Looking Ahead: 2010, A Year of Promising Literature


Was just going through the catalogue of a publishing house and realised that there are a lot of books I'd be interesting in reading next year. A quick glance through my own shortlist

1) The Temple-goers by Aatish Taseer: Billed as the Delhi novel, I can't remember the last time a book was awaited with such anticipation. A debut novel, Temple-goers is the story of a young man who returns to Delhi after living abroad for many years. Soon, he is befriended by Aakash, an unpredicatable young man who shows him the dirty underbelly of Delhi. Both get embroiled in a politically sensitive case which exposes the ruthlessness of Delhi society

A few months ago, Aatish read out excerpts from Temple Goers for a select audience in Delhi. I happened to be present at the reading and, along with the others, was mesmerised by what I'd heard. And if that reading was any indication, this book will definitely be flying off bookshelves. 

2)  Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin 'Einstein' Varghese by Sidin Vadukut: Before I proceed any further, let me declare that this is a plug. For ever since I started reading whatay.com, I've been a fan of Sidin's writing. Be it popular culture, travel tales or mostly random observations, Sidin's brand of humour is immensely popular among bloggers and tweeters. But his forte is looking for humour at the workplace. And that's exactly what Dork is about - a hilarious book on office culture and humour. Want to know more? Click on the link and/or wait for excerpts.*

3) May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss by Arnab Ray: What you just read wasn't a typo nor am I drunk-blogging but that is actually the title of the book.  Popular blogger Arnab Ray, also known as Greatbong (of Random Thoughts of A Demented Mind fame) is out with his debut novel; a promising laugh-out-loud, irreverent take on everything that India is (and isn't). C-grade bollywood movies, cricket, education and reality TV shows among many other things

4) Evidence of Suspicion by Amitava Kumar: Writer of the much-acclaimed Husband Of A Fanatic, academician Amitava Kumar critically examines the impact of the war on terror from a philosophical, moral and political perspective. I'm one of the lucky few who've had a chance to look at the text (fleetingly) and I wouldn't like to divulge too many details except to say that it's a gripping, moving and thought provoking tale

5) Homeboy by Husain Naqvi: The story of young, New-York based Pakistani boys in search of their identity and chasing The Great American Dream who embark on a road trip which goes horribly wrong. Another much-anticipated debut by yet another Pakistani author.

6) Karl Aaj Aur Kal by Cyrus Broacha: Television's most popular funny man pens his debut novel which promises to be as hilarious as his spoofs and bakras

7) The Biryani cookbook by Pratibha Karan: Yes, I do read recipe books and I'm not ashamed of admitting it. And I'm eagerly looking forward to this book because my cook can't make a decent biryani to save his life. In fact, his version of the biryani is an absolute insult to the dish. Hence, I'm looking for some much-needed course correction and a few unusual recipes. 

8) The 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron Book' by Jai Arjun Singh(aka Jabberwock): Noted literary and cinema critic, Jai Arjun Singh writes about the iconic movie which pioneered the dark comedy genre in Hindi cinema. Not much is known about the book since Jai's still working on it, but since Jai is a prolific and respected blogger, this book promises to be an interesting read

*Off-late, I've met Sidin a few times and the man has the ability to generate humour every two seconds. Hence, I'd like to forewarn journos who'd be doing author interviews with him - you'll probably spend most of your time laughing and don't be surprised if your giggles drown the conversation on your voice recorders!

That's it for now, folks. Enjoy the year ahead and do lots of reading.

Oh, and in between please leave comments on my blogposts. It'll help improve the quality of writing 

(My review of Aatish's Stranger To History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands is here. Also, an interview with Aatish)

Interview: John Elliott and Bernard Imhasly


Earlier this year, I read an anthology of journalistic writing, Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting in South Asia. Published jointly by Penguin Books India and the Foreign Correspondents Club to celebrate the latter's 50 years of existence and contains the best journalistic accounts by foreign correspondents. Now, in an email interview two of the three editors, John Elliott and Bernard Imhasly, discuss the role of a foreign correspondent and the nature of his/her work

With South Asia being exposed to a variety of new media forms such as blogs, social networking websites and, on a larger scale, the internet, how do you think a foreign correspondent approaches his work in the region?

Bernard (BI): For foreign correspondents, the nature of work in the subcontinent has not changed (yet). The citizen journalist profile has yet to gel, so the approach is still much the same - travel, investigate, meet people, use the traditional media, read, look and listen.

John Elliott (JE): A foreign correspondent approaches his work in the same professional way that he always  has, but the pace of work and consequently the time available to research and analyse stories, has been dramatically reduced by the advent of the internet. This not only affects news agencies but also leading newspapers with websites which require instant stories from correspondents. There is therefore less demand for, and time for, reflective stories and the general quality of reporting is thus at risk. Some newspapers allow (or require) their correspondents to write blogs, which gives a journalist a new way to express his personal views, but again increases the pressure on time.

When a foreign correspondent was posted to South Asia say 30 or 40 years ago, how would he react then and how would he react now?

BI: The environment was different in many ways but in one strikingly so: the fact of time had another quality. Political processes were slower and so was the reaction time. There was more deliberation before filing a story. Now, speed is of the essence; so much so that the story is still developing while the correspondent files it. 

JE: I was first posted here 25 years ago when the country and region were different in many ways, though the negative aspects which colour many people's views remain the same - the appalling poverty, dismal airports, awful roads and tiresome bureaucracy. That of course is offset by the huge potential for success, which a newcomer can see more quickly now than 25 years ago though it was of course evident then. 

During the 26/11 attacks, the BBC was severely criticised for using the term 'militants' instead of 'terrorists'. Is there still some sort of bias against the region in the Western media?

BI: Biases across societies and continents are inevitable. They have lessened with globalisation, but have become more insiduous also because now they are more hidden behind this global facade. What is important (and what has improved) is the awareness about them. 

