Monday, 6 December 2010

Kim's Review: Curses in Ivory

Curses in Ivory traverses three generations of women as seen through the eyes and memories of Sreya. The 3 main characters are Sreya, her grandmother Hansabati and mother Regina. The minor but still important characters are her mothers sister Queenie, her Fathers brothers wife Brishti and her sister-in-law Nilima.

The curse supposedly has its origin in the time of Hansabati's mother-in-law Kamala and carries on in various forms through the Rai Bahadurs family.

This novel is a subtle yet wonderful exploration on the status of women across 4 generations in West Bengal. Societal norms, the prevalence of purdah, the British influence, the lowered status of women who lost their mothers or were orphaned, the overwhelming obsession for a male heir all of these are explored in this novel.

Curses in Ivory is a relatively easy read but will leave lasting impressions on the reader. The slow decay of once wealthy households holding on to their past. Family secrets - explosive if revealed but even more destructive if concealed. Arranged marriages where pre-teen spouses grow up together and office romances that lead to marriage. The changing fabric of society reveals itself in the course of this book.

While Curses in Ivory is not chicklit, women readers will be more appreciative of the subtleties in the story telling and the implications of events.

Anjana Basu's story telling flows very smoothly and there are minor differences in the flow depending on which characters perspective is being put forth. The poetic turn of phrase around Brishti is the most palpable.

While not in the league of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay or Satyajit Ray, she still succeeds in bringing an older Bengal to life.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Launch of "The F Word"

The F- Word

I'd been reading snippets of Mita Kapur's The F Word even before the book was launched. A few illustrations with short tantalising explanations were enough to excite the foodie on me to start desperately searching for her book as soon as she announced that it was out. But it wasn't to be found in a single Delhi book store. Not surprising considering that Harper Collins hadn't launched it yet in Delhi.

So when the invitation came for the book launch at Cafe Zaffiro in Zamrudpur on the 15th, I jumped at the opportunity and dragged my visiting Sister-in-law along.

Driving to Zamrudpur was an expedition in its own right. Fortunately Cafe Zaffiro had put up enough sign boards to assure us that we were headed in the right direction. And when we reached there I realised that the hardest-to-reach places in Delhi can throw up suprising little gems.

Cafe Zaffiro is attached to Zaza Home - a store that sells clothes and knick knacks for around the house and kitchen. There were plenty of little items catching my eye, but we didn't want to be late and so we rushed upstairs to the terrace where the launch was to be held. And a good thing that we did, because inspite of sufficient seating, the location soon became a standing room only affair.

Mita Kapur comes across as a demure soft spoken lady, but she quickly dispelled any fallacies about her being the Adarsh Bharatiya Nari. A woman of chutzpah and determination showed herself in the hour to follow.

She said her motivation to write the book, came from her husbands threat to write a sex story that would be sold at Railway stations across the country, if she didn't write something more substantial herself.

I must mention here that the book is not just a collection of recipes. It is part autobiography detailing the struggles of a working woman trying to feed a nutritious diet  to her husband and children which is still exciting enough to eat and slowly trying to healthify traditional Indian recipes which are tasty but heavy and rich. Part memoir and partly a legacy that she wanted to leave to her children with a dose of advice and tips on how to cook healthy meals in a hurry.

The book can be enjoyed as a good read with enough recipes in it to excite the foodie reader yet not distract the casual reader from the humour in the stories behind the food.

Rocky and Mayur from Highway on My Plate were there to help launch the book and both confessed to not having read the book entirely. With Mayur confessing that his lack of reading skills made him depend on his wife to tell him what the book was about.

A triologue followed with Rocky & Mayur inviegling invites to be adopted by Mita and her Mother-in-law and be fed for perpetuity.

When asked if she had ever faced any disaster in the kitchen, she remembered the time, she and her sister-in-law had first made Gulab Jamuns from a pre-mix. The recipe called for making tiny balls. But her sister-in-law declared that they were too tiny and stingy and should be made much bigger. So what looked like regular size jamuns when rolling into balls, expanded to the size of cricket balls when being fried.

The Audience was then treated to some traditional Suryamukhi kebabs (with smoked meat) whose recipe is also in the book. The rest of the snacks served were also very tasty. But as we were in a hurry, I didin't find out if the preparations were from Mita's repertoire or the kitchens of Cafe Zaffiro.

I'm still reading the book and will review it on Jhovaan - My Food Blog once I have cooked a couple of dishes from the book.

The book is now available in Delhi bookstores. I saw it at Om Books the other day. The Jaipur launch is on the 30th.

And I will go back to Zamrudpur to investigate that market further.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

CMYK - Meharchand Market

I had recently read 2 articles, I think it was in the Hindustan Times and Time Out, Delhi extolling the virtues of Meharchand market. I was all prepared for something like Khan Market or GK1 N Block market especially given the big names of some of the shops here and its location on Lodhi Road, behind IHC.

However, once I reached, the market itself did not inspire a lot of confidence. Its difficult to find a "clean" market in Delhi, but this was worse than most. A lot of run down shops scattered in between a few new ones. This was less Hauz Khas Village and more Hauz Khas Market.

There are a few gems in this street though, if you can be patient or know exactly where to head.

