Saturday, October 23, 2010

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan

Publisher: HarperCollins
Imprint: William Morrow
Pub Date: 01/25/2011

Author Website : click here
Publisher's Website : click here
NONFICTION - ADULT: Biography/Autobiography

Of all the countries in the sub-continent Nepal is probably one that  impinges least on world consciousness. You would have thought that being the proud keeper of the Everest , it would be better known, but statistics show that a large  majority of people wrongly perceive the Everest as belonging to India ,or even China!  Very little Nepalese literature has made it into English, nor is there a good selection of travel or memoir writing set in the country, so when I chanced upon "Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal" by Conor Grennan, I knew I had to read it.

Twenty-nine-year-old Conor Grennan left his secure home and job in the USA in Nov of 2004 intending to travel the world.  He decided to make Nepal his first stop and chose to volunteer at an orphanage during his stay, which, by his own admission was engineered  to impress people.  When he arrived in Nepal the mountain kingdom was in the middle of a civil war with the Maoists vowing they would not drop their arms until the King abdicated his throne and a People's Republic of Nepal was established.

The Orphanage was called  "The Little Princes Children's Home" and had come together under the watchful and caring eye of a young French woman called Sandy.  Sandy was a keen hiker  and once, trekking up in a mountain village in Nepal, she learned that the Maoists were kidnapping children who lived in remote and isolated mountainous villages and putting them to work in the rebel army.  Parents terrified that they might lose their kids to the rebel army, fell prey to a man called "Golakk" who promised these parents that for a fee he would take their children to Kathmandu (the capital city of Nepal) where he would feed, house and send them to school.  The gullible parents sold everything they had so that their children could leave with Golakk to what they naively presumed was a "better life".  Instead, Gollack pocketed the money and dumped these kids on the streets to fend for themselves.  Sometimes he sold them to rich Nepalis to work as domestic servants and sometimes these kids were trafficked across the border into Nepal as sex slaves.  Sandy was so distraught upon hearing this, she immediately set out to establish a shelter for these abandoned kids which she named "Little Princes" after Antoine de Exupery's novel titled "Le Petit Prince".

An armed Maoist soldier

When Conor arrived at "Little Princes" the eighteen kids were so delighted to see him they completely swarmed him.  They used him as a human jungle jim, hanging from his neck, his shoulders and wrists. Any trepidation that Conor felt about not having any experience with children completely dissipated in that moment and over the next few days he actually enjoyed waking up to them, helping them to get ready for school and looked forward to playing soccer and carom with them in the evenings.

The children often shared stories of their remote and mountainous village home, Humla, with Conor and he in turn told them much about the outside world - about submarines, the solar system and how man had walked on the moon.  Sometimes his stories could get him into a little trouble like the time the boys wanted to know what sort of food Americans ate.  "Pork, chicken, beef" replied Conor to which the shocked response was "Americans eat God?"  Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country where the cow is worshiped and never, ever eaten!

Soon it was time for Conor to leave Nepal and set out on his world trip. Every one of those kids asked Conor if he was going to return to the "Little Princes" home and although he was advised against answering in the affirmative he gave them his word that he would be back.

And he DID return!  Not only did he return to the orphanage but he vowed to set up another orphanage where other trafficked kids could have a chance at a normal life, he also vowed to travel to Humla to find the kids' parents so that they could be reunited with each other.  With his few savings and some small donations from friends and family he set up a home which they called "Daulagiri" (after the seventh-tallest mountain in Nepal) and he set off with a translator and two porters (carrying rice and supplies) for Humla to look for the parents.  It is this mission to Humla that predominates the second half of this fine book.

 HUMLA (Nepal's Back of Beyond)

Humla, the region  the Little Princes came from, is an impoverished village on the border of Tibet. You could say it is a remote region in the remotest part of Nepal.

In his own words:

"Humla is the most remote part of the country, and one of the poorest, which is saying something in Nepal. There are no roads, and the guerrillas (Maoists) had blown up all the bridges. You had to cross the river on rope pulleys, with people on either side pulling you. Trekking in this region meant "climbing straight up and straight down" jagged peaks and pinning yourself against cliff walls when a herd of sheep or water buffalo came barreling around a bend" 

As Conor entered the hard-to-reach villages he gave village elders the names of families they were looking for and as the families were brought out to meet him, he presented them with photos of their children. Grennan's beautiful narration of the parents' reaction to finding out their kids were alive is so beautifully rendered, it will make you cry, I know I did!  The first parents to arrive brought a bag of walnuts and honey to give to the stranger who had news of their son.  Knowing that they were dirt poor and that a gift of walnuts would have set them back quite a bit, brought a lump to Conor's throat and it made him even more determined to facilitate more such reunions.
 Conor interviewing a family with the aid of a translator. Later he would read back all his notes to the children at "Little Princes" so they each knew exactly what their parents had said.

