A rich brew

You and I, let’s go get coffee, shall we?

I am not kidding; this perhaps is the most powerful conversation starter, pretty much capable of spawning new cultures, or catalysing capitalism, liberalism or what have you. Social capital, fascinating as it is and equally controversial, has grabbed my attention and given me a world view I can not afford to discard. Culture, norms and networks are fascinating, more so for the revolutions they may bring. Or, have brought about in history. One deep dive in history and we know what this truly means.

This brings me to the book I have read in the past week and been thinking about. Shachar Pinsker’s ‘A Rich Brew’ puts the spotlight on Jewishness yet again, more as a matter of culture than religion, and how arch-filled cafés in Berlin might have spurred on an irresistible fusion that could transform societies. Cafes of the yore, often a world lost to the present day world we inhabit, were places where writers and intellectuals raised a cup of coffee from Warsaw to New York and grew hungry for democracy! Such a hugely entertaining and well researched book, an empirical study really, of an abstract political theory associated with German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, which postulated that the coffeehouses and salons of the 17th and 18th centuries helped lay the foundation for the ‘’liberal Enlightenment’’. In other words, evolution of clan society into cosmopolitan society via the coffee cups! Democracy wasn’t the child of street revolutions but fine chatter in the coffee houses! Social spaces created outside the periphery of state control construct a thriving civil society beyond apparent imagination, as historical evidence suggests. Café life in European cities in the 19th century and afterwards facilitated a free exchange with strangers and clansmen alike which set the basis for social habits among Jews of self-expression that eventually led to a hunger for democracy. Wonderful book, can not recommend enough.

A memoir about an off-the-grid childhood and breaking out of it

Tara Westover’s memoir starts with her life in the hills of Idaho in America until she turned 17 and left home for an access to formal education, not without murmurs of disquiet and disapproval from her family.

Living life off the grid for the first seventeen years of her life, Tara goes through an entire gamut of challenges that she, along with her siblings, treated as ordinary as getting through another day without school. But living off the grid didn’t just mean not going to school; it also meant not accessing health care even for the most agonising of medical conditions and near-fatal accidents. For most of their physical ailments and injuries, her mother’s concoction of herbal oils and homeopathy medicines were put to work. Tara remembers they had no effect, which essentially meant that once nearly maimed on a construction site or burnt to dangerous levels, one could just wait for one’s body and will power to fight it. She describes with searing clarity and detail the numerous times she and her brothers got injured and didn’t seek hospitalisation for fear they may be asked too many questions for living off the grid, and accidents that left her parents bedridden for months. Yet, her bipolar father always saw the state and anything within its ambit an evil force out to get them. Unschooled and ill-medicated, Tara’s childhood also was cursed with fear that they would be attacked by the outsiders. While her father constantly stored supplies and ammunition to prepare the family for suspected combats, they as a family lived in fear and distrust of the state. When Tara formally enrolled at a college and eventually moved to Cambridge for her PhD, the biggest hurdle to her own awakening was this fear and distrust in her of not just the outsiders but also of herself.

In the end, almost in efforts to reconcile to her roots, Tara realises the breaking off of ties in an irretrievable way. To break the mould was to get an education that opened her mind to alternative views and facts, and helped her see a world beyond her father’s zealous, conservative sermons about Mormonism. This is when she makes the journey away from her life on the hills, to finally own the journey she sets out on.

Tara’s perception of the world in the hills is fresh, her language is almost lyrical when describing the areas she grew up in, without sounding nostalgic or overtly emotional, and her reflections on her journey are tinged with thoughtfulness and profound understanding of the world she inhabited once and how disastrous it would have been if she had stayed.

More that what any book reviews tell you about ‘Educated’, this is not just a book about Mormonism. Of course, Tara’s family is a bunch of mormons living in the hills of Idaho but it’s also a family we all know. A complex family with rigid values and the generation clashes it doesn’t deal with; the abuse within family that it doesn’t acknowledge or fight against; denial of basic rights and amenities to oneself and to all in an act of blind faith to beliefs and ideologies; and gender unequal milieu perpetuating the equally unequal rights. Consider reading this book for the message it leaves you with: sometimes, to grow, we may need to grow apart from people we love. And that act may in itself be necessitated by education.

‘Good research is vital’

This very interesting interview with Alpa Shah is a must-read for anyone aspiring to write narrative non-fiction. Shah, a professor of anthropology at my alma mater London School of Economics, speaks beautifully and honestly about her writing process while working on ‘Nightmarch’ and has great messages for both academics as well as writers of the non-fiction genre. Her photo is taken from her website, alpashah.ac.uk.

Here is the piece on this blog as well:

Literature in narrative non-fiction is undergoing an academic shift, lending to works in the genre richness of ethnographic research and multi-layered narratives. From Pulitzer-winning author and academic Matthew Desmond to more recently, Alpa Shah, works of narrative non-fiction by academics in recent years have contributed remarkably to our understanding of the most critical challenges facing the world. Embedded research, which often accompanies work in the genre, creates an intimate view of communities caught in the midst of unfolding complexities, offering a rare and empathetic understanding of not just compelling issues but also the people at the crux of it all through masterful storytelling.

