Heaven in hell
Serendipity always makes for an excellent story. And when it’s based on a true-life incident, the story becomes an inspiration, a little sliver of hope that a wrongly delivered email or a turn around a blind corner can present a life-altering opportunity. For British journalist Bee Rowlatt and Iraqi university lecturer May Witwit, serendipity came in the form of a telephone call. Rowlatt, who works with BBC Radio, is trying to set up an interview with regular Iraqis and happens to dial Witwit’s number. And thus unfolds Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, a real story of an unlikely friendship.
The book is simply a series of emails that Rowlatt and Witwit exchanged. Witwit lives a life that is hingeing on the horrors of a war. Bombs frequently go off on the Baghdad street she lives on, security men barge into her house to search for insurgents, her husband Ali—a Sunni Muslim—is not a welcome presence in the Shiite neighbourhood. Rowlatt, on the other hand, lives a charmed British life. She has two daughters, a journalist husband and a part-time job. Her life’s bigger crises are about whether it is too cold to go swimming in her favourite pond or not. Her cheerful emails give Witwit a vision of a happier possibility and help her to not just stay sane, but find a way out of the living hell that is Baghdad.
Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad: Penguin, 370 pages, Rs299.
The Dear May, Dear Bee style of writing tends to get a bit tedious (if you have read the oh-so-charming The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows you know exactly what I am talking about). But then the book itself plays an important plot turner and you are willing to forgive the authors their little meanderings into the mundane.
Sajita Nair’s She’s a Jolly Good Fellow is also the story of two women. Except her protagonists—Deepa Shekhar and Anjali Sharma—are the first batch of lady officers on their debut posting. Shekhar and Sharma are as different from each other as two army officers possibly can be. Shekhar is determined not to let her gender come in the way of her career, learning to swear as often as the men, running as fast as they do and rope-climbing better than them. Sharma, on the other hand, likes her Mills and Boons, chiffon saris and high heels. And the men in the remote unit they are posted to do not know how to handle either of these types.
The two have to not just figure out how they should approach the challenges of the unit, but also have to worry about the precedent they set and the impressions they create about women officers, in general. And as they navigate through hostility, sexual harassment, alcohol-induced misbehaviour and pure, hormonal attraction, they learn a little more about themselves. At its core, the book is about creating a balance and not buttonholing yourself into a self-scrawled caricature.
She’s a Jolly Good Fellow: Hachette India, 338 pages, Rs250.
As a quick read, She’s a Jolly Good Fellow works because of two reasons. One, you can’t dismiss it as just another piece of workplace fiction—the Indian Army is a whole new world, a universe away from the marble-floored investment banks and call centres that our pulp fiction authors are fond of. Two, the protagonists resonate with most Indian women. You may not be exactly like either of them, but you have certainly met people who fit both the moulds. However, in her portrayal of other characters, especially the amorous army men, I wish Nair had stepped away from stereotypes. She could have sketched a canvas of surprises; instead, she settles for the safe and familiar. Still, an easy story about a difficult job is worth a couple of hours of your airport time.