CMYK is my favourite of the shops here. A bookshop started by Roli Books, it stocks all their inhouse publications - an excellent selection of Photobooks and Coffee Table books - and a few other books that aren't very easy to find in other bookshops in Delhi, that mostly cater to bestsellers. They supposedly have a terrace upstairs which I did not know when I visited, I will definitely check it out the next time I am there. The store itself is starkly furnished in black, with chairs from Pantone that are on display, lending some bright colors to the decor.

Picture from Live Mint

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Kim's Review: Disgraced


Picked this book up on a whim, as it seemed to be in the vein of Jean Sasson's books. It promised a glimpse into the life of a young British-Pakistani girl growing up in a traditional Muslim immigrant family  in the 1980's.

Was it a good book? Well, it won't win any awards for the writing, but the story did make me empathise with her. It created an emotional response in me and isn't that what good writing is supposed to be about?

Saira is brought up in an ultraconservative Pakistani muslim family that lives in Britain, where the entire extended family is involved in the family garment business. Men rule the household with iron fists and women are treated as property to be used and abused.

The danger for someone unfamilar with Islam reading the book, is seperating what stems from religious practice and cultural practice,  since Saira herself is not sure of the distinction. Bullied into submission from a young age by all the men in her family, it is not possible for her to question any of their actions or decisions.

However, after being forced into an abusive arranged marriage with a distant family member on a trip back to Pakistan, she slowly summons her courage and uses all her wits to escape back to Britain where she finally lands in a safe house. It is here that she glimpses an alternate way of living her life and starts working outside the family business and outside the traditional ghettoes.

Unfortunately this respite is only temporary as she loses her job for no fault of hers and is forced to come up with money to pay off the debts incurred by her family. Her parents who keep sending money to relatives near and distant, back in Pakistan and her older brothers drug addictions.

The only way she can make money fast enough to repay the interests on the debts of the loan sharks is by selling herself as an escort. It is during this phase that Saira oscillates between guilt of doing something haram, even though her intention is halal - to help her parents.

The story ends abruptly  when she stops herself from committing suicide for the sake of her daughter and manages to follow her original dream of designing fabrics and textiles. A more "respectable" job.

The book gives the reader a glimpse into a slice of Saira's life. There are definitely a lot of questions, I would have liked answered. How does her family travel so frequently between UK and Pakistan if they are constantly in debt and money is tight?

A reader unfamiliar with the "extended familial responsibilities"  concept in the sub-continent, would have many more questions as to why a lot of the personalities in this book, behave or react the way that they do. In that manner, Disgraced isn't very illuminating. But it is a story that might have been repeated in a number of immigrant families from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka to the UK. It is a story that deserves to be heard.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Kim's Review : Yajnaseni - the story of Draupadi


This is a translation of the work of Oriya writer Pratibha Ray on the story of Draupadi. This tale portrays Draupadi in a completely different light from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Draupadi, in Palace of Illusions

I feel this book has lost a lot in the translation. The first half of the book was very diffcult to get through. The language is clunky and for someone unfamiliar with the multiple names for Arjuna, Krishna, Yudhishtir and Draupadi, the characters can be extremely confusing.

The translator Pradip Bhattacharya, is an IAS officer and the text of the first half is very heavy with convoluted sentences which made me feel like I was reading a bureacuratic report. It takes until the second half, for Bhattacharyato get into his groove and start writing a bit more naturally which really helps the story flow more smoothly.

Pratibha's Draupadi/Yajnaseni/Krishnaa is a woman trapped by circumstances. First having given her heart to Krishna (then told by Krishna himself that her destiny lies elsewhere) and then to Arjun, she is forced to split her time as a wife between 5 husbands, each with their own personalities and peculiarities.

A pre-occupied Yudhisthir, a demanding Bhim, Arjun who blames her for accepting his brothers as her husbands (for not saying no to the suggestion, although he himself didn't), childlike Nakul and Sahadev. Each husband needing to be treated differently according to his temparament. It is easy to empathise with Ray's Draupadi and feel sorry for her predicament.

To love Arjun and want to be his alone and yet have to spend 80% of her time with her four other husbands. Plus Arjun's long travels, as penance for intruding on the privacy of Yudhisthir and Draupadi, to gain astras from the different devas while marrying different princesses along the way. The final straw is when he marries Subhadra and brings her back to Indraprasth, before Draupadi herself has had the chance to be a wife to Arjun (in Ray's sequence of events). Yet, she manages to reconcile herself to all of this with the help of Krishna's council.

In this interpretation of the Mahabharath, Draupadi and Krishna share a spiritual level of trust and love that her five husbands accept and understand unquestioningly. Draupadi, even instructs one of Krishna's wives on how the wives have got it wrong in their constant fighting to possess Krishna for themselves, while what they should be doing is surrendering themselves to him.

Karna is not the flawless noble hero, but an insecure man who nurses his insults and loses no opportunity to rub salt in Draupadi's wounds, even though he also saves her life at one point of time.

Ray, bases her novel on the Mahabharath by Vedvyas and the Oriya Mahabharath by Sarala Das. She also adds a few incidents from her imagination and mixes up the sequence of some events to help her own narrative.

