador near the West Saharan desert. Captured by nomads, the crew undergoes a harrowing journey through the unforgiving desert with their cruel captors, that could lead to a long and painful death.

Who should read it: If you like reading historical adventures especially those with gritty survival stories – this is a great book. The incredible situations faced by Captain Riley and his crew are quite gripping and it is hard to put the book down, once you get started.

What it is not: If you are looking for a maritime adventure (àla Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian), this is probably not going to cut it. While there is plenty of action on the high seas as well, it lasts for a brief part of the narrative only.  The real adventure begins on terra firma. Also, given that it is not a work of fiction, the situations are very realistic and even scary at times. Some might see that as “not entertaining” – but it depends on what your pleasure is. Being a history buff, I personally find such tales very interesting.

Overall rating: I would give it four stars out of five.

Thar Express

Thar_Express_final_SmallAm I dead? Is this how it feels to be dead……? A man is found near the India-Pakistan LoC, barely alive and with no memory of his identity, his past or the circumstances that led him to that remote and sensitive part of the country.As he begins to recall tiny fragments of his past, he ends up on a journey of self-discovery that takes him across seven different states and brings him in contact with people, who wittingly or unwittingly help him.After stumbling on to incriminating evidence, the army intelligence launches a relentless manhunt to capture who they now suspect to be a dangerous insurgent. Will their worst fears come true or are they just chasing an illusion? What they find reveals a wholly unexpected truth.

Praise for Thar Express:

“A great and engaging read! The reader is swept along on Mano’s quest to recover his memory while trying to gauge if he is a terrorist, making for a suspenseful and very interesting book. ”

“Amazing grip and storyline. A must read ! The suspense of who Mano is and the hope that he is not a terrorist keeps you glued till the end. You don’t want to put the book down once you start reading. ”

“can’t put it down till you reach the last page .. Excellent work for a debut book ”

“A crackling, fast paced read. Hard to put down. I was hooked till the end.”