Halt Station India; Rajendra B. Aklekar

It has been years since I’ve read a book in two sittings. This one is it. “Unputdownable” doesn’t quite cut it.

Halt Station India, is a historical biography of the arrival of trains in Bombay. And while sketching this biography of the arrival, birth, and establishment of the locomotives in Bombay, Mr. Aklekar tells you another story, incidentally. That of the Bombay. And he tells it lovingly.  Very lovingly.

I’ve always loved trains and I’ve always loved this city. So, you can imagine, this book made twice the sense for me.

halt-station-india-original-imaefqdav64cru5s16th April 1853, the first passenger train service in India, plied from Byculla to Parel, and the rest, they say is history. Well, this book is about the rest. And of all the events that went in to make this service a reality. The entire narrative that led to this first service, right up to the Mumbai local trains of today, Mr. Aklelkar tells the fascinating story, smoothly, and proudly. There is extensive research backing up the story, but is never obtrusive nor does it affect the flow of the narrative.

The trivia, especially of names of places and such, is total treasure. But unlike other books, Mr. Aklekar uses trivia, not as a filler, but to build proper context, helping the reader visualise the changes that this great city has undergone over the years. I confess, I have started seeing my city completely differently.

It is also a very human story at the same time, lest you may take this wonderful book to be a drab, chronological sequence of the evolution of trains. Mr. Aklekar has taken the care and the effort to bring forth the people and their stories as he takes us on this rail journey.

Like a master craftsman, Mr. Aklekar has weaved art, architecture, emotions, technology, travels, trains, names, places, people, and spaces. Needless to say if you love trains or Mumbai – this is a great read. Even otherwise, this is an easy and an enjoyable read for all of us who like stories.

Mr. Aklekar, easily is the custodian of the heritage of railways in Bombay, And I am glad for it.


Sacred Games


Either I am suddenly being a sucker for books or too much of a coincidence seems to be the new pollen of this summer. (is there anything called a quadincidence?)

In a month I have devoured four books, the 947th page of the last book, flipped shut a while ago, and I was unceremoniously brought back with a thud to my real world . But the pollen-like omnipresent coincidence is not just in the reading or theme of the books – it is in the fact that I loved all four of them!

You have of course read my feeble attempt at the review for South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami which I wrote a month ago. It was closely followed by a feebler attempt of A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, by Marina Lewcka. After these there were some loose flings and one-night stands with a couple of other books; then a week ago, I finished The Average American Male, by Chad Kultgen and a while ago, Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra.

There is one prevalent theme in The Average American Male and Sacred Games – the language. Real world – as it happens. Offensive and loaded with expletives; swearwords and recurrent profanity. Disgusting, if you have relatively inflexible standards for good language. If not, they do make for good great reading.

The first generalises characters through a specific character. The Average American Male will no doubt evoke indignation from female readers. It is a funny book. Even if your sentiments are violated, you wouldn’t be able to stop that one smile escape sneakily. I’ll repeat myself:

The most interesting ‘story’ I have read in recent times. The presentation is just too mind-numbing. I have been in splits for a long while after I finished reading the book. Really very funny! This is a definite read – but be careful of not taking it too seriously, and be even more careful of taking it seriously!

Sacred Games, however, is a different game altogether. The characters are very real. And I mean “real”. Whether by design or otherwise, there isn’t a huge cover up about where the inspiration came from. You can’t but help draw parallels from the dramatis personae (when was the last time you saw a dramatis personae?) and the sights and sounds of those places that you experience everyday. Especially if Mumbai is your home, even if it is temporary. Mumbai reverberates throughout the book. I felt the same when reading Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, yet Shantaram is a “true story,” so in that sense, it is different. Yet, Sacred Games came across more as a true story than Shantaram did.

There are some obvious Genghis Khan (John Man) ‘patterns’ in the book. I am sure of that. I have read both books. I am sure Vikram Chandra has too – and he has used it with flair and to good effect.

The Guardian review says:

What with international espionage, gangster chronicle and police procedural themes, it looks as if Sacred Games is going to be something of a boy’s book. So it is for the first couple of hundred pages and then Chandra begins to build up the female roles. He finds significant tasks for these characters in the plot, but also enjoys their worlds in themselves…

It is far from a boy’s book. Though I’d hazard a guess why it may be perceived so – mafia, espionage, counter-espionage, double-crossing, murder, sex, yachts and such – yet I believe he has been able to take the reader beyond it. The language however is a possible put-off – as I said earlier – to someone who gets easily offended (but in that case, you could get offended by just living in this city!)

I won’t deny it – I thoroughly enjoyed it. The masala elements are all there. It is almost a Hindi Movie. Action, emotion, romance, drama – there are even songs in it! And then, when was the last time RAW was ‘used’ in an international espionage fiction? But this book is beyond espionage. It is beyond the city. It is beyond fictional characters modelled on real-world characters. It is beyond what the Guardian review calls “an epic thriller which doubles as an anatomy of modern India.” (This is just one small spoke in the wheel in modern India) Even with its never-ending 947 pages, the presentation of a thriller is refreshing. The standard pace of a conventional thriller is conspicuously missing. At each climactic point Vikram Chandra withdraws, teases you for a long time, yet brings you back contentedly where you would have wanted to be. The drama of the entire story is in its intermittent absence.

With a little bit of an open mind, I leave it to you to discover yourself agreeing a little bit with everyone in the book yet keep your beliefs intact.