Alpa Shah, author of Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, spent 18 months in the forests of Jharkhand and Bihar between 2008 and 2010, living among the tribals in huts without electricity and water. Shah, who was raised in Nairobi, read Geography at Cambridge and is currently a professor of anthropology in London at the London School of Economics, sought to understand how and why the tribals—mostly belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, often neglected by the local administration and the state and central governments—were picking up arms to create a “different world”.

The book’s lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone. Nightmarch is an insightful exploration of conflict and its origins, and how the understanding of both eludes politics and policies for tribals in India. The book has been shortlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Writing and the New India Foundation Book Prize. It was also on the longlist for the Tata Literature Live Nonfiction Award. Shah spent four and a half years doing anthropological fieldwork among Adivasis – one stint in 2008 to 2010 but also a longer one earlier – and draws on all of this experience for Nightmarch.

She is also the author of In the Shadows of the State’ and co-author of Ground Down by Growth.

In an email interview, Shah discusses her thoughts on writing non-fiction as an academic and whether she thinks the trend is going to catch on:

Pallavi Singh (PS): Your book has been acclaimed for its superlative craft in political writing. What are the key elements in your writing style that you think makes the book so immersive?

Alpa Shah (AS): Thank you. I’m not sure I have a style as such. I think most important (to the process) was a feeling, a compulsion if you like, of the need to share widely the knowledge I have been fortunate to attain. What was happening in the guerrilla strongholds had been silenced for the world outside. Meanwhile, a lot was being written on the Naxalites, which was either falling one way into those who radically opposed them, or the other, into those who tried to counter that position. This created polarising views. Adivasis were shown to be joining the rebels because they were forced to, because they were gaining utilitarian benefits, or because the insurgents addressed their grievances. My fieldwork had shown that the reality was more complex and that it was important for the world to understand that because so many lives were at stake. Many of the people I knew – those who lived in the jungles and those in the cities who could have brought light to their stories – were incarcerated if not killed. The responsibility of the uniqueness and significance of the stories I carried with me weighed heavily and I realised that I could not let the unexpected insights that I discovered through them be confined to the ivory towers of the university. I had to touch the hearts of people who read the book – as many as possible – in the way that the people I met, during the course of my research, had touched mine. I had to try to reach as wide an audience as I could, but without simplifying the analysis or dumbing down my scholarship. How to do this was the next question. I think a lot of my inspiration came from George Orwell, for whom the initial motivation for writing was similarly to get a hearing because there were lies to expose, facts to draw attention to, but to also make that process into an aesthetic experience. Writing, then, must be thought of as art.

PS: How different do you find narrative non-fiction from academic writing and in what ways?

AS: Academics these days are mainly trained to write for each other and not the general reader. It wasn’t always like this but over the years, there has been a kind of scholarly enclosure, especially in the West. It is partly to do with how neoliberalism has materialised itself in the university context. Austerity narratives have brought pervasive marketisation and the ethos of business into universities, determining how we monitor ourselves, bringing crude evaluation criterias of promotions rankings and research evaluation frameworks to bear on our writing. A kind of scholarly enclosure has advanced as academics are encouraged to address whatever conversation seems to be in vogue in a particular moment, and this is often the one that others can’t understand, and all of this becomes further validated through the inwardly looking practices we perpetuate of recognition, citation and promotion. Our writing is sapped off its vigour. Indeed, academics have increasingly ceased to be public intellectuals, the spaces of which are claimed mainly by people outside of the academy. So really, today, academics have a lot to learn from writers of narrative non-fiction, in finding ways of communicating the complexity of their scholarship to reach beyond elite audiences. I hope Nightmarch can create greater space for other scholars who want to make the wealth of their scholarship accessible to people outside the academy.

PS: How long did you take to write Nightmarch? What were the key challenges before you as an academic as you set out to write a book focused on narrative non-fiction?

AS: A very long time! The fieldwork for Nightmarch ended in 2010 and the book was published eight years later. It took me all that time to figure out what the significance of the stories I carried were and then what to do with them. I had to rework much that I had learned, the habits I was trained into, the traps of mystification common in academic writing. New concerns filled my imagination. Character, dialogue, journey, cliff hangers, audience and how to show and not always tell. But at the same time, it wasn’t all just about telling a story but also about drawing out the complexities of the analyses, the contradictions and tensions, thinking through the lessons for different kinds of audiences, including the Naxalites themselves.

PS: Do you foresee possible shifts in academic writing so it could be made more approachable for the masses? A number of academics – right from Matthew Desmond to yourself – have now written award-winning books in narrative non-fiction.

AS: Yes, I do.

Change is enabled partly through continuity. Despite the overwhelming insularity of so much of academic writing, there have always been those who bucked the trend, tried to reach beyond to a wider audience. Change is also enabled by the fact that serious conversations about writing itself were kept alive in academia. And then, there are contradictions in the way the pressures from above work that can be utilized as a force for change. Today, top university presses are feeling the financial crunch; books need to sell. Editors are encouraging us to move beyond academic prose in favour of compelling, clear writing. Bringing about change is also helped by the fact that those who have taken the risks to write jargon free books engaging broad publics are being rewarded with prizes.