But it is also important to differentiate between biases and points of view. It is legitimate to look at a society eg. India from the point of view of, say, a European and this is especially so in India where there are many indigenous points of view for everything anyway. So it is okay to report from where one stands - and say so.  A bias is a principled prejudice unwilling to be corrected by reality. And that is obviously wrong.

JE: This is not a bias - those who regard it as such are surely paranoid. Along with other parts of the media, the BBC is, I believe, attempting to avoid indiscriminately labeling people and group with tags - though I would agree that 'terrorists' would have been correct on the Mumbai attacks. But, to illustrate the problem, in the 1980s when I was reporting Punjab for the FT (Financial Times),  should Khalistan 'militants'  have been called extremists (as I sometimes did), or 'zealots' as another FT colleague wrote, or 'terrorists' as they might be called now?

This anthology contains a lot of pieces on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. What is it about this family that it towers over all others in South Asia? Is it because they gave India three Prime Ministers or is there something more?

BI: Simple: They have dominated the politics of India and therefore pretty much of the subcontinent so naturally the media, and that includes the foreign media, reflects this reality.

JE: The number of pieces on the dynasty accurately reflects the role they have played down the years.

Which are your favourite piece(s) from the lot that got left out of the book?  Any specific reason as to why they couldn't make it in the end?

BI: We left out many good pieces and it is difficult to rate them. I missed a piece on Bhutan by Simon Denyer, one by John Elliott on modern Indian art; there should have been a piece on the Maldives, women,  more on the many diversities of India - from languages to food to street culture to religious expressions.  But given the parameters, I think we covered a lot of ground.

JE: I agree with Bernard's list including his kind mention of my modern Indian art article and would add that it is a pity we have not got a couple of pieces on other politicians around Nehru in the early years. If we were going to press now, we would need one on the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a serious politician. The paperback edition (now published) has added articles on Sri Lanka, the Mumbai attacks, and Pakistan, as well as a report from 1984 on Indira Gandhi's assassination. But note that in our introduction we said that, while we tried to get a broad spread of history into the book, we selected good reporting and writing even if that meant that subjects or events were not covered. 

In his 1990 piece about the BJP, James Clad writes towards the end that "the BJP is a coming power in India, a beneficiary of vacuum at the centre of Indian politics". 19 years later, do you think a similar/different vacuum still exists in North Indian politics?

BI: That is a wide field - too wide to be answered in this space. Certainly, the vacuum of 20 years ago has been filled to a large extent, though the BJP has not really grown into a modern right-wing party but has remained stuck in the tradition v/s modernity discourse. In that sense, there is still a vacuum to be filled by a modern party that challenges the Congress on its own ground.

JE: There is a vacuum in that there is no major party representing the poor and emerging lower castes. The parties that have grown into space left by the decline of the Congress Party are run by mostly self-serving, highly corrupt politicians with littler interest in the welfare of those who elect them. It is, however, beginning to look as if the Congress is beginning to emerge as a significant player again.

Another striking feature of this anthology is that there isn't a single piece on cricket: a sport which has a huge fan following in this region. Why? Was it a conscious decision?

BI: No, certainly not a conscious erasure but deplorable nonetheless. Our editorial approach was largely directed by what came in in terms of contributions. When there were significant gaps, we tried to plug them by looking for pieces ourselves. In the case of cricket, this wasn't possible or maybe we just didn't look hard enough.

JE: No, not a consicous decision. Add to the list of gaps above!

The year 2001 was, in many ways, a tumultuous one for South Asia - the Gujarat earthquake happened, the war on terror started as a consequence of 9/11, a Royal massacre in Nepal, an attack on the Indian Parliament....As a foreign correspondent, how did it feel to be in South Asia back then?

BI: A bit overwhelming, to be frank. The Delhi posting was always exciting and never lacked action. But in 2001, there was a surfeit of it. It was difficult to keep up especially for the (many) one-man-bureaux in town. To give an example, when the Indian Parliament was attacked, I was in Pakistan - in Quetta!

JE: Apart from the Royal massacre in Nepal which was (hopefully!) a one-off,  the other events reflect the range of stories that crowd in, year after year, in South Asia, with the Parliament attack adding emphasis on terrorism. 

Lastly, do narrate the one incident which you will always remember being a foreign correspondent in South Asia.

BI: One of many that comes to mind immediately: the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, being confronted by a bandana-clad man who put his face close to mine, and hissed: "Get out of here you bloody Muslim!"

JE: Maggie (Margaret) Thatcher said the Dalai Lama should not speak publicly when he was in the UK in the late 1980's ('88 I think) so most of the British media - including me from the FT - rushed to Dharamsala to interview him. He thus got much more publicity than he would if Thatcher had not tried to gag him just as he has recently because the Chinese said he shouldn't go to Arunachal Pradesh. 

Shoutout: Jaipur Litfest 2010


Sorry for the prolonged silence but I've been buried under a mountain of books and have been busy procrastinating. However, literary endeavors - big or small - must continue and hence, I've booked myself for the Jaipur Literature Festival next month. Honestly speaking, the list of speakers isn't as glamorous as it was last year but they've still got some fine writers such as Hanif Kureishi, Anjum Hasan, Sankar, Soumya Bhattacharya and Amit Chadhuri in attendance. When I visited the official website a few months ago, I was delighted to see Ahmad Rashid's name on the list as well but to my disappointment, it seems he's skipping the fest again this year. Which is sad because his book Descent Into Chaos is one of the best books ever-written on terrorism and America's response to it in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hopefully, he'll make an appearance in 2011.

Keeping these writers company will be Gulzar ( who re-appears after a spectacular debut last year) and Javed Akhtar. I just hope that unlike previous years, there isn't any Bollywood superstar present this year (Aamir Khan came a few years back and Amitabh Bachchan came last time around). It'll help attendees to appreciate the work of writers who've come there and keep the crowds slim at Diggi Palace.

To be honest, I had ambivalent feelings about attending the festival this year; a less-than-glamorous author list, huge crowds and of course, expenditure. But I guess it only seems natural that I should be there this year as well - after all, the germ of this blog and whatever freelance writing I'm doing these days is the festival. Hence, I shall be at the Diggi Palace again next month - attending sessions, meeting new people and (hopefully) doing some interviews for my blog.

