The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Happiness, hoaxes and a maharani

The Museum of Hoaxes (Penguin, Rs 275) by Alex Boese is a very readable compendium of human deception: “To become a hoax, a lie must have something extra. It must be somehow outrageous, ingenious, dramatic, or sensational. Most of all, it must command the attention of the public.” Boese’s collection is arranged chronologically, starting with the Middle Ages and bringing the book right up to the internet era: “the Internet has become the great incubator of every lie, rumour, and half-baked idea imaginable”. This is a bizarre and diverting book, wearing its considerable learning lightly, but there is a strain of seriousness running through it, exploring the question of why people deceive and like to be deceived. From Mandeville’s anthropophagi and the Feejee mermaid to bonsai kittens and, the story of human ingenuity and credulity never fails to fascinate and sometimes horrify.

The Zero Heart Attack Path (Penguin, Rs 200) by Rekha Shetty is inspired by a health-plan born out of an encounter between an American physician and an Indian sanyasi. There is no medical jargon in this book, but a lot of solemn discussion on happiness-quotients, well-being strategies and the Soul: Support your spouse, Be unique, Avoid toxic people, Play with babies and make them giggle, Plant seeds and trees and distribute them to people you now, and so on. Then there are calming exercises and wholesome recipes.

Maharani: Memoirs of a Rebellious Princess (Rupa, Rs 195) by Elaine Williams is a biography of the Princess Brinda of Kapurthala, whom the writer had first met on Park Avenue. The princess reminds one of the Maharani of Pukkapore in Vile Bodies. She had mingled with Marie of Rumania and assorted exiled royalty in the Europe of the Twenties and Thirties. Cole Porter wrote a song for her and Cecil Beaton did her portrait. Vanity Fair wrote of her, in 1936, “Princess Brinda...had every woman green with envy...Emeralds the size of walnuts hung from her ears and diamond necklaces by the yard circled her throat.” The Peruvian press thought that she “looked like a golden goddess descending from Heaven” as she came down the staircase at the Brazilian Embassy at Lima. “You were a little uncertain of your English in Delhi some years ago,” Queen Mary told her at Buckingham Palace, “but I am told you speak it now as well as you do French”. It is a pity that what could have been a delightfully entertaining book is so shoddily written and so full of the most dreadful typos.

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