Thursday, April 19, 2018

Dusk in the hills...

As the blue sky fades and gives way to a grey flecked with golden hues, a dog barks in the distant valley. You hear the wind rustle through the trees, feel its breath across your arms and face, before it dies mid exhalation, replaced by a moment of absolute stillness. Then a sparrow chirps, other dogs begin to answer the persistent call of their brother across the hills, and the trees above break into a chorus of birdsong. 

Somewhere on a distant road an old jeep grudgingly trundles up the winding road. You feel the breeze again and hear the distant banging of a wooden door. You crinkle your nose as you sense the sharp smell of smoke from a wood fire, from several wood fires, as the sun sinks behind the distant mountain and the chill spreads from your toes to the soles of your feet. 

The hills darken and on every hill, across the valley and all the way towards the distant mountains, tiny points of golden light glimmer like fireflies. The sky turns purple, studded with thousands of diamonds. In the distance you hear thunder rumble, and know that sometime in the night the clouds will roll across from the valley. 

It’s time to go inside. 

Maybe there will be rain and sheets of lightning at night, but even if there isn’t there will be dew, drenching every blade of glass when you wake up. To a morning when the the sky is bluer than crystal and the air is crisper and sharper than a pine needle. 

But let us speak of dawn in the hills another day...

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

#blahvsfood on why I’m writing about food

I should not be writing about food.

I grew up in Shillong in the 80’s. I knew Khasi  food and Bengali food and nothing else. I didn’t taste a Biryani or a Kabab till I was 16, while a Dosa was as exotic a dish as any I had ever tasted. Even today, I know nothing about ingredients and flavours and technique, I don’t know how dishes are created and made. In fact whenever I’m asked to judge a food award I feel surprised... because I’m not a food expert or food critic or food blogger. I’m just a guy who likes to eat (a lot)! 

So why is it that I’m writing about food? Because contrary to what the experts claim, food isn’t really about just how it tastes, nor is it about how it is created. Of course these things are imkportant, but food is an experience that goes far beyond the sensory.

Close your eyes and think of the best food memory you have. What you remember is not how it tasted, but how it made you feel. Chances are your memory is closer to an aloo paratha in Karnal than a 5-Star meal, shared with people you loved, from a time in your life that was special. Food’s ability to blend memory, nostalgia and emotion, to transport you across time and place and relive the “feeling” of a moment and the sense of intense connection with the people you shared that moment with... this ability transcends taste. It allows food, like music, and like love, to form one of the bedrock emotional foundations of our lives. 

When we think of the emotional experience of food, we are often transported to our childhood. However, my own experience tells me that the emotion of food has nothing to do with childhood or nostalgia but to the sense of discovery and freshness. Childhood is the one time in our lives when every experience is fresh, not completely hard coded into fully developed synapses. Whereas in our adult lives far too many of us have very specific tastes and likes and dislikes, favourites and touch me nots, rigid rules and strong preferences fused together with society and conditioning, having buried the openness to new experiences we have as children. 

 From the multitude of examples I could speak of let me highlight just two. Last year in October I ate Thomas Zachariah’s Malayalee Duck Curry at The Bombay Canteen, made with his grandmother’s recipe, a silky smooth peppery curry with a perfectly cooked duck, crisp on the outside, moist on the inside. As I broke off a piece of egg appam and had my first bite I had to close my eyes. I felt transported to Kerala, I could see his “Amma” serving a bunch of mischievous children, I could sense the coconut trees around me. But this didn’t make sense! I’m not from Kerala. In fact, I’ve been there 4 times in 4 decades. The coconut and banana trees are miles removed from the pine scented hills of Shillong. Yet there I was, transported into an emotional memory, created by my imagination, triggered by taste, like a character in a Marquez novel.

I had a similar experience in New York in 2016, where I ate one of the best meals of my life at 11 Madison Park, which soon after was anointed the best restaurant in the world. But when I look back at the trip, the meal I remember most was at Red Rooster at Harlem, where a Swedish Ethiopian Chef (Marcus Samuelson) cooked a classic southern style American fried chicken cooked in buttermilk that felt like it touched some part of my soul! 