In the meantime, do go through the January and February archives to read the interviews I conducted last time. I'm feeling too lazy to link them here. Hopefully, they'll be tempting enough for you to come to Jaipur!

Frontier fast-food


A review of Imran Khan: The Cricketer, The Celebrity, The Politician- The Biography

In the introduction to this book, author Christopher Sandford writes that after working on a biography of acclaimed Hollywood director Roman Polanski, writing this exhaustive tome seemed like "drinking sparkling mineral water after eating heavily salted peanuts." But to me, it seemed like eating a lavish Lucknowi or the North-West Frontier cuisine accompanied by potent red wine; Khan's cricketing career - be it the initial trials and tribulations or the subsequent superstardom - reminded of soft, juicy but robustly tasteful galouti kebabs; their taste lingers on the palette even after I'm done with my meal. His frequent run-ins with the Pakistani cricket board (or the BCCP as the author writes), altercations with team members (most notably Javed Miandad) and his later political career is reminscient of the burra kebab;grilled, boney, chunks of mutton which are hard to chew with the meat often getting stuck between your teeth. His liaisons with beautiful women is the perfect metaphor for a full-bodied, potent red wine while his obsession with the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Center in Lahore - which he built in memory of his late mother - reveals the softer side of this pathan; just like a delicately delicious Lucknowi Biryani. And to round off this delicious fare, nothing better than a phirni would suffice; the soft, sweet, slightly imperfect semi-liquid dessert - a reminder of Khan the doting father but a failed husband.

Born as Imran Khan Niazi in a well-to-do family, Khan was the only male sibling in his family and, consequently, the apple of his mother's eye. He had a privileged - but rigorous - childhood; while he studied at the prestigious Aitchison College in Lahore, he was made to run innumerable rounds of his Zaman Park locality - sometimes with a backpack filled with rocks in order to build some muscle in his skinny body. And soon after he was done with Aitchison, young 'Immy' as he was called by friends and foes was packed off to Oxford - the start of what would soon be a roller-coaster cricket career. 

One of the most striking features of Imran Khan is the amount of paper devoted to his cricket career in England's domestic circuit. It seems to suggest that Sandford wrote these chapters keeping in mind a British audience populated by a large number of Pakistani immigrants. Every aspect of his life in England - the racial abuse hurled at him, the low match fee, his poor communication skills and his inability to get along with his British teammates due to cultural differences - is interesting but only up to a point. Simply because Imran Khan is known as a Pakistani cricket legend and not an English county cricketer.

Khan's cricket career in Pakistan was marred by frequent run-ins with the cricket board, a rebellious stint with Kerry Packer's World Series of Cricket and a career-threatening shin injury. It is the last of these aspects and Imran's handling of the injury which makes for fascinating reading. To be able to make a comeback aged 31 - and that too as a fast bowler - is testament to the man's determination. Throughout his years as a Pakistani cricketer, 'Immy' had to deal with a high-handed cricket board, an equally arrogant selection committee and a frequently rotating captaincy. But that isn't to say that Khan was a holier-than-thou figure. Sandford writes, rather dramatically, that if the cricket board was haughty, so was Imran; giving credence to speculation that Imran was a one-man cricket board himself. And his image of a lothario certainly didn't endear him to the board.

To Sandford's credit, he doesn't portray Khan as someone who chased women all the time; in a lot of cases it was the women too who were smitten by his good looks. For instance, there was an incident in an English pub where a young woman plonked herself on Imran's lap so he could "explore" her. Yes, his dalliances with British socialites and girls at Oxford (including a certain Benazir Bhutto) did make him a playboy and an "international sex symbol". However, Sanford his careful not to let this aspect of Khan's overshadow the others. Instead, he timidly takes back his statement about the Bhutto-Khan affair saying the friendship was "platonic". Bhutto would later remark that Khan would make for a "valued" public servant.

And that's exactly what Khan did soon after retiring from international cricket. In 1996, he formed the political outfit Tehreek-E-Insaaf but didn't have much electoral success initially. Did this lower Khan's morale? Doubtful. Instead, Khan is said to have remarked emphatically that his party was the "fastest growing movement" in Pakistan. Going by sheer numbers, the movement is still in its infancy as the party shares just 0.8% of the parliamentary seats. But going by Khan's personality and Sandford's slightly naive assessment, the 'Lion of Lahore' will get the country's top job one day. What the writer forgets is that it's one thing to be a cult figure, support a lawyers' agitation, make grandiose statements on television but quite another to translate all of these into votes. Yes, Khan remains a glimmer of hope for an otherwise failed democracy but it'll take a while before he can make a significant impact  in his country's polity.

So what does this exhaustive and meticulously researched biography say about Pakistan's most colorful personality? Simply put he's a complex figure who's been a victim of circumstances and, conversely, used circumstances to his advantage as well. As Sandford rightly suggests, Imran Khan has provided his deprived Pakistani citizens some hope and joy through his political and cricketing career. And as far as the biography is concerned, it may not be tautly paced but is certainly very enjoyable. Remember, its a lucknowi and North-West Frontier fare you're eating. Not a McDonald's burger!

A slightly different and edited version of this review can be read in today's Business Standard Weekend supplement 

Picture Courtesy: www.livemint.com

In Conversation with Sadanand Dhume


Author, My Friend, The Fanatic

Can a non-fanatic be friends with a fanatic?

Yes, I think so. The territory of friendship can be marked in many interesting, different ways. What happened with my friend Herry and me was that even though we had profound political disagreements, we had no problem accepting that we'd agree to disagree politically but so much of our friendship was based on shared experiences, shared travels, shared curiosity, banter, the journalistic ability to display what I call plasticity of character - the ability to get along with people because that's partly the disposition which you cultivate as a journalist. So yes, maybe in the long run you can't be the closest and firmest of friends over time, but it is not difficult in my opinion to strike up a friendship.

