The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

The latest headmaster is a bit of an eccentric.

In the boy's class one day he announced that he hated Spanish women. (It is not clear what prompted the outburst.)

The boy's classmate, a Spanish girl, burst into tears.

'Stop snivelling,' said the headmaster.

In Rosa Liksom's excellent Compartment No 6, a nameless girl dines on the Trans-Mongolian railway with a brutish fellow.
'There isn't any vodka,' the waiter said gruffly. 'Is that so hard to understand, comrade?' 
'Bring me a bottle of cognac, then. Cognac will do nicely.' 
When he'd got his plate of vobla and his cognac he took a long swig, grinned, and bit off some of the dry fish. 
'Now we can order some food,' he said. 
The waiter looked at him wearily. 
'A bowl of selyanka to start with. For the main dish fifteen blinis, shashlik, some boiled tea sausage, salad, and a bottle of cognac.' 
Instead of shashlik they got some dry chicken legs and instead of salad some potatoes fried in margarine.

Nov 29, 2016


This morning I was frustrated to find that the entry gates at the local railways station were blocked by milling commuters. One woman kept touching her Oyster card to the reader and it kept beeping back to her without letting her through.

In some impatience, I said, 'Wait till the light turns yellow.'

'I did,' she said, 'And it turns red.'

I reached across her to brandish my Oyster card at the reader, just as its indicator light flashed yellow.

It turned red. So did I. The gate remained resolutely shut.

The woman grinned at me.

'That will teach me to pontificate,' I said.

We stood there alternating Oyster cards at the reader while the queue behind us grew and grew. 

'Oh dear,' I said, and moved to another line.

Just then the gate opened and the woman nipped through.

Nov 18, 2016


Growing up in Moscow in the 70s, I'd devour Russian books, as many as I could get my hands on. The Soviet publishing machine was prolific, especially where children's books were concerned, but their availability was always a matter of chance. As Mark Grigorian pointed out to me, in the USSR, one could never be sure which book would suddenly be banned. So books were a scarce commodity; they would always be treasured, passed from hand to hand, read till they fell apart from use.

My dad, meanwhile, stalked the bookstores for translations into English. He wasn't always successful. In any case, although the books were relatively cheap, his salary didn't quite extend to large-scale purchases. Still, he managed to amass a small collection of fiction by the great Russians.

When we came back to India, I discovered English translations of the books I'd loved. Exported from the USSR as part of cultural propaganda - no wonder hardly any were available in Moscow. At the time, I wasn't fussed about the quality of the translation - if it conveyed the story with fidelity, I was content. Nor did I particularly bother about the translators. Some of my favourite books were translated by a Margaret Wettlin. But other than wondering if her last name should have been spelled Wetlina, in the feminine Russian ending, I didn't think too much about it.

Recently, I found out that Wettlin was an American woman who had sailed off to Russian in 1932 to join what she thought was a great social experiment - the establishment of a new economic model for the world. Disappointed by the fraying of the American social fabric during the Great Depression, she fancied an adventure in an unknown land. She taught English for a bit in Russia, fell in love with a theatre director, had children. Then Stalin announced that foreigners would either have to take up Soviet citizenship, or leave. Unwilling to abandon her family, she naturalised. She would end up staying in the USSR for nearly fifty years.

Her house was a hotbed of artistic fervour. Her husband was a friend of Stanislavsky; there were actors and playwrights in and out of their lives. The family travelled extensively across the country, even to Mongolia, setting up regional theatres. It was a heady time. It was also a nervous time for her, personally, as the KGB recruited her to spy on her neighbours.

Then the war happened and they were caught in Moscow. The suffering of the Russians during that bitter conflict has been covered extensively. The famines in the Soviet Union caused by misguided Communist policies are also well-known. Her own voice was added with the eventual publication of Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman's Life in the Soviet Union.

After the war, Wettlin began to translate Russian fiction into English for publication by the Soviet press. Her translations of Gorky, Pasternak, and Tolstoy were well received. As I found out, she also translated Nikolai Nosov, whose books I still recall with undimmed affection.

She continued to live in Moscow till about 1980, when the Soviets finally granted permission for her, her daughter and grandson to leave the country. The US State Department determined that she had become a Soviet citizen under duress and restored her US citizenship. She returned to Philadelphia. Her son couldn't join her for another seven years.

Wettlin died in 2003.

Nov 15, 2016


My good friend Guru mentioned Swapna Liddle and I sat up.

Do you know she organises heritage walks in Delhi? he said.

She was our senior at College, he added.

I've heard the name, I said, but only because I read Madhulika Liddle's blog.

Sister? he said.