Which brings me back to why am I writing about food. Because while I may not know anything about how food is made, I do know how food can make you feel, its ability to take you to a place of surprise and imagination or to the comfort of memory. I have spent much of my adult life creating these magical moments from the back streets of Nizamuddin to the world’s greatest . In a world where everything we consume is superficial, from the books we read to cookie clutter 5 Star beach resorts, food allows me to discover and explore aspects of the world that are hidden away, to have conversations with strangers that illuminate a culture, to create memories infused with happiness. 

My father passed away in November and a week after that I had this great craving for a Spaghetti Carbonara, one that was finally satiated when the great Chef Gresham Fernandes sent some pasta across. I wondered later why Spaghetti Carbonara, because it literally had nothing to do with my memories of my father or growing up, in fact I don’t even like pasta that much! But then it struck me. 15 years ago, in my early twenties, my parents visited me in Bangalore. My career was just starting to take off, my parents were in good health and so I took them to a restaurant called 100 Feet in Indiranagar where I ate a spaghetti carbonara. It was a day I remember still, the future pregnant with possibility and the present suffused with pride and happiness, at the inflection point between youth and adulthood when the boy was not yet a man. 

Without my knowing it and realising it, my craving took me back to the emotion of the moment, giving me, as I ate the pasta, a sense of fulfilment, gratitude and closure.. a reminder that for all of life’s vicissitudes we’ve been fortunate to live the lives we live and have the families we have. 

That is the power of food, and that is why I write about it. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

#blahvsfood: The Best of 2017

Any year where you have eaten at 8 of the world’s Top 100 restaurants, 8 of Asia’s Top 50, 22 of India’s Top 50, drunk more than 45 different kinds of gin and more than 42 different beers and ciders is a year where you have eaten well and drunk well! 

So it’s saying a lot about the genius of Gaggan Anand, that my meal at Gaggan was by some distance the best meal I’ve had this year, and one of the best I’ve had in my life. This is no longer a modern Indian Restaurant. You see dishes from across India, Japan and South East Asia reimagined, reinvented, distilled to pure flavour and presented with playfulness to create a meal that is unforgettable. I need to go back again before it shuts.

In India, this was the year I rediscovered Indian Accent. As someone who has been going there for 7-8 years, I think I was looking for some sort of newness in the dishes and the approach. The new menu at the new venue at the Lodhi Hotel surpasses all my expectations. What I love about Indian Accent is that for all the technique and all the presentation, the fundamental principle is taste. A hearty familiarity, a warmth where if you closed your eyes you could be tasting food from grandmothers’ kitchens. 

Bombay Canteen has come into its own as a restaurant that is as revolutionary today as Indian Accent was a decade ago. It is making Indian food fun and accessible while sitting and bringing us flavours and dishes that have never been served in a restaurant before. No restaurant is as committed to bringing the breadth of India’s food heritage to our tables, no restaurant is upping its game as relentlessly where every 6 months it finds a whole other level. We didn’t realise it when it opened but in terms of pure food, Bombay Canteen is a game changer. Thomas Zachariah is cooking in a way no one else in India is, marrying the comfort and warmth of home cooking with technique that ensures that everything is cooked to perfection. The silky grandmother’s Kerala duck curry he cooked for me is one of my dishes of the year, and I still get visions of the perfection with which the duck was cooked and how it complemented the curry. Bombay Canteen will be in San Pellegrino’s Top 100 within the next 2 years. 

Poh is the best new restaurant in India. Chef Vikramjit Roy has simplified his food since Tian, with less focus on flashy technique and elaborate presentation. With each iteration of the menu, the flavours get richer, the freshness of his ingredients and produce shines, the presentation gets simpler and the star of the show is his food. I have not eaten Asian food like this anywhere in the world, it it’s own way it’s as creative as when Matauhita created modern Japanese cuisine at Nobu. I know that’s a statement that will lead people to accuse me of hyperbole, but I have followed Vikramjit’s evolution as a Chef for 6 years now and the sense I get is that over the next 2 years this is a Chef who will come into his own. And by the way, Poh serves hands down the best sushi and sashimi in India, miles miles ahead of Wasabi. 

India’s bravest Restaurant is Masque. I sometimujjes fear that Prateek Sandhu is a Chef who is ahead of his time for Mumbai. A locally sourced tasting menu, with an emphasis on foraging, fermentation and minimalist presentation, this is a restaurant that would hit it out of the park in New York or Scandinavia. I am thankful for the recognition he and the Restaurant are now getting because this is a Restaurant that deserves to thrive. This is my other bet for San Pellegrino’s Top 100. 

