If Neela Vaswani’s first book, a collection of short stories, were a movie, it would be called a “sleeper”—a creative endeavor with quality and charm, but for some reason peculiar and mysterious, lacking huge commercial publicity and acclaim. That, in this case, is a good thing. Where the Long Grass Bends is a pastiche of stories so different from one another and so intelligent, the reader may come to believe that Vaswani, if not yet a master of different styles and genres, is certainly on her way to becoming one.
In these 13 stories, Vaswani shows her incredible talent for folklore and the blending of perspectives, especially one’s perception of identity. The daughter of an Indian father and a mother with her roots in Ireland, Vaswani seems to have come away with the best of both worlds: a strong tradition of storytelling with no neat endings, and, in fact, often subverting traditionally held notions of who one is and where one comes from.
Indeed, in the title story, a child of rape proclaims, “What difference does my conception make? I am here. How that came to be is not important.” Occasionally, there is a nebulous quality to the stories, a sense of not quite getting a handle on the meaning or intention of the tale despite beautifully crafted sentences. The story within the story (a technique she uses twice), too, might seem, at least to some readers to sacrifice theme for form. The fable-like stories such as “The Spirits, Anger and Sorrow,” on their own might stretch the improbability factor a bit, but within this assorted collection seem to showcase the talent that she has for many different forms and voices. Other stories like “Five Objects in Queens,” told in a more conventional form, highlight human nature in a basic and recognizable way.
Trained as a poet, Vaswani navigates the worlds in her stories in a spare way, giving a lyrical quality to the collection. With all of this in mind, do not expect a popular Indian collection containing all of the stereotypes that have contributed to the still-going-strong popular trend in South Asian fiction, including predictable themes, beginnings, and endings. This collection may prove less accessible to some readers who might be initially intrigued by yet another Indian author delivering more of the same, but those who are interested in reading true literary fiction with a twist with be delighted by such an intelligent collection. And for a first collection, it is quite an achievement.
DAWOOD IBRAHIM: The Most Dangerous Man in the World, by Gilbert King. Chamberlain Bros., Penguin Group. Paperback, 120 pages. $12.95.
On October 16, 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Dawood Ibrahim as a global terrorist with links to al Qaeda after it learned of a financial agreement allowing Osama bin Laden the use of Ibrahim’s smuggling routes in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Gilbert King compares Ibrahim with bin Laden: “… he lives like a king in his mansion in Karachi, Pakistan, while bin Laden moves from cave to cave in the dark of the night.”
This slim paperback documents Ibrahim’s rise from a street urchin in Bombay to crime lord, and the D Company he organized for drugs and weapons smuggling, real estate swindles, extortion, theft, and Bollywood funding schemes. Ever since he allegedly masterminded the 1993 Bombay serial blasts that left over 300 dead and thousands injured, the former don of Bombay was forced to flee to Karachi, from where he runs his empire.
Ultimately, the story leads us to Ibrahim’s complex relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. “According to some estimates,” writes King, “he provides the ISI with $1 billion each year, and gives the agency access to hit men from his terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) …” In return, the ISI provides him safe harbor.
King goes into great detail about the history of the ISI, the vast amount of money that the United States and Saudi Arabia funneled through the ISI to mujahedeen guerillas in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and the consequent influx of refugees and drug and gun running that destabilized the region.
The tussle over Ibrahim highlights contradictions in American, Pakistani, and Indian responses to global terror. Dawood Ibrahim is on the top of India’s infamous list of 20 fugitives being sheltered in Pakistan that it wants extradited. After 9/11, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell attempted to persuade Pakistan to turn over Ibrahim to India, only to get a denial from Pakistan’s Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed that they knew anything about his whereabouts. “That same day, the United States released Dawood’s Karachi address, eight telephone numbers used by him, and the identification numbers on nine of Dawood’s Pakistani passports,” writes King. Yet, there’s only so much pressure the Bush Administration will apply on President Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S. campaign against global terror.
King quotes from numerous Indian and British news reports to compile this horrifying story of the billionaire gangster. He points out that while Osama bin Laden garners most of the media attention, the smarter, richer, and deadlier Dawood Ibrahim remains underreported in America.