But also, change is coming from ‘below’. Perhaps, it is the very pressure of decades of professionalism, the knowledge that years of tenure criteria and academic ranking have dumbed potential brilliance into mediocrity in writing, that we feel the need to push back. Perhaps it is because in this era of rising inequality and authoritarianism, we feel Orwell’s sense of political and artistic purpose in writing more than ever to keep alive the spaces of democracy, hope of justice, and demands for a more equal world. I think a collective will, across generations, will be a force for overall change for giving more room for writing that matters, and matters beyond the academy.

PS: Nightmarch was not just a book of engaging narratives, it was also the result of years of research on the field. What is your advice to researchers and academics aspiring to write narrative non-fiction in future?

AS: I think there are no blueprints, no models, no prefigured ideals. But one question we should all ask ourselves, is the simple one, ‘Why Write?’

What is at stake? Who is our audience? What is our intent? What makes us tear up our pages and rebuild? What is our political purpose? Our historical impulse? Are we aware of it? Why, if at all, does it matter that we are writing as scholars and researchers? What are the consequences?

Another important issue to bear in mind is to first and foremost be committed to good research itself. Don’t go about the research just in order to write a good story, or with preconceived ideas of what you may find. Always challenge your own ideas, seek hidden truths and unexpected insights. Never forget to be critical, including, of yourself.

In terms of writing, I think it is important to be committed to the insights you have gained from the people you have been lucky to study. There’s also something very special about doing deep immersive field research in communities, which allow researchers to draw upon the affective resonances that are born of intimacy with the people we meet to make our writing more engaging and effective. Keeping the lives of those we have studied close to us at all times, including when we are back at our desks, will help us make our analysis in writing more compelling.

Mid-year Mini List of Favorite Non-fiction Reads

You know I am into non-fiction, writing and reading. A consistent trend in non-fiction writing has been the emergence of academics as non-fiction writers and as more and more do so, we can clearly see how some of them are gifted writers.

I laid my hands on two super books of narrative non-fiction this year – Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Alpa Shah’s Nightmarch. While Desmond’s book tracks eight homeless families in America, Shah embarks on a ten-day journey with some of India’s most dreaded Maoists. Both are great works of narrative non-fiction. The writing is deep and informed, coming as it does from years of research by the academics who wrote these books. But what’s really interesting is that both the books use immersive storytelling to craft stories and both writers have spent years observing the people they write about. This is a masterful, credible and empathetic body of work. This is what has made narrative non-fiction literature very interesting. The book I am working on falls in the genre, so I asked Alpa Shah about dabbling in the genre as an academic. The interview will soon be out on my blog, so keep reading. I also reviewed Shah’s book for Newslaundry.

I also loved Anand Giridhardas’s Winners Take All and James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj. Crabtree’s book is a book about the rising inequality in India, the story told through the lives of the super-rich in India and their unwieldy influence on Indian institutions. Read Ajit Ranade’s review here.

I greatly enjoyed reading Winners Take All – the book has a catty, acerbic tone and it’s, therefore, a delightful read. Giridhardas’s book turns its gaze on people immersed in social innovation and philanthropy efforts, social impact consulting and impact investing. Anand argues that “business elites are taking over the work of changing the world,” and that “many believe they are changing the world when they may instead—or also—be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve.” In this book, the contradictions of those who work for social change from positions of privilege and wealth are exposed as the author probes into their shortcomings and their limitations.

Anand’s book drew my attention because I too have spent five years working for some of the startups in India and has had a close view of the ecosystem. The author raises thought-provoking questions in the book – are the capitalists who have been working hard to solve the world’s problems, part of the problem y perpetuating the evils? Are they looking enough within their own business practices, privilege, and access to power? Giridharadas writes that “a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system” will always fail. And while I love the book, here is a very interesting criticism of the book, though, as catty as Anand’s book itself. Do read for fun.

Hilliby Elegy by JD Vance and Shanta Gokhale’s One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body are stunning memoirs. While Vance’s book presents a detailed and moving account of the American struggle (a New Yorker review is here), critic, translator and author Gokhale recounts her unusual life lived through the body. I wouldn’t say much because excellent reviews on both are available online. For Vance, this one is my favorite and this one for Gokhale.

I would end this list of my favorite reads this year with Leta Hong Fincher’s Betraying Big Brother and Karoline Kan’s Under Red Skies, both eminent reads on contemporary China. Fincher’s book turns its focus on a section of college-educated Chinese women in China’s major cities who have come together to lead a feminist revolution working to put up a challenge to patriarchy, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexism, facilitated by social media. In 2012, these women took to the streets in China to engage in performance art and shared videos of their activities online. This provoked widespread discussion and debate and the Chinese govt had to act to restrain them. Fincher’s book recounts this in her gripping book, which is based interviews with these young women, including the group that came to be known as the Feminist Five.

Kan’s Under Red Skies is a beautiful, evocative memoir on growing up in China as a millennial. Kan, born in 1989, the year of the massacre, writes a coming-of-age story blending family history and China’s cultural landscape as a background that not just highlights the generational differences and the urban-rural divide in China but also delves deep into the psyche of a millennial who grew up in China in the midst of the state-mandated one-child norm and cyber-surveillance. If you are interested in China, these are the two essential reads for you.

So that’s it – I have deliberately kept the list short, forcing myself to pick just a few. Not all books I have mentioned have been released this year but I list these because I read them this year. This is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list – it only reflects my interest and appreciation of books I have truly enjoyed reading so far this year. Hope you find the list useful. Happy reading.

