Thursday, August 1, 2013

Read Alert

For a change, the silence on the blog is not because I haven’t been reading; rather because I have been reading with a frenzy, which is just how I like it. However, the disadvantage of reading books back-to-back is that you do not get enough time to reflect on the one you’ve just finished, before you’re on to the next. All I have the energy for here, is to list everything I’ve read since I finished the Ibn Batuta trilogy. So, to the beat of Tom Lehrer’s The Elements, here goes: Empires of the Indus – Alice Albinia, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux, The Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte, Layover at Dubai – Dan Fesperman, Grave Secrets in Goa – Katherine McCaul, A Regular Guy – Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here– Mona Simpson, My Theodosia – Anya Seton, Crazy Salad – Nora Ephron…

Ok, the list sounded a lot longer and a lot more impressive in my head. And in my defense, I would’ve had a few more books in there, but for the fact that I struggled with Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here. The book was more than well written; I just found the characters difficult and depressing. I struggled much less with her A Regular Guy, but liked the protagonists no better.

In this list, the standout was, by far, Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus. The book traces the mighty river from its mouth in Sind province in Pakistan, to its source in Tibet. I also loved Ghost Train to The Eastern Star, particularly the bits in Turkmenistan and Vietnam, and Theroux’s encounters with Orhan Pamuk in Turkey and Pico Iyer and Haruki Murakami in Japan. The book added many places to my-must- see list, on top of which, now, is Hanoi. The three novellas in The Elephanta Suite, set in India, actually have themes that a reader of Ghost Train will instantly recognize. Many incidents and realizations from his travels through India resurface in it. The two murder mysteries set in Dubai and Goa were pure pulp fiction. Layover was decent, Grave Secrets, a miss. As for the two older books, I am ashamed that I never read The tenant.. until now. Anne Bronte is unusually perceptive and knowledgeable for her times about addiction, but I would’ve loved the story more if I had read it in my early teens, while I was discovering her sister Charlotte, and Jane Austen. My Theodosia, which is set in post-independence America, was a fast and interesting read, but in terms of literary style and historical accuracy, more Jean Plaidy than Hilary Mantel. Crazy Salad, was good fun and gave insights into America, particularly the women’s movement in the 70s, but some of it felt dated.

I am grateful for the stream of books that has kept me busy over the last few weeks. As someone who is often mostly dependent on friends for reading material, it is wonderful to have access not just to books, but to wonderful, varied, intelligent books. I shall enjoy it while it lasts!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Ibn Batutah Trilogy - Tim Mackintosh Smith

I’ve just emerged – yes, that’s the right word - from one of the most intense reads in a long time. Intense in length, and densely packed with information. For the past month, I have been travelling with Tim Mackintosh Smith, as he retraces the journeys of Ibn Batutah (IB), the fourteenth-century Tangerine traveller.

Spread over ten years, Smith’s travels have been chronicled in three volumes, Travels with a Tangerine, The Hall of a Thousand Columns and Landfalls. The first book starts in Tangiers, IB’s birthplace, and covers Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Oman, if I remember right. The second book is entirely in India and the third, is a more episodic narration of his journeys to Zanzibar, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, China, Mali, Guinea and Spain.

As I have tediously and repeatedly mentioned, I like my information disguised as fiction. Even history, which I love, I love less when it comes in textbook form. TMS (for the sake of brevity) is an accomplished writer, however, who does not bore you for an instant. But I did feel overwhelmed at various points in during the journey. The first volume, Travels with a Tangerine, especially, was a difficult read, but only because this is a part of the world I am completely alien to. It just made me realize how Europe-centric my reading has always been, with North America thrown in now and then. But the Islamic world, North Africa, the Levant, these are regions I have no knowledge of. In fact, I cannot even claim superficial knowledge. And things are more complicated because TMS is following in the footsteps of IB, and the fourteenth century is also unfamiliar territory. For instance, in Egypt, it is not the country of the ancient pre-islamic pharaohs - the one that we are all so familiar with, that he visits - but that of Sultans and saints. So I had to deal with both historic and geographic dislocation in this volume. Both The Hall of a Thousand Columns and Landfalls were easier in that respect, but that respect only.

TMS has a simple, lucid style with self-deprecating humour and an understated yet keen sense of the marvelous. Still, there are cultural references and words that I needed to Google frequently. There is latin, French and Arabic thrown in frequently, but in the most unpretentious way possible.

Following in the footsteps of IB, especially when those footsteps have been obscured by time, is not easy. TMS sets off looking for tangible remnants in the places that IB mentions visiting, but these are few and far between. IB’s tomb in Tangiers, which he visits in the beginning, is probably a fake. Many of the monuments that IB mentions in his travels are either destroyed or renamed. Many of his co-ordinates too, are inaccurate. But occasionally, TMS does hit paydirt and finds a relic of IB’s times, intact. (Although strewn with turd in some cases: The hall of a thousand columns.)

The three volumes contain such a wealth of esoteric knowledge, that one reading is not enough. I enjoyed several accounts. In the first book, my favourite parts were set in Oman. Going to college in Kerala meant that you’d bump into, and even befriend several Gulf malayalees, as they are called, and quite a few of my friends were from Oman. They would tell me tales of mythical beings such as KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, all fantastic to my just-liberalized Indian ears. TMS’ Omani legends are quite different. His travels to Dhofar, particularly, made me want to go there.

