Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yet Another Reading- Arzee the Dwarf

I’m beginning to envy all these new writers who were once journalists. They come to writing prepared: with the craft and most of the time, with the story as well. I sometimes think it is easier for them to write fiction. Not only is it easier for them they also manage to make a good job of it coming out with books that become bestsellers or at least get talked about. No wonder some of the best writers (at least those I admire) have been journalists, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway, to name two. To think, I was almost on the verge of becoming a journalist once long back but fate decided otherwise.

I am not really aware how many fiction writers in India are journalists, but the latest to join the list is Chandrahas Choudhury who was in Hyderabad recently to read from his book- Arzee the Dwarf. From what he talked about his book, writing and reading in conversation with Sridala Swami I got the impression that he is a writer who will create waves in the future. However, I did not buy the book since my friend Uma had bought a copy and got it signed by Chandrahas Choudhury. It seems he revealed to Uma that he always writes with a fountain pen. That makes it two of us writing with fountain pens though I cannot even dream of writing as well and if I may add, as intelligently as he does. Anyone who reads his blog will be impressed by his writing.

Strangely enough, book readings in Hyderabad's bookstores aren’t attracting the sort of crowds that similar events held at star hotels do. Not surprisingly Chandrahas Choudhury’s event did not attract much by way of a gathering at Odyssey, Vikrampuri. The four of us (I, Kiran, Hari and Uma) made up as much as a quarter, or maybe more, of the audience. But those who gave the event a miss don’t know what they’ve missed. It was an interesting talk between the author and Sridala Swami where he talked about how he got the idea to write a story about a dwarf, about the writers he liked to read (Willa Cather, Orhan Pamuk, Anjum Hasan, Vikram Chandra), about his habit of keeping a notebook and so on.

What struck me was his statement that dialogue in fiction need not advance the story all the time. This is contrary to what I’ve read so far about writing fiction: that dialogue should move the story forward, convey information etc. Chandrahas Choudhury said something to the effect that dialogue could be there without serving these purposes, just for the sake of entertainment. When he revealed that he had turned down offers of movie rights for his book, and added that his books are meant to be read and enjoyed, and not seen as a movie he gave the impression of a writer who takes his job seriously. If he sticks to his beliefs and his craft he will go a long way ahead.

This book reading was the first after Meenakshi Mukherjee’s death a few days earlier. In fact, Chandrahas Choudhury was supposed to give a talk (The Writing and Readking Life) at the Hyderabad Central University the day before which seems to have been cancelled. It would have been nice if Meenakshi Mukherjee was remembered in some way at the reading.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Meenakshi Mukherjee

For those in Hyderabad who love to read, book launches and readings will never be the same again. That’s how it feels to me. I used to look out for one person at readings I’ve attended. And I’ve attended quite a lot of them in the past one decade. If Meenakshi Mukherjee was present in the crowd I used to feel happy she had come. But now after her unexpected death less than ten days ago the literary scene in Hyderabad and the country feels quite empty. For a long time I was unaware that Meenakshi Mukerjee was one of the country’f finest commentator on Indian writing. I feel a sense of personal loss at her untimely death.

If I’ve learnt anything from attending book readings it is that if Meenakshi Mukherjee attended the launch or reading then the book was worth reading. In the past ten years she had attended several book readings not matter where they took place, at a star hotel or a small book store. It was worth waiting for her to ask questions or comment on something about the book. Because one observation from her about that particular book, my whole perception of the book would change. Ever since I came to know who she was I’ve followed her articles and essays in papers especially ‘Literary Review’ of ‘The Hindu. I’ve learnt a lot about Indian fiction in English reading her articles. I regret not reading any of her books and the reason is that they aren’t so easily available. I plan to search for them and read them soon.

When Hari launched his book, ‘The Men Within’ a couple of years ago at Askhara, Meenakshi Mukherjee was present in the gathering. Hari told me that he had given the book to her to read. I was surprised when he told me she had not only read the book in just a few days she had also offered him encouraging words about his writing. He was understandably ecstatic about it. I was surprised that such an eminent and busy critic would take out take out time to read the book of a newbie writer and also encourage him. It gave me the idea of doing the same after finishing my own book but sadly it will only remain as an idea.