Nightmarch: an intimate journey into India’s Naxal heartlands

nightmarch

I opened this book with a conflicted mind. As a capitalist, my understanding of India’s Naxal movement has been that of a movement galvanising ignorant people to block India’s development. I strongly believe that they deserve what is rightfully theirs, but I have never been a great admirer of alternative governments and violence.

Alpa Shah’s brilliant examination of the movement—not as an outsider writing on the subject but as a participant observer—made me revisit some of my beliefs. By the end of the book, I felt familiar with the world of the Naxals, their motivations and conflicts, and the sordid path of those who lead the movement forsaking worldly pleasures for the difficult dream of a just and egalitarian society.

The book’s lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone—and that’s what takes this book right to the top of political writing in narrative non-fiction. Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands is an insightful exploration of conflict and its origins, and how the understanding of both eludes politics and policies for tribals in India.

Between 2008 and 2010, Alpa Shah spent 18 months in the forests of Jharkhand and Bihar living among the tribals in huts without electricity and water. Shah, a professor of anthropology in London, sought to understand how and why the tribals—mostly belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, often neglected by the local administration and the state and central governments—were picking up arms to create a “different world”.

Shah moved to Jharkhand at the time when Operation Green Hunt, a government operation to flush out guerrillas, was launched. This made her task more difficult as tribal communities were far removed socially, geographically and politically from the rest of India and she had to venture into the interiors. Towards the end of her stay, she joined a platoon of more than two dozen Naxals on their night march from Bihar to Jharkhand—a 250-kilometre trek—dodging scrutiny of police camps and check posts. This was a dangerous and audacious exercise given that Shah was unarmed, the lone woman in the platoon, and also new to navigating the rough terrain at night. But her determination convinced the Naxals. Very soon, she was off on a ten-day trek that would allow her to not just connect with Naxal leaders at a personal level, but to also have the most intimate view into their motivations, dilemmas and conflicts.

On the night march, Shah meets Gyanji, a senior Maoist leader whose soft feet belied his Naxal identity. Later, she would discover that he came from an upper-caste, well-to-do family, committed to bringing justice and fairness to the lives of the tribals. With her description of Naxal leaders, Shah humanises them and at times, also seeks to address popular myths about the men and women leading the movement. Gyanji, for example, with his playful eyes, love for poetry and interest in grooming himself, is not a gun-wielding Naxal. Prashant, with his guns, songs of revolution, and books written by Gulzar, Tagore and Russian revolutionaries such as Alexandra Kollontai, is a Naxal who was driven to the movement after the upper-caste feudal army, Ranvir Sena, burnt his cousins’ house. Overnight, he became a Naxal from being a Naxal sympathiser. Kohli, with his boyish appeal, joins the movement to escape his father’s reprimand on spilling milk. Clearly, everyone has different reasons to be a Naxal.

Yet, despite these differences, Naxalism, as it stands today, endures dreams of a classless and equal society. Inspired by Soviet Russia and Maoist China, India’s early Naxal movement in the 1960s was killed. Yet, seeds of rebellion were sown and it resurfaced in the later years in the “flaming fields” of states such as Bihar where fierce caste wars between the Naxals and dominant caste landlords raged on.

Extreme caste hierarchies still continue to plague the Indian society, giving succour to the Maoist movement whose war is against caste oppression. And this continues to mobilise the most socially discriminated group, the adivasis.

The most extreme counterinsurgency measures began in 2005, affecting lakhs of adivasis who were seen by the government as Maoist sympathisers. The crackdown followed the emergence of a new political and military organisation the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. Today, as per government claims, 20 Indian 28 states are Naxal-affected.

Shah describes police action in these states against the guerrillas as the “juggernaut of perhaps one of the greatest people-clearing operations of our times”. The underlying message in the book is that of development pitted against social justice, with corporations invading natural habitats of adivasis for profit, destroying environment along the way, even as Naxal leaders mobilise the tribals they drive to homelessness.

Alpa Shah discovered Naxalism, and the “participant observation” method, proposed by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, while she was a university student in London as an antidote to armchair research. But the motivation to finally travel to a Naxal-dominated, remote Jharkhand village perhaps came from the grit and fortitude of her grandmother who many years ago had travelled in a small boat to Nairobi in the late 1920s from a dusty Gujarat village. While Shah’s personal history and her father’s secular values shaped her outlook in life, it was not until her stints in the slums of Delhi for the World Bank that made her want to question injustices and change the world.

In Jharkhand, Shah spotted NGO workers in Land Rovers, development funds siphoned off by local elites, votes bought during elections, corporate honchos landing at Ranchi airport to mitigate land acquisition worries, and Naxal armies recruiting tribals in the region. This is how she eventually came to see the Naxalites: protection and rent seekers. But when her doctoral research supervisor asked her if Naxals were “really a bunch of thugs”, she decided to find out.

Nightmarch is Shah’s account of what she saw when she immersed herself in the lives of Naxals and their ideological war against the Indian state. Yet, Shah is astutely objective in her narrative and reflections, and notes, with profound understanding, how the idealism that holds Naxalism together is very often undone by the movement’s ease with using means of violence, how a movement modelled on principles of equality can create a more unequal society for Adivasi women and how Naxal leaders survive the hardships of jungle life to be betrayed by their own trusted men.

