Monthly Archives: October 2014

A chronicle of a musical life

Ocean to OceanTitle: Ocean to Ocean
Author: Susmit Sen and Sehba Imam
Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: September 2014
Pages: 160
ISBN: 9789351362012
Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction, Music
Rating: 3.5/5

Jimi Hendrix, the American singer and guitar virtuoso, when talking about how he was a source of inspiration for many musicians, famously said, “I’ve been imitated so well, I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.” But Susmit Sen, instead of walking in the footsteps of the likes of Hendrix, read the writing on the wall: “This is not for me.” If there’s one thing that a lifetime in music has taught Sen, the frontrunner of the iconic band Indian Ocean, is how ‘originality’ is not only a test of your integrity but also a yardstick to measure your musical genius. And this instinct was what got the band through. In his memoir, Ocean to Ocean, Sen writes, “If I am asked to name only one thing that guided the music of Indian Ocean, I will say originality.”

When Indian Ocean, one of the most creative bands in India, started to lose this very quality, when the band was merely working to a formula, he felt the first tinges of creative dissatisfaction. He rues, “Had we exhausted our originality and lost our ability to come up with new compositions? Or were we losing courage? On the one hand, success encourages you to create new fare, but as you go along, it sometimes terrifies you into staying with the tried and tested.” Finally, on the day the band performed Nani teri morni ko mor le gaye and Old Macdonald had a farm, Sen took a decision to part ways with the band. He recalls, “There is a fine line between expression and circus and I could see it clearly now.”

As you read Sen’s account of his life with Indian Ocean, you gradually begin to notice a few loose ends. Maybe a take from the other band members would have helped clarify a few things. But this is Sen’s memoir after all, and the beauty of it lies in the honest and unarmed manner he recounts it. Divided into 16 chapters, the narrative is dotted with anecdotes from Sen’s life, weaving in and out of his personal life and his musical journey.

You learn about his first brush with Hindustani classical music as he wistfully recalls, “In my attempts to hand around her (the girl he had a crush on), I discovered that her father was a classical music aficionado and a regular at Hindustani music concerts. I figured this was the best way to get close to her, so I tagged along.”

In another chapter, he talks about how Indian Ocean first took shape. “By 1990 we had three bass players, Aseem on vocals, Shaleen on drums and me, finally doing what I loved the most — exploring how my guitar could express sounds that emerged from nowhere and asked to be expressed,” he writes. One chapter in particular, titled Aseem will leave you teary-eyed as Sen recounts Aseem’s harrowing demise due to diabetes.

The hardbound book, co-authored by Sehba Imam, also comes with a copy of the eponymous debut album from Sen’s latest music ensemble, Susmit Sen Chronicles. This album, which will take you back in time to the alluring sound and style of ‘Indian Ocean,’ together with the book offers a captivating look at how Sen had to “swim out of the ocean, only to re enter it once again — this time not for its vastness, but for its depth.”

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Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Harper Collins, Memoir, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Back in Time by Andaleeb Wajid

Back in TimeTitle: Back in Time
Author: Andaleeb Wajid
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Pages: 168
ISBN: 9789384052935
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance
Rating: 4/5

Author Andaleeb Wajid is a consummate writer and she has time and again proven her knack in etching characters that have strong convictions, be it women who are tormented by inner conflicts, those who are not afraid of love or those who will go to any lengths to right a wrong. They are always charming, intelligent and resourceful. The book, Back in Time, the second in the Tamanna trilogy after No time for goodbyes, is no different. By telling the story of a strong female time-travelling protagonist, Wajid subtly touches upon human emotions like love, longing, belonging, anger by carefully weaving a delicate and pristine love story. The book is also a portrait of Bangalore of a long time ago, which earned the first book much critical acclaim.

Tamanna, who once again finds herself in the past, is now torn between her love for Manoj, a younger Suma’s neighbour, and her yearning to be back in the present, where her parents are going crazy with her state of unconsciousness. And to make matters worse, the camera, which would transport her back to the present, is stolen and hence, she is trapped indefinitely in the 80s. What happens during her stay in the 80s, how she comes back to the present and what happens to her love life — this forms the crux of the story.

