Monday, January 01, 2018

2017: My Year in Reading

59 was this year’s number - slightly above my average of a book a week.

Poetry was a theme. It was probably that kind of a year, where you needed the consolations of verse
to deal with the world. And I actually bought physical books of poetry this year, having decided poems
need the tactility of paper and pen. Mary Oliver was, of course, high up there, as a means of dealing with
the world - American Pastoral, her Pulitzer winner, and her New and Selected Poems, Vol 1,
the best kind of self-help book there is. There was also AK Ramanujan’s classic translations of ancient
Sangam poetry The Interior Landscape - gorgeous, lush love poems; and his translation of medieval
Kannada Bhakti poetry, Speaking of Siva - mystical, obscure sometimes, beautiful always.

Some of my favourite reads this year were non-fiction. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
was powerful beyond measure. Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time was a very long read; but
it was a heart-breaking one about the collapse of the Soviet Union and its impact on the soul of its
people. Krakauer’s Into Thin Air combined adventure and tragedy into an engrossing tale.
Harari’s Sapiens challenged some fundamental concepts we take for granted, as it took us through
70,000 years of human history. Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring explored the intimate connection
between alcoholism and literature, through the lives of Hemnigway, Scott Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver
and Tennessee Williams. And this year, I finally got to Thoreau’s Walden (long-winded and boring
in parts) and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (greatly inspirational).

After all that glorious non-fiction, the fiction was a bit of a let down, really. There were the regulars -
Rushdie and Murakami, Le Carre and Strout., Mahfouz and Patchett. - all of whom were wonderful.
But if I had to pick a few that I thoroughly enjoyed, I would start with the long awaited The Ministry of
Utmost Happiness - as dizzyingly dazzling as only Arundhati Roy can make it. Lucia Berlin’s short
stories were a revelation. She writes uncompromisingly about life in the margins, a kind of rawness
that is quite unforgettable. And Tana French was such a discovery - her Dublin Murder Squad mysteries
are marvelous. And to think I have only read three of them and there are so many more out there!

So that, folks, was my 2017 in books. And it’s such a comfort to know that whatever 2018 may throw
at us, there will always be a little corner where we can retreat into, where we can sit engrossed in
some story that some writer is telling us. That magic is never going to go away. Isn’t that something
to be grateful for?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness : An authentic, beautiful mess

It’s untidy. Like the India in which it is set. Characters, each of whom deserves a novel himself/ herself, drift in and out. All the causes worth fighting about, in this strange, beautiful country of ours, find their space - gender, caste, religion, class, Kashmir. All the major political events in the last three decades are there in some form or the other. Like I said before, it’s a complete unholy mess. Like watching the world in Krishna’s mouth.
It works, though. Because somehow, in spite of the overwhelming political backdrop, Arundhati Roy does what she does best. Makes you care about the small people - the boy Aftab who becomes a girl Anjum, my favourite character in the book; the IB officer Biplab Dasgupta, on the wrong side of the war in Kashmir; Gulrez, the old, simple Kashmiri, who is killed and paraded as a dreaded militant; Dayachand, aka Saddam Hussein, the lower caste boy who sees his father lynched by upper caste Hindus as he clears a dead cow’s carcass; Azad Bharathiya Guru, on permanent fast in Jantar Mantar; Maoist Revathy, raped and tortured, and yet writing to the world from her grave.
The small people stand tall amongst the ruins. They make the fight worth fighting. They are the redeemers, the salvation of a world gone horribly wrong. They make the book.
My least favourite character was Tilo - an amalgamation of Rahel and Ammu from GOST and Arundhati herself. It’s a rehashed character and feels like it. But she is the conduit to another beautiful character - Kashmir.
Yes, Kashmir is a character by itself. Roy has some exquisite passages describing its beauty amongst the rubble of a self-destructive war. It’s a long death spiral we cannot look away from - and it forms some of the most powerful parts of the book.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a great read. It is also an important one as it conflates some of our country’s biggest issues into fiction. Is it great fiction? Yes, the agenda could have been better framed. The pulpit could have been better disguised. But then, would it have been an authentic Arundhati Roy? And can anyone ask for anything more than an authentic Arundhati Roy - conscience-keeper, rebel, wordsmith, a god of small things?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Goa, beyond the beaches

The received wisdom of what to do in Goa is find a shack on the beach, and enjoy the sunset with a beer and some seafood, and either chill or party, depending on what floats your boat. Over the years, the restaurant scene has picked up and these days, deciding where you will eat is part of the planning you do before you land in this state.
Goa though, can be different things to different people. And if like me, the beach scene and the food scene are too sybaritic for your taste, it has other pleasures to offer. Here are three of them.