Although Draupadi is one of the five satis, she is often insulted as the one with five husbands and hence implied to be a woman of loose character. Ray's objective in writing this tale was to clear this "negative" interpretation of her and to give her the honor she deserves for holding the Pandavs together and being an "agent of change" in her time.

Rating: 3.5/5



Also published on desicritics.org

Yajnaseni - The Story of Draupadi

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Kim's Review : The Hadrian Enigma - A Forbidden History

The Hadrian Enigma - is a story of love, intrigue, politics, and scandal set in pagan Rome and Egypt, about 130 years after Christ.

The story is based on real characters and falls in the genre of speculative fiction. It starts with the discovery of the body of the Bythinian youth Antinous rumored to be Caesar Hadrian's lover or eromenos. While history says that his death was an accidental drowning in the Nile, George Gardiner weaves a story of intrigue around the incident that is quite entrancing.

The tale is revealed as a series of depositions to Special Investigator Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus who is charged by Caesar, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Antinous within 2 days.

Within the first few pages, it seems the suspect is so evident, that you wonder why the story runs to 476 pages, but as you read along, you realise there are many more players in the mix.

Gardiner has written an interesting and gripping story, but I do wish the editing was tighter. Given that large parts of the book are third person reports, a lot of the minute details included seem superfluous and out of place. He seems to have suffered from a typical writers problem of having done extensive research and then wanting to include as much of the details as possible into the end product.

The language keeps oscillating even when the same person is speaking, from high brow Latin and Greek peppered sentences (sending one scurrying to wikipedia and dictionary.com) to American colloquialisms like "that guy".

Font sizes change suddenly and inexplicably, quite often. Words are underlined for emphasis, which left me feeling like I was reading a manuscript or a draft, rather than a final copy.

While the novel is based on the same sex relationship of Caesar Hadrian and Antinous (currently deified as the God of Homosexuality by some) and marketed as a male-male romance novel, it isn't a turn off to the average reader who wants to read it as a mystery novel. What is vexing though, is the repeated use of the word "crutch" when the author actually means "crotch". Whether this is a problem of the "spell check" software or new slang (I checked urbandictionary.com which did not imply any such meaning to the word - crutch), I'm not sure.

Its an extremely readable story, shedding insight into the life and times of a not-as-renowned Caesar, who had one of the most peaceful and prosperous reigns of his dynasty. It's a page turner, once you get past the initial Greek and Latin terms. I just wish the editing could have been tighter. Then this book would have really stood out for me.

Also Published on desicritics.org

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Kim's Review : The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The latest book from the Philip Pullman stable, being called in certain quarters as the Gospel according to Philip.

The plot is based on an innovative concept - that Mary gave birth to twins - Jesus and Christ. In Philips narrative Jesus starts out as the mischievous one, getting into trouble which his quiet, academically oriented brother Christ keeps getting him out of. But then Jesus goes into the wilderness and returns as a preacher and Christ follows him around discreetly chronicling his words and deeds and yet giving a "twist" to the tales to make for better reading. And these twists are what are commonly accepted details today.

Pullman draws on various sources and uses commonly accepted "facts" and twists them around in this book. It is an insight into how details "might" have changed in the re-telling.

For eg: the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana is offered a possible explanation of Jesus shaming the chief steward into producing the wine that he had hidden away to sell on the side.

While staunch Christians might find the book blasphemous, Pullman disclaims the book with "This is a STORY" in a large Gold font on the back.

The writing style is extremely simple and may come as a shock for those who enjoyed the complicated storylines and concepts of his Dark Materials Trilogy. The book makes for extremely easy reading with short simply written chapters.

Pullman also finds time to denounce the current child abuse scandal being faced by the church in the words "prayed" by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. For me, it is this chapter written as a monologue of Jesus - trying to communicate with God - that holds the crux of the book. The whole point of writing this book, seems to be concentrated in this chapter.

As someone who was brought up on the Bible and has read up on the beliefs of the orthodox churches too, it was very easy to correlate all the incidents and compare them to their "original" tales. I would be interested to hear from someone who is not that well versed with the "original material" who has read this book. Did you find it confusing? Did any of the tales seem irrelevant?

Also published on desicritics.org

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Kim's Review : The Other Queen

This is my first book by Philippa Gregory and I admit that it was the movie version of "The Other Boleyn Girl", that got me interested in her as an author.

While I knew the basic outline of the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, this novel still kept me engrossed. It brought to life characters from history in a way that only movies seemed to be able to do until a few years ago. It is wonderful the way so many new authors are re-looking history in the form of personal stories. It humanises the past as no text book or ledger of facts and figures ever can.

This novel tells the tale of Mary Queen of Scots from 3 perspectives between 1568 and 1587, with a few flashbacks thrown in for good measure. Bess, a self-made woman who has used husbands as stepping stones to the higher ranks of aristocracy until her current rank as "My Lady Countess of Shrewsbury". Her current husband George the Earl of Shrewsbury, forced by a request from Queen Elizabeth, to keep Mary under house arrest in his home and Mary, Queen of Scots herself.

Bess is a woman constantly worried about the finances of housing Mary, who though a prisoner is also a Queen and has to be treated as such. The Earl slowly finds himself falling under Mary's spell and Mary manipulates everyone around her to try and get what she wants.