I picked this book up at random; as I was awaiting a package of new books to arrive that evening, I wanted to read a book that would fill the gap in between. This book is a refreshingly fast read (I finished it in four hours with breaks) with a simple yet tightly-woven narrative. Though a Young Adult fiction, with time-travel at the core, it is a pleasant romance, which will leave you chuffed to bits, no matter how old you are.

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A Blend of Science and Humour

What if

Title: What if?
Author: Randall Munroe
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 336
ISBN: 9781848549586
Genre: Nonfiction, Humour, Sciences, Technology & Medicine
Rating: 4/5

Former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe has gained quite a fan following for regularly churning out hilarious and sometimes absurd cartoons on XKCD, “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” In tandem with this endeavour, he had launched his blog, ‘What if?’ where he provided “serious scientific answers” to “absurd hypothetical questions” asked by readers, his responses often dotted with his trademark brand of funny caricatures.

Now, he has collated the blog’s most popular answers in a book called What if?, published in India by Hachette. Munroe, who undoubtedly receives a dozens of questions everyday, has included in the book only those “particularly neat questions” which he wanted to “spend a little more time on.” The book also features updated versions of some of his favorite articles from the site and a few brand new questions which he has answered for the first time in the book.

Some of the questions that Munroe tackles are seemingly bizarre but peculiarly enough, as one finds out after reading the book, they can be explained using rational thought. ‘What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different solar system bodies? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie himself backward into the net? How close would you have to be to a supernova to get a lethal dose of neutrino radiation? Then there are questions that Munroe has set aside as ‘Weird (and worrying)’ which he deems unworthy of an explanation, but doesn’t ignore them altogether: Questions like ‘Given humanity’s current knowledge and capabilities, is it possible to build a new star? How fast would a human have to run in order to cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire? Would Thor, with a spinning hammer, be able to create a tornado like in the movie, in real life?’ are accompanied by rib-tickling comments often put forth through cartoons.

What makes Munroe’s work worthwhile is the way he blends esoteric scientific analogies and logical reasoning with an unfaltering comic commentary. His dedication to answer one weird question after another using these facts (complemented with diagrams, equations, graphs) in the most imaginative and simplest way possible, underscores Munroe’s sound understanding of the subject.

What if? is like a textbook for the curious minds who at some point of their lives would have wondered if there is enough energy to move the entire current human population off the planet or while watching Star Wars, if Yoda can produce sustainable energy to power the entire planet. Having said that, even the not-so-scientifically inclined ones among the crowd can devour it.

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First published in The New Indian Express on October 21, 2014

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Hachette, Humour, Nonfiction, Science and technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Surveyor – A journey across generations

The SurveyorTitle: The Surveyor
Author: Ira Singh
Publisher: Picador India (Pan Macmillan)
Published on: September 10, 2014
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 288
ISBN: 978-9382616276
Rating: 4/5

With beautifully-crafted prose, Ira Singh in her debut book The Surveyor (Picador India), brings to life the story of Ravinder on his years in the Survey of India, albeit through eyes of his child, Natasha. The narrative is a journey in itself — it straddles several decades and generations, starting with Natasha, moving to Ravinder and then back to Natasha again, travelling back and forth through memories and conversations. There are also individual stories of Ravinder’s wife Jennifer Robbins and two children, through which Ira examines the perplexity of their identities using historical events as frames. The vein of the book, however, is the cultural commentary of various generations, capturing the zeitgeist of the Loralai community and Anglo-Indians through 1947 to 1991, the pain of separation and belonging and of freedom and accomplishment.

Speaking about the book, Ira notes, “I wanted to write a story about a father and daughter — their separate stories and the story of this family, of the sisters and the peculiar position the family occupies, as well as writing about particular, cataclysmic historical moments in this country.”

Each sentence in the book is written with literary precision, layered with elegiac prose and poetic semblance, each instance, well crafted and each character, well etched. The evocative beauty of the country’s topography are also given their due — her characters travel far and wide exploring various aspects of the subcontinent and beyond. Ira says that, for the purposes of the book, she read the historical records of the survey and other related material. This and her interviews of her father and his colleague gave her a deep understanding of cartography. She says, “My father was in the Survey of India, but he was not, like Ravinder, passionate about it. Talking to him and his colleague helped me get a sense of the lives they lived when they joined the Survey.”

