This year in reading

2013 is drawing to an end – and  this year’s reading tally is 60 books (as against 32 in 2012). There were some book centric highlights during the year.  Mid-way through the year,  I took the  membership of the British Council Library.  A good library membership is great for a compulsive reader like me – this year one third of the 60 books I read were from BCL. Of course, there is a certain Commonwealth bias to their collection and it is a pity that we do not have access to a public library system. The membership ensured that I could have a selection of books at hand without crowding my already crowded book shelves at home.

The other special feature of the year was that I started to buy e-books – my earlier reading on e-device was from some .mobi files that I had got from a friend. This year both Flipkart and Amazon made it easier (and cheaper than the printed version) for us to download the books of our choice. And although still not my first option – every now and then, I have bought a book. However, i was always reading both e- and paper book simultaneously – and I always finished the paper one earlier. I am not sure, whether it reflects a prefarance or was it chance?

I also started using Goodreads to keep track of  my list. Of course,I have not abandoned my physical list – but Goodreads provides  a short summary of the story.  This is a very useful aid, as I find it hard to retain the name of books, authors and the story line. However, I seem to have clicked some button which has linked it to FB – and so everyone knows what I’m reading or want to!! Not too keen on this, but cannot find a way to delink.

The list of  60 has been varied – fiction, non-fiction, popular, historical etc. In spite of intentions to the contrary the non-fiction to fiction ratio was 13 to 76 – but some of the best books I read were from the non-fiction genre. “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skoot, which I have already written about was highly readable. More recently, ‘The mapmaker’s wife” by Robert Whitaker combined two of my favorite genres – travel and history. This is the remarkable story of a grand middle aged Peruvian lady, who traveled thousands of miles through the jungles down the Amazon to meet her husband in the mid-18th century. Thubron’s ‘Shadow of the Silk Road’ and ‘To a mountain in TIbet’ I would recommend to anyone who enjoys travel writing. And finally, Rushdie’s ‘Joseph Anton’ was readable and revealing – the details and extent to which the UK system went to provide him protection was revealing. Especially in light of our responses in such situations! I’d also recommend Lizzie Collingham’s ‘Curry’ ( a very well told tale of the history of Indian cooking) and David Quammer’s ‘The Kiwi’s egg’ (about the years Darwin spent between the end of the voyage on the Beagle in 1836  and the publication of his theory of natural selection in 1859).

Among the fiction, I read Eli Shafak, Alex Rutherford, MG Vassanji, Jaina Sanga, Indira Goswani, Sylvia Plath and many others. New releases by  authors that I had read before and proved disappointing include Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And the mountain echoed’, Shafak’s ‘The flea palace’, and Gunasekara’s “The prisoner of Paradise’.   Shafak’s ‘Shame’, Vassanji’s ‘The magic of Saida’, Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’, Mohsin Hamid’s ‘The reluctant fundamentalist’ were  among the more memorable books I read. And, I cannot end without special mention of JM Coetzee, whose every book (and I read 4 of them) was a delight.

But, I am afraid that among a host of good books, there is not one that I would call outstanding or memorable and I would want to read again!!!  I look forward to the coming year and hope that the ‘un-put-downable’ book is the next one I will pick up!!


Kailash and Mansarovar revisited!

Travel is a genre that I am partial to. Having enjoyed Mark Shand’s earlier book on his elephant adventure (Travels on my elephant) through Eastern India, I recently picked up his “River Dog”. I was attracted by the blurb which said that it was on a journey down the Brahmaputra. I only vaguely remember the content, but not the style of writing of the earlier book. However, I do remember that the protagonist was the elephant and should not have been surprised that the book was so dog – centric!! He recounts his trip from the point where the river enters Arunachal Pradesh to its final gush into the Bay of Bengal, large parts of it on boats.  The complexities of the travel permits, the encounters with the bureaucracy, the intricacies of the India-Bangladesh border, its porosity and complexity were interesting aspects. There were also interesting  references to the legendary British explorers of the past, especially in relation to the original tracing of the source and route of this magnificent river  through Tibet. The book has an easy to read style, but is a bit too casual and dwells too much on Shand’s own antics.