Quite possibly, I said.

Small world, he said.


When we were at Khan Market, we stopped to look at books at Faqirchand and Sons. A genial proprietor sat behind the desk at the entrance.

Do you have Madhulika Liddle's The Englishman's Cameo? I said.

Madhulika Liddle, Madhulika Liddle, he muttered and scratched his chin.

Book came out a few years ago, no? he said.

I nodded.

Oye, Suresh, he called. (Or Chotu. Or possibly Desai.) An assistant looked up.

Do you remember Madhulika Liddle? he said.

Suresh shook his head.

Sure you do, urged the proprietor. She gave a talk here. Just a few years ago.

Chotu shook his head again.

Yaar, history type book, prompted the proprietor.

Desai went back to his shelving.

Romance, no? the proprietor said to me.

Historical crime fiction, I said.

Yes, I remember, he said.

He looked into the distance.

So, do you have the book? I said.

No, he said.

In Joseph Hansen's work of gay noir, Backtrack, the narrator is looked after by a hospital orderly named Catch.
After that, he feeds me. For years, I didn't know there was anything for breakfast but sugar pops. These days, I get eggs turned over easy in deep butter, slabs of juicy ham, fried mush, porkchops, buckwheat cakes, country sausage, hashbrown potatoes. What I got yesterday was cornbread fresh out of the oven with melted butter and molasses. 
"You'd think you wanted to marry me," I said, and Catch said, "You'd be right."

Oct 3, 2016

A Sardinian Nuptials

In Michela Murgia's Accabadora, the oldest sister is getting married and the whole family rallies around to cook up sweetmeats. Sardinian delights ensue:

For three whole days the bride's home became an ants' nest of relatives and neighbours coming and going with baskets full of fresh ingredients and borrowed trays on which the finished cakes were laid. The Listru sisters worked almost without a break, alternating tasks to bring miraculously to life an army of capigliette decorated with sugar lace, kilos of tiliccas swollen with saba, baskets full of aranzadas with their spicy aroma, tin boxes full of crisp little sugar dolls, and hundreds of round almond gueffus, individually wrapped like sweets in white tissue paper with its edges fringed like the battlements of the Guelph towers. There was not a room in the house with space in it for anything more, and Giulia and Regina had to move basketfuls of finished delicacies off their beds before they could fall asleep in the gentle fragrance of orange-flower water.

I'm not sure that a recent third author writing crime fiction based in India constitutes a new trend, but after Tarquin Hall and Vasim Khan, it is the turn of yet another Brit, Abir Mukherjee, to take up the genre. Mukherjee, however, sets his new procedural A Rising Man, in the past - in Calcutta, where, in 1919, there is already a insurrectionist mood, and the imperial interlopers are feeling nervy. Into this arrives a veteran of the Great War - Wyndham - who, in true detective style, has a tragic past and an addiction problem. As he is new to India, he needs a big info dump, which is of course Mukherjee's way of educating the reader.

There seems to be a requirement these days to have a likeable protagonist, so Wyndham is suitably anti-imperialist, unsexist and unracist. Your typical modern liberal, in other words. To show him off as even more likeable, his deputy (another Brit) is a bigot; to demonstrate his manliness, his sergeant Banerjee is a nerd; to prove he is progressive, his love interests are all intelligent women.

Then there are the crimes: a murder of a British administrator, and a robbery and murder on a mail train. Naturally, there will be a connection and it will be unearthed by Wyndham, who has to battle not only his personal demons but also colleagues and rivals from other departments of the security establishment. As police procedurals go, this book ticks all the requisite points: a shifty witness at the crime site, autopsies and nauseous onlookers, bursts of derring-do, a twist or two in the tale. The novel strives to be bigger than that, with expository analyses of Bengali socio-economics and effete intellectuality. There are bitter outbursts about the iniquity of foreign occupation, the rootlessness of mixed-race people. There are long lectures by various characters. And you can't have Calcutta without a description of its imperial splendour and native squalour.

Soon after reading this book, I came across Barbara Cleverly's older series of historical crime fiction. This has Joe Sandilands, another decorated soldier and Scotland Yard detective, who arrives in India on some sort of lecture tour, but can't wait to leave. In the first book, titled The Last Kashmiri Rose, just as he is making tracks to leg it from India, he's dragged into investigating a death of a British woman at an outpost not far from Calcutta. Proceeding there, he soon comes to realise that this death is only the latest of a set. Once again, you have a likeable protagonist - somewhat naive, even - who is not swayed by imperial pretensions of superiority. You have a hyper-efficient Indian subaltern, a very clever Englishwoman who Sandilands is suddenly in love with  (and who also serves to educate both him and the reader on the mores and attitudes of the Raj and the natives), and various politicking Brits and suspicious babus. While Cleverly appears to have researched the milieu and era quite a bit, there are some jarring notes to an Indian ear: dubious mythologies and references to deities, some expressions that are quite unlikely to have been used at the time, and peculiar Indian names. The book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2002; it must have been a rather slow year for historical fiction for that paper.