Unfortunately for Mary, (as you all know) things did not work out for her. But Philippa's novel has done a wonderful job of bringing her to life. Not as a helpless twit at the mercy of political machinations, but a young woman entrapped by birth and circumstances to spend most of her life as a prisoner, but never giving up on hope and the desire to free herself and rule her own country.

Also published on desicritics.org

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Kim's Review : Sister India

Peggy Payne is a travel writer and her attention to the tiny details when traveling come through in this book, her fourth.

My husband who has lived and worked in Varanasi for almost 5 years, found it suprising that a "foreigner" could grasp the essence of the city so well.

Sister India is a work of fiction, which tells multiple stories of the guests at the Saraswati Guesthouse managed by the formidable Madam Nataraja, but the true hero/heroine of this story is the city of Benares/Varanasi itself.

Historically, one of the Holiest cities in India, a lot of "foreigners" visit this city on a quest. Each ones quest may be different. Some find answers, some do not. Some pass by as tourists ticking off another city off their list, some stay back and become a part of the teeming multitudes of the city.

A bundh call by the city officials as a consequence of the unrest following a murder with religious tones forces the inmates of the Saraswati Guesthouse into closer quarters than normal. The forced isolation sets each one on a journey of the discovery of their self, leading them to remember incidents in the past that moulded them into who they are today.

Would recommend the book to anyone who is visiting Benares and wants to get an idea of the city before arriving, a lay-of-the-land so to speak.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Yodakin - Hauz Khas

Yodakin
2 Hauz Khas Village
New Delhi 16

Ph : 011 41787201 or 26536283

Yodakin is an offering from Yoda Press, for book lovers who are looking for more than just bestsellers and chart toppers.

Yoda Press is an independent Delhi based publisher focussed on non-fiction writing. As an independent publisher they had to struggle to place their authors in the big bookstores - who look at books as a purely commerical venture. Realising that other independent publishers also faced the same problem, they decided to work backwards and create their own bookstore where independent publishers and first time novelists could place their books and at least have a chance at reaching and audience. Yodakin is that bookstore. It also stocks alternative books, periodicals, music and cinema by independent publishers, record labels/musicians and filmmakers.

Yodakin stocks books from Yoda Press, Zubaan Books, Navayana, Tulika, Westland, Roli and Wisdom Tree among others.

They also offer Foreign Independents and books for children and young adults.

Set in the picturesque Hauz Khas Village, the store is small at 400sq ft, but this seems to be the norm for Delhi bookshops. It is well lit and yet has a cozy feel. There are a couple of bamboo modhas that you can sit on and browse before deciding to buy.

The store personnel are warm and friendly and don't mind you browsing.

If you are looking for alternative books or to make a new discovery, this is the place to go.


The store is open from 10:30-8:00 Wed - Mon and 2-8 on Tuesdays.

They do accept major credit cards.

Kim's Review : Wildwood Dancing

This book by Juliet Marillier was left behind by an American friend who was visiting. Its teen female fiction.

Fantasy and Romance all mixed into one.

I found it way more interesting and the story telling style was far superior to Stephanie Meyer (I admit I read all 4 parts of the Twilight Saga in 2 days). Its a wonder that Juliet Marillier hasn't got more acclaim.

Wildwood Dancing actually had a story to its name. Teen angst and young love is portrayed way better in this book than any of the Twilight books. One of the heroes here is also the bad boy who is actually good.

Wish they would make this into a movie. It would be so beautiful. I can just imagine the fun the costume designers would have.

If you have teenage sisters or daughters, I would highly recommend the author. I'm trying to get more of her books but they don't seem to be sold in India. Oh well, will wait for a foreign trip or a visiting friend.

Kim's Review : The Immortals of Meluha

Part 1 of the Shiva Trilogy from Amish Tripathi. One of the first books by an Indian author to be introduced by a viral video on youtube


The story of The Immortals of Meluha is set in 1900BC and operates on the premise that Shiva was a mortal, a simple man whom legend turned into God.

Amish summarises his fundamental premises as:
I believe that the Hindu gods were not mythical beings or a figment of a rich imagination.
I believe that they were creatures of flesh and blood, like you and me.
I believe that they achieved godhood through their karma, their deeds.

With these premises, an interesting read is assured.

While parts of the story are rooted in mythology and some parts are corraborated by history - like the description of town planning by the Meluhans - most parts are pure speculative fiction.

The story is very interesting and keeps you gripped. I don't want to reveal too much of the plot here, so let me try to avoid that while sketching out the basics.

The Suryavanshis are the descendants of Lord Ram who have created an extremely stable society based on strict rules and regulations. An ideal state except for a few rules that Shiva finds unfair. Shiva is a Tibetan immigrant, invited to Meluha (the land now known as the Indus Valley Civilisation) and slowly recognised as a saviour and deliverer from evil.

The evil being the Chandravanshis - who live on the opposite side of India in Swadweep between the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, that also holds Ayodhya - the birth place of Lord Ram.