The last time I saw Meenakshi Mukherjee was at the reading of Jaishree Misra’s latest book that happened a few weeks ago. She had observed that the book’s cover made it appear like it was a serious book and not what it was being perceived as. She sat through the event right up to the end patiently listening to the conversation between the author and Dr Vijay Kumar.

But my best memory of Meenakshi Mukherjee was the time when I saw her at the Begumpet airport a couple of years ago. I had gone to the airport to receive someone and was waiting outside the arrivals gate. She had come to receive someone and was scanning the faces of those coming out. I hesitantly wished her. She turned around and gave me a broad smile in return.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sunday Haul- 4 Magazines

A terrific haul I had this Sunday finding the Big Three of travel magazines- Lonely Planet, Condé Nast Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler, all in one place. The LP and Condé Nast were issues of July 2009 and the NGT was the absolutely latest issue- of September 2009! Only last Sunday I had found the previous issue. When the guy said I could have each for only twenty rupees I felt glad I decided to come to Abids though I knew there’d be very few sellers. It was one of the best haul of travel related stuff I’ve had in recent times.

The National Geographic Traveler issue was one about some great road trips. The write up about a motorcycle trip on the Sardinian coast in Italy had some wonderful pictures. I’ve begun to like a regular columnist in the magazine- Daisann McLane, who wrote about travel sleep in this issue. The previous issue had a piece about the joys of doing one’s laundry while traveling. Pretty mundane things but she writes well. There was a piece on using Twitter to enhance the travel experience and one about iPhone applications one can use while travelling. I wish I could do one of the travel photography workshops that NGT holds quite regularly. The latest one is in Colorado from Oct 30 to November 2.

In a previous post I had written about how thick Condé Nast is with hundreds of pages. The July issue had only 106 pages compared to ninety of NGT. This issue was about some great island deals. There were lengthy articles on Barbados, Hokkaido, Cape Verde and also Hawaii. The pictures were as usual great.

I do not know how long Lonely Planet Magazine’s been around but the July 2009 issue I found was the second issue I read. One striking thing about LPM is the number of photographs that dot the pages. This issue was about 50 Best Kept Travel Secrets and not one of them was about any place in India except Shaheen Bagh in Mussorie which got just a couple of lines. In contrast Cevennes in France, Beirut, Costa del Sol, Albania and Socotra got pages and pages of mention.

For all my reading of travel magazines I am not getting to travel anywhere much. But next month there’s a trip in the offing. I might be in Bengaluru for a week on office work, more specifically, on a training program. Watch this space.

Like most boys I was fascinated by guns until I discovered that a pen could be as lethal as a gun. The fascination, however lingers, though I am a very non-violent person. I picked up a magazine on guns- Shooting Times to know what’s happening in the world of guns though I would have loved if it had been a pen magazine that I found.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Sunday Haul

The Sunday Haul

It seems to be National Geographic Traveler season after Conde Nast Traveller season for me at Abids. Last Sunday I found the latest issue (July/August 2009) issue of NGT. Though I got the brand new magazine for thirty rupees only, I wasn’t very happy because I missed picking up two latest issues of Conde Nast Traveler magazine the other Sunday. Someone smarter had already picked them up. This is one lesson I sometimes forget: to grab a good book/magazine the first time you see it.

I had also seen Anita Desai’s and Carson McCullers’books too but did not buy them. Now I feel I should have bought them. I hope they’re there next Sunday but it looks unlikely because there may not be many book sellers on Sunday because as the festival season approaches the usual shops remain open. The book sellers who display their wares in front of the shops that are closed either move away or do not set shop at all. I’m keeping my fingers crossed until Sunday.