Sep 3, 2016

Last Meal?

He brought us a litre of white wine. Then we each ordered a salad with octopus and fried whitebait as a starter, followed by spaghetti with mussels in tomato sauce, and for a main course marinated anchovies with broccoli rabe.  
Riccardo poured the wine. 
'To us,' he said, raising the glass. 
'And sod the others,' I said.

From Andrej Longo's short story Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness in Ten.

Aug 27, 2016


The other day I was in Brussels to see high school friends with whom I'd been in touch phonewise and WhatsAppily but not actually set eyes on for decades and I thought I should try a bit of French with the locals. Arriving, per directions, at a crossroads not entirely sure which of the streets led to Neelu's house (streets being unmarked and I not trusting Google Maps since it led a rail replacement bus badly astray not two months ago after I attended a wedding at Newmarket and strove to get to Cambridge), I decided to stop an elderly pedestrian and interrogate him.

'Ahem', said I, 'Excusez-moi, monsieur. La rue Coubertin est où?'

He stopped and looked around and a pensive mien descended upon his face.

'Attendez', he said, 'attendez.'

I attended.

'Un moment,' he continued.

I gave him a moment.

The pensive mien ascended and he brightened. 

'Là bas', he said.

He did not point. I bethought myself of his panache as he made a fish of his hand and whipped it around the periphery of the crossroads, wriggling his fingers in unison and making the following noises.

'Zut', and 'phwzzz' and 'bopp'.

The last sound signified a street diametrically across from where we stood.

He smiled.

'Merci', I said.

We parted.

By the time Nils Holgersson turned forty-eight, he already lived very far north, in Jokkmokk, the capital of Swedish Lapland, which could only with the utmost pretension be called a capital city, since it was no more than a small, remote village upon which, as Tacitus wrote, the sun never shone in the winter and never set in the summer. He worked as a custodian at the only local high school, which had three classes for each grade and a dormitory so that students who lived as far as 100, 200 or even 1000 kilometers away would have a place to stay. The school menu was standard for Sweden: mashed potatoes with butter and strips of bacon on Mondays, fried fish and potatoes on Tuesdays, pea soup and pancakes with jelly on Wednesdays, tuna salad on a roll on Thursdays, and noodles with ground beef on Fridays, which was the children’s favorite. He knew all this from his wife, Maria, who was the cook in the school where he worked as the custodian.
From The Princess, by Alit Karp, translated from the Hebrew by Ilana Kurshan, The Guardian, February 2, 2016.

Jul 3, 2016


You know what they say about Americans abroad: if the locals don't understand what they say, they speak louder and louder... In English. But check this:

We took our leave of Sóstófürdő with a modest lunch. In the square where the pub was, a wilds how advertising Sprite. Gangsta rap over loudspeakers while Hungarian kids on skateboards slalomed in and out of giant green bottles imagining themselves black brothers. At a table nearby, the father of the family called to the waiter in Polish,"Kotlet scshabowy z fryktami! Veal cutlet with fries! Veal cutlet, dummy!" No matter how much the man raised his voice, however, the Hungarian dummy didn't understand a word.

From Andrzej Stasiuk, The Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe.

Jun 3, 2016

Bedford in Bordeaux

We look, we inhale, we draw in our mouthful: we chew, we think. It is a slow process… utterly absorbing and near an ordeal — the raw tannin puckers the inside of the cheeks, rasps the throat like claws, while at the kernel one finds a notion of… what? Texture, structure, multiplicities of scents…
Sybille Bedford, Pleasures and Landscapes.

May 3, 2016

Vladimir to Véra

All through those 1926 letters, [Nabokov] remembers to tell Véra what he has eaten — it’s slightly comic, because Vladimir is not an adventurous eater, and it becomes a litany of good plain food — ‘lamb chop, and apple mousse… meatballs with carrot and asparagus, a plain brothy soup, and a little plate of perfectly ripe cherries… broth with dumplings, meat roast with asparagus and coffee and cake… chicken with rice and rhubarb compote’. The point is that Véra will be interested, because it’s her man eating his meals far away from her; we are interested because the writer evokes and specifies.
Philip Hensher, "Nabokov’s love letters are some of the most rapturous ever written", The Spectator, Sep 27, 2014.