But the surprise element and the best part of the  book for me was  his trip to TIbet, with Charles Allen, another great adventurer/traveller/writer. Shand’s dream was to travel the full route of the Brahmaputra and since more that half its course runs in Tibet, he accepts Allen’s invitation to join an expedition in search of Shagri-La in TIbet. He believs that this would give him some tips to plan his own trip through this generally hostile terrain. So when I read this – “A panorama unfolded in front of me of such beauty that it would have taken my breath away ….. Behind me lay the great white necklace of the Gurla Mandata massif. To my right, just a few steps in fact, lay Mansarovar, or Mapham Tso, the ‘turquoise lake’ – a sphere of sapphire so bright, so blue, so enticing that I felt I could pick it and hold it in my hand.” – the words transported me to the moment just over a year ago, when I too had felt the awe and wonder of this most sacred of places in the world. I felt that if I had written a book on my trip to Kailash- Mansarovar, my words may have been almost identical. “To the north, over the far horizon directly in front of me, soaring above a range of desolate, brown and wind-blasted hills, was the crown jewel: Kailash, a perfect come of ice, the holiest of all mountains, the axis of the universe, the navel of the world. Most of us have experienced a moment in our lives when we are humbled by the sheer power and beauty of nature. But Kailash blew my mind. I was rooted to the spot – hypnotised. I’m not really a religious person, but i could well understand why devotees for thousands of years had prostrated themselves in awe on their first glimpse of the mountain. It was impossible not to believe that if there was  a god, this was where he lived. And it seemed to have the same effect on everybody else”. It reflected all my feelings and made me relive those precious moments again.

Shand’s primary focus was not the holy mountain. In fact, due to political tensions in the region, he had not traversed the Tibetan part of the Brahmaputra,  as was his original intention, up to the time of writing of “River Dog”. However, there was another book that I had been wanting to read – Colin Thubron’s “To a mountain in Tibet” – both because of Thubron’s iconic status in the travel genre writing and that it was in fact about a trek to Kailas. And thanks to the e-book access, I could download it immediately. This was  the meaty book I was  looking for, with vivid descriptions of the trek through the western Nepal Himalayas, over the Karnali pass into Tibet. This route was just a little east of the route we had taken through upper Pithoragarh, and over the Lipu Lekh pass. Both the routes finally took us to the tacky little town of Taklakote. As at Lipu, Karnali also had no marker, post or structure to mark a boundary – something that had struck me as strange.

Thubron describes the trek, its highs and lows, the amazing views and the physical challenges. ‘For hours, it seems, I was toiling upwards. The stones shift and grate underfoot. The body no longer seems quite my own.” You look back down the valley and wonder: How did I come so far?” Perhaps you have walked this path unawares, drugged by the rhythm of your boots, as if dreaming, and a passage of startling beauty or hardship wrenches you awake.” His prose evoked vivid memories of each of those 10-12  days of walking.

The major difference was that he was travelling alone, and staying at local monastries and village homes – providing him with opportunities to interact with locals and learn a little of their ways and life. This is, of course, the luxury of the true traveller! I, in my cosseted travel group, stayed at organized camps and could only catch a flavor, or at best guess, abaout  the life of the people in those regions. Thubron’s many interactions with the Buddhist monks, who were not part of the Pithoragarh route, leads him to marvel at their “lack of need. They might have already have passed through a painless, premature death. They have shed what others shed in dying. They will leave nothing material  behind them to be divided, claimed or loved.” And he goes on to “what it would be in the West to step outside the chain of bequeathal and inheritance, as they do, until human artefacts mean nothing at all”. He comes across  isolated communities, where after death the body is chopped an left on higher reaches for the birds to devour – a practice I thought only the Parsees followed.

Thubron also provides some insights into the history of travel into this region, something I was interested in but never got down to investigating. So it was nice to learn that the Jesuit missionary Desideri was the first European to set eyes on Kailas in 1715, and that the British had used many Hindu pilgrims to gather data on the region. There is also a brief description of the adventures of the Indian general Zorawar Singh, who had died a hero in these regions in 1841. A memorial in his name stands in the region even today. THere ar

There is detailed passages on the stay at Deraphuk, the squalor of these regions, the struggle for air to make it over the pass at 18,600 ft, the failure of  the many who do not! He encounters groups for Hindu pilgrims from India who actually have not made it over….. which made me realize how lucky we were that of the 55 who started in the group only one person failed to make it over. He also provides startling numbers about the deaths! While  not wanting to scarer anyone, I would only caution those wanting to do the ‘Parikrama’, to look into all the aspects, especially while using private tour operators.

The book has a good pace, and is thoughtfully written. It would be enjoyed as much by those who have not been there as I have. If I am asked “What  has been the best moment of your life?” I would not hesitate to say “Waking up to the view of Mount Kailash across the Mansarovar Lake” and I have been able to relive the experience through these pages.