If you were to analyse Indonesia, is there a cultural shift taking place from the time you wrote this book and since the time you've been travelling?

I think there's a profound cultural shift taking place. What's happening in Indonesia, in a nutshell, is that an old, tolerant civilisation deeply influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism is giving way to a new, strident, intolerant civilisation deeply influenced by some of the new, hard line strains of Islam coming out of the Middle East. So, Indonesia is going from being one kind of country which, even though it was religiously Muslim, was culturally close to Thailand to becoming a country that is culturally drifting in the direction of the Middle East. That doesn't mean Indonesia has become a Middle Eastern country - that might take decades or even centuries - but the trend lines that Indonesia is experiencing are extremely worrying.

Do you think that Indonesia which - as you say - is going through a period of transformation can ever produce a figure like Abdurrahman Wahid again -  a liberal one as you've portrayed him in the book

Good question. I'd say Indonesian politics can throw up figures who are tolerant but not in the same way as Wahid. What sets Wahid apart is that he's not just a public figure, but a religious figure who is deeply tolerant and stands for secular, liberal values. There may be people who come up and stand for secular, liberal values such as former President Megawati (Sukarnoputri) but the odds of that kind of person coming up from the milieu of pious Islam.

Let's take this hypothetically; if such a person were to come up in Indonesian politics would he/she be able to survive politically in this transforming society?

It depends on what's going on now and whether its cyclical or permanent. If what you're saying is cyclical and the pendulum is swinging from tolerance to intolerance and swings back to tolerance, then he/she will not only survive but also thrive. If on the other hand what you're seeing is a permanent transformation from one kind of thinking to another kind which I fear is what is happening because the old synthetics of Islam - kids reading the Mahabharata in the villages - is dying. I think it becomes much more difficult to be tolerant in the way that so many Indonesian leaders have been tolerant. That becomes harder because the space for that (tolerance) becomes smaller.

You traveled extensively through Indonesia and met a diverse set of people. How did this affect you as a person? Did your views on religion, society, politics etc. alter in any way?

What it did was it gave me a deeper understanding of the Muslim world. The kind of understanding you get spending time with people, listening to them carefully, talking to them, allowing them to explain themselves in their own words rather than trying to force-feed their views into your own pre-conceived notions is a tremendous education. I feel that I have much better handle on not just Islamic fundamentalism but on how people who are driven by these extreme messianic ideas think and behave.

Since you're book is a travel narrative, how did you go about writing it? Did you take notes as you traveled or did you just dive into writing the book as soon as you finished traveling?

I'm a very detailed and compulsive note-taker when I'm reporting so I filled up dozens of notebooks and they're filled with details- sights, sounds, smells, observations and my reflections on those observations. And from that large mass of notes, I culled out what is now My Friend, The Fanatic.

And while culling out this book, did you ever feel that some portions got left out which could've made its way into the book?

One thing would've been of interest to an Indian audience which is that I made a brief trip to the Dieng plateau in Java which is home to the oldest Hindu temple in Java; about a 1000 years old and it was a very evocative scene and was a very meaningful visit, because what I've shown over there was the actual slow-motion death of that old spiritual Javanese culture. It didn't make it but I've repackaged it and its coming out in this prestigious New York literary journal called Guernica. So it's lived to see another form.

Lastly, what are you working on next? What is the the subject of your second book?

To try and understand how globalisation has altered ordinary lives. What I'm looking for are people who's lives have been made extraordinary or have been turned upside down or changed in ways their own families would find difficult to recognise because of the forces unleashed by globalisation and liberalisation. The story I'm trying to tell is the broader story about India but the people whose eyes I want to tell it through are all based in Delhi and its surrounding areas.

A version of this interview can also be read here

Unintended Silence


Sorry for the silence, folks. Much travelling and wedding attending happened over the past two weeks, hence the silence. Coming soon, however, is an email interview with John Elliott and Bernard Imhasly, editors of a wonderful anthology and an interview with Sadanand Dhume, author of My Friend The Fanatic, a riveting travelogue about Indonesian cultural and politics post the 2002 Bali bombings. More soon

In conversation with William Dalrymple


1)      Here's an interview I did with William Dalrymple on his latest book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. 'Willie' spoke on a range of other subjects during the course of this interview and I'll be transcribing it soon and adding those bits here. In the mean time, enjoy this.

        What does the word ‘sacred’ mean to you? Has its meaning got diluted in today’s world?

The reference in the title to the word ‘sacred’ means, to me, seekers of the divine in all its glorious variety.  I’d like to state two things at the outset this is not a book of theology; I’m not setting out on a theological exercise here and I’m certainly not setting out on a personal devotional quest where I’m looking for a guru or anything.  What I’m trying to do in this book is to see how these various secret traditions have changed with India’s massive vortex of change. How has the new India Shining – in all its flawed regional variety and lack of consistency – affected these range of traditions. As everyone should know, Hinduism isn’t a  monolithic block which barely existed before the 18th century. Hinduism is something which is constantly changing; Hinduism of the Vedas is very different than that of the Puranas. There’s been the long, long process of change with 19th century reform movements. And now we have, what can be called the Rama-fication whereby mainstream reformed and possibly politicisation of cults are sweeping through the cowbelts at the expense of local devi cults

2)      This politicisation you refer to, has it been imposed or has it been naturally embraced by the people?

What you have is common to both Hinduism and Islam is that you get reformed, mainstream, textual, urbanised forms of religion taking over from folk deities and saints who come to be regarded as superstitious. In the case of Islam, you get a Gulf-propogated, madrassa­-taught, centralised Quranic Islam, slowly eating away saints’ shrines which are the  which are the mainstay of everyday Islam in India since the 12th century. And you see this process in Delhi in Nizamuddin East. You get out of the car and walk past the Tableeghi Jamaat they’ll embrace you sand say “come brother, don’t go to the saints’ shrine, come to the mosque”

3)      So in that case, if you were searching for the sacred in modern India, why did you have to go to far off places like Dharamsala or rural West Bengal? Why not in urban India itself?

