Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

***The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra

Ganesha, India, elephant

(photo: Swaminathan, creative commons license)

By Vaseem Khan – Though this debut crime fiction author was born in London, his experience working in the Indian subcontinent comes through clearly in his convincing portrayal of the people, culture, and politics of the complicated city of Mumbai. He’s managed to marry that deep knowledge with his more recent work experience as well. Since returning to the U.K. in 2006, he has worked in the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London.

If it’s possible to have a “gentle” crime novel, this is one, although the crimes he writes about are wicked, indeed, involving trafficking of young boys, murder, assault and that persistent and almost universal social disease, corruption. Our hero is 51-year-old police inspector Ashwin Chopra, who has been forced into an unwelcome early retirement by a heart attack. Just at that time, two unusual events occur.

First, he hears the laments of a poor woman who claims that because her family has no status, the police will not investigate the death of her son, which they claim was accidental and which she says was murder.

Second is receipt of the bizarre inheritance that gives the book its title—a baby elephant. The accompanying note warns Chopra “this is no ordinary elephant.” Indeed.

At home, he’s at loose ends. His wife Poppy worries about his health and wants to keep him close, but that would mean also being close to his amusingly sour mother-in-law. These family relations are charmingly told, tongue in cheek. In fact, the light and witty tone of the book is reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and Tarquin Hall’s tales about Punjabi Vish Puri, “India’s Most Private Investigator.”

The reader can’t take seriously that Chopra tails a suspect accompanied by baby elephant Ganesha, or that the elephant manages to save Chopra’s life. I don’t believe Khan expects readers to be that literal. Instead, his easy prose encourages us to relax into a foreign, sensuous environment where even the worst bad guys are likely to get what’s coming to them. I had a few plot quibbles, but these can be glossed over in light of Khan’s many other accomplishments. It’s a crime story perfect for readers who don’t require nonstop violence. I’m delighted there’s more to come in this series!

A longer version of this review appeared at

****The Financial Expert

India, dawn, village

(photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license)

By R. K. Narayan (1906-2001)– A friend brought me this book from a trip to India, where the acclaimed author is well appreciated for his classic tales. They combine a deceptively simple narrative style and acute perceptions of human nature in all its absurdity and poignancy. Graham Greene was an early Narayan admirer and helped bring his work to attention in the West.

In this novella, the hero, Margayya, although indubitably Indian, also is “a type which should have taken its place long ago in world literature because he exists everywhere.” Margayya, whose name means “the one who showed the way,” indeed does show the way, although his ultimate destination is not what he hopes or has planned. His story begins in his early career, sitting daily underneath a banyan tree at the center of his dusty village with his small box of forms and pens, helping peasants sort their finances, brokering loans, and earning barely enough to keep his wife and adored son, Balu, in food.

Over the course of the book, his financial prospects greatly improve, Balu grows up, and Margayya rises to great heights on the back of his miraculous financial innovation that the reader recognizes as, essentially, a Ponzi scheme. But ungrateful Balu proves Margayya’s undoing, and the lesson stretches beyond the financial calamity it produces: “The only element that kept people from being terrified of each other was trust—the moment it was lost, people became nightmares to each other.”

As the plot winds toward the inevitable, Margayya’s vanities, his obliviousness disguised as business acumen, and the jockeying for advantage of everyone around him—in an economic environment where so little advantage is to be had—provides ample fodder for  the kind of laugh-at-ourselves “humour that knows no national boundaries,” says Der Kurier, Berlin, also the source of the earlier quote.

The story takes place in the mid-1920s to 1940s, when colonial rule in India was drawing to a close and the country’s legendary legacy of bureaucracy was increasingly entrenched. This exchange between two of Margayya’s acquaintances sums up the incessant frustrations:

The first man is commenting on his difficulties getting a nuisance business moved somewhere else: “. . . you know what our municipalities are!”

Second man in an aside to Margayya: “He is himself a municipal councillor for this ward . . . and yet he finds so much difficulty in getting anything done. He had such trouble to get that vacant plot for himself—”

First man: “I applied for it like any other citizen. Being a municipal councillor doesn’t mean that I should forgo the ordinary rights and privileges of a citizen.”

Well said. I laughed out loud.

In the introduction to another of his books, Narayan says that in India “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story,” and in Margayya he has selected an unforgettable protagonist and packed his tale with humanity.