I am also glad to see Bawmra Jap’s Bomras finally get the recognition he deserves. In addition to the usual favourites, he also cooked me a meal of his traditional food, ethnic to his tribe in Burma that I won’t forget. His genius deserves a wider platform because it’s crazy that the world’s best Burmese Restaurant continues to be so little known after close to a decade. 

This year saw Alex Sanchez leave The Table so I hope that whoever replaces him continues to live up to the extraordinary high standards he set. This is one of India’s great restaurants and deserves a great chef. Meanwhile whenever Alex comes back to India and whatever he does next will be a Restaurant worth visiting! 

Gresham Fernandes continues to be the secret superstar of Indian cooking. No Chef in India has better technique. The mad genius sits at St.Jude’s creating avant garde dishes that could easily be served at 11 Madison Avenue. This guy needs a restaurant because I genuinely think Gresham could pop globally the way Gaggan has. He is cooking at the cutting edge of global cuisine. 

Manu Chandra is the other great Indian Chef who doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It’s a bit of a tragedy that his empire across Fatty Bao, Monkey Bar etc means that he is better known as a Restauranter than a Chef, and his cooking is judged basis his chains. Just go to the criminally underrated Toast and Tonic in Bangalore and you will realise how ahead of his time he is in terms of marrying the trends of Farm to Table and Comfort Cooking. 

For seafood, my go to place continues to be Kelvin Cheung’s Bastian. It’s miles ahead of the butter garlic crab at Trishna or the food at Gajalee and I don’t understand why I don’t go there every month.

For Indian Food at the 5 stars, the South Indian restaurants like Karavalli are the ones that genuinely set the standard far more than the Bukharas of the world. But the best Indian food is still found in standalone smaller places and we need to do more to break out of the butter chicken dosa stereotype of Indian food.

Bhatti Village in Goa is probably the best Indian Restaurant around. Every single thing is just perfect. 
Vinayak is Assagao has some phenomenal fish. For ghee roast prawns look no further than Sanigade in bangalore. Wildspice has a fiery Pandhi curry that puts Dakshin to shame. 
Best Biryani I ate this year was at Thallakapattu Biryani on the Coimbatore Coonoor highway. Or was it the always exceptional prawn Biryani at Grand Hotel?
For Sheekh kabab Ghalib at Nizamuddin has made the best Sheekh kababs and buffalo tikkas for close to 50 years now.
Bangalore Oota company serves the best local food in Bangalore while my mother makes the best pork dish in the world in her Khasi pork with Black sesame seeds. 
The other exceptional local food I ate was at an Air B&B at Allepey as well as another extraordinary houseboat meal. 

Speaking of local Food, I went to all 3 great Thai restaurants Nahm, Bo.Lan and Issaya Kitchen but none of them came close to local food in smaller places. I’ll go to Bangkok again to eat at Gaggan, Suhring and Eat Me. But every single Thai meal will be in a small local place. I’m also not sure I would go back to GAA. It’s very good. But it’s not exceptional.

Besides Gaggan my best International meal was at The Ledbury. It doesn’t seem to get the hype it deserves but those beautiful clean flavours have lingered in my memory even more than Clove Club and Hedone. 
In Amsterdam, BAK did things with vegetables that left me and my friends astounded while Bord’eau was just classic food cooked to perfection.

In Singapore, Burnt Ends is a temple for perfectly cooked meat and probably the best restaurant in the city now that the legendary Andres is shut. Neon Pigeon was also very good while Din Tai Fung is the one place I would eat at if I had a single meal at Singapore. Crystal Jade comes close but not quite. 
Singapore also has the best gin bar I’ve ever been to, the Art Deco Atlas Bar. Vijay Mudaliar in Native is serving the coolest alcohol I’ve had all year. 

Among the other newer places, I really really love the modern French at Slink and Bardot and I enjoyed Smoke Co in Bangalore. The most disappointing new place on the other hand was Forage. It’s good but I was expecting extraordinary because of my love of Grasshopper. 