In the end, Shah discusses the contradictions the revolutionaries face. Besides being betrayed by their own people as they continue a relationship with their kin and families, Naxals find themselves ideologically pitted against capitalism when capitalism is needed to fund largescale revolutions. Not just this, their tendency for violent resistance also invites violent state oppression.

Being led by upper-caste men, Naxal movements have also overlooked the inequalities within their own ranks as men from elite classes have failed to give space for nurturing of the lower caste, adivasi women leaders. Yet, Shah argues that revolutionary movements such as Naxalism have provided an alternate vision where individualism, hierarchies, and accumulation of wealth at the cost of exploitation are discouraged, thereby acting as a democratising force.

Nightmarch isn’t just a journey into India’s Naxal heartlands, it’s a journey into your minds and hearts as you turn page after page, and for this and this above all, it must be read.

Nightmarch: A Journey Into India’s Naxal Heartlands by Alpa Shah

Published by Harper Collins

699

 

First published here.

Bhicoo Manekshaw | Feast of love

On a December day in 1974, at a small dinner party to celebrate the wedding of then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay, the menu was appropriately sophisticated: a hot lobster soufflé, duck à la orange and a jardinière platter of vegetables. Dessert was a problem, though.

A cold dessert was out of the question in winter and the prime minister did not like hot puddings. The dessert had to be a vacharin, decided Bhicoo Manekshaw, catering consultant to the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi where the dinner was being served. While the French dessert made with meringue, filled with whipped cream and fruits, was being served, Gandhi wanted to know what it was called.

Mankeshaw replied on the spur of the moment: “Gâteau Indira!”

The spontaneity that Manekshaw, trained at the prestigious Cordon Bleu in London, UK, brought to the IIC kitchen may well have marked the beginning of a rich culinary tradition. While the à la carte menu at India’s premier cultural institution had been mostly north Indian in the years since its inception in 1962, it changed under Manekshaw, who joined in June 1974, to include an Indian and Continental du jour, presenting an excellent mix of barbecues, south Indian and Chinese cuisines. Special dishes such as Gâteau Indira and Stein’s Potato and Sesame Soup, named after the architect who designed the IIC, were introduced.

In 1992, her son-in-law Sunil Chandra set up the restaurant Basil & Thyme in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri, with Manekshaw as founding chef. It served the best Continental food in the Capital. “One had always heard of the restaurant growing up…but never had a chance to visit since it was always considered posh. I had some sort of mushroom pasta, which was divine. This stuff was a revelation, and except perhaps Ritu Dalmia’s restaurant Diva at the time, no one was doing this quality of Western cuisine in Delhi,” says Manu Chandra, partner and executive chef at Olive Beach, Likethatonly and Monkey Bar in Bangalore.

Chandra met Manekshaw—“a dignified lady one would usually find in the drawing rooms of Prithviraj Road”—at her restaurant while studying at St Stephen’s College. Once she realized that he too wanted to be a chef, he says, “we exchanged notes on how to make mushroom pasta and to make ravioli without a pasta machine”.

At the IIC, where she consulted until her death on 17 April at the age of 90, Manekshaw modified French cuisine to suit the local palate and even introduced cuisines from traditional Indian communities, like the Kodavas and Parsis. “She never compromised. She would join the cooks even to cut, peel and garnish. Not one ingredient would be missing,” says Vijay Thukral, executive chef at the IIC, who worked with Manekshaw.

Manekshaw and Thukral compiled Secrets From the Kitchen: Fifty Years of Culinary Experience at the India International Centre, released earlier this year. It was the last of her four books, starting with a collection of traditional Indian recipes in the early 1970s. Two more books followed: one on Parsi food and customs, and a coffee-table book on 50 classic recipes that explained a style of cooking derived from French restaurants and adapted to the Indian palate.

Secrets From the Kitchen is anecdotal and even carries a list of recommendations compiled by Manekshaw to improve the IIC’s catering services.

“While Julia Childs was able to make America-appropriate French cuisine, Bhicoo, in her own way, paved the way for the restaurant revolution (in India),” says Chandra.

Manekshaw also stuck sternly to classicalrecipes, with little concern for calories. “Her recipes were filled with cups of cream and butter. She placed the joy of eating above every consideration,” says Thukral. “The cuisine, she said, will stay even after we are gone.”

This was first published in Mint.

Holidays by Shatabdi | On a train, spotting birds, scaling mountains

Trains carry a nostalgic value, relics of a childhood when holidays began and ended with rail journeys. The Shatabdis, Indian Railways’ super-fast trains that connect the metros to tourist, pilgrimage and business centres, still retain that quintessential charm, says Lonely Planet’s latest travel guide. In a pocketbook format, Holidays by Shatabdi lists 30 possible great trips from Delhi on six lines of the super-fast train, in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. From hill stations to heritage sites and wildlife sanctuaries, these can offer a slice of adventure and history.

Here are the six quiet Shatabdi destinations that Mint picked:

1. Naukuchiatal

Naukuchiatal, or “the lake with nine corners”, in Uttarakhand’s Nainital district has a pristine lake at its centre and is surrounded by hills and forests. An all-year destination at 4,000ft above sea level, the hill station offers a variety of leisure activities, from a boat riding to paragliding. While the boat rides cost anywhere between 150-250, paragliding costs 1,500-4,500. Long walks around the blue lake are a must-do, especially on stretches away from the road. If you visit in May, you could also catch the local three-day music festival Escape , featuring emerging talent from all over the country, for an entry fee of 1,000 a day.

