Shades of gray in Red Birds
November 08 2018 10:10 PM
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By Mayabhushan Nagvenkar

BOOK: Red Birds
AUTHOR: Mohammed Hanif
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury
PRICE: Rs599; PAGES: 304


With a fallen pilot, an ambitious, but floundering, teenager and a dog as the three narrators, Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif, in his latest book Red Birds, takes the reader to a new literary perch, one that is unfamiliar and at the same time precarious.
Still riding on the success of his critically acclaimed first novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif’s latest book lures readers into a large field laden with abstract crops without a compass, hoping that they would find their way back with a harvest of whatever they can find in its vastness.
The title Red Birds is derived from a delicate and tragic reality of canaries in the region — Hanif does not identify it as any particular country — which serves as the ravaged landscape in the novel. The drinking water is contaminated with depleted uranium, and thus take on a red colour. The title and the recurring reference to the phenomenon is one of the more elegant — but few in number — aspects of the much-anticipated book.
The novel opens with Ellie, an American fighter pilot distracted by problems with his missus back home, crashing into the desert in an unknown but familiar terrain while on a run to bomb a village harbouring enemies of the state.
The “village”, which had been in his cross-hairs for destruction, turns out to be a refugee camp, where the reader encounters the novel’s second narrator Momo — a young boy who harbours ambition but is weighed down by his own inadequate and harebrained business plans, one of them being using falcons for an ethical hunting programme (part of the dollops of irony which appear a little too liberally fastened to the pages) as well as bad luck. Momo is also on the lookout for his dog, Mutt, who is the novel’s third major narrator.
“Another reason I am reluctant to tell Momo about the red birds is that at heart he is a businessman. Even when he is watching television, even when his jeep breaks down, even when he is having murderous thoughts about his Father Dear, he is always working on a business plan which will make him fabulously rich. He has traded in nothing but junk but he is waiting for the ‘markets to open up, for the situation to stabilise, for the reconstruction phase to begin’ before he can embark on his financial adventures”.
Yes, that’s the dog talking — narrating to the reader the nature of his master. One of the book’s best lines is also reserved for Mutt, when he analyses the anguish in Momo’s father, after he loses his other son. “Regret,” says Mutt, “smells like burnt bread.”
The book is overwhelmingly fashioned as a black farce playing out in the backdrop of war, but amid its flashes of brilliance, Red Birds ends up stomping on its own tail; with everyone and their dog (in this case the character Mutt) routinely pontificating with a touch of jaded wit.
What one needs to look forward to in Red Birds, however, is the portrayal of a region grappling with conflict and occupation and how different the grassroots’ realities really are, compared to the blistering and propaganda-laden images of war, broadcast on mass media.
That and the turns of phrase, which made Hanif one of the most sought after Asian writers in recent times.
Saket Suman adds: The month of November will reignite memories of long queues at ATMs following the recall of 86 per cent of circulated currency during the demonetisation in 2016 as at least three books — both fiction and non-fiction — will attempt to unravel the controversial decision. 
Among the most anticipated novels from the coming month is Don’t Tell The Governor by Ravi Subramanian, whose stories are set against the backdrop of the financial services industry. Published by HarperCollins India, his 10th novel weaves a fictional narrative around demonetisation.
“When the Prime Minister declares demonetisation at 8pm on 8 November, 2016, it leaves the nation stunned. But the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), who should have ideally been party to the decision, is at a crossroads. He has just carried out the most brazen act of his life — yet, it looks like it might also have been his most foolish.
“Will he be able to pull himself out of the mess he has got into or will he be condemned for life? Will he manage to retain his autonomy or meekly surrender to the forces behind the massive scam? Or is he going to be the victim of a very sinister plot? Running desperately out of time, the governor has one week to set things right,” the publisher informed IANS about the narrative in the upcoming book.
The next book, non-fiction, is by Meera Sanyal, who stepped down from her role as CEO and Chairperson of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) India in December 2013, and is titled The Big Reverse: How Demonetization Knocked India Out (HarperCollins India).
Describing demonetisation as a black swan event in Indian history, the book, according to the publisher, will provide “the most comprehensive analysis of the policy, its execution and pitfalls”. It will present unprecedented insights backed by data, history and research, and as a result, answer the questions that still continue to haunt Indians, on the what, why and how of demonetisation.
“While the Modi government claimed that it was the silver bullet that India needed to eliminate many of its longstanding problems such as black money, corruption, tax evasion and terror funding, the months that followed proved it otherwise. The return of 99.7 per cent of the banned 500- and 1,000-rupee notes showed that the RBI’s idea of a Demonetisation Dividend was nothing but a mirage. In the process, livelihoods of millions in the informal sector were destroyed, causing enormous distress to farmers and traders and forcing many micro, small and medium businesses into bankruptcy,” Sanyal notes in the book.
And then there is Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy (Penguin Random House India) by former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, whose trusteeship saw the country through one of the most hotly contested and turbulent periods of economic governance and policymaking in recent decades — from the demonetisation to the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, or GST.
Subramanian, according to the publisher, provides an inside account of his rollercoaster journey as the CEA. With an illustrious cast of characters, Subramanian’s part-memoir, part-analytical book candidly reveals the numerous triumphs and challenges of policymaking at the zenith, while appraising India’s economic potential through comprehensive research and original hypotheses.
And last but not the least, there is Heads You Win by Jeffrey Archer, published by PanMacmillan. It is billed as an “incredible and thrilling novel” by the master storyteller, whose final twist will shock even his most ardent fans. The publisher said that this is the international number one bestselling author’s “most ambitious and creative work” since Kane and Abel.  — IANS



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