Ira Singh For Ira, who now teaches English Literature at Delhi University’s Miranda House, her literary journey started when she was in the twenties, writing short stories. Soon after, she started working on a novel which bore resemblance to The Surveyor. But it was not something that she pursued. She confesses, “It was Ravinder’s story, but told in a very different voice. I couldn’t persevere, it felt wrong.”

Around the same time she also started to pen Natasha’s story, but it too was a futile attempt. In her words: “It was a random, disconnected fragmentary form.” She adds, “In order to keep writing something — and also to make a quick buck! — I wrote book reviews, many of them. I found reviewing very pleasurable, for a variety of reasons. Writing articles, too, interested me, as specific responses to issues, some of which I dealt with all the time in the classroom, with students of Literature in the University.” She discovered a voice for the novel later, in what has now become The Surveyor.

One of the authors Ira admires the most is Javier Marias, essentially for his style of writing. “His sentences, they’re very long, with clauses studding them, but he exhibits absolute and perfect control over them,” she expresses. In the last few years, she has been smitten by a diverse mix of writers, all of whom have had a bearing on her psyche. “At this point, I devour Coetzee, Carver, Bellow, McGahern, Bolano. But at other times, there were Anita Brookner, Lessing, Morrison, Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis, Mishima, to name a few. I also consumed biographies, gulped them down. I read a lot of detective fiction, particularly Nordic crime. And then in recent Indian writing in English: Jeet Thayil and Jaspreet Singh. As a writer all you have loved and read stays with you and shapes you.”

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First published in The New Indian Express on October 14, 2014

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What it means to be a girl in Afghanistan?

KabulTitle: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Author: Jenny Nordberg
Publisher: Crown
Published on: September 16, 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, Politics, Social Sciences
Pages: 368
ISBN: 978-0307952493
Rating: 5/5

Life, for a woman in Afghanistan, is unlivable. Here, as is commonly known to the rest of the world, women are confined to their homes, with little or no interaction with the outside world, often illiterate and under the spell of demonising husbands who do not allow them an iota of daylight. What’s frightening is that nearly three-fourth of the woman population live this way: forced into marriage at a young age, subjected to domestic violence at the hands of their husbands who see it as their duty to beat their wives up and pushed to accept the role only that of a child bearer — even the child is the father’s and the woman has no rights on its future whatsoever.

Through The Underground Girls of Kabul, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg offers an altogether different point of view on what it means to be a girl in Afghanistan: a rare glimpse into a distinct life many girls are forced to lead, not as the oppressed sex, but as one who resists the patriarchal norms set by the society.

At the centre of the book is the rise of ‘bacha posh’ — where girls are made to dress like boys — grown as much out of the need for women to be included in the fabric of the society, as of the circumstance where a family is unable to conceive a male offspring. In such families, a girl is ‘designated’ to act like a son of the household, even allowing them freedom to study, work, roam around and mingle with other boys. When they reach puberty, unequivocally most of them are made to revert to their innate girl-status, which for many Afghans is an innocuous process.

But as Nordberg points out, it can have serious repercussions. Through the transformation of Shukur, a bacha posh to Shukria, a married woman, Nordberg reveals how traumatic it is to switch roles all of a sudden. After years of being liberated, not many are prepared for the docile role of housekeeping or child bearing and hence face a bitter future. As Shukria herself puts it, after her failed attempt at getting into the shoes of a woman: Her parents should never have made her a boy, since she ultimately had to become a woman. Nevertheless, there are other contrasting cases. Many families, eschewing societal norms, are much more open to continuing the charade for an indefinite period. For instance, Shahed (Shaheda) and Nader (Nadia), who have revelled in their bacha posh status, hope to continue as a male member of the family and “be out of the marriage market for good.”

Through her portraits of women from various strata of the society in Kabul and the less popular and underdeveloped Badghis province, Nordberg proffers a gripping take on the politics of gender identity in Afghanistan against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (the ‘Russian times,’ as one former bacha posh and parliamentarian Azita puts it), the Taliban era and more recently, the US ‘war against terrorism.’ These are tales of determination and grit, of struggle, of rise against oppression, which, in a pertinent manner, offer a glimpse into the never-ending struggle of a woman in the country.