(laughs) One of the personal quests of this book was to get the heck out of Delhi and libraries after 10 years based in the National Archives of India! But, on a more serious note, it was a very conscious thing to return to travel writing after 10 or 15 years and to get back on the road. But the question you’ve asked is very interesting and it reveals a lot about the questioner because there’s a tendency to think that only middle-class urban India has a legitimate story and that it’s somehow illegitimate to write about sadhus and bauls.  In almost all the interviews I’ve given, I’ve had to justify writing about these people.

4)      It’s not illegitimate . It’s just that the phrase modern India throws up images of urban India hence..
Well not illegitimate but a central subject.  There are these small pockets of hypermodernity like Gurgaon, cyberabad, Bangalore.  But it isn’t just that. There’s lots more happening in the areas that are stuck between tradition and modernity; which isn’t, by any sense, an unchanging R K Narayan rural landscape of pretty girls in sarees, wandering along roads. It is a messy halfway house with all sorts of things happening.  For instance, Swamimalai, which is less than a day’s drive and within sight of Thomas Friedman India and what it represents, you have a small town businessman, who’s been doing business for 35 years.  He’s a member of the local Lion’s club, a pillar of the local establishment. But he finds that his son wants to go off to Bangalore and study javascript. Even the most extreme figure in the book – the naga sadhu drinking from the skull ­– turns out to be from a middle-class family in Kolkata, his son is an accountant for Tata and his wife used to work in a jute factory. So, we all see these guys as exotic but the reality is that they’re not.  They have human lives, cousins, aunts, friends, marriages, family businesses etc.  And one of the motives of this book is to give a human face to these ‘freaks’.
5)      But what made them turn to or embrace religion in such an extreme form?
This is the central question in the book and there are 9 different answers to that.  A fair number of people such as the bhopa of Rajasthan, the idol maker or the Theyyam dancer inherited family lineages which have been going on for generations.  Others made personal choices to embrace religious lives such as the Buddhist monk. But many of them went to religion in reaction to huge personal losses and tragedies such as the red fairy.

6)      A striking feature of this book is that most of the prose is reported speech from the people you’ve interviewed. Your own narration has been marginal. Was that a difficult thing to do – to marginalise your narration and let your interviewees do the talking?
It was something I hadn’t done before and I had to find a way to do it in the literary sense.  But it seemed an entirely appropriate way to tackle this subject. It also allowed me to get around what was the reason I hadn’t done this book before which is how to avoid the minefield of clichés that litter Western attempts at writing Indian religion. It seemed to me that the only way to tackle this subject was to be reserved and let these guys speak for themselves. They had such stories that my earlier plan of writing an A to B travelogue was immediately abandoned in favour of a very different form which I’m rather pleased with. Non-fiction short stories are a very interesting thing to attempt.
7)      You started working on Nine Lives which is a travel book after two thick books on Mughal history White Mughals and The Last Mughal. Was it difficult to re-adapt to travel writing after such a long gap?
No it was a huge pleasure. I’m naturally a restless man, I like to travel. I don’t like to be stuck inside a library for months on end. The actual process of writing these big, fat history books is extremely painful. To write those sort of books requires eight months to a year of not moving around. Also, writing books on such a subject (Mughal history) requires a lot of research.  With travel books, you can just pack up a little suitcase and wander off. For instance, I wrote one of the chapters in Nine Lives on a Sri Lankan island. If I tried doing that with the other two books, I’d probably need a truck to carry all my papers and files to wherever I’m going! Also, the form allowed me to go to parts of India I’d never seen before – rural West Bengal for instance. It was the first part of India to be colonised but it’s so far off today that no one goes there.
8)     So, what next after Nine Lives? 
        Well I’ve been commissioned to do a big Mughal project but I don’t know what it’ll turn out to be.
9)      Will it be based on the life of Dara Shikoh?
It was going to be Dara Shikoh and Akbar before that. However, Akbar was illiterate so he didn’t write anything and I’d have to look at him through the eyes of a second person. Dara Shikoh is very interesting but it’ll be difficult to write about him because all we have is mystical writings which tend to be very elusive.  There’s also the book tour which will take me to England, Sydney Opera House and hopefully America. So I really can’t say what next

Any regrets, General? An Interview with Murtaza Razvi


Earlier this year, I reviewed Pakistani journalist Murtaza Razvi's lucid and informative biography of the former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf, Musharraf: The Years in Power. In this short interview, Razvi gives a glimpse of the man who ruled Pakistan for eight turbulent years.

In the introduction to your book, you write that Musharraf ruled Pakistan single-handedly. Do you think that dictators rule single-handedly or are there a set of people who help them rule that way?

Pakistani dictators, even elected leaders-turned-autocrats, are known to rule more single-handedly than their counterparts elsewhere. The army may have brought Musharraf to power (remember he was not even in Pakistan when the coup was staged), but once there, the process of consultation with his team of advisors, who were all of his own choosing, barely lasted a year or so. The army top brass, the corps commanders who had brought him to power, was shuffled. So whatever 'democracy' existed at the top military decision making level was also eroded. By teh end of Musharraf's tenure, he alone was the one calling the shots.   

You write that despite liberalising the Pakistani media, Musharraf started distrusting Pakistani journalists. Yet whenever he would come to India or go anywhere else, he'd pander to the media. Even the media (at least the Indian media) showers too much attention on him. Why these double standards?

The international media was certainly charmed by his frank, outspoken, behaviour. The media persons he chose to speak to back home were carefully screened and their questions taken well in advance so he comes out shining. Yes, he was all about applying double standards. At home he would censure you for speaking up on 'national security' issues and label you as 'unpatriotic'; abroad, he would divulge more damaging facts regarding extremism and terrorism than you could believe-- all in order to project what he called a 'soft' image of Pakistan instead of fixing the problems that gave the country a bad image; he also cosied up to foreign media to tell the world he was their best bet as the ruler of Pakistan.    