I don’t think Kode was disappointing for me because it was exactly what I expect from every restaurant in the Massive Restaurants empire... soulless, pretentious, unoriginal food. Masala Library in CP is the only one that gives me hope because Saurabh Udina is one of the best young chefs around and I hope Sahil at Papaya fulfils his undoubted potential. 

Well that’s it for this year. I’ve eaten well over 250-300 restaurant meals. Some may say it’s excessive. But hey you only live once and when it comes to #blahvsfood, I think Blah is winning with every single great meal I eat! 

Happy eating in 2018!

Ps: special thanks to Prateek Sandhu for your Kashmiri meal, Thomas Zachariah for the amazing off menu meal you cooked, Nafisa auntie for yet another great Bohri meal, Bawmra for treating me to the food of your family. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

BOOKS READ IN 2017. 44 books. 44 reviews.

1) The Story of a New Name - Elena Ferrante
I've not seen anyone write on friendship with such brutal honesty and rawness in a long, long time. 

2) The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
Unlike Ayn Rand, this continues to retain the freshness, the brilliance, the sensitivity it had when I read it as a teenager. It's rare for a book you loved at your teens to still be so relatable and moving as you approach your forties. This book is eternal. 

3) Second Hand Time - Svetlana Alexeivich. 
One of the most powerful works of non-fiction I have ever read. It makes you despair at mankind's innate cruelty, and makes you wonder how it is that hope and humanity continue to survive. It makes you question yourself and the world you live in. It forces you to examine the society and country you live in. And most importantly at a time when intolerance, greed and anger are on a seemingly unstoppable march forward, it's a powerful reminder of where this journey inevitably leads to and chronicles the long term human cost with unflinching honesty and extraordinary compassion. 

4) Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay - Elena Ferrante. 
Makes me feel that male authors should never write from the perspective of female characters or narrators. I don't think any man can ever capture this kind of emotional impact in a female character, this kind of clear-eyed, unsentimental examination of marriage and motherhood. 

5) 1991: How P. V. Narsimha Rao Made History - Sanjaya Baru. 
Not the most well written way to explore my hypothesis that PV Narsimha Rao was probably India's most consequential Prime Minister 

6) Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers - Tim Ferris. 
This is a life changing book if read right. I plan to keep a copy in my home permanently. 

7) An Unsuitable Boy - Karan Johar with Poonam Saxena. 
Very honest especially the parts on his childhood. 

8) The Story of the Lost Child - Elena Ferrante. 
Somewhere between book 2 and the middle of book 4 I started finding the plot points of the Neapolitan quartet a little predicable, the political narrative in the background a bit forced. 
But then I finished the book and I was blown away by the sweeping arc of the tale, over all 4 books. You need to look past the superficial political commentary and the occasional predictability. Because the raw human emotion, the ugliness and beauty of friendship and love, the brutal honesty with with she strips bare human motivations and feelings is nothing short of masterful

9) Khullam Khulla - Rishi Kapoor. 
This is like an oral history of Bollywood from its earliest days with a wonderful afterword written by Neetu Kapoor 

10) The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje
This isn't a book a prose but of poetry masquerading as prose. A deeply moving poem about love and loss, one whose impact is magnified and multiplied by having seen the movie version recently. I believe that the books are almost always better than the movie versions, and this book is hauntingly and heartbreakingly beautiful, but it still isn't as good as the movie. In fact it feels almost like a companion piece that reminds me why the English Patient is one of the best movies I have ever seen. A movie that takes a magical poetic book and turns it into the most intense, aching, unforgettable love story I have ever seen.

11) What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - Raymond Carver. 
Behind the deceptive simplicity of the writing, this is rock hard writing, the kind I haven't read since Hemingway. It is raw. It is tough. It is powerful. It is devoid of all sentimentality. It does away with plot to describe a scene, a moment, a conversation and allows the reader to create a world, a back story, a narrative that shines a mirror on the world in all its brutal reality. This writing reinvents the short story. This writing is genius. 

12) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari. 
Barely 2-3 good original ideas (like imagined realities), nothing that wasn’t covered with much greater depth and insight 2 decades ago in Guns, Germs and Steel. This is reductive, simplistic writing.  The repetitive style doesn't help. 