Forts: When I dream of Goa, I dream of forts by the sea. My favourite spot in Goa is atop Chapora fort in Vagator. It’s a short climb up a very small hill. A little effort for some absolutely fabulous views of the shoreline from the top. Fort Aguada is of course the most popular fort in Goa - and if you get there at sunset time, the stone, the sun and the sea can prove magical. There are other forts worth your time as well - Terakhol up north and Reis Magos near Panjim, Corjuem fort in Corjuem and Rachol fort overlooking the Zuari river. One of these days, I will do a fort holiday in Goa, and catch up with all these beauties.  

The view from Chapora fort

The historic district of Fontainhas: A heritage walk through this district was one of the highlights of my last Goa trip. The colourful houses, the dolls on the doorways, the roosters on the roof, the pretty tiled nameplates and the mother-of-pearl on the windows - it might have been a walk through a European small town. A not-to-be-missed experience.

Divar Island: A sleepy little island on the river you can get to, only by taking a ferry. There is hardly anything to see here, except a lovely old church and some paddy fields. It’s quaint and quiet, and if you can get a meal in a local home, you can go back to the mainland replete and completely charmed.

Slow living - a view from Divar island
There are other things to do as well - see the Churches of Old Goa, the prettiest of which in my opinion is the Se Cathedral; experience the backwaters and the waterfalls; go whale watching; and go on a temple tour ( I had just a glimpse of them - and they seemed to made in such a unique style!). So the next time you want to catch up on some susegad in Goa, remember, Goa is more than that shack on the beach or the newest restaurant.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

2016: My year in reading

54 is the number of books I read this year, says my Goodreads app. That is about a book a week - pretty much what I have averaged most of my adult life. What was a bit different this year, though? My list had more non-fiction than usual. I am a fiction junkie through and through, and when I find myself drifting towards non-fiction, I worry I am growing old.

In any case, I enjoyed some great books here - Krakauer’s Into the Wild was a revelation. Who knew you could turn the story of a foolish young man into a page turner!. Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy was a five rater for me - and led me to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which I have resolved to read in a more modern translation soon. Travel was a big theme. Colin Thubron’s In Siberia was a moody, dark study of post Soviet Siberian hinterland; and his Shadow of the Silk Road described his Marco Polo-esque journey through possibly some of the most interesting places in the world today. Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus was another unforgettable book, taking you through some dangerous places with fascinating histories. Chatwin’s In Patagonia was a long overdue read - and now Patagonia has become a bucket-list kind of place in my head. Other notable non-fiction reads were Sidharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History and Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, both managing to illuminate without boring you to death. Mary Oliver’s Upstream was of course another five rater for me - how I love her plush wordsmithing and her simple wisdom!

I had resolved to read more Indian fiction in translation - and I did manage a few, though nowhere enough. Basheer’s Poovan Banana and other stories introduced me to an author I had been meaning to read for a long time. Ashapurna Devi’s story collection The Matchbox was a peek into a middle class Bengali milieu, Austen-esque style.

I did re-read some old favourites - To Kill a Mockingbird felt as fresh as when I read it more than three decades ago. And the set pieces in Goldman’s Marathon Man were as horrific as the ones in my memory.

There were a number of disappointments. Sittenfeld’s re-telling of Pride and Prejudice  in Eligible was pretty terrible. Anne Tyler’s re-imagining of The Taming of the Shrew in Vinegar Girl was slightly better - but was definitely not Tyler at her best. Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox was not a patch on her Boy, Snow, Bird, one of my favourite books of 2015. Vivek Shanbagh’s Gachar Gochar was a translation I went into with a lot of hope - but was quite let down (a number of my reader friends liked this though - so maybe there was something here I did not see).

And now to my favourite fiction of the year. I finished the Ferrante books, and loved them to bits - Lila has to be one of my most loved fictional characters ever. Julian Barnes did not disappoint with his The Noise of Time, a fictional account of the life of Russian composer Shostakovich. The sense of dread he manages to conjure up in Soviet Russia is riveting. Neither did Ian McEwan with his Nutshell, a cleverly crafted re-telling of Hamlet. My discovery of the year was Elizabeth Strout. I loved Olive Kitteridge, a character that will go into my list of all-time favourites. And her My Name is Lucy Barton is such a study in compressed emotion and spare writing. Ruskin Bond’s Rain in the Mountains made me want to rush to the Himalayas right away. And what can I say about Tove Janson’s Fair Play? That was the book of the year for me - so simple and so profound, I took a day after I finished it to just soak it in!

So all in all, 2016 might have been a forgettable year for the world, but  it was a good year for my reading. Now onto 2017 - and I should start to get some reading resolutions in place, I suppose.

Monday, October 03, 2016

My grandmother: A life

Have you heard the term ‘matriarch’? I am very familiar with it. Because I knew its embodiment - my grandmother who passed away yesterday at the age of 96. The word conjures up images of a strong woman, a strong-willed woman, presiding over an extended family. She was all of that. What she wasn’t, was a grandmother who was soft, and who cuddled you and told you stories from the epics. She did stuff you with the most delicious food, though.