 

2. Pangot

Barely 17km from Nainital, Pangot is a trekker’s heaven. Surrounded by thick forests, quiet villages, endless streams and walking trails, this little-known destination offers no distractions in your exploration of nature. Take the 2km-long British bridle path to Pokhra Dhar (Woodpecker Point), one of Pangot’s most reliable birding spots, and catch glimpses of the woodpecker, luminous maroon oriole and blue verditer flycatcher around the shallow pool. Or picnic around the Pangot Nala stream. A 3km forest trek to neighbouring Kilbury, famous for reserve forests and views of the Bhabhar plains and snowy Himalayan peaks, is an added attraction. Must-dos include walks to the neighbouring villages of Pali, Tusharpani and Baggar, offering the quiet and peace that Pangot’s famous cousin, Nainital, doesn’t.

3. Dhanaulti

A tiny town in the Garhwal Himalayas, Dhanaulti in Uttarakhand, seems to be lost in time. The place offers unspoiled views of nature and birding activities at the Surkanda Devi Temple and Kodia Jungle. Amber and Dhara are the two eco parks at Dhanaulti, with rows of cedar, oak, plum and pine trees and excellent pathways—walk here or hitch a horse ride through the evergreen forests next to the parks. The Surkanda Devi Temple is also famous for its Ganga Dussehra fair. The little-visited hamlet of Kanatal, a stone’s throw from Dhanaulti, offers several trekking options, as well as a dip in the Tehri dam. Tucked in the shadow of Mussoorie, Dhanaulti is a world unto itself!

4. Barog

At 5,400ft, Barog in Himachal Pradesh is the highest point between Kalka and Shimla, and a quiet stopover. A hamlet of small, whitewashed cottages, Barog is surrounded by pine forests. Spend the morning at the Barog station, a quaint old railway station on the road to Solan, and watch the Himalayan Queen, a toy train, chugging away into the Barog tunnel, the longest tunnel on the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi line. Stroll around Barog’s tiny markets, quiet meadows and narrow, pucca roads lined with peach and pomegranate trees. From there, you can see Solan town below and the massive Churdhar peak rising skywards. The neighbouring cantonment town of Dagshai is a relic of the British Raj.

 

5. Chail

Apart from thick deodar forests, panoramic views, a wildlife sanctuary and a sprawling palace hotel called the Chail Palace, the hill town of Chail in Himachal Pradesh also has the highest cricket ground in the world, the legacy of Bhupinder Singh, a former maharaja of Patiala. At Sadhupul, 16km from Chail, picnic on the banks of the Ashni river. The view of the Dhauladhar range and the Choor Chandni peak from Kali ka Tibba is spectacular.

How to reach: Take the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi. At Kalka, take a taxi to Chail, 85km away, for 1,850. The best time to go is January-June and October-December.

Better known as the medieval capital city of the Bundela kings, Orchha’s grandeur lives on in its forts, palaces and temples, all within walking distance of each other. There is also river-rafting on the Betwa and lively cafés adjacent to the Raj Mahal, the main palace that offers sound and light shows in the evening. Visit the 14 riverside cenotaphs (chhatris) clustered on the banks of Betwa that give Orchha its distinct image.

How to reach: Take the Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi to Jhansi, then a taxi to Orchha, a 30-minute drive, for 1,200. The best time to visit is January-February and April-December.

 

This first appeared in Mint.

Vanessa Able | Freewheeling around India

British writer Vanessa Able was editing Time OutIstanbul before she headed to India and bought a Tata Nano, the car that promised to fulfil middle-class India’s dream of owning a car. The Nanologues, Able’s first book, published in May, is a witty account of riding the Nano over 10,000km across India, braving dust and grime, risking accidents and flouting driving rules. Able spoke to us about the Nano’s symbolic potential, and why India is her favourite country to travel to. Edited excerpts:

You have backpacked around India before. What was it like coming here for the first time? What was the most challenging part of your trip in the Nano? Which experiences count as your favourites?

The most challenging part of the trip was the psychological element of being on the northern plains in the summer heat. It really began to shake my resolve after a while. My favourite parts of the trip were the small moments of surprise. I loved exploring Orissa and Kolkata for the first time and despite the heat, I loved Kolkata.

I’d done it before, but I think the early morning boat trip on the Ganges in Varanasi is something everyone should experience once in their lives. Further up the river, I loved seeing the big Ganga aarti ceremony in Rishikesh.

Your book hinged heavily on a brand. Were you worried about marketing it as an honest travelogue?

Yes, I was worried. But Tata Motors and I have kept a very polite distance from one another throughout the whole project. I didn’t want to be under any pressure and I knew it was important to be objective about a car that’s stirred up a lot of controversy in India.

You have written that driving on Indian roads qualified you as bona-fide Indian driver. Who’s that?

Someone who shoots from the gut. I think that Indian drivers are very instinctive in the way they operate. They can often be quite impatient too, which gives rise to some of the crazy manoeuvres and overtaking that I witnessed.

This appeared in Mint first.

