In My Hands Today…

Tamil Tigress – Niromi de Soyza

11034948Two days before Christmas in 1987, at the age of 17, Niromi de Soyza found herself in an ambush as part of a small platoon of militant Tamil Tigers fighting government forces in the bloody civil war that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades. With her was her lifelong friend, Ajanthi, also aged 17. Leaving behind them their shocked middle-class families, the teenagers had become part of the Tamil Tigers’ first female contingent.

Equipped with little more than a rifle and a cyanide capsule, Niromi’s group managed to survive on their wits in the jungle, facing not only the perils of war but starvation, illness, and growing internal tensions among the militant Tigers. And then events erupted in ways that she could no longer bear.

How was it that this well-educated, mixed-race, middle-class girl from a respectable family came to be fighting with the Tamil Tigers? Today she lives in Sydney with her husband and children, but Niromi de Soyza is not your ordinary woman and this is her compelling story.

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In My Hands Today…

The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 – Ferdinand Mount

25124590The Tears of the Rajas is a sweeping history of the British in India, seen through the experiences of a single Scottish family. For a century the Lows of Clatto survived mutiny, siege, debt and disease, everywhere from the heat of Madras to the Afghan snows. They lived through the most appalling atrocities and retaliated with some of their own. Each of their lives, remarkable in itself, contributes to the story of the whole fragile and imperilled, often shockingly oppressive and devious but now and then heroic and poignant enterprise.

On the surface, John and Augusta Low and their relations may seem imperturbable, but in their letters and diaries, they often reveal their loneliness and desperation and their doubts about what they are doing in India. The Lows are the family of the author’s grandmother, and a recurring theme of the book is his own discovery of them and of those parts of the history of the British in India which posterity has preferred to forget.

The book brings to life not only the most dramatic incidents of their careers – the massacre at Vellore, the conquest of Java, the deposition of the boy-king of Oudh, the disasters in Afghanistan, the Reliefs of Lucknow and Chitral – but also their personal ordeals: the bankruptcies in Scotland and Calcutta, the plagues and fevers, the deaths of children and deaths in childbirth. And it brings to life too the unrepeatable strangeness of their lives: the camps and the palaces they lived in, the balls and the flirtations in the hill stations, and the hot slow rides through the dust.

In My Hands Today…

The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj – Anne de Courcy

15747679From the late 19th century, when the Raj was at its height, many of Britain’s best and brightest young men went out to India to work as administrators, soldiers and businessmen. With the advent of steam travel and the opening of the Suez Canal, countless young women, suffering at the lack of eligible men in Britain, followed in their wake. They were known as the Fishing Fleet, and this book is their story.

For these young women, often away from home for the first time, one thing they could be sure of was a rollicking good time. By the early twentieth century, a hectic social scene was in place, with dance parties, picnics, tennis tournaments and perhaps a tiger shoot and glittering dinner at a raja’s palace thrown in. And, with men outnumbering women by roughly four to one, romances were conducted at alarming speed and marriages were frequent. But after the honeymoon life often changed dramatically: whisked off to remote outposts, they found it a far cry from the social whirlwind of their first arrival.

Anne de Courcy’s sparkling narrative is enriched by a wealth of first-hand sources which bring this forgotten era vividly to life.

In My Hands Today…

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family – Tamara Chalabi

6063238The Chalabis are one of the oldest and most prominent families in Iraq. For centuries they have occupied positions of honour and responsibility, loyally serving first the Ottoman Empire and, later, the national government.

In ‘Late for Tea at the Deer Palace’, Tamara Chalabi explores the dramatic story of her extraordinary family’s history in this beautiful, passionate and troubled land. From the grand opulence of her great-grandfather’s house and the birth of the modern state, through to the elegant Iraq of her grandmother Bibi, who lived the life of a queen in Baghdad, and finally to her own story, that of the ex-pat daughter of a family in exile, Chalabi takes us on an unforgettable and eye-opening journey.

This is the story of a lost homeland, whose turbulent transformations over the twentieth century left gaping wounds at the hearts not only of the family it exiled but also of the elegant, sophisticated world it once represented. When Tamara visited her once-beautiful ancestral land for the first time in 2003, she found a country she didn’t recognise – and a nation on the brink of a terrifying and uncertain new beginning.

In My Hands Today…

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity – Katherine Boo

11869272Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter — Annawadi’s “most-everything girl” — will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

In My Hands Today…

The 8:55 to Baghdad – Andrew Eames

1164129In 1928, Agatha Christie, the world’s most widely read author, was a thirty-something single mother. With her marriage to her first husband, Archie Christie, over, she decided to take a much needed holiday; the Caribbean had been her intended destination, but a conversation at a dinner party with a couple who had just returned from Iraq changed her mind. Five days later she was off on a completely different trajectory.

Merging literary biography with travel adventure, and ancient histroy with contemporary world events, Andrew Eames tells a riveting tale and reveals fascinating and little-known details en route in this exotic chapter in the life of Agatha Christie. His own trip from London to Baghdad–a journey much more difficult to make in 2002 with the political unrest in the Middle East and the war in Iraq, than it was in 1928–becomes ineluctably intertwined with Agatha’s, and the people he meets could have stepped out of a mystery novel.

In My Hands Today…

The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong – Edward Gargan

402237Along the Mekong, from northern Tibet to Lijiang, from Luang Prabang to Phnom Penh to Can Lo, I moved from one world to another, among cultural islands often ignorant of each other’s presence. Yet each island, as if built on shifting sands and eroded and reshaped by a universal sea, was re-forming itself, or was being remoulded, was expanding its horizons or sinking under the rising waters of a cultural global warming. It was a journey between worlds, worlds fragiley conjoined by a river both ominous and luminescent, muscular and bosomy, harsh and sensuous.

From windswept plateaus to the South China Sea, the Mekong flows for three thousand miles, snaking its way through Southeast Asia. Long fascinated with this part of the world, former New York Times correspondent Edward Gargan embarked on an ambitious exploration of the Mekong and those living within its watershed. The River’s Tale is a rare and profound book that delivers more than a correspondent’s account of a place. It is a seminal examination of the Mekong and its people, a testament to the their struggles, their defeats and their victories.