13) Auto da Fe - Elias Canetti. 
With its dark humour and surrealism, this Nobel Prize winning examination of greed, ego, obsession and madness makes for uncomfortable reading. There are no good people in Auto da Fe.. just mankind in all its selfish, self-absorbed ugliness. It may seem parodic but it holds a brutal mirror to the reader. Disturbing. 

14) The Night Manager - John le Carre. 
A hundred pages in I was thinking this seems so familiar, it feels almost repetitive. By the end of it I was reminded of music. Just because the genre is the same, and the music feels familiar, it doesn't mean the album isn't satisfying. A new book from Le Carre is like a great new song from a favourite musician. Master! 

15) Payoff - Dan Ariley. 
Reminder 1: Never ever read a book based on a Ted Talk. Reminder 2: Ted Talks are overrated 

16) Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell. 
Genius structure. Big themes. Stylistic range. Humour. This book deserves every bit of praise it has ever received. It's like reading pulp fiction and serious literature at the same time. Extraordinary 

17) The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed The World - Michael Lewis. 
Thinking Fast and Slow is probably the book that has influenced me more than any other. So it's wonderful to read about the men that changed the way we understand ourselves and our minds. 

18) The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi and Godhra - Manoj Mitta. 
Irrefutable proof of the miscarriage of justice that followed the Gujarat riots. But hey, this is India in the 21st century, a majoritarian theocracy. So no one really cares :(

19) The Last Temptation - Nikos Kazantzakis. 
I am an atheist but like My Gita last year, this book moved me immensely  and reminded me why religion at its best can be a beautiful and powerful thing. Strip away the violence and the divisiveness, and ultimately the core of every religion is always about acceptance, love and goodness. Poetically written, this humanises Jesus in a way that is powerful and inspiring. 

20) East of Eden - John Steinbeck. 
Not what I expected at all! I thought that it would be dense and a hard read but ended up being a beautiful, poetic and deep page-turner of a family drama. Writing that would have influenced everyone from Elena Ferrente to Jeffery Archer with a deeply empathetic understanding of human motivations and a lyrical ability to describe the beauty and hardness of life. 

21) What's Left? - Nick Cohen.  
I don't remember who recommended this book but I hate repetitive polemical books. So little to say that's new. So many ways of saying it again and again. 

22) A History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield. 
I wish the writing style was crisper and had more of a narrative rather than academic feel but this is the most comprehensive history of the Middle East you could ever hope to read 

23) The Sellout - Paul Beatty. 
Maybe I'm an idiot but I just didn't get it. Too many references to too many things. It's like David Foster Wallace. I find it hard to read authors who are so conscious of their knowledge and intelligence and so keen to showcase it on every page 

24) Looking for the Rainbow: My Years With Daddy - Ruskin Bond
This children's book is one I would like all my sons to read. A beautiful, elegiac, moving tribute to the father son relationship in a more innocent time 

25) Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance - Harsh Mander. 
A reminder that even being able to write this sentence is a sign of the extraordinarily privileged life I have, as do you, the person reading this. One of India's great conscience keepers, and yet one who in these times, is largely unheard.

26) A Fraction of the Whole - Steve Tolz. 
Hilarious, irreverent and profound. This is a philosophical, laugh out loud roller coaster of a book. A book that is bitterly satirical about media, consumerism and modern society. A book that examines big themes like death, family, individual identity and father/son relationships. A book of deep ideas couched in the funniest, wittiest writing I have read in a long long time. Read it! 

27) The Ministry of Utmost Happiness - Arundhati Roy. 
Beautifully written in parts but struggles every time it tries to make a larger political point. Arundhati Roy works best when describing the personal and intimate with empathy, understanding and sensitivity. The moment she moves into making a larger point about political injustice the book loses nuance, becomes polemical and feels like the kind of ideological, imbalanced narratives much beloved of 21 year olds. 

28) Atomised - Michel Houllebecq. 
Classic French existentialist navel gazing. This whole thing of lonely, empty, depressed individuals looking for sexual thrills and some deeper purpose feels repetitive now. 

29) The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto - Mario Vargas Llosa. 
A Nobel prize winner does erotica but doesn't do it well. The surrealism seems forced and almost like Tinto Brass, the philosophising is dreary, and it's hopelessly predictable 

30) The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing - Al Ries and Jack Trout. 
It's amazing how 25 years later, how many of these laws still hold good! 