In the course of the book, Nordberg highlights that the practice of bacha posh is not specific to Afghanistan alone. While in the present day, it has risen out of the idea of maintaining a social status, she alludes to similar practices elsewhere in the world — of women masquerading as warriors in Europe and many other places. But is it a violation of human rights? Will it lead to a dysfunctional society, more than it already is? Will the concept of bacha posh perish if the Taliban comes back to ruling? As long as a strict patriarchal society prevails, Nordberg states, there will be resistance. She adds, “Perhaps someday in our future it will be possible for women everywhere not to be restricted to those roles society deems natural, God-given or appropriately feminine. A woman will not need to make an effort to resemble a man, or to think like one. Instead she can speak a language that men will want to understand.”

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Crime visits the corporate corridors

FraudsterTitle: Fraudster
Author: RV Raman
Publisher: Hachette India
Published on: July 2014
Genre: Fiction, Crime fiction, Thriller, Financial thriller
Pages: 272
ISBN: 9789350098004
Rating: 4/5

Fraudster is an amusing work by first-time author, RV Raman, challenging some of the stereotypes in the genre of thrillers. It is a crime fiction but does not revolve around knife-wielding killers or mere hapless victims. It is a financial thriller set in the corporate world, but doesn’t include credit card frauds and account hacking. At the centre of the book is a scam pertaining to dubious loans issued by corrupt bank practices to spurious real estate companies. “When we think of banking fraud, what usually comes to mind are things like credit card fraud, phishing, account hacking. But the real elephant in the room that few talk about is loan-related fraud. I looked around and realised that not many had written a novel about that.Things fell into place, and out came Fraudster,” says the author who was formerly the head of KPMG’s consulting practice.

A death opens the story, only to be followed by more bodies — a renowned bank chairman and an employee of an accounting firm among the few who are killed. Then there is an attempt to hack into one of the accounting firm’s servers, again suggesting foul play. All along the narrative are references to loan frauds and devious stratagems and thrown amidst the complex financial manipulation are some red herrings which make the climax slightly dramatic.

However, it does involve elements which are not entirely new, the book itself wrapped in layers of non-fiction. Raman admits that readers might have seen parallels in some aspects with their own experience in the corporate world. But as far as the characters are concerned, he has taken particular care not to base them on real people, instead just referencing real attitudes. “I didn’t want that to happen even inadvertently. I’ve gone to the extent of googling combinations of names, designations and occupations to eliminate any parallels to real-life. However, I will say that the character attitudes and outlooks you see in Fraudster are very much based on reality,” he says.

The way the book is pieced together is remarkable, in that it looks nicely webbed, though a non-chronological handling of the narrative would have suited it better. The book meanders through characters working in banks, private equity firms, accounting firms and corporate entities and even has a bunch of corrupt politicians, all of whom have their own stories to tell. But Raman has interconnected them in a manner that does not leave any loose ends.

Writing crime fiction is not always easy. It is de rigueur for writers to follow a set of compelling characters and cite a plot-line that is realistic but not entirely mundane. RV Raman, in his first attempt at being an author, has taken life in the corporate corridors he has known only too well, and has turned it into something teeming with compelling stories.

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First published in The New Indian Express on October 7, 2014

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How to pour drinks with passion

How does a bartender become successful? Renowned mixologist Ondrej Pospichal says it has more to do with one’s personality than just the ability to mix potent drinks, underscoring the popular dictum among bartenders which is: ‘You are not creating drinks, you are serving people.’ “A good bartender is judged by the way he conducts himself behind the bar, on how he strikes a chord with his customer, on how he understands his pulse. Making fine drinks, I would say, is secondary,” he maintains. Visiting Bangalore as part of Grey Goose – Beyond the Bar programme, the master mixologist interacted with bartenders from different hotels in the city, teaching them not only how to concoct world-class cocktails, but also how to stand out in their profession.

ONDREJ POSPICHAL

The first thing that strikes him about the city is the enthusiasm and passion among the bartenders. He says, “The lot here is very gung-ho about their profession. And that is what is required. You have to love your job if you have to be good at it.” He adds that they were brimming with innovative concepts and ideas, which is sure to help them in their career.

Though well-travelled and having mastered his craft in