Coming back to NGT, the magazine is as good as the channel. Compared to Conde Nast NGT is smaller and with fewer pages- about eighty to more than two hundred pages of Conde Nast. But the articles are more informative and also crisper. However there doesn’t seem to be much about India in the magazine. I read about the charms of Boulder, a place where one of my family members lived not very long ago. There were short write ups about attractions at other US cities including Iowa where I plan to end up one of these days to do a writing workshop.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nectar in Paradise

Sometime back the Times Good Food Guide handed out awards to hotels in Hyderabad for Best Biryani, Best This and Best That to several joints that would make up quite a long list. All these awards were for stuff that very few of us take on a daily basis. Okay, biryani is one thing that we eat more than regularly so it made sense to me. If I remember correctly, Bawarchi won the Best Biryani prize so it okay. But what was disappointing was that one common thing that every Hyderabadi partakes daily was ignored. I am talking about Irani chai. If you ask me there should be a separate award for Best Irani chai but I don’t think any of the judges would deem to drink literally hundreds of cups of tea before deciding on the prize. If you ask me again, I would unhesitatingly give the Best Irani chai award to Paradise in Secunderabad without a second thought. I consider the Irani chai there nothing less than nectar and hence do not fail to have it at least once a week.

But ever since becoming a non-resident Hyderabadi the Paradise nectar has become out of reach for me. Last week, however, I was in Hyderabad on a week-long training session and I thought I would taste the Paradise Irani chai regularly but it wasn’t so. The place I was supposed to be trained turned out to be quite far away, almost near the Shamshabad International Airport. It would be late evening by the time I returned to the city after the training. But on Thursday the training ended early so I rushed straight to Paradise. For once I thought I’d try to use the wine aficionado’s lingo to describe the Irani chai at Paradise. So here goes:

As I said earlier, nectar is the right word to describe the chai at Paradise. The first sip transports you to a different world. The rest of it flows down the throat like silk, lighting up the insides. One feels a certain warmth after imbibing it. If you happen to see a glow on the face of anyone stepping out of Paradise then you can be certain he’s just downed a cup of the heavenly liquid. The outstanding thing about the Irani chai at Paradise is that it doesn’t leave an aftertaste on the tongue or in the mouth. Elsewhere, the taste lingers on for a while but not with the Irani chai at Paradise. All of it goes in straight inside and does its job without much ado.

Unlike the other Irani joints the amazing thing about Paradise it that the chai is served in cups sterilized in hot water. You can see this if you opt for self-service buying a token at the counter and picking up your own tea. The guy picks out the cups with a tong from the steaming water before pouring the chai into the cup. The only gripe I have about it is that the cups seem too small and the quantity of chai seems too little for me. I always feel that a couple of more gulps would have been better. But maybe the Paradise folks feel it is just enough.

Continuing with the topic of Irani chai and biryani, the other day I caught an episode of the program, India ka Zayka, on television. Vinod Dua was going around Irani joints in Hyderabad. When I switched on the television he was in Bahar restaurant tasting Osmania biscuits and dilkush in Bahar, then he went on to taste lassi at Shadab, kabab, nehari elsewhere, haleem or chicken at Niagara and so on. He had a deadpan expression as he tasted a bit of all the dishes before him before proceeding to describe the ingredients used in the dishes as if we did not know. There was no other expression that other people on such programs have, one of pleasure and discovery. I did not think Vinod Dua was impressed by the typical Hyderabadi food in our hotels. While tasting the kebabs he said he was a Delhiite and said that kebabs in Delhi are something else. To me it appeared like he would not be able to find food like Delhi food anywhere. I wonder why he is taking the trouble of visiting so many places. If you ask me, a chota samosa at Paradise is enough to take you to foodie heaven. I have no idea if he tasted chota samosas anywhere in Hyderabad because I missed the beginning of the episode.

Two more things about Irani hotels before giving a rest to the salivary glands. During the Ramzan month all Irani joints in Hyderabad are closed for one day. This year that day fell on Saturday last. I couldn’t find a single Irani hotel open in Hyderabad. I was desperate for another cup of Irani but I had no such luck despite traveling the length and breadth of the city. All Irani chai addicts in Hyderabad must have had a terrible time on Saturday dealing with headaches and other withdrawal symptoms.

At Liberty, once upon a time there stood a magnificent Irani hotel called Mughal Durbar that served fantastic biryani. The place closed down several years ago leaving many in the Basheerbagh area heartbroken. In its place they were selling export linen and stuff until last week. Last week, I saw that Mughal Durbar had reopened at the same place but not in its earlier glory. One has to wait and see what happens in the coming days since now there is only a board and a couple of tables.

