Vanity Unfair


Coelho’s latest offering is set in Cannes – during the international film festival - and is the story of Igor Malev, who’s wife Ewa has deserted him for a rich Arab fashion designer, Hamid. An enraged Igor adopts a murderous streak – murdering innocent people within a 24 hour timeframe. The core aspect of this book is materialism and the ills that accompany it. Be it through characters or subtler elements like Javits’ Moet et Chandon champagne bottle, Coelho makes the objective of his book clear at the outset.

The initial pages are devoted to the wannabe models who try to catch the eye of a hot-shot Hollywood producer and the methods they employ – botox included - to look beautiful every single day. Javits – the pretentious, jet-setting Champagne drinker – also reads aloud a 46 point list about the attributes of a ‘normal’ person. It includes such bizarre points as “Wearing a scrap of coloured cloth around your neck, even though it serves no useful purpose, but which answers to the name of a ‘tie’”. Clearly Mr Coelho is very cynical about materialism.

However, as the story progresses, Coelho cuts down on the cynicism and the following pages make for an engaging read.

Igor continues with his cold murder spree - killing a street vendor using the ancient martial art of Sambo and bumps off a movie distributor using a needle at a crowded luncheon. All this, in the hope that Ewa will take notice and return to him. In between, he encounters a few people who move about Cannes’ morally corrupt beaches. There’s Cristina who chooses the “professional name” of ‘Jasmine Tiger’ in a bid to become a successful model. 25-year-old Gabriella, who - while “spreading the energy of love around me” – works an escort for superstar Hamid Hussein and gradually “learns to love him.”

Coelho is descriptive, imaginative and vivid in his writing but the basic flaw with The Winner Stands Alone is its theme of vanity. Of course, it’s an attribute that exists in every society but then so do many others. And it won’t be surprising if the number of un-vane people outnumber their vane counterparts. So is it really fair to prick on an attribute which is confined to a small section of society?

Moreover, in choosing the prestigious Cannes film festival as his backdrop, Coelho tries to emphasise rather unfairly that the only people who go there are glamour hungry and couldn’t really care about cinema. It’s as shallow as saying that people take to politics only to increase their TV appearances. I am not trying to defend the Cannes film festival but such generalisations nor am I trivialising Coelho’s book. But shouldn’t one be measured while generalising about a reputed film festival?

Overall, The Winner Stands Alone is a book that doesn’t merit a recommendation. After all, with a bizarre narrative tool like Igor’s purpose and attempts to highlight insignificant societal attributes, Coelho only harms his reputation as the writer of such bestselling books as The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes.

Read it only if you have nothing else to look forward to – or if you want a lesson or two about vanity.

(A version of this book review can be read here)

Foodie Tales Part 1


Over a month ago, I re-visited Bombay to bond with family and friends. An endless flow of alcohol and shameless exhibition of gluttony is always on the cards whenever I visit the city. And since I’m on the subject, I guess it’s worth sharing a few restaurant stories of the city.

China Garden@Kemps Corner and CR2: As a kid, the day we (family included) landed in Bombay, it was a given that dinner would be at Nelson Wang’s iconic restaurant at Om Chambers. And if the day happened to be a Saturday or Friday, my uncle would reserve the table at least in a week in advance. Once, we had to wait for nearly 45 minutes in the adjacent Piano Bar till a vacant table was found. Apparently, crowds used to gather outside the restaurant over the weekend to catch a glimpse of their favourite movie stars. All of them would end up dining at CG or downing a few drinks after their film premieres. CG was known (and still is) for its eefoo wontons, cream corn, sapo vegetables and chicken manchurian. It moved to the crassy CR2 mall I Worli for a brief period but townies preferred the newer – and more authentic – Chinese eateries which had mushroomed. Now it’s returned back to Om Chambers in a newer avatar – CG83 – but it’s not even a shadow of what it used to be. Except for their signature dishes, everything else is oily, spicy and plain boring. I’d rather eat home-cooked Chinese food than go to CG83. It’ll be a cheaper, healthier option.

Thai Pavilion@ Taj President: When someone tells you that a chicken appetiser is served on a long toothpick-like stick with peanut-butter sauce, you start getting second thoughts about the place. But once I tasted Chicken Satay, I fell in love with it and with Thai Pavilion for dishing out some fabulous Thai cuisine. Be it Tom Yum soup, Penang Curry or Masaman Curry, this South Bombay restaurant soon became quite a rage. But unfortunately Thai Pavilion too went downhill for a few years. The food became horrible, menus remained unchanged, service was bad and loyal clientele preferred India Jones and others to Ananda Solomon’s eatery. In fact, there were times when Taj President offered free pick-up services to those who wanted to lunch at Thai Pavilion. Inevitably, good sense prevailed and the restaurant was closed for renovation. It reopened last year and to say that it has outdone itself would be an understatement. Solomon’s given it a contemporary twist so now the menu’s got flambé prawns with a hint of orange and the Thai curry is devoid of spices. Yet, it all tastes so good. The décor is friendlier and the restaurant’s more spacious than before. Let’s not discuss prices though. The appetite gets ruined.

Bagdadi’s@ Colaba (Behind the Taj Mahal Hotel): Now before I’m labelled as an elitist snob, I’d like to write that my most memorable meals have been at this non-descript eatery. After drinking ourselves silly at Leopold’s or Sports Bar, my friends and I digged into the most amazing Mutton/Beef Biryani, Chicken Masala, and Chicken Fry which is available under 50 bucks. That we blew up most of the cash on booze is another matter, but fact remains that Bagdadi’s dishes are much better than it’s overhyped neighbour, Bade Miyan. Another factor which sets Bagdadi’s apart is its egalitarian nature: be it a sozzled rich brat or a disgruntled taxi driver, all of them descend here for a quick bite. Signs such as “food will not be served to overdrunken person” and friendly waiters (one of them remembered that I hadn’t visited since the 26/11 attacks) are added features. So if you’re short on cash but looking for a delicious meal, Bagdadi’s is your destination – provided your not overdrunken!

Trishna@ Fort and JVPD: If there’s one restaurant in Bombay which is jam-packed at 10:45 PM on a weeknight, it has to be Trishna. Famous for its butter garlic crabs, fish hyderabadi, dal hyderabadi and Lonely Planeters, this South Bombay eatery has started spreading its wings to the ‘burbs. Not only is the JVPD outlet more spacious, it serves more dishes than the one in Fort. The Chettinad Crab was a wonderful discovery – especially since it was de-shelled and mildly spicy. But the real revelation was the pomfret tikka: soft, chunky pieces grilled to perfection. A welcome change from the hyderabadi fish I’m so used to eating. Add to that Trishna’s signature Dal Hyderabadi, a few neer dosas and malai kulfi, and you have the perfect meal!