31) Fire in Babylon : How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet - Simon Lister. 
A few interesting anecdotes and good context but it suffers from the lack of a narrative arc. The loosely chronological structure that flips back to provide context ends up being a series of scenes and incidents rather than building towards a coherent point or narrative 

32) The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa. 
After a few chapters I was wondering why this novel is seen as such a classic but by the time you finish it, there is no questioning its brilliance. It surpassed The Great Gatsby for me in how it meditates upon a changing world and the move to a modern society through the story of an individual. Poetic, timeless and profound. 

33) Being Mortal : Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande. 
Must read for everyone contemplating the nature of illness and old age, whether for themselves or for loved ones. Makes you fundamentally relook at the choices and decisions you make and your reasons for them.

34) The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda - Ali H. Soufan with Daniel Freedman. 
Not the most well written but definitely the most comprehensive book about the rise of Al Qaeda. It's shocking how dysfunctional and uncoordinated the anti-terror initiatives were 

35) Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa - Haruki Murakami. 
I understood nothing about the musical aspects but I just loved reading about how a creative genius explores his art

36) Batman: The Killing Joke - Alan Moore with Brian Bolland. 
I'm still struggling to find graphic novels that do noir like the reimagined batman from 20-30 years ago. Another classic for the vault 

37) Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy. 
What felt halfway through like a Russian Jane Austen metamorphosed into a book of big big themes and ideas. Female sexuality, the nature of rural and urban societies, economy, love, jealousy, a changing social order and more! I wish there was more emotion in the characters besides Anna and Levin but there are moments where a single observation or phrase reveals character so brilliantly, you know you are in the hands of a master

38) Dear Life - Alice Munro. 
Alice Munro's ability to create completely formed characters of immense depth in a few pages or even a few sentences is unparalleled. This collection has her usual brilliance, spinning out short stories that have the depth, insight, fully formed worlds and poignancy that most novels can only dream of achieving. But even her own short stories don't compare to the four semi-autobiographical vignettes in the finale section. These aren't stories. Just fragmented memories from childhood, half remembered, with more than a tinge of darkness, and a hardness that's closer to Raymond Carver. Pure genius. 

39) The Blood Telegram: India's Secret War in East Pakistan - Gary J Bass. 
The access to declassified tapes may shed detail on Nixon and Indira Gandhi’s mutual antipathy but this book lacks both geopolitical and military depth. It’s a salacious chronicle of personal dislikes rather than an insightful or revelatory historical book. 

40) Underworld - Don Dellillo. 
A modern masterpiece that will stand the test of time. It’s not just the structure because a story told backwards could be gimmicky. But here it serves to add depth to every character, a pathos, a sense of familiarity and recognition . This is a novel about America but it feels deeply personal and intimate, a story of individuals and families and communities and hopes and dreams. All told with some of the most beautiful prose you will ever read in English, writing that has both lyricism and hardness, with the smell of street and sweat and the dryness of the desert. Utterly unforgettable. 

41) Cosmos - Carl Sagan. 
I can see why this book was such a phenomenon when it came out but I wish there was a contemporary book that captured the wonder and magic of the cosmos in today’s scientific era

42) Mao: The Unknown Story - Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. 
This powerful, searing indictment of Mao is a must read for all the people who buy into the whole idea of the China being a political and economic model to emulate. I know that China is efficient and that its economy is not just massive but continuing to grow. However it is important to read this book to understand the catastrophic human costs that were paid to create this wealth.. death and destruction at a level that compares to the regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. 

43) The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence - Martin Meredith.
The definitive history of post colonial Africa. After reading this masterful book, I just wish there was a companion piece that delved into the “why” behind the “What”, to help me understand why country after country in Africa betrayed its hope, dreams, people and potential in much the same way, like a macabre horror show playing on loop

44) The Captain Club: The Hidden Force Behind the World’s Greatest Teams - Sam Walker. 
Fascinating book on how the single biggest factor that led to the greatest sports teams in history was the quality of its leader, but that the leaders and the qualities they had were very different from what we assume. It’s not a Jordans and Messis but the Pippens and Puyols who really matter 


(This is just a list. Separate post coming up reviews of all 44 books I read this year)

Fiction Top 3:

1) The Last Temptation - Nikos Kazantzakis. This is a book that makes an atheist like me understand the power and compassion of religion at its best. 