So Conor Grenan ended up being an "accidental altruist" as one article fondly calls him and I would say he is an accidental writer too and I mean that in the nicest possible way.  He hadn't set out to write a book on Nepal, heck, he only intended volunteering for a few months in order to justify his hedonistic trip around the world, and yet, here he was three years later setting up orphanages and rescuing children from the clutches of child traffickers.  

I see this book as being an inspiration to many who might have thought of volunteering in impoverished countries but didn't feel like they had anything to offer - as Conor himself says, 
"Volunteering, whether it is in an impoverished third world nation or in your hometown, requires only that you show up. Don’t worry how little of your time or resources you may have to offer—just offer it, and see what happens."

I loved the is like a breath of fresh air.  Conor's writing style is informing but oh so companionable.  Each of those kids had a story that read like a tear jerker, but there's also plenty humour and a dash of silliness, for that's what happens when you work with kids! For the lover of culture, there is a lot of Nepal in read about its scenic beauty, its lovely and warm people, its festivals, food and so on, but he also talks about the issues that hold the country back - the poverty, corruption, the caste system, the trafficking, but  to his credit at no time does the narrative degenerate into a "woe is Nepal", instead, he seeks gently to draw from the reader a sympathy for the poor and destitute villagers caught between the rebel army and the government.
Today Conor Grenan lives in the US with his wife and young son but he continues to oversee the Nepal Next Generation organization which he founded.  If you desire to know more about the foundation or want to assist Conor Grenan in his work, do visit their site.

This book will be released by Harper Collins in January 2011. According to the author a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards buying food, provisions, educational supplies for the orphanage and for finding more families of trafficked children in Nepal.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

'My Favourite Female' contest

 Like to read? Enjoy books with strong, interesting female characters? Women's Web 'My Favourite Female' is just the contest for you!

ffccontestad.jpgWelcome to the Women's Web's 'My Favourite Female' contest, where all you need to do is write about a fictional female character that really appeals to you. (For purposes of this contest, we're defining 'fictional' as a character from a novel).

What? Pick any female character from a novel, that made you sit up, that made you go wow, that made you laugh or cry, that got you angry, that got you thinking, that made you fall in love - in short, a character that made you feel, 'I wish I had written that!' 

How? Tell us what you liked about this character in a blog post. If you don't blog - drop a note in the comments here, or mail us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Remember, the character herself doesn't need to be likeable, so long as you can talk about why the character appealed to you - actions, qualities or anything else.

- Stick to 500 words or below
- Choose a fictional character - in other words, someone from a novel, who did not exist in the real world (sorry, historical novel characters based on actual people won't qualify!) 
- Your entry must be dated between 12th Oct and 22nd Oct, 2010 (or reach us between those dates)
- If you're submitting a blog post, include a link to this page - we'll track your entry that way. (

The best written entry a.k.a 1st prize wins a Rs. 500 Flipkart voucher (or a $10 Amazon voucher if you happen to live outside India). The next two best written entries (2nd and 3rd prizes) get Rs. 250 worth Flipkart vouchers each (or a $5 Amazon voucher if you live outside India).
All 3 winning entries will also be published on the Women's Web blog.

And the Judges?
We have two people from the world of words, who've very kindly agreed to act as judges for the My Favourite Female contest. They are: Devaki Khanna, Freelance Writer and Editor, who is fascinated with literature and history and Nivethitha Kumar, who, along with two friends, runs The Banyan Trees, a literary magazine featuring a variety of creative content. Nivethitha is passionate about writing and blogs at Nivispace. (A preliminary evaluation of entries may be done by Women's Web, if we have a whole of entries - which, we hope we do!)

Go on then - remember, entries close on 22nd Oct 2010, so get your entry in before tha

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Publisher: Rider
Published: 3/6/2010

India has seen any number of truly remarkable women over the years - Rani of Jhansi, Indira Gandhi, Kiran Ahluwalia - just to name a few, but none have been so fiercely loved or hated as Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen.

Phoolan was born into the lower mallah (boatman) caste, in the small village in Uttar Pradesh, India.   When Phoolan was ten years old, her cousin, Mayadin, became the head of the family.  Mayadin arranged to have her married to a man 20  years her senior and who was already married.  Phoolan, as the younger wife, was relegated to household labour. It all became too much for the 11-year old when her husband sexually molested her even though she had not yet  reached puberty  and she ran back to her village.  Sadly, because she left her husband, she was forever treated as a social outcast and even her family was forced to reject her.

A few years down the road Phoolan became embroiled in a conflict with some richer relatives over family land.  The relatives arranged for her to be kidnapped by dacoits  that lived in the local ravines around the village. The gang was led by one Babu Singh who raped Phoolan, but he in turn was shot by his deputy, Vikram Mallah who then became Phoolan's lover.  Together, Vikram and Phoolan participated in the gang's activities, which consisted of looting high-caste (Thakur) villages and kidnapping  landowners for ransom. 