It would be a tad unfair to compare but did you observe any similarities/differences between Musharraf and Zia-u-Haq both as leaders and as persons?

Ziaul Haq was a hypocrite in the classical sense of the word, both as a person and a leader. Musharraf had unresolved contradictions in his charcter bordering on megalomania; he could do no wrong, and he was the ultimate self-styled messiah that he believed Pakistan needed.  

 One striking feature of the book is that you haven't interviewed Musharraf himself. Why? And was this a deliberate decision?

I tried to get through to him, through his family and friends. While the family never responded to my requests, certain friends told me on condition of anonymity that he was very crossed with Pakistani journalists at the time and would not wish to meet anyone. He felt betrayed, like a benevolent king, who had 'liberated' the media, only to find them awfully ungrateful and perhaps equally unpatriotic, as in acting on some foreign agenda. A sense of paranoia combined with arrogance informed this attitude on the part of the general. This is my frank assessment which I did not put down in so many words in the book for obvious reasons. The book was an objective quest at assessing Gen Musharraf's years in power and as such left me with little room for personal comments. I have not been wronged by him in any way, nor consider myself a biased journalist with malice against any leader.    

Do you think the Agra Summit was a hastily convened one considering Musharraf's tenure was only two years old at that time?

I think the time was right, but the Indian leadership failed once again to take advantage of the opportunity to settle issues with Pakistan. I say this because Musharraf was still popular with the Pakistani public at the time; there was no opposition from a parliament in Pakistan for Islamabad to have reneged on what he could have agreed to with Mr Vajpayee. But the BJP leadership got cold feet, and perhaps was more annoyed at his flambouyant overtures to the Indian media than it was worried about its mandate to hold a decisive dialogue with a one-man Government of Pakistan under Musharraf, which had the full political and military backing at the time to settle all outstanding issues with India. No elected government in Pakistan could have offered so much as Musharraf did to Delhi at the time.     

While you interview a cross-section of Pakistanis about Musharraf you haven't interviewed key players - namely people from the US and the UK, Indian officials and Saudi officials - about what they thought of Pervez Musharraf. Why so?

Time was of the essence. I had to complete the book within some odd three months after Musharraf's resignation. No one in his erstwhile administration wished to talk to me. Foreign key players also wanted to keep mum over the 'deal' that saw him step down. We delayed the book because I wanted to incorporate Indian leaders' interviews. I was denied the Indian visa when I finally approached the Indian high commission in Singapore in teh first week of February 2009 (I was on a fellowship in Singapore from Feb 1 to Apr 30); they just sat on my visa application forever.   

Do you think that during his eight year tenure, Musharraf had the chance to free his country from constant American interference but failed to do?

Musharraf could have done much more for Pakistan and for peace in South Asia but for his megalomania, starting with bravado, and the sense he had of his own indispensibility to the world without having earned it.    

Lastly, if you were to meet the former President for a one-on-one conversation, what would you like to talk to him about?

Any regrets, General?

My review of Razvi's book can be read here

Coming Soon


- A long conversation with William Dalrymple on his new book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

- A super short review of Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories edited by Ruchir Joshi

- And (hopefully) another Q&A with Murtaza Razvi on his biography of the former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf

Watch this space!

Foodie Tales-2


Here's the link to Part -1

Rajdhani @ Inorbit Mall, Malad: Before Rajdhani opened, my usual quota of Gujju food came from such restaurants as Golden Star, Thackers and Samrat. But there's something about the Rajdhani grub that makes me go back there everytime I'm in Bombay. The food is mind-bogglingly delicious. I haven't tasted better khandvi or savoured a more delicious kadi anywhere else. Why, even a drink as simple as buttermilk is much more refreshing than at other places. But what sets Rajdhani apart from its bretheren is its service. The service starts as soon as you've taken your seat and you aren't made to wait for multiple helpings for more than two minutes - no matter how crowded the eatery is. What makes it even more special is that the waiters genuinely want to feed you. More often than not, I have wolfed down an extra poori or gulped down that extra glass of buttermilk simply because the waiter insisted (I also suspect that, given my lanky built, they thought I was famished). And it is this deadly combination of brilliant service coupled with lipsmacking food which makes me want to go there each time I visit Bombay.

P.S. I hate to write this but Rajdhani seriously needs to improve the grub at their Delhi branches. I mean, why would I want to eat rajma and cabbage at a Gujju eatery?

Cafe Britannia @ Fort: It's a non-descript place tucked away in a small bylane of Bombay's Fort area but its a landmark nonetheless. But ask any food-loving Bombayite about Britannia and they'll have a story to narrate. You'll be told about the eccentric old man who used to keep a murgi on his table and how he'll decide what you'll eat if he takes your order. Nearby officegoers and college kids will swear by the vast quantities of its berry pulao and dhansaak. For a relative outsider like me, the charm of Britannia lies in not one but a combination of all these things. Nowhere in the heart of Delhi will you find a neat, clean, affordable cafe serving enormous amounts of food at affordable prices. Nowhere in Delhi will you hear of quirky stories about cafe owners. And you definitely won't read a menu card which begins with the words "there is no greater joy than the joy of eating!". It's a shame that in my countless visits to Bombay over twenty years, I went to eat at Britannia in March this year. Since I was alone, I couldn't each much; just had to make do with the dhansak. But during the August leg of my trip I wolfed down their signature dish, the berry pulao, and I must say it beat the dhansak hands down. Another addition to my list of favorite restaurants.

Shatranj Napoli @ Bandra: Back in the days when the 'burbs weren't as hip as they are today, Bandra used to be the place to hang out. And Shatranj Napoli one of the most popular eateries in the area. You could spot the odd film-star or page-3 type at an adjacent table or the usual filmy crowd hanging around Shatranj. But that's not how I remember the place. As a young boy, I used to relish their Paprika Chicken/Fish. Come to think of it, the dish is a complete no-brainer. Basically, its fingers of fish or chicken drowned in  a creamy mayonnaise sauce with a hint of red paprika to add some flavour. It's essentially an Indian dish marketed as a continental one. Nevertheless, it got Shatranj its patrons - until they found better alternatives.