2) What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - Raymond Carver. Short stories as good or better than any written by Hemingway and Munro. Unsparing and hard. 

3) The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje. A love poem, a song, masquerading as prose. 

Honourable mentions:

- Dear Life - Alice Munro. The one that I really feel should have been in my Top 3, maybe over The English Patient. 

- Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell. Worthy of all the hype.

- Underworld - Don Dellillo. Now this is an American masterpiece 

- A Fraction of the Whole - Steve Tolz. The great Australian novel.. hilarious, irreverent and profound. 

- The Neapolitan Quartet - Elena Ferrente. I have never read a better portrayal of women and their lives and friendships. 

- East of Eden - John Steinbeck. Far easier to read than I expected, a literary precursor to the pulp of Jeffrey Archer 

Most overrated: 

- The Sellout by Paul Beatty. This modern American style of endless digressions where the author showcases his intellectual prowess (Exhibit a: David Foster Wallace) just doesn’t work for me 

Non Fiction Top 3:

1) Second Hand Time - Svetlana Alexeivich. One of the most harrowing, powerful non fiction books I’ve ever read. Makes you despair at man’s capacity for cruelty and evil.

2) Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers - Tim Ferris. Life changing. 

3) Being Mortal : Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande. As we grow older and confront the mortality of the generation before us, I strongly believe this is a must read to help us make better choices.

Honourable mentions:

- The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi and Godhra - Manoj Mitta. Eye opening and disturbing.

- Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance - Harsh Mander. I feel Harsh Mander should be compulsory reading for every school kid, in fact every Indian, if we are to have a more empathetic Society.

- Mao: The Unknown Story - Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. A little polemical but it really makes me really question people who look at China as a social and human model for Economic growth 

The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence - Martin Meredith. The definitive history of post colonial Africa 

Most overrated:

- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari. Reductive, simplistic, unoriginal and repetitive. It’s success only demonstrates what an unintellectual time we live in, where college level writing with good marketing passes for genius. 

Friday, December 01, 2017

And so it ends...

And so it ends 
In a moment 
In an instant 
In a breath 
Or its absence.

At some stage 
the mourners leave
Replaced by silence
that fills the emptiness 
Like your voice once did

Except for the echoes 
Of laughter 
Of smiles 
Of the look in your eyes 
And the touch of your hand 
As it held mine 
Of the feeling of warmth 
Radiating from the love I felt

That slowly fade 
Into lonely shadows 

All that is left in the end 
Is the echoes 
And dust 
And the memory 
Of the warmth I once felt 

And so it ends
In a moment 
In an instant 
In a breath 
Or its absence.

(Reflections on the passing away of Bapi and Arvind) 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The beauty of The God of Small Things wasn't just in the quality of Arundhati Roy's descriptive powers. It was in the intimacy, her ability to go dig into the deepest thoughts, hopes and dreams with engaging, understanding, insight and compassion, finding light in darkness. It was deeply personal and truly universal. 

You can still see glimpses of that magic 20 years later in The MInistry of Utmost Happiness but the problem with the book is her need to showcase her hard-earned perspective on broader political themes. The imbalance of her extreme-left positions that you see in her non-fiction soak into this book, leading to a black and white world of the oppressed masses fighting against the big bad state with its military power. It is a perfectly legitimate perspective in non-fiction (where you can agree or disagree with her). However, it ends up being the greatest flaw in this work of fiction, robbing it of nuance, and of the ability to see human beings from multiple, often conflicting, points of view that can elevate fiction into art, and turning it into a unidimensional polemic.

Ultimately, it ends up being the kind of book that we would have raved about as a debut. Great writing, ambitious in its scope, but lacking true wisdom, selective in its empathy, ideological in its characterisation. Which is a pity because in the first section where she talks of the journey of the boy Aftab into the hijra Anjum in the shadow of the Jama Masjid, she shows all of the skill and understanding that makes The God of Small Things a once in a lifetime masterpiece. 

This on the other hand is a good read, but one that struggles to make a broader political statement, where the politics overwhelms the writing and ultimately diminishes it. It takes much much more skill to write powerful political fiction. Arundhati Roy would be well served to read The Feast of the Goat as a reminder of what the genre can and should aspire to.