The standard dishes were allegedly geared to popular taste and were devised by a group of experts inside the Ministry of Public Health. A typical dish might consist of three slices of meat loaf, two baked onions, five mushy boiled potatoes, a lettuce leaf, half a tomato, some thick, flour-based sauce, a third of a litre of homogenised milk, three slices of bread or crispbread, a portion of vitamin-enriched margarine, a little tub of soft cheese, coffee in a plastic cup, and a cake. The next day it would be the same thing again, but with boiled fish instead of milk. The whole lot was served on hygienically packed plastic trays, covered in plastic film.
From Per Wahlöö's The Steel Spring.

Mar 3, 2016

A Bit of Cod

In Manuel Rivas' tale of Galician melancholy, All Is Silence, a man is intent on a particular meal.
My primary objective was to go and eat cod in the Viana do Castelo. No, not à la Margarida da Praça, nor à la Gomes de Sá. In the end what I had, let's see if I remember, was "sliced cod with maize bread on a bed of baked potatoes and salted turnip tops."

Feb 22, 2016

Anarchist Food

They were Bradford anarchists who survived on food recovered from supermarket skips... They would bring back their catch and improvise exquisite meals: trout with poached eggs and roasted beetroot; pork with bruised peaches and goat's cheese; serrano ham and celeriac hash; all washed down with a chablis lifted from the Tesco Metro.

Feb 3, 2016


In Amos Oz's Panther In The Basement, the twelve year old narrator is being babysat by Yardena, on whom he has a terrific crush. She cooks a remarkably fragrant chicken dish that has the boy drooling and hot.

Meanwhile, aflame with desire and anticipation and pangs of hunger, swallowing back the surging saliva, I laid the table for the two of us, facing each other like Mother and Father. I decided to leave my usual place empty. As I laid the table I could see Yardena out of the corner of my eye tossing chicken pieces in the frying pan, to remind them who they were, tasting the sauce, adjusting the seasoning, spooning it over the food which had taken on a wonderful hue of burnished brass or old gold, and her arms, her shoulders, and her hips came alive in a kind of dance inside her dress, protected by my mother's apron, as though the chicken pieces were shaking her whiel she shook them.

When we had eaten our fill, we sat facing each other picking at a bunch of sweet grapes; then we devoured half a water-melon and drank coffee together even though I told Yardena honestly and bravely that I wasn't allowed coffee, especially in the evening before going to bed.

Yardena said:

'They're not here.'

So, 2015 is over. This was the year my blogging ground to a halt, my habits became even more sedentary, my achievements negligible, and my travels were to Orlando, for heaven's sake. Another year like that and I might as well throw in a nearby towel and take up life on some bend in a river, pondering the existence of fish.

To be honest, this year is not off on the thumpingest of starts. My washing machine conked out and the delivery guys of a new one couldn't install it. My patience with incompetence is also thinning. I've been lugging heaps of apparel to a laundrette and obtaining a renewed appreciation for subcontinental people who breaks stones with clothes. At the same time, various neighbours and municipal councillors have been casting beady eyes on a bit of renovation we're planning. I have half a mind to invite some illegals to occupy the jungly garden at the back and encourage them to throw nightly parties just to keep the neighbours bright and interested.


The reading was down on the previous three years. I managed 118 books. In this I'm way behind that powerhouse, M. Orthofer, doyen of the Complete Review, who polishes off probably three hundred books a year and manages to review ⅔ of them.

Some books were brilliant and others were absolute dogs. This is no news.

But here are some stats to start off:

Fiction - 80%
Women authors - 30%
Translations - 43%
Countries (non-English) - 14
Languages other than English - 25

My first Basque translation, I think, and my first book by an Eritrean author. And my first Dogri and Rajasthani translations.


For a quick roundup of recommended titles, I start with non-fiction.

Catherine Merridale, Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History: a riveting account of the Moscow Kremlin, from its earliest to latest incarnations, and the worrisomely brutal types that lived in it, destroyed it, refashioned it, and bent it to their own interpretations of history.

Caleb Scharf, The Copernicus Complex: The Quest for Our Cosmic (In)Significance: what an incredible repositioning of the human experience bang into the centre of the Universe! One of the biggest advances of science has been the demotion of humanity and the Earth from their egocentric position in the cosmos and the realisation that in almost every respect and at every scale of the Universe, we are negligible and not special. But Scharf reveals the latest thinking in cosmology and quantum physics that shows this 'Copernican' principle needs to be modified in the light of all sorts of special events that should have taken place for the Universe to be as it is, for the solar system to have developed, and for our remarkable appearance at a particular juncture in time when we can actually learn something of the Universe. Superb.