At times the philosophy in the book sounds like it comes from the Matrix - "You don't earn a title after you have done your deeds... It doesn't matter what others think. It's about what you believe. Believe you are the Mahadev and you will be one"

But there are some statements that make you think and reflect and question previously held assumptions. Amish belives that the cry of Har Har Mahadev actually stems from the thought Har ek Mahadev - Each one of us, has it in us to be a Mahadev.

A lot has been said about the language in the book. While the setting is 1900BC, the language is 21st century AD, with Weapons of Mass Destruction and Departments of Immigration. At times it is difficult to reconcile the two. Amish in an interview said that he had a huge struggle with his editor/publisher about this issue. He wanted the dialogue to be more authentic and his publisher wanted it more modern.

I can empathise with the editor/publisher. The language makes this an easy book to read and will defintely increase sales. But purists searching for authenticity will be disappointed.

Personally I enjoyed the book. I can't wait for books 2 and 3. I have my suspicions, but will try and be patient. :)

He says Book 2 will only be out next year as his day job keeps him busy. Amish, chuck the day job, don't keep us in suspense for that long!

Should you read this book? Definitely. But if you hate cliff hangers (which is how this part ends) then you may be better off waiting for all the books to be released before starting on this.

As a teaser, the first Chapter is freely downloadable from shivatrilogy.com

Take a quick glance. If you are in the least bit interested in Mythology, I guarantee that you will be intrigued.

Also published on desicritics.org

 

Friday, 23 April 2010

Kim's Review : One Amazing Thing


The latest offering from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni - it is a set of short stories strung together with a common narrative much like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that is referenced in this book.

The basic setting of the book is that nine people are trapped in the basement of an Indian Consulate in the US during an earthquake. With limited supplies of food, oxygen and light and unable to get out themselves, they are forced to rely on each other to keep up their spirits and morale.

Uma, born of Indian parents in the USA (who needs a visa to visit India), suggests that they tell each other a story of "One Amazing Thing" that happened in their lives.

The initial sketchy characters reveal the depths of their layers as each tale unfolds.

What is really interesting to me is how Divakaruni has tried to shed light on the same issue from different perspectives. Take for instance, the heavy book that Uma carries with her to the consulate, that she needs to review for her class and hopes to read while making use of the time spent waiting at the consulate. Malathi, a recent arrival from small town India to USA, to work at a secretarial level at the Consulate interprets it as a brash young girl, trying to show off her college education.

It is these insights into the various individual interpetations of events based on each characters past experiences that makes this book a fascinating read.

An ex-army vet, a second generation Indian muslim in a post 9/11 America, an estranged American couple, Uma, Malathi, an Indian Chinese emigrant and her talented grand-daughter (who didn't even know that her grandmother spoke English!) and an Indian bureaucrat at the Consulate. Each brings a different tale to the table.

Some are touching for their bravery, some bring understanding, some leave more questions than before. Romance, courage, hopelessness, helplessness, frustration, promise, hope - no matter what the underlying theme of their story is, each one is a powerful tale taking the readers and the listeners on a journey to a different time and place.

The book is an easy read, but the stories stay with you for awhile because they are human and touching.

There has been some criticism of this book in the USA as to why the trapped individuals wasted their time telling tales instead of brainstorming their way out of the situation. I think that stems from the stereotypical way each culture reacts. In General, Americans are action-oriented and the host of disaster movies from Hollywood have heroes whose sole focus is on rescuing themselves and those closest to them. Indians are more pragmatic/fatalistic in their actions and if initial efforts aren't successful, then further consequences are left for a higher power to decide.

The ending is a bit abrupt and doesn't tie up all the loose ends. But isn't that what life is like?

Also published on desicritics.org

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Kim's Review : The Suriani Kitchen

This Recipe Book by Lathika George is being sold by Westland in India as The Suriani Kitchen - Recipes & Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala. I think it is the same book that is available on Amazon as The Kerala Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of South India (Hippocrene Cookbook Library)

The Syrian Christians are historically a Malyali Brahmin Community that intermarried with the Syrians who came to trade in Kerala or locals who converted to Christianity when St Thomas came to India in 52AD. The food of this community therefore has traces of all these varied influences.

Kerala cooking stands out among Indian cuisines for its spectacular use of local spices. Having bought spices all over India, I have to agree that the best quality of garam masala spices come from Kerala. No wonder then that the cuisine exploits the availability of the "exotic" spices.

A unique feature of this cookbook is that it blends stories, details of rituals/celebrations and memoirs along with recipes, giving the reader a flavour of the community along with its cooking.

This book has fairly extensive details on the different vessels and spices used in Kerala cooking.

I intitially picked up the book with the memory of some excellent food consumed at a Syrian Catholic friends wedding in interior Kerala, a decade ago. He doesn't cook and his wife cooks from her own repertoire. This particular branch of cuisine isn't on the menu in most "Kerala" Restaurants, so I had almost given up on being able to taste those dishes again. Fortunately, with this book, I can attempt to recreate some of them in my own kitchen.

I have tried some of the recipes and found them quite authentic. Will blog about some of them shortly. But now I'm postponing cooking from this particular book for awhile. This style of cooking is not really suited to Delhi's horridly hot summers.