The trail to the border

The trail to the border

Kailas across the Mansarovar

Kailas across the Mansarovar

General Zarawar Singh's memorial

General Zarawar Singh’s memorial

Links to my blogs on my trip










JM Coetzee again!

“Among middle-class Indians, for example, there must be many who have done their schooling in English, who routinely speak English in their workplace and at home (throwing in the odd local locution for coloring), who command other languages only imperfectly, yet who, as they listen to themselves speak or as they read what they have written have the uneasy feeling that there is something false going on” JM Coetzee in “Diary of a bad year”

This is part of an essay of  less than 500 words titled “On the mother tongue” and I wonder how does he know how I feel? The essay is  written by an ageing, famous author who is the protagonist. He has been invited to write a series of essays on contemporary subjects along with other famous authors. He employs an attractive young woman, who lives in the same apartment complex and whom he meets in the laundry room, to do the typing. The essays, his responses to the young woman and her responses to him run as parallel tales on each page of the book.

The author is a man of few words, not given to opening up too much and his attitude  towards the young woman is evident more from what he does not say, rather than from what he does.  From her accounts of the same events we can gather he is lonely with no family or friends and fatalistic attitude to his own life. She is garrulous, outgoing and is living with a much older man who has a devious mind. The events that unfold over the next few weeks, tell much about the characters and reveal unexpected depths where the least is expected.

But it is the essays themselves that are engaging and cover a wide range of subjects under two headings – Strong opinions (and by jove they are strong) and Second diary. The strong opinions are on ‘The origins of the state’, democracy, anarchy, Machavelli, Al-Qaida, Gauntanamo Bay, pedophilia, slaughter of animals etc… A

By now most of you must have gathered that I am a fan. I am going through all his books and none have disappointed so far. ” written in wonderful prose and as is his trademark, puts forward a simple, uncomplicated story line. In fact, there is not much of a story at all – a scenario is created by which Coetzee gets to talk on his philosophy and thoughts on a variety of issues.

Tales of displacements and transitions

Getting back to a library is a refreshing experience – and I must confess a novel one for recreational reading. It speaks  volumes about  our priorities in  nation building that  except during student years, we have no access to a library!! And I am not sure how good college libraries are – having been in medical Institutions all my life, I know that college libraries seldom have the money except for course related books.  So, I am enjoying my new membership to the British Council library in Delhi!! Although I am familiar with many British authors, there is a feeling of freedom in selecting at random, new names and titles, without the sense of hesitation about shelling out cash for something that may be a bit of a gamble!!

It struck me as really interesting that four of the six books I picked on my last trip, have dealt with issues related to political transitions and resultant adjustments. Vastly different in the period and locale, the human issues related to such events seem to be of interest to a number of writers of fiction.  I picked up “The year before sunset” by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, partly because they were the familiar, early travel writers who featured often in the Sunday papers  in the pre-internet/travel blog era and partly because the blurb said it was a book set in pre -partition India of 1946. The story is that of a young English boy from a family that identifies itself with India rather than ‘Queen and mother country’ in the fragile environment of that time. His trials and tribulations amongst the Burra Sahibs who  can only talk of their return to England and the Anglo-Indian community form the core of the story.  A scenario with great potential, the book provides an unsatisfactory glimpse into the life of the Anglo-Indian community, and the effort to build some tension around a so-called rebel Indian freedom fighter is not at all convincing. A number of typical stereotyped characters and a mediocre prose make for a poor book.

Coincidentally Paul Theroux’s “Kowloon Tong” is set in 1996, a year prior to the handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese.  Bunt (short for Baby Bunting) is a forty+ Englishman born and brought up in the colony, who owns a clothing factory and lives with his elderly mother. While around them their ex-pat brethren feel betrayed by the British, but feel that they have no option but to go back ‘home’, Bunt has no such plans. He is comfortable with the double life he leads between this world and the world of Hong Kong bars and night clubs and hookers. However, he cannot stay untouched by the transition and forced encounter with the Chinese way of working and the ultimate move out of Hong Kong make for an interesting story. Theroux is better known for his travel writing and this was his first work of fiction that I have read. It is a well written book that leaves you feeling sympathetic with Bunt’s plight at the end!!