Grand Hotel near GPO Abids has undergone a complete makeover with steel furniture, new tiles and a totally new décor. Gone are the large wall mirrors that decorated the walls, the ancient tables and chairs, the smoke covered walls and the glass display cases at the main counter where a guy was always making bun maska. I felt sad because it was better the old way. The place had character but now it is all gone. The only heartening thing is that the place hasn’t closed down altogether.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Sunday Haul

I cannot say the same about other areas of my life but when it comes to finding books I like to think that I am one lucky bloke. This Sunday luck struck me again but before writing about what I found I want to recollect a similar instance. One book I was fortunate to find at Abids a couple of years ago was a book on a topic that I am passionate about (and also not very good at) which is- writing. The book I found was ‘Borges on Writing.’ It was edited by three people one of whom Jorge Luis Borges’ translator. The book was a transcript of a prose seminar Borges gave at Columbia University in 1971.

I did not mind paying hundred rupees to possess ‘Borges on Writing’ because it was worth more than that. In the book Borges talks about his writing and discusses how he wrote certain stories and poems. I had only heard about Borges but hadn’t read anything that he had written. But after I read a story that he discusses in detail, actually line by line, I understood what a marvelous writer he was. All through the reading of the story titled ‘The End of the Duel’ I had my hand to my throat because the story is all about cutting throats. Two rivals have their throats slit by executioners at the end of the story. It is a famous story that fuelled a desire to read more of his works but alas, I could not find any books by him at Abids. Last Sunday however, I got lucky.

I hadn’t noticed the book the first time but on a second pass my eyes fell on the small, slim Penguin 70s edition of ‘The Mirror of Ink’ by Jorge Luis Borges. If finding the book was a lucky thing, then getting it for only ten rupees was the icing on the cake. The book has seven of Borges’ most famous short stories: The Mirror of Ink, The Lottery in Babylon, The Library of Babel, The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, The Witness, Ragnarök, and Blue Tigers. Each story is just a few pages long and the longest story is ten pages in length in a book of only fifty six pages. I felt transported to another world when I read the title story- The Mirror of Ink. I plan to read one story at a time and s-l-o-w-l-y.

It was the only book I found last Sunday but it was a great find. Lucky me.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Two Book Readings

It was probably too much on the literary scene in Hyderabad the previous week with two book readings by two different authors on two consecutive days at two different places in Hyderabad. It had me in two minds about what to do but I anyway ended up attending both the readings that took place Friday and Saturday last. On Friday noted author Jaishree Misra read from her latest book ‘Secrets & Lies’ at the Jubilee Hills Odyssey, and on Saturday it was Amit Verma author of ‘My Friend Sancho’ at the Vikrampuri Odyssey store.

On Friday I expected quite a sizeable crowd at Jaishree Misra’s reading but I was surprised that not a single member of the la-di-da crowd that usually turns up at readings of famous authors was present at Odyssey. Then I realized that this swish set does not attend any book reading or launch unless the event is held at star hotels preferably the Grand Kakatiya at Begumpet in Hyderabad. Most of this crowd lives in Jubilee Hills so you cannot expect them to show up at any event happening in their backyard. It would have been oh so plebeian.

Anyway, the reading of Jaisree Mishra’s book created quite a record by lasting nearly an hour and half. Dr T Vijay Kumar was in conversation with a very down-to- earth and candid Jaishree Mishra for more than an hour. The talk began aptly with the cover and the title and meandered on with discussions whether the book was comes under the category of ‘chick lit’, historical fiction, censorship and so on. Meenakshi Mukherjee observed that the cover gives the impression it is a serious book than what it is being considered as i.e., chicklit. Though the noise of the café in the book store, the crowds moving in and out was a bit distracting, the event went on pretty well. Though I had not read any of Jaisree Misra’s books I picked up a copy and also got it signed.