Gomathy Kunjamma was just 17 years old when she was married to a man she had never met before. She came from a large family, with wealth in the form of large tracts of land, a ‘kalari’ and a ‘kaaranavar’, a family presided over by yet another matriarch. She had never seen the ‘city’ before - which in this case was Thiruvananthapuram (hardly a city by any standard but that of the village she had grown up in), she had only been home-schooled, and most of the men in her family stayed home to tend the land and property. And till the end of her days, I believe she wore the conflict - of the pride of a truly old and esteemed family she came from (her father started a newspaper; her grandfather was a distinguished man of letters, they were part of the Travancore Maharaja’s court), and the trepidation of going into one which was more ‘sophisticated’ - where education and jobs seemed to matter more than family heritage, where women had been to college, where the men were doctors and college professors, civil servants and engineers.

I believe it inspired in her a life-long respect for learning. She herself had never been to a formal school, let alone college. But her children and grandchildren had to do well in the education department - there were no two ways about it. She must have died proud of her grandchildren - all of whom, girls and boys, are well-educated and independent, able to stand on their own two feet, never having to face the apprehension she had, being under-prepared in the learning area.

There were some parts of her personality that could be very vexing - again, stemming from her past. She had rigid ideas about what was the correct thing to do, in any situation. Sometimes, irritatingly to me, the correctness was defined by, ‘what will people think.’ And her strong will ensured everyone followed those ideas, irrespective of the inconvenience it caused, even till her last days. And her sometimes-misplaced and blind pride in her ‘family heritage’ could be annoying.

But it was this same strong will and the same sense of pride that helped her work herself and her family through some very tough times - when the family went through awful financial troubles, when she had to care for her bedridden mother and brother, when my grandfather died.

Most of all, what I will remember her for, is her ability to transcend her upbringing, in so many ways. She had a lifelong regret that she never had a son - and her favourite grandchild remained her first grandson. But she never, ever treated her granddaughters as any less than her grandsons. There was no one prouder when her first granddaughter, became an engineer - the first woman engineer in our family. She was very encouraging of my younger cousin going abroad to study - again, a first for a girl in our family. She loved to see my girl cousins driving around Trivandrum on scooters, independent and free. And one of the last times I saw her, she proudly told me how her youngest granddaughter actually had to go out to ‘sites’, as a civil engineer, just like men. And she herself, was so very independent. She remained in charge of her house, alone sometimes, sometimes with grandchildren in it, till her eighties. For someone who had never been to a school, she was really very ‘modern’.

Rest in peace Amooma. You leave behind a rich legacy - a family that will remember you as strong and encouraging of independence, a woman who rose above tradition, a true ‘matriarch’, who prized family above anything else. There is so much of you in each of us.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

10 things I loved about the Amalfi Coast

Hiking the Path of the Gods
Walking towards Punta Campanella with Capri following you
View from atop Mt. Solaro
The Terrace of Infinity, Ravello
Pretty Positano
View from the top of Vesuvius
The limoncello chill

Seafood gluttony

Selfie paradise
Cooling off

Ceramics abound in Positano
Blue, blue waters, high cliffs hugging the shore, the narrowest roads, lovely little towns – what is not to love, you say? Quite a bit, to be honest. When you go in high summer, the unrelenting heat can get to even someone like me, who lives the Mumbai summers. And the crowds – everyone and their mother seems to descend on this strip of land in high season. Driving prices sky-high and jamming up the traffic on those narrow lanes.
Yet, this strip of coastal land from Sorrento to Salerno is pretty in a way that can’t stop your camera clicking away; so you end up with thousands of gorgeous pictures and you really struggle to choose the ones you want to share.
Here are some things I really couldn’t get enough of – in my 8-day vacation this July.

1.  Beating the heat with granita and gelato
When the heat gets to you, nothing beats walking into a gelataria (they are all around) and ordering a granita. It’s a coarser form of a sorbet – and our favourite was the lemon-flavoured one. And a super after-meal sweetener was the gelato. Raki was a great one in Sorrento.

2.     Hiking along the coast
There are tons of possibilities. You base yourself in one of the small towns and you can hike to other towns close by. We did a couple. The Path of the Gods was an obvious one. And another from Termini to Marina Del Cantone via Punta Campanella. The walk from Termini to Punta was absolutely stunning – we could see Capri through the walk and Punta Campanella had some great views. And all those calories burnt were a good excuse to gorge on even more great food.