Mariusz Szczygieł, Gottland : Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia: Indians would no doubt fondly recall Bata, that ever-present purveyor of shoes. The story of his ruthless rise to power is well told in this Polish author's superb collection of essays (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) on lesser-known aspects of Czechoslovakia's Communist and capitalist avatars. As a fellow Iron Curtain survivor, his insights into the paranoia and delusions of the Czechs are sympathetic, accurate and mordant.

Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, Ocean Worlds: The story of seas on Earth and other planets: a wonderful, detailed and erudite study of what water means for a planet, how it gets there, what happens to it, how it escapes it, and - the atmosphere! plate tectonics! evolution! life! extraterrestrial worlds! It's all mind-blowing and absolutely superb.

I should mention Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, which was a best-seller in India, if less covered in the mainstream press in the UK: although it purports to be a non-Eurocentric perspective of world history, to me it did seem more like a study of the effects of the rest of the world on Europe than a proper history of that rest of the world. I'm not putting it very well, but ultimately it disappointed me for its lack of coverage of enormous swathes of the planet - Africa and Latin America were almost completely ignored, and Oceania and China were given rather short shrift. There was much talk of trade links but very little of scientific and cultural cross-pollination. I suspect a properly non-Eurocentric world history can be fashioned from this one, using its superb bibliography, which by itself is worth the price of the book.


Now a bit of fiction.

When I read bildungsromans like Stefanie de Velasco's Tiger Milk, it occurs to me I completely missed out during my teen years. No sneaking out of the house at odd hours, no wild parties, no unprotected sex with people with mid-life crises, no adulterated liquors, no drugs, no creativity. Damn. I was a nerd, so that might explain much of the relative joylessness, but the young girls in this German novel (translated by Tim Mohr) are bright and sensitive and yet get into such heaps of self-inflicted tribulations, I'm glad (in retrospect) I grew up completely boring.

Alena Graedon has fashioned a very scary near future in The Word Exchange where people's addictions to their smart devices and information retrieval via instant Google searches can be co-opted for profit by private enterprises. Already there's research showing people think they're smarter than they are because they can look up facts on the internet, and simultaneously there's a devaluation of people and cultures that are not present on the web (note the widespread consequences of gender and cultural biases in Wikipedia). Graedon's dystopia is only slightly incredible but it's frightening - grab it for some sleepless nights of worry.

The Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir's Arabic novel African Titanics (translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby) is the story of desperate emigrants trying every way to get to Europe. Topical, of course, but adumbrated by the stories they tell each other, this book lends another perspective to the horrors of their crossing.

(I'm in awe of Charis Bredin, who I think is still a student and yet she has a couple of translations published already. In awe and deeply envious.)

I was so taken up by Esmahan Aykol's Baksheesh, (translated by Ruth Whitehouse), one of her series of crime novels featuring Kati Hirschel, a feisty Istanbullu detective-book-shop owner, that I went and created a Wikipedia article for the author.

What is the use of those obscene Emiratis and Saudis and Qataris who do nothing of any artistic or scientific consequence with their immense wealth, in comparison to the indigent Egyptians and Maghrebis and Syrians? Take the writer Ali Al-Muqri's Hurma (translated T. M. Aplin) - what an insight into the lives of Yemeni women and their desperate attempts to take ownership of themselves in a claustrophobically patriarchal and hypocritical society.

I should also mention Jacob and Dulce, a bitingly satirical dissection of Indo-Portuguese life in Goa in those pre-Independence days by Gip (nom-de-plume of Francisco João da Costa; translated by Alvaro Noronha da Costa), one of the very few really readable translations from the Sahitya Akademi.

And finally the sharply observed short stories of Ahmed Essop, South-African writer of Indian origin, Hajji Musa and the Hindu Fire-walker are well worth the read.


Have a superb 2016, folks.

In Habib Selmi's The Scents of Marie-Claire, the Tunisian narrator dreams that his dead mother and he are visiting his girlfriend's mother's house. The latter urges his mother to try various cheeses.
"I want you to try this piece of Roquefort, Madame Turki," said Marie-Claire's mother as she leaned over a big plate full of various cheeses. "All these cheeses are from our country." My mother devoured a piece of cheese and presented her plate immediately to Marie-Claire's mother, who was happy to see my mother's unexpected appetite for her cheeses. 
"And now, how about a small piece of Pont-l'Évêque?" 
"Delicious," said my mother as she passed her plate back again. 
"Have a piece of this Chaussée Aux Moix; and this piece of Camembert; and this piece of Brie de Meaux; and this and this .... "