 

A disciple’s tribute to Pandit Birju Maharaj

Veteran Kathak dancer Saswati Sen is dressed in a green cotton lehenga-choli with golden gota border, not very different from what she wears on stage, but sans the make-up. In between phone calls in the living room of her Chittaranjan Park, Delhi, residence, she describes why she has written Birju Maharaj: The Master Through My Eyes, a memoir about the great Kathak exponent. “About a decade ago, I had worked on a few books on thumri, which set in the process of thinking about a book on Maharaj-ji. When the offer came from the publishers, I jumped at it,” she says.

In eight chapters, the book details the different stages in Birju Maharaj’s life—from a childhood spent among the legends of the Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin gharana of Kathak to becoming the greatest exponent of the dance form. With numerous photographs of the dance maestro with his disciples, the coffee-table book unravels layers of his personality as witnessed by Sen in the last four decades—a dutiful family man, a zealous master, a great and unassuming artiste and a compassionate human being. “Once, at the New Delhi station, the coolie carrying Maharaj-ji’s luggage turned out to be his childhood friend. He hugged him and wept inconsolably. On Delhi’s Minto Road, Maharaj-ji once helped a cart-puller pull his overloaded cart after parking his Morris Minor on the road,” Sen recalls.

Sen, the maestro’s dance partner for more than four decades and his seniormost disciple, says she struggled with finding a balance between recounting her own memories of the guru and writing about his life and achievements as a biographer. The book offers rare glimpses of the master’s experiments with Kathak in the bylanes of Varanasi and on the streets of London, UK, and New York, US. Sen recalls a teenage Birju Maharaj’s early experiments with inventing a new grammar for the dance form: “Kathak was largely practised solo as a court dance and experiments in thematic compositions and group choreography started only around the 1960s. The popular notion of Kathak was as a dance of chakkars (spins) and tatkar (footwork),” Sen says. The maestro liberated the dance form. “He composed music, he wrote lyrics for ballet compositions. Almost every day, he woke up with new ideas on how to make students enjoy the dance. When explaining a gesture, he used similes from nature and everyday situations and transferred to the audience the joy of playing with numbers and transcribing them into imaginative body language,” Sen recalls.

The artiste in Birju Maharaj is self-effacing. Once, while performing in the erstwhile Soviet Union, Birju Maharaj was inspired by the beauty of the Bolshoi dancers. “Maharaj-ji had developed a paunch and was quite embarrassed by it. After seeing the Bolshoi dancers, he realized how much a fit body could add to the beauty of the dance form. Kathak dancers in those days focused on rhythmic interplay, speed and beauty of movements but the body was given very little importance,” recalls Sen.

Book Review | Manoj and Babli: A Hate Story

Murder most foul

Manoj and Babli: A Hate Story is based on a murder in the hinterlands of Haryana and the role of the khap panchayats in it. It explores the workings of a very intolerant society, quick to lynch people for its long-held medieval beliefs and exalted notions of family honour.

The book, journalist Chander Suta Dogra’s first, unravels, with impressive research, what khap panchayats can do to young people in love—Manoj and Babli, in this case. To Chandrapati, an ordinary woman who discovers her zest to fight for justice after her son Manoj’s brutal murder. To Ompati, helpless mother of Babli who is never heard beyond the walls of patriarchy that confine her. To Vinod, Manoj’s brother, who drops out of school to write his exams privately. To Gangaraj, the resourceful local politician who made it possible for the murderers to twist the law.

 

The dark side of the male-dominated Haryana hinterland has been alluded to in literature and cinema, but in Dogra’s book, its macabre depths assume chilling proportions. It is in the village of Karoran that Manoj and Babli, belonging to the same gotra, fall in love. But marrying into the same gotra is taboo, which can have grave consequences, as they realize within days of their marriage.

They flee Karoran, hounded by Babli’s bloodthirsty relatives, their rage compounded by support from Gangaraj, who exerts an unwieldy influence over the area. Within hours of Babli deposing before a Kaithal court that she had married Manoj of her free will, Gangaraj and his goons tear apart the police protection around the couple through deceit and meticulous planning and lynch them.

What follows is a sordid tale of shoddy police investigation. Manoj’s family’s struggles for justice amid their social boycott in Karoran, repeated death threats from Babli’s family, and daunting fury of the Jat councils across north India.

What emerges amid all the negativity is the unprecedented courage of Chandrapati, a village woman not ever known to have a temper. From being a docile woman to a mother driven by a ferocious need to get justice for her dead son, Chandrapati is the anchor in the agitation that follows, supported by women activists and the media.

The fields of Karoran witness the march for justice, but not without provoking a deeply patriarchal society. The men hate the women’s guts and their independent ways, fathers write off properties in sons’ names, while women activists are given a short shrift.

Dogra’s book reminds us of the dilemmas India faces, especially of the perils of a society that still can’t make peace with the advances that a nation has made. Dogra does what a writer of true crime should effectively do—make us relate to the crime that happened, however separated from us by distance or beliefs, and feel anguished by it.

In Manoj and Babli’s failed attempts at living life with the love they believed in, the kind of love that so effortlessly thrives in India’s cosmopolitan cities, lies a sad picture.

Originally published in Mint.