Trishna@ Fort and now opposite the Fame Adlabs mall in Andheri: It is to Bombay what The Big Chill cafe is to Delhi. Ask any outsider or first time visitor to Bombay where they'd like to eat and Trishna will surely be one of the answers. Lonely Planet - that bible of all books for firang hitchhikers - recommends it I'm not surprised why. It's perhaps the only restaurant which does a pomfret tikka (and the softest one at that). Their Hyderabadi dal (whose provenance has been doubted by a certain Mr. Vir Sanghvi) is sure to blow your socks off. Made of three dals and topped with a dash of tadka it's the most delicious veggie dish I've eaten at a seafood restaurant. It's popularity can be gauged from the fact that it's opened outlets as far as London and that, on a given day, you'll find a horde of people waiting outside for a table. Once, a cousin and me went for dinner to the Fort branch (after reserving a table, thankfully) at 10 P.M. for dinner and by the time we got out 45 minutes later the crowd had swelled. And it was a weekday. So if you're visiting Trishna you know what to eat and what to do. 

P.S. In case you're going to the Andheri branch, do order the crab chettinad which is so much better than the oily, greasy and overrated butter pepper garlic crabs. Also, this one is much more comfortable and spacious than the original Fort branch.

Sheetal Samudra@ JVPD: Actually, this restaurant-cum-bar doesn't exist at JVPD any longer (although the original one at Khar is still there, I'm told). Story goes that a hotel is being built where this rather filmy eatery once stood. But, that doesn't stop me from reminiscing about the place. Long before, I started frequenting Trishna, Gajalee, Mahesh Lunch Home or any other seafood restaurant in Bombay, I got my first taste of crabs and Lobsters at Sheetal. Their Crab Chilly was the softest crab dish I've ever had and they did a neat Tandoori Lobster. But the one dish that made me go back there again and again was the Flat Prawns in Sichuan Sauce. Before you start tracing the dish's Chinese origins, let me tell you that this is completely Indian. Any self-respecting Chinaman would probably kill the inventor if he ever heard about its creation. Basically, a flat piece of prawn is drowned in a fiery chilly sauce and served piping hot at your table. You should, ideally, eat it with steamed rice but a few bravehearts I know at the dish as it is. That their tummies revolted the next morning is another matter but I guess you get the drift. However, it seems I can only reminisce about all of this. Unless of course, the proprietors decide to re-open it somewhere in Bombay.

That's it for now. Must go and edit SOP. There *might* be a part-3 too but I'm guessing you guys must be fed up of two posts already. So, I'll spare you the miseries for now.

Musharraf: The Years In Power by Murtaza Razvi: A Review


Perhaps the most striking feature of this remarkably short biography of Pervez Musharraf is that the information in the book is nothing new. Remember, Musharraf's presidency existed in a time when the media industry - in India, Pakistan and elsewhere - was booming. Therefore, each and every dimension of his professional and, to some extent, even his personal life was discussed, debated, dissected and analysed on TV, via the internet, in newspapers and in magazines.It was, literally, a barrage of information that was being disseminated and, I fear, it is this barrage which might go against Musharraf: The Years In Power.

I say this with a hint of sadness because Razvi's 240-page tome is incisive, lucid, offers some brilliant analysis of Pakistan's ex-president by his closest aides. In his autobiography, In The Line Of Fire, Musharraf often portrayed himself as a 'the chosen one' to rule Pakistan; a sort of larger than life figure who was destined to rule the country and a messiah who could rid Pakistan of its troubles. But as Murtaza Razvi points out, Musharraf was just another military dictator like his predecessors who did nothing great for his country, got bullied by US pressure to lend it military support after 9/11, made a mockery of democracy in Pakistan by holding sham elections and referendums and made the judiciary and media (which, incidentally, he liberalised to a large extent) his arch-enemies. In fact, he was miles above in the air when the military, not Musharraf decided to overthrow Nawaz Sharif's government!

But that is not to state that Musharraf's tenure was full of failures or that this book is bereft of any new insights

Soon after overthrowing Sharif, Razvi writes, Musharraf addressed the nation and acknowledged that there were inter-provincial disputes within the country; perhaps the first Pakistani leader to do so. He gave unprecedented liberties to the media and paved the
way for private news channels to start in Pakistan (that he tried to muzzle and bully them towards the end of his tenure is another matter). As one of his formed aides states in the book, Musharraf's genuinely believed that his policy of 'Enlightened Moderation' would steer Pakistan away from Zia's Islamised State it was now. Most importantly, the Kargil fiasco notwithstanding, he genuinely wanted to make peace with India and resolve Kashmir forever; his willingness to sidestep resolutions on Kashmir were an indication of this.

And just as he was on the verge of making a breakthrough in relations with India, the crises started one after another. The Lal Masjid siege was perhaps the most embarrassing moment for the Pakistani establishment. The fact that a mosque in the heart of Rawalpindi, seat of the Army high command, couldn't be stopped from making hate-speeches exposed the breakdown of law and order in the country. His remarks about women faking rape cases to emigrate abroad severely damaged his 'liberal' credentials. Nawab Bugti's killing and the Balochistan fiasco exposed his dictatorial tendencies. Nawaz Sharif's return, an increasingly popular Benazir Bhutto, a hostile judiciary and chaos in the Swat Valley ensured that Musharraf's presidency was numbered.

Now that Musharraf is out of power, touring universities in Europe and America delivering lectures, one can only talk in retrospect. If only he had cracked down on extremist elements, if only he didn't meddle with the judiciary, if only he resigned as Army Chief much earlier, if only he strengthened Benazir Bhutto's security, if only Balochistan and Swat could be handled better, if only he paid more attention to the country's dwindling economy maybe Pakistan would've been a better place.

But then military rulers don't have the benefit of retrospect and hindsight. What they do have, as this riveting biography points out, is the power to make their countries a better place. And more often than not they fail to do so.