Anne Tyler’s “Digging in America” is about adjustments that follow political events – in this case, the over turning of the Shah in Iran. Set in the  90s and post 9/11 US, it deals with the issue of adjustments and cultural clashes. Even for a completely integrated Iranian family, the close friendship with a  American family brings forth the deep insecurities that even second generation immigrants cannot completely shed. The protagonist is a sixty something Iranian widow, is unlike most of her fellow immigrants from Iran in that as a student she had been part of the anti-Shah protests. So, she is culturally still alienated from the American way of life, and in many ways also alienated form her own community. Her coming to terms with herself  and her the people around, including an attentive elderly American widower are sensitively dealt with. Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer awarded novelist, and quite prolific I find – but this was my first book and I really liked it.

And finally, Colin Thubron’s ‘Turning back the sun’ – is a grim and serious political tale set in a undefined place and time. He is a celebrated  travel writer and that is evident in his descriptions of the countryside – evidently the Australian bush. The politics of controlled regimes and the life of the marginalized, in this case the Aborginal people, are vividly picturised. For me, in the India of today, the scenario could very well be something we could see around us – what with political parties preaching restrictions on internal movement of people, the plight of the tribal communities etc…… The book is slow but absorbing – not the usual light tale and may not be most people’s ‘cup of tea’ – and makes one think. Well written too, the title referring to an aborginal myth. THubron, also better known as a travel writer, did surprise me with this novel.

So, was it just a coincidence – or is it that there is so much shifting and churning in the world that it is written about by so many?

A day for every occasion?

Why was I not surprised when someone posted on FB earlier this week that it was “Book lover’s day” (9th August)?  ‘Where did this come from?’ I thought. And googling it led me to the ‘Days of the year’ website from where I learn that today is “Play in the sand day”, yesterday was “Garage sale day” and tomorrow will be “Vinyl record day” –  and  so it goes on…. Who made these days and what purpose does it serve?

Well some of these have been around for some time – like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. This is a list to which new days are being constantly added,  probably born in the marketing department of Hallmark!  Some like “Doctor’s day” fall on different dates in different countries. However, there is a more staid and less commercial list which I found  – an official United Nations list of  ‘days’!!  Many of these are meant to commemorate events, which should not fall out of our collective memory, such as the day to remember  victims of the holocaust that falls on January 27th. Many others are meant to generate wider awareness on issues such as gender equality (International Women’s day on 8th March) or the harm done by tobacco (World No-tobacco day on 31st May).

But getting back to the “Book lover’s day” – I loved this one because, although I am a Mother, Sister, Doctor, Teacher (in the Indian list, on 5th September) etc. – a book lover is who I really am!! Besides the “Days of the Year’ designated day, 23rd April is the official “World Book and Copyright Day” on the UN list. How is it that publishers and book sellers don’t promote these days?

As literacy improves, more and more people are reading, as was reported in a recent HT survey – and more  will be lured into the world of books, if the exposure is provided at the right time!  Books are not only for providing information and knowledge.  It is the magic of the stories that finally catch our imagination and get us hooked! Today movies are the entertainment of the masses  – but movies take us to another world for the time we are watching, providing a temporary  escape from the realities of the present. However, they don’t stroke our imagination and satisfy those corners of the mind and the soul which need only a little fuel to light a bonfire. Only stories can do that and in the absence of the oral story telling traditions of old, which we have lost in our rapidly evolving life style, books have to fill the void.And they will……

Hence, it is important that we as a society think of ways to provide the access, with innovations and imagination. I was impressed with an effort from S Africa, which has leveraged the widely available photocopier to widen access. I am sure there are many other possibilities – and it is not only better educational standards but also the opportunities to read and imagine, that will spark innovations, the lack of which we seem to be constantly ruing about!

What is a literary classic?

In my growing years, the only thing that my father occasionally indulged me with,  no non- occasions, was to buy me a book. But I could get one only if I bought a classic – and so I got  books by Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Walter Scott etc, all considered classics,  on various visits to Faquir Chand at Khan Market. The once a year birthday treat was the occasion when I was allowed a non-classic – Enid Blyton and the like!! Under my father’s guidance, I ended up reading a lot of the ‘classics’.

I have always wondered what makes one book a classic and the other not! Who decides and are there criteria? During the ‘millenium’ hype, there were a lot of ‘Books of the 20th century” lists around and every now and then different organizations bring out book lists of “100 best” , “Must read”  “of all time”, “of the 20th century”, etc. Some cut across languages – most of the 100 best will have Marquez, Tolstoy, Hugo etc…Others are more English specific. In any case, due to my early push into the traditional “classics”, I find that I have read quite a few of the books in these lists – the ones I have not are most often the early American writers like Hawthorne or Thoreau. Somehow, my father did not have a leaning in that direction. To the later Americans he was very partial, and so I read a lot of O’hara (some of the best short stories ever!), Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald etc and many post-war writers like Mary McCarthy. Which of these are classics?