3.     Visiting an island

We went to Capri. It’s a day trip from Sorrento and the ferry itself is a great experience. You take the funicular to Anacapri and then the chair car up to the top of Mount Solaro. The views are to die-for. Anacapri is sweet, with white-washed buildings set against the deep blue of the water. You take a ferry boat ride around Capri, check out all the grottos, pass under the arch of the Faraglioni rocks (legend has it that you kiss someone under that arch and you are bound for life!) and see all the famous-people houses up on the cliffs.

4.     Wandering around Villa Cimbrone in Ravello
Ravello is a delicious little town a bus ride away from Amalfi. You walk up to the Villa Cimbrone and wander around its gardens and terraces. The Terrace of Infinity begs for travel-magazine-worthy photographs; the views are so very photogenic. 

5.     Browsing the shops in Positano
Supposed to be the prettiest place on the Amalfi coast, Positano is overwhelmed with tourists. But it is striking. Set on a cliff, its pastel-shaded buildings rise above the coast and seem built on top of each other, rising vertically. Its streets are narrow and winding with shops selling linen clothing, leather footwear, painted crockery and other fine-looking things. A pretty town with pretty streets selling pretty things.

6.     Drinking limoncello
The coast is known for its lemon groves. And the lemons here are huge. Of course we had to try the limoncello. It’s very sweet (I love all things sweet) and the alcohol in it can hit you hard. But it’s a great chill-me-down after a hot and tiring day.

  7.    Enjoying the laid back vibe in Sorrento
It is one of the bigger towns. With some nice cafes, gelatarias and a cool night life, you can easily spend a couple of days relaxing and winding down for the start of a nice holiday. The Euro cup that was underway, ensured there were some boisterous scenes on the main streets. 

8.     Climbing Mt. Vesuvius
Its signature shape is constantly in your sights as you travel from Naples to Sorrento. History lessons in school remind you of how it destroyed a city – and when you realize you can actually climb a living volcano, you cannot wait to try it. It’s a pretty tame walk up to the crater – but just the feeling of having climbed something so historic gives you a thrill.

9. Eating rum baba in Naples
A Neapolitan specialty, we had it at the Gran Café Gambrinus, an elegant, turn-of-the-century coffee house, which boasts of heads-of-states, Popes and movie stars as patrons. The rum baba is exquisitely melt-in-the-mouth soft and when you have it with strong Italian coffee, you have a bit of Naples in your mouth.

10. Taking selfies against gorgeousness

Wherever you go, everything is so very pretty and photogenic, it makes sense to carry a selfie-stick. This was the first time we ever did –we have been traveling for years – and we were initially terribly self-conscious. But it is rather cool to have pictures of you against the most heavenly backgrounds. A selfie-stick sure comes handy.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Wisdom of Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout

In my teens, when there was a chance to watch world cinema on television, I watched a Russian movie. I remember very little about it - except that it was in black and white and there was a boy and a girl, very much in love. The boy goes off to fight in World War II and does not return. But the last scene is something I can see clearly so many decades later. The girl is grieving, in a way that chokes you up as a viewer - and then she looks up at the sky. A flock of white geese is flying through and for that fleeting moment, the beauty of it makes her smile through her tears. It is almost like the world is telling her and us, that it’s all ok. That however hard are the punches life throws at you, it also throws you lifelines and hope and beauty. You can survive.I read Olive Kitteridge and it brought that scene back to me so very vividly.

Olive Kitteridge is a series of 13 interconnected stories, set in Crosby, Maine - a small seaside town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Olive Kitteridge, a crabby school teacher is the character that holds it all together. It really is her story - but we see her not just through her own eyes but also through others’ stories. Olive is not particularly nice - acerbic, unused to showing affection, a bit of a bully with her young son and accommodative husband. But she has a strong vein of love for her son and her husband running through her, even if that vein is wrapped up in something hard and harsh. It’s that same vein that allows her to deeply empathize with people around her -hurt people, damaged people. People like Kevin who cannot recover from his mother’s suicide; or Denise, the young girl who her husband is almost in love with, who loses her beloved husband in an accident; or Nina, an anorexic; or a criminal in a hostage situation.

Olive herself has her set of life’s challenges - her son, the love of her life, grows apart from her, and she cannot understand why. Her father’s suicide is a lifelong haunting. Her old age is marred by her husband’s invalidity.

And then there are the stories where Olive is not a central character. A piano player whose set life is upset by the return of an old love; a wife who finds out her husband’s infidelity the day of his funeral; a young girl who finds the courage to run away from an overbearing mother.

These are small lives, making just tiny dents in the universe. Very few people are truly likeable. Yet the magnificence of Strout’s characterization ensures we find the universality in every single one of them - each is trying to cope with what life is throwing at him or her, trying to make connections, big or small, trying to find that burst of hope or joy or comfort that makes everything seem bearable. That is the essence of what Strout is trying to say - life is hard, but all of us will find that flock of geese that lightens the soul.

It is a very wise book - the kind that shows how great fiction is really the best kind of teacher there is in the world.