(A version of this review was also published in the Businessworld magazine

On The Go


Was in Bombay recently for over a week and hectic socialising with friends and family meant very little reading. But I did manage to flip through some pages here and there. Here are a few reccomendations from whatever little I've read.

Pundits from Pakistan by Rahul Bhattacharya: Journalist-turned-writer Rahul Bhattacharya pens a wonderful account of India's cricket tour to Pakistan in 2004- the first in 15 years. For Bhattacharya, cricket is not merely a sport but a prism through which he views the lives, events and incidents associated with it. His interaction with Pakistani leggie Danish Kaneria and Kaneria's family is one of the most poignant passages of the book. Kaneria, a Hindu, describes how normal life is in Pakistan despite belonging to a religious minority. Another passage, interspersing the assassination bids on General Musharraf with the security arrangements for the Indian team, is remarkably well-written. For any young urban Indian growing up in the mid-90's deprived of top quality Indian cricket literature (biogs and autobiogs aside), Pundits from Pakistan comes as a breath of fresh air. A real cracker of a book! (Thanks, Jai, for the reccomendation)

Churchill by Roy Jenkins: One of the most exhaustive, erudite yet tedious biographies I've ever come across. And when it begins with the phrase, 'The ducality of his provenance', you know you'll always need a dictionary if you are serious about reading this 1000-page tome.Written by eminent British parliamentarian Roy Jenkins, this is one of the finest biographies to have been written about one of the most controversial statesmen of the 20th century. Foreign Affairs called it a "liberal history of Britain". The Observer said that "Churchill is a life brilliantly reflected in the mirror of its author's personality and experience."

Released as late as 2001, Churchill is an exhaustive work; something that only a veteran politician like Jenkins can write. For he had the advantage of not only being able to access previous works on Churchill but also to interact with him as a parliamentarian. But thanks to the tedious language I've barely managed to finish one chapter. Will start reading the book again soon - with a dictionary at hand!

Foreign Correspondent: 50 years of reporting in South Asia: As a sucker for journalistic writing, this book was on the top my must-have list and I'm glad I've finally bought it. Published jointly by the Foreign Correspondents Club and Penguin India, this anthology was brought out to commemorate the golden jubilee of the FCC. Not only is it a collection of the finest pieces to have appeared in foreign newspapers/magazines, but it also illustrates a sad but growing trend: the decline of long-form feature writing. If you're a frequent reader of Indian newspapers and magazines, you'd probably agree that exquisitely written, enjoyable yet informative essays are limited only to a few columnists. Otherwise, most newspapers and magazines have become mere wire-copy publishers. Even then, they're so poorly edited that you feel like consigning them to the dustbin after reading the first sentence itself.

Hence, this anthology comes as a breath of fresh air. Pieces range from Delhi in the 50s to the rise of the BJP in the 1980s. From an erudite obituary of Jawarharlal Nehru to a gripping account of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and its aftermath. For anyone who is interested in contemporary Indian history - if not long-form, journalistic writing - this is a must on your bookshelf.

Liberty Or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division by Patrick French: I first became a fan of Patrick French's writing not too long ago when I read this piece by him for Tehelka. A year later, his biography of V S Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, won critical acclaim and was one of the bestsellers for 2008. I looked up Patrick's bio on the net and found that he'd written two other books apart from his Naipaul, Liberty Or Death and another one on Tibet. Being a sucker for books on Indian independence and partition, I chose to buy Liberty Or Death over the Naipaul bio. But that's not the only reason I picked up the book

Released in 1997, Liberty Or Death evoked mixed responses. While Philip Ziegler, Lord Mountbatten's official biographer, states that Patrick has tackled "..a subject of extreme complexity, calling for scholarhip", eminent Indian journalist Swapan Dasgupta pooh-poohs it, stating that the book is nothing but "...a delightful tale of intrigue, ham-handedness and just plain blundering". One Indian journalist has gone to the extent of calling it a piece of "yellow journalism". And I can understand why. Basically, Patrick doesn't revere the leaders who negotiated India's independence and partition with the British. Instead, he's quite critical and even irreverent about them. For example, French has this to write about Gandhi:

If Gandhi is your hero, it can be a deflating experience to read what he actually did and said at crucial points in India's political history. The authorised version of the Mahatma is very different from the real one. Far from being a wise and balanced saint, Gandhi was an emotionally troubled social activist and a ruthlessly sharp political negotiator. As India's Transport Minister John Mathai said in 1947, the final failure to reach a satisfactory settlement with the Muslim League stemmed in from the 'Gujarati mentality' of the Congress leadership - i.e. 'that of a trader driving a hard bargain'

Now I haven't read the entire book but if this passage is anything to go by, then I'm sure there are plenty of uncharitable references to Nehru, Patel, Jinnah and even Churchill and Attlee. But, irreverent references notwithstanding, I think Liberty Or Death is an important read. For far too long, we've had a one-sided opinion about partition and independence. Patrick's book gives us the 'other side' of this epochal event. Might help to balance opinions- if not change them.

Other books I procured in Bombay but haven't read include Amartya Sen's Idea of Justice and Mani Shankar Aiyar's A Time of Transition. Haven't got down to even opening the packets so you'll have to wait for a while before I write about them

Finally, of all my socialising events, the one that I enjoyed most was with fellow blogger Hash. We roamed around the beautiful areas of Fort and Kala Ghoda and stopped at second hand bookshops before settling down at the quaint Kala Ghoda cafe for some organic nimbu paani. Oh, and in between we also visited the Strand book store (only to find it shut for the day) and The Bombay Store (which, in my opinion, should either revamp its stationary section or close it down completely). And post the Kala Ghoda cafe, we checked out the Oxford bookstore only to find that it hadn't stocked Hash's book for over 2 or 3 weeks! Not good for a debut novelist. Not good at all. Anyway, thanks Hash for the wonderful evening. We should do this once again when I visit Bombay again in November.

Oh, and don't think the Bombay rambling is over yet. Part 2 of the foodie tales is coming up soon.