So until then, I will enjoy the pictures, illustrations and stories in this book and visualise how the recipes will taste, but cooking from this collection is hereby temporarily postponed. :)

Friday, 16 April 2010

Kim's Review: The Indian Epics Retold


I had been looking for a translation of Ramavataram - Kamban's Ramayan since I read In Search of Sita, when I came across this collection by R K Narayan. This book is a collection of 3 of his books - a translation of The Ramavataram, The Mahabharath and also his collection of short stories "Gods, Demons and Others"

Looking at the size of the book, I should have realised that I would only be getting an abridged version, but I was so excited to see an English translation of the Ramavataram, that I did not think twice before picking it up.

The Mahabharath in this book is a compressed version (18 chapters of the Bhagavad Geetha are compressed into 5-6 paragraphs) of the main incidents and there isn't anything spectacularly remarkable about that section.

Narayan conducted an indepth study into the Ramavataram to fulfill the dying request of an uncle. Kamban himself is said to have spent every night studying Valmiki's Sanskrit version and every day writing thousands of lines of his own poetry in Tamil. He described himself as "I am verily like the cat sitting on the edge of an ocean of milk, hoping to lap it all up". Unfortunately Narayan has only translated this epic in an abridged format.

A few minor variations I found from the Valmiki Ramayan include the reasoning attributed by Kamban for Ram killing Vali from behind a tree. However this was too short a version to appreciate Kambans other variations (if any). I will have to look for a more comprehensive translation. Perhaps Shanti Lal Nagar or P S Sundaram.

Both these translations, while not what I was looking for, are a quick and easy read for those who want a brief introduction to the Indian epics. Easy to read, covering the main highlights of both.

However I really enjoyed the third section of this book : "Gods, Demons and Others" These short stories help tie-in a lot of characters referred to in the main epics. Told in the form of the narrative of a village bard/story teller, they include the stories of : Lavana, Chudala, Yayati (stories concerned with a discovery in the realm of the spirit), Devi, Vishwamithra, Manmatha (depicting a process of sublimation), Ravana, Valmiki, Draupadi (incarnation of God to destroy, inspire and assist), Nala, Savitri, the mispaired anklet, Shakuntala (wives who overcame obstacles to regain lost husbands), Harishchandra & Sibi (ideal rulers)

Most of these are stories of characters from the epics including that of Shakuntala. This version is slightly different from the Kalidasa version Abhijnana Shakuntalam which is more popular in the South. The Mispaired anklet is a Tamil classic.

What might seem suprising to those unfamilair with Indian mythology is that certain characters (even if they aren't Gods) are present at different periods of time. Like Durvasa (of the famed temper) whom the Kauravs sent to visit the Pandav's in vanvas in the hopes that he might curse them, the same Durvasa who blessed Kunti with the mantra for calling upon a God to beget a child, is the same one who cursed Shakuntala. Sages like Vyas, Valmiki, Vishwamitra make guest appearances all over the epics.

I was at a gathering the other day, where some mothers of young children confessed that is was easier to let their kids read Disney comics rather than Amar Chitra Katha. The problem being that, if their children read stroies from mythology and asked for clarifications on characters and incidents, the mothers did not have the knowledge to answer them immmediately.

A collection like this, is like a Cliffs Notes to update the reader on all the major events and characters of these epics. So its ideal for someone who wants a quick introduction to the epics or an easy refresher. For me, I am still searching for more comprehensive translations to better appreciate regional variations in the stories.

Also published on desicritics.org





Narayan sums up the yugas very succintly & I would like to record that here:
Each yuga lasts 3000 celestial years. One celestial year is 3600 human years. Hence the 4 yugas cover 43,200,000 mortal years. Each of the 4 yugas possess special characteristics of good and evil.
In Kritayuga, righteousness prevails universally.
In Tretayuga, righteousness reduces by a quarter, but sacrifices & ceremonies are given greater emphasis. Men act with material and other objectives while performing rites instead of with a sense of duty. A gradual decrease in austerity.
In Dwaparyuga righteousness diminishes by half. some men study 4 vedas, some 3, others 1 or none. Ceremonies are multiplied as goodness declines. Disease and calamities make their appearance.
In Kaliyuga, righteousness, virtue and goodness completely disappear. Rites and sacrifices are abanadoned as mere superstitions. Anger, distress, hunger and fear prevail and rulers behave lke highwaymen, seizing power and riches in various ways.


So what do you think, are we in Dwaparyuga or Kaliyuga?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Kim's Review : In Search of Sita


In an introduction to this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Devdutt Pattanaik aptly summed up the dillemma facing authors who want to write about the Ramayan and its principal character - Shri Ram.

"When in India, if you write about Ram, you will invariably be gagged by someone. If you say something positive about him, the left wing will get all upset and call you patriarchal. If you say he was a good husband, the feminists will jump in to say that he was definitely not a good husband. If you say anything negative about him, the entire right wing gets upset and says that he is a God, how can you say anything against him?"

This anthology - In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology - however, is a collection of stories on Sita. The Sita, who Ram is the husband of, not Sita - the wife of Ram. There are different themes within this anthology, but the common thread running through them all is the attempt to envision the tale of Sita from a perspective different from her supporting role in the popularly known Valmiki Ramayan/Tulsi Ramayan (Ramcharitmanas) / Ramanand Sagar televised versions.