The next day i.e., on Saturday I landed at the Vikrampuri branch of Odyssey for the reading of ‘My Friend Sancho’ by Amit Verma. The bookstore wasn’t exactly crowded which must have made the author to conclude that no one reads in Hyderabad. But if Hachette had taken care to hold the event at one of the star hotels then they would have been surprised how many would have turned up in their finest clothes. Given that the book had sold 14000 copies so far, having the event at a hotel would have been justified.

The reading began with one of the store’s employees doubling up as a compere, and I guess he gave it a Hyderabadi flavor that everybody present including the author will remember for a long time. After the introductions, it was the turn of the Hachette representative to tell the gathering all they needed to know about the Hachette group including how to pronounce ‘Hachette.’ For some reason she chose to address the crowd from behind a shelf with only her face showing. Then Sridala Swami took over and led the conversation with the author.

Amit Verma turned out to be funnier than his book. I had bought ‘My Friend Sancho’ in July and read it a few weeks later. When Amit Verma revealed that he had written the book in just five weeks it confirmed a feeling I had after I read the book- that it was written in haste, maybe to bank on the popularity of the author’s blog ‘India Uncut.’. I also felt that the book was written to fulfill some sort of a commitment but I might be wrong. After hearing Amit Verma talk about the book and other issues I felt he could have written a better book. Anyway, I hope his next book which I read somewhere is about an ICS officer, will be much better and also, funnier.

Amit Verma did not disappoint the crowd at Odyssey Hyderabad but the crowd must have disappointed him very much. Too bad no one had told him to have the reading at a posh hotel. Because the ambience is what draws Hyderabad’s elite book lovers more than the book itself.

Friday, September 04, 2009

In Mourning

As an officer in the government I mourn the tragic death of the Chief Minister of the State, Dr. Y.S. Rajashekara Reddy.

Next post will be on Monday.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Sunday Haul

Member of the Book Clan

‘I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning. I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth.’

‘Of those of us who comprise the real clan of the book, who read not to judge the reading of others but to take the measure of ourselves.’

These lines are from a book I have already a copy of – Anna Quindlen’s ‘How Reading Changed My Life’ that I found at Abids on Sunday. Just as I can never get enough of reading about writing I also cannot get enough of people, especially writers, talking about their reading, and about the books they love most. I had found this book maybe two years back and again this Sunday I found another similar copy and at the same rate I had picked up the first copy- ten rupees! It is a slim volume, not more than eighty five pages but contains an eloquent account of her love for reading and how it changed her life. I have started rereading the book while in the bus to my town. I was comforted by the thought that though I may not be with my family my books come with me wherever I go. By the way, Elmore Leonard also happens to be one author she loves to read. ‘Get Shorty’ is on a list at the back of the book.

The other book I found was Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Gentleman in the Parlour (A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong), a travel book that I was looking for since a long time. I was surprised to see that the copy I found was from a library of a college in the district I am working in now. I might be having a copy of the book but I don’t remember. I got the book for fifty rupees which was a bit on the high side but I guess it is worth it. I thought so when I read in the preface this comforting line: ‘I beg him (the reader) to remember that there is no language more difficult to write than English. No one ever learns all that there is to be known about it. In the long history of our literature it would be difficult to find more than six persons who have written it faultlessly.’ It means I don’t have to break my head trying to write faultless English. I am very unlikely one of those six.

I also found two brand new copies of the travel magazine ‘National Geographic Traveler’, the April 2009 and the May/June 2009 issue, both for only thirty rupees. The April 2009 issue had a one on one interview with Paul Theroux. In reply to a question related to the sequel (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star) to ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ regarding what had changed between the two trips Theroux reply was this: ‘Undoubtedly village life in rural India- the pattern of harvest, or drought, debt, hunger, and the pieties of Hinduism. This is in great contrast to parallel developments in information technology.’ In reply to a question about what the single most crucial thing to take on a trip he said- a very small shortwave radio. That’s sensible advice I think.

I was glad about the haul this Sunday but I missed buying a couple of new issues of ‘Conde Nast Traveller’ that I saw rather late by which time I had already exhausted my budget. The other day I had picked up a book at a book reading so I had overshot my budget which means I have to watch what I buy for the next few weeks.