In The Hall of a Thousand Columns, my favourite part (perhaps predictably) is when he goes to Calicut and meets the Zamorin (the ruler). IB’s ship had been wrecked on the coast of Calicut just as he was about to depart to China, and it was the Zamorin of his time who protected him. There is a goosebump moment, when the Zamorin’s nephew shows TMS a ruby necklace gifted by Vasco Da Gama. Not long afterwards, the Portuguese adventurer (and I use that word in its negative sense) slaughtered many locals as the Zamorin would not give the Portuguese exclusive trading rights. TMS talks of meeting the Arackal Bibi and a Muslim family, whose history is fascinating. It gave me a particular thrill when he talks of travelling by the country boats in Kerala, bound together with ropes not nails. Now this is something I have written about in many travel/resort brochures, knowing it was an old traditional custom, but not really understanding how far back it went, or where its roots really were.

The Hall of a Thousand Columns starts in Delhi, as IB was appointed judge to Mohammed Bin Tughlaq, the very same Delhi Sultan who was dubbed ‘the wisest fool’ and whose shenanigans captivated us in middle school. TMS also visits Daulatabad, the brief ill-fated, capital of Tughlaq’s empire. The spookiest moment comes when TMS identifies a sati ground mentioned by IB, somewhere in the heartlands of India. In Delhi, TMS also meets scions of ancient Indian families.

Landfalls chronicles a series of journeys. Each chapter takes you to a different Batutian destination. It’s hard to say what I enjoyed most in this book, because each was a perfectly crafted bit of goodness. There was something eerily beautiful about the Balafon performances in Guinea, and downright spooky about the ancient pagan sacrifices in the Maldives. The chapter on China was a revelation in that I had never thought of its Islamic past. Exceedingly dumb of me, but there it is. The ‘Ding’ episode is just the kind of historical serendipity that I adore: TMS meets a clan of Dings, and realizes that the name is a version of the Islamic surname, Al Din.

Over the course of the three books, TMS himself emerges as a likeable, humble and fun chap. In many ways he seems to be the antithesis of IB, who was famously a swaggering, libidinous profligate. In spite of the worst setbacks, his spirits don’t seem to flag. A lot of reviews mention the scatological slant to some of the writing, but it didn’t bother me in the least. What amazes me is how understanding and empathetic he is of Islamic history and culture, while still being able to maintain an academic distance from it all.

I know it’s not everyone's thing, but I shall still recommend it without reservations!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Fry Chronicles – Stephen Fry

I’m going to come right out and say it: I haven’t enjoyed a book as much in a long time. You’re free to leave the page now. Or stick with me while I ramble some more.

The Fry Chronicles is the autobiography of the English actor and writer, Stephen Fry. Specifically, it covers his stint at Cambridge and early years in television. An earlier volume Moab is my Washpot, covers his childhood, including his incarceration for credit card fraud.

I have always been a huge fan of Fry’s generation of English actors, and specifically British comedy of the eighties and nineties. My first encounter with Fry was through Jeeves and Wooster, which was televised in India in the early nineties. Although my mother, sister and I had too many preconceived notions about Wodehouse and did not think the casting perfect, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie registered in my mind. Over the years, they popped up here and there.

I first got a taste of Fry’s writing first through twitter and then through a wonderful article on PG Wodehouse written by him, which a colleague shared with me. (Read it here But Fry has actually been writing as long as he has been acting. His style is humorous, ironic and self-deprecating. I found myself wishing to write down quotes and phrases in a way I have not since my teenage years.

The Fry Chronicles seem to document the actor’s ‘normal years’ – the phase that came between imprisonment at 17 and cocaine addiction/experimentation at 30. The portions set in Cambridge are fabulous. I have always been an anglophile, with an unabashed admiration of an Oxbridge education. Fry spends more time at various theater performances – on stage and as a spectator than at classes – but he brings alive the history, tradition and exclusivity of these ancient institutions, particularly their special interest clubs. His nostalgic descriptions of the wonder and beauty of the May Ball and May Bumps especially, capture a beautiful moment in time and the whimsical, ephemeral nature of youth. You wish you had been around at that particular time, meeting those particular people, living those particular experiences.

Fry makes frequent apologies for the exclusive and often outdated traditions of these places, without once failing to show us their magic and mystery. He makes no bones about his love of Wilde (whom he played in a biopic which I have always wished to see), Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes, and the age and manners they represent. In a lesser man, these loves may reek of pomposity, but Fry is funny and self-aware and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Whenever he gets too introspective, he lightens the mood with a casually tossed remark such as “Goodness Stephen, who rattled your cage?”

It is also an absolute delight to bump into a hundred familiar characters – Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Douglas Adams, Tony Slattery (it took me a while to place him), Graham Norton, Richard Curtis and more.

More than anything else, I loved the hopeful, kind and gentlemanly tone of the whole book. In a world where sensationalism reigns, it is heartening to see a celebrity making no excuses for bad behavior, for erring - especially knowing that he is not playing to the galleries in doing so, but expressing genuine regret. Fry’s demons are very real, and this is evident from the way he resists aggrandising his mental agonies. Before you allow yourself to say “What does he have to complain about?” Fry takes the words out of your mouth.

The sheer wealth of intelligence in the book, the pleasure of not being talked down to, makes me want to take a crack at the classics again – Shakespeare perhaps? It’s like Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt in ‘As Good as it Gets’, “You make me want to be a better man”. The Fry Chronicles makes me want to be a better writer and better travelled – or at the very least, better read!!