So, I thought this list of 14 criteria for a ‘classic’ by Itlao Calvino was interesting.

  1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading….’
  2. The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
  3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.
  4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
  5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
  6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.
  7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.
  8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.
  9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
  10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.
  11. ‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
  12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.
  13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.
  14. A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

Of course it does not say, how many of these criteria have to be fulfilled by any one book to qualify!! But going by many of these, there are very few of the books I have read that would qualify. I don’t remember re-reading any Dickens, or Scott or even a Hemingway and the closest to my ‘classic’ would be Du Murier’s “Rebecca” and Marquez “One hundred years of solitude”.

Although Mukta was also an avid reader, and was probably pursuaded/bullied by me to read the ‘classics’ I am not sure she did, except the occasional one here and there. Udai, all of 9 years and also a great reader, is of the current generation Except the abbreviated versions of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe (maybe one or two others) when he was much younger, I am sure he will never want to read the classic ‘classics’!! And going by many of Calvino’s criteria he would definitely rate all of  Rowling’s Harry Potter books as uncontested “Classics”.

So, the question remains – what is a classic?

Enjoying the ‘travel’ genre

Even among hard core readers, travel is considered a niche genre – and liking travel has nothing to do with liking or disliking the genre. I love to travel and enjoy nature destinations as much as cultural ones. But for the ordinary ‘traveler’ today, the experience is of a well wheeled tour to a well visited destination and the visual recording (with eyes and camera) of the ‘must see’ and ‘must do’ items related to that destination. And we keep ticking each destination off from this list we have in our head! Oh yes, with this trip I have visited all the (visiteable) continents,  this is my fifth Ancient Wonder of the World, that is my third Modern Wonder of the World and so on.The airlines take us to every possible part of the world, there are hotels that promise to be ‘home away from home’ and where is it that you cannot get Coke and a big Mac?  Obviously, recounting such travel may not bring in a readership.

The great travelers of yore were true adventurers, who set out from home for the sheer challenge of it and were stimulated by the unknown and the possibility of danger.  The iconic travellers who would be in any list of great travelers would include Xuanzang  (travelled from Central Asia to India in the 7th century in search of the home of Buddhism),  Ibn Battuta (a Moroccon who traveled 120,000 km in the 14th century visiting India twice), Christopher Columbus (made 4 voyages across the Atlantic in the 15th century), Captain Cook (who circumnavigated the globe twice and visited all 7 continents in the 18th century). They did not write travel books, but accounts of their experiences are the few and rare sources of information of those times.

The modern day travel books are written for what they actually are – accounts of planned travels for an audience that are interested in their stories. So, it is not just a magazine article on a place for an armchair traveler with “How to get there” and “Where to stay” –  but a transmission of the excitement of travel and discovery of new lands by a passionate traveler, through his/her writings. Of the many travel writers I have read, those that come to mind are Bruce Chatwin (Patagonia, Australia), Mackintosh-Smith (Travels of Ibn-Battutah), Paul Thoeaux (The great  railway bazaar), Bill Bryson (many destinations, always entertaining), Eric Newby (The Ganges, The Hindukush). These books take you through the history, the politics, the romance and most of all the color, smell and flavor of the lands that are described.

I just finished reading “Shadow of the Silk Road” by Colin Thubron. I just picked it up at the book shop as I found the blurb interesting and later learnt that he is a well recognized travel writer – although this particular book is not rated by critics among his best. The book describes his travels from Xian in Central China through Central China skirting the Taklamakan desert, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazhakstan, Afghanistan, Iran to Antioch in Turkey tracing the old Silk route. I found it fascinating, since these are regions and cultures we know so little about. The journey was in 2002, the year of the SARS outbreak. Except for the early days in Central China, the route was entirely through Islamic regions. But Buddhism flourished in Central Asia for many centuries prior to Islam and Thubron went hunting for the few stupas and caves that remain in these hostile, sparsely populated regions.

At the age of 60+ (he is 8 years older than I am), with only some Mandarin to help him,travel through such hostile climates, terrains, peoples and politics is nothing but admirable. The pace of the writing lags at times, but on the whole it kept me awake and interested through out the journey. This may not be among the best – but a real travel book for the lovers of this genre.