Omair Ahmad | ‘Objectivity is a dream’

“There are truths we learn as children: There are dragons; there are kings. The cunning hero outwits the giant; the barefoot penitent wins the crown. …. In Bhutan, all such stories are true.” Omair Ahmad’s third book The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys Into Bhutan revolves around such stories, with insightful glimpses into the history, mythology and contemporary politics of the Himalayan nation. The book also talks about why Bhutan is important to a proper understanding of India and China. In an email interview Ahmad discusses the challenges while writing the book and why the trip to the Ogyen Chholing museum in Bumthang remains one of his more memorable trips. Edited excerpts:

At a time when everyone talks about China, why did you choose to write about Bhutan?

I think it’s a little too easy to get lost in the capitals of the big countries—in Beijing and Delhi we spend so much time talking about the “Asian century”, about China as the next superpower, and India as the rival in waiting, that we are in danger of falling for our own propaganda. A better way to understand the influence of China and India is to see them from the perspective of a place like Bhutan, which sits between them, and has been influenced in one way or the other by both these great civilizations for the last 1,500 years.

It was incredibly difficult to start from outside of Bhutan when I did in 2005, but after visiting in 2007, a number of venues opened up. One was simply to listen to Bhutan’s journalists, politicians and others from the country. Dasho Karma Ura and his Centre for Bhutan Studies were an incredible resource, as was Kuensel—Bhutan’s oldest newspaper—which has all of its reports online. I also benefited from the kindness of former Indian diplomats who had served in Bhutan, such as Salman Haidar, Dalip Mehta and Pavan Varma. Over time, as Bhutan opened up, and more newspapers and magazines have come up, it has become easier, but I still feel that I have only captured a small corner of information on the country.

I just tried to write in a way that I found interesting, also I spoke endlessly about it to my friends—boring them to tears, no doubt. For me writing is a form of conversation, and once it seemed that I could talk about it confidently, then I could write about it. And finally I had the good fortune of having Ravi Singh, one of the finest editors in India, help me work out the balance. It is not a small thing to have a good editor.

The book touches upon sensitive issues such as the Nepali refugee crisis and Bhutan’s experiments with democracy. As a writer and someone who knows Bhutan well, how did you keep your objectivity?

Tell us about your memorable moments while travelling for the book.

Ah, there were far too many, but my trip to Ogyen Chholing in Bumthang was fabulous. It was like with every kilometre I was travelling a little farther back into Bhutan’s history, perfectly preserved, and a lot more substantial than the modern tourist-friendly cities of Thimphu or Paro.

A book on Gorakhpur, my dad’s hometown in eastern Uttar Pradesh. I want to use a series of interlinked short stories to map out a history of the town, its history, politics, economy and place in India—everything from the founding of the town, to its liberation by a bandit in 1857, to the indigo plantations, Gandhi’s great speech in 1921 and Premchand’s inspiration, the mafia networks, Gorakhnath Mandir, Nepal’s politics—there is a lot to tell.

Originally published in Mint.

Book Review | A Matter of Rats

A Matter of Rats | Amitava Kumar

Rodents and memories

In Amitava Kumar’s biography of Patna, one of the several passages that stirred me is this one, where the author confesses why he would write on rats in the prologue: “Writers often marshal inordinate zeal when portraying the misery of the downtrodden and the oppressed: it is only a form of narcissism.… No doubt I am guilty of this too, but I plead equal fondness for folly, pleasure, guile, greed, and hypocrisy. Hence, the rats.”

Rats, in Kumar’s A Matter of Rats, are a universe unto their own, creating a parallel, subaltern underworld—“the first inhabitants of Patna” that symbolize the decay and chaos the city represents. In the Patna that Kumar knows, rats bring down a library, coexist in a museum with objects of Mauryan art and Buddhist relics, emerge from bathroom bowls, steal grandma’s dentures, puncture ultrasonic machines in hospitals and even drink liquor from the illegal bottles recovered by the local police, a story, Kumar says, he himself didn’t instantly buy.

At its centre are three narratives of Patna, told through three distinct sets of people. The first Patna is made up of people who were born and brought up in the city and later moved elsewhere, like Kumar himself; the second belongs to people who continue to live there, out of will or compulsion; and the third is a city of supposed solace, attracting people from the hinterlands and outside Bihar, who come because they think they can help or need help themselves.

Most of Kumar’s reference points are from literature, historical texts and eye-witness accounts of travellers to the city: the scenic Marabar Hills in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, the bandits from Bihar in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Hollywood actor Marlon Brando’s impressions of malnutrition among Patna’s children, among others.

“I’m not alone in offering such assessments,” Kumar writes, and goes on to describe the other Patna, as explored through its famous expatriates like artist Subodh Gupta and journalist Shiva Naipaul, brother of author V.S. Naipaul. While Gupta reconciles to his roots as an artist and plumbs his past to shape his art, Naipaul rejected Patna as “a town without the faintest traces of charm”. Then, there is Ian Jack, former editor of Granta, whose essay on Patna—Unsteady People—was compassionate towards “half-naked, nameless toiling figures” in the city, an essay Kumar quotes to underline the universality of failure and ineptness.

The book precisely illustrates this. Kumar may appear to be a cynic, ignoring stories on Patna that remain untold, but the book does bust a few exalted myths about the city. Kumar’s achievement is in making his story partly funny, and partly grim, almost always aiming at objectivity.

Originally published in Mint.