Sadly, the Vikram, Phoolan partnership was not to last.  Vikram was shot dead by a Thakur member of the gang (who wanted Phoolan for himself) .  They (the Thakurs) locked Phoolan away in a place called "Behmai"  where she was gang-raped mercilessly.  After three weeks, she managed to escape and gathered together a gang of Mallahs (men from her own caste) that she led with Man Singh, a member of Vikram's former gang.

In 1981, seventeen months after her escape from Behmai where she was raped, Phoolan and Man Singh returned to the village, to take her revenge. The Thakurs in the village were preparing for a wedding.  When Phoolan's gang failed to find all the kidnappers/molesters even after an exhaustive search, they lined up twnety-two Thakur men in the village and shot them.  Sadly, most of the men shot and killed were not involved in her kidnapping or rape. Later, Phoolan Devi claimed that she herself didn't kill anybody in Behmai – all the killings were carried out by her gang members.   

After the killings the police launched a huge manhunt using helicopters and thousands of men, but Phoolan Devi' evaded capture by hiding out in the ravines. Finally Prime Minister Indira Gandhi  authorised the Madhya Pradesh government to negotiate a surrender deal.  In February of 1983, with most of her gang dead and her health failing, Phoolan surrendered.

Phoolan Devi at her surrender with her lover, Man Singh

The agreed terms were that her family be given a plot of land; that she not be hanged; her gang must have prison quarters that were separated from the rest and that all charges must be dropped once they had served eight years in prison. Sadly, the Indian government reneged on all deals. Instead of eight years, Phoolan served eleven years and would have languished in prison longer had a mass movement by the coalition of socialists and "Untouchables" in Uttar Pradesh in 1994  not forced her release. 

It is while Phoolan was serving prison time that Roy Moxham, first contacted the Lady Bandit.

In his own words:

“In June 1992, I did a very strange thing. I wrote to a bandit in an Indian jail,”

After reading an article in the British newspapers about Phoolan Devi and her troubled past, Roy Moxham ( a book and paper conservator living in the UK) was moved to write to her. Initially he just wanted to lend her a listening ear, but as he got to know Phoolan better he was also compelled to send her a little money, dole out advice, and given that Phoolan spoke no English, write to influential people on her could say he was to Phoolan, both, a kindly friend and an agent.  As the years went by he and Phoolan got even closer and she referred to him as her brother.

Phoolan Devi with Roy Moxham, Holi 1994

Whenever Moxham made his annual visit to India he would stay at her house in Delhi. Sharing such close space with Poonam and her family allowed Moxham to see and share a side of Phoolan that most of us had never seen.  He tells us how she was loathe to hire househelp and loved to cook and clean the floors herself.  Also, she was passionately fond of kids and spent any number of hours looking after her sisters' children, but that same family also tried to use her - wanting a share of her new-found wealth and prosperity.  He also shows us what life was like for her when she joined politics, how she almost embraced Buddhism and how, as she got wealthier, she simply gave stuff away to people.  She barely tolerated the security that was given to her and as the years went by she used fewer and fewer bodyguards.  Moxham is sure that had she had more security she would not have lost her life prematurely.

When Moxham was asked why he wrote this memoir, "Outlaw: India's Bandit Queen and Me",  he claimed it was to set to the record straight on Phoolan.  According to him, people's impressions of Phoolan have been  shaped mainly by Shekhar Kapur's movie "The Bandit Queen" (based on the book by Mala Sen).  Now while the movie is sympathetic to Phoolan, there are scenes in the movie that she vehemently protested.  One was the depiction of the brutal rape scene and the other was how Kapur had the actress that plays Phoolan,  paraded naked around the village well. Phoolan thought  it was cruel and insensitive to depict her that way. She made Moxham write to Channel 4 several times to stop the movie from being released in the UK, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Moxham, the true friend that he is, supported her dislike of the movie and could never bring himself to watch it, until he set out to write the memoir, that is.

Another reason Moxham wanted to write this book is because it's the only account of the former MP's life after her release from jail in 1994. The book is based on extensive correspondence between the two, even though Devi did not know English. The correspondence led to an unlikely friendship that lasted till the time Phoolan Devi was assassinated in 2001.

What can I say about Moxham's writing?  Well, it's basic to say the very least, but this is an entertaining read and you can tell, right from the get-go that his interest in Phoolan's welfare is kindly and honest.  When he's not visiting her in India he is travelling the country, usually little towns and villages in the North and his descriptions of these little towns made for welcome reading.   More importantly, reading about Phoolan's life drives us to ask:  would she have become a bandit had she not been an uneducated woman, in a backward village with so few choices?  I think the answer is NO!!!  She was spirited, charismatic, but poor and uneducated.  To make matters worse she was born into the wrong caste and in the wrong gender.  All these factors conspired to make her who she became.  Her story is truly one worth reading.