The ideal of Sita who is held up as a role model for Indian wives (aadarsh patni) is that of a woman who followed her husbands directives unquestioningly, who got into trouble when she dared cross the line (Lakshman Rekha). A woman on the sidelines, silently suffering and enduring, helpless and unable to control anything that happened around her. Absolute submission.

However in the many regional variations of the Ramayan that abound across India and abroad, there are other aspects of Sita's personality that shine through.

There are 33 different essays in this anthology, broadly divided into four sections. The first deals with commentaries on Sita - vs other women in the epics, as Gauri/Kali, as Janaki. My favourite from this section is: Reba Som's essay on Gandhi's vision of the Indian woman as Sita vs Nehru's ideal of Chitrangadha for the Indian woman to emulate.

The second section, is dialogues with personalities who have explored Sita through different media. Sonal Mansingh(dancer), Indira Goswami (Jnanpith awardee, Ramayan researcher), Madhu Kishwar (founder editor of a woman's journal), Nilimma Devi (Kuchipudi dancer), Madhureeta Anand (documentary filmmaker), Nina Paley (animator and producer - Sita sings the Blues)

The third section deals with different versions of the Ramayan from Himachal to Assamese, Bengali to Telugu. Interesting variations crop up based on regions. For eg. in the Mahasuvi Ramain, Sita's culinary skills are supposed to be at the root of her abduction. Superior culinary skills being equated with superior home-making skills - highly prized in the Pahari culture.

The final section deals with Creative Interpretations, including paintings and speculative fiction. Kumudini's "Letters from the Palace" is brilliant in its narrative and thought. Here the story is told in letters from Sita to her mother, just by describing the saris that she wants from Mithila.

The importance of a collection like this, is that as Namita Gokhale says "Mythology in India is not just an academic or historical subject, it is a vital and living topic of contemporary relevance"

Extremely engrossing, not at all a stuffy academic treatise that it might be mistaken for, its extremely readable. This collection has defintiely created a strong desire in me to read as many versions of the Ramayan as possible. Not just as a story or mythology but as an insight into local customs, mores, social structure and fabric. My only constraint is that I will have to look for versions that have been translated into English. Kamban (Tamil), Kandali (Assamese), Krttivasa (Bengali), Vilanka (Oriya) are just where I hope to start. I'm open to recommendations for any other versions too. Drop a comment.

Rating: 4.8/5

Also published on desicritics.org




Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Jaipur Literature Festival - Diana Chronicles

24 Mar 2010
 This event was initially planned to be held at the Durbar Hall. Fortunately the organisers realised that it would be more practical to accomodate the crowd building up on the Front Lawns (which weren't being used in this time slot)

A conversation between Tina Brown and Vir Sanghvi about Browns latest book -


Vir Sanghvi is a brilliant speaker. Well Read, well prepared, who takes care to be well informed before conducting any interview. Tina Brown has worked with Tattler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. She claims that her special relationship with Diana gave her a little more intimate insight into the life of the Princess. To add to this, she interviewed at least 300 people for the book. Some of whom haven't spoken to any other Diana biographers before.

Sanghvi quickly questioned Brown to extract the main highlights of the book. How Camilla was having an affair with Charles long before his wedding was ever finalised. In fact, she gave her stamp of approval to the marriage, thinking that Diana would be a quiet country mouse. Unfortunately for her plans, Diana turned out to be the mouse that roared.

Diana, was the first person to use her celebrity status to fight for a cause and take it global in a globall massing of attention. The press became her lovers in a sense and she garnered so much attention, that it was often humiliating for Charles when he travelled with her to see people rush to be by her side and speak to her.

It has since emerged that the Royal train is the safest place for a monarch to have an affair as it is exclusively used for them and their security detail, not a single papparatzo in sight.

She paints Diana as a lonely woman constantly trying to find a man who would love her for what she was and always coming up short. The contrasts between her and Dodi could not be more stark, but he seemed able to love her and handle the immense media attention that followed her everywhere. Brown thought that this was one relationship that could have really worked for her, if it wasn't cut short so tragically.


Jaipur Literature Festival - Against the Wind

24 Jan 2010

Namita Gokhale in conversation with Sister Jesme, author of Amen: An Autobiography of a Nun and P Sivakami - the first Tamil Dalit Woman to write a novel..
Sister Jesme is a Malyali Catholic Nun who has recently left the convent in protest against the abuses she faced within the walls of the convent. Her book is a real life account fo what goes on behind those walls. While it was a struggle for her to go through it all while she was on the inside, she feels the struggle isn't any easier on the outside. The only thing that gives her encouragement is that her courage to come forward is prompting others from within the priesthood and nunnery to haltingly come forward with their own horrifying experiences.

P Sivakami is an an ex-IAS officer. Her books speak of the poor and downtrodden and the misery they undergo. When she was first called a "Dalit writer", writing about the "Dalit Experience" it upset her, but she now welcomes the terms because she feels that it brings awareness to the Dalit problems.

Both courageous women in their own way, it was inspiring to hear of face how they conquered their fears and overcame their battles.

Jaipur Literature Festival - Under the Kilt

An absolutely hilarious conversation between 4 Scots. Niall Ferguson, William Dalrymple, Alexander McCall Smith and Andrew O'Hagan.
Itwould be impossible to try to recreate the electric tension, the wit and the repartee of this session on a blog, so I will not even attempt it. Just to sum up, the theme of the discussion seemed to be Scottish Miserabilism.

If the conversation doesn't seem to flow it is mainly because I was laughing so hard, I often missed parts of the conversation :)

The question: Are Scots, really serious about their independence from the UK? was responded to with "In 2006, the National Scottish Party realised that Independence would also mean stop of funds from England, so they have brought their plans almost to a standstill"

There are supposedly deep divisions in Scotland between Edinburgh vs Glasgow. The obvious reason could be their religious orientation Catholic vs Protestant, but it could as well be because of their football teams - Celtics vs Rangers.

A simple question like "How are you?" is normally answered with a gloomy "I'm surviving" or even worse "I'm doomed" Perhaps Scottish Pessimism is the perfect antidote to American Optimism?

If you try to brighten up the mood with the standard American "Nice Day", it would most likely be answered with "Aye, and we'll have to pay for it"

While they are terribly pessimistic, they consider the English far worse. If Ireland has an inferiority complex in their nationalism approach, then the trouble with Scotland is that it has a superiority complex.

As evidence - the East Indian company was full of Scots who saw more opportunities abroad than across the border.

National Self Deprecation seems to be the norm for the Scots. It was indeed remarkable to hear 4 well known authors and hence brand ambassadors for Scotland speaking so about their native land even with the Scottish press in attendance. I Don't think they will be troubled by anyone asking them to apologise or say they were misquoted and revoke their statements any time soon.

Being able to laugh at yourself could be a great antidote to the myriad organisation pop-ups across India who seem to take themselves too seriously

This session was a laugh riot and a wonderful final session for us, before we began our drive back to Delhi.

              

Jaipur Literature Festival - Nine Lives Readings & Performances

23 January 2010

This was a sun down program. While the rest of Jaipur was dry for some elections/rally (or some other political reason), permissions had been got at the Diggi Palace to provide liquid fortification to the attendees and authors.

The evening started with Readings and Performances from William Dalrymple's Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
The readings were interspersed with vocals by Paban Das Baul and Kanai Das Baul & Debdas Baul. The latter two being the main protagonists of the 9th tale - The Song of the Blind Ministrel

The words, the lyrics, the chanting, the atmosphere, the crowd, the open air seating all just combined to make this a mesmerising and magical evening.


There was more to come. Susheela Raman - a British Tamil Musician came on stage to perform with Sam Mills, Nathoo Lal Solanki and Chugee Khan. The music was absolutely out of this world. This is true World Music. Tamil classical raagas sundg with a stong husky voice, jazzed up with rock and other beats. Its a CD worth buying.
This picture was taken in the afternoon while they were reheasing. In the evening, we lost ourselves in the music and completely forgot to take pictures!



                

Jaipur Literature Festival - Vatsayan & the Erotic & The Caferati Meet

23 Jan 2010

Warning: This post discusses adult content

This was a session with Sudhir Kakar and Ruchir Joshi. The former read from his fictional biography of Vatsayan - The Ascetic of Desire: A Novel of the Kama Sutra and the latter from his contemporary erotic anthology - Electric Feather.

Since very little is known about Vatsayan himself, this biography is mostly fictional with Kakar ascribing his knowledge to being born & brought up in a brothel, although he himself remained chaste and faithful to his wife.

Kakar read a portion of his book and then went about dispelling some myths associated with Vatsayan and the Kamasutra. The Kamasutra is not all about sex. Only Chapter 2 of the 7 chapters deals with the subject. (Parallelly, only 10% of the sculptures at Khajuraho are sexual in nature) and it is a text book of sensuality rather than sexuality. It stresses on how pleasure needs to be cultivated.

When Vatsayan originally write the Kamasutra, he recommended that every woman read it before she was married (sometime as early as the age of 14-15). The first translator of the book brought his own chauvinistic attitude to the fore when he recommended that women should read it , but only with the permission of their husbands!

In Western Literature, a woman is seen as a fort that needs to be captured, especially when you look at the language used to describe attraction and mating rituals. The focus is on sexual not sensual love which is in complete contradiction to Vatsayan who introduces "love" in marraige. According to him, the goal of marriage is love (which went against most dharam shastras of his time)

Vatsayan was a believer in womens emancipation to the extent that one of the chapters even details how to get rid of a man - do not laugh at his jokes, look at him like he is a fool, etc. Way before his time!

Ruchir Joshi, read a passage from his book, which didn't sound too interesting. He used his time trying to market his book, but didn't do it very effectively.

We couldn't stay on for the question answer session, because we were to leave for the Caferati meet. since so many book lovers and aspiring authors who are members of Caferati (a group of writers in English spread across the globe) were planning to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival, a special read-meet was planned at the Caferati Jaipur haunt.- Samanvai Art Gallery on MI Road. There were at least 35-40 members who attended the meet and it was good to put names to faces from across the country. Would have loved to post a picture of the meet here, but as a rule, I do not upload personal photos of people on my blog (unless they are used to being in the media glare or its is a group shot where faces aren't distinct) Facebook friends can see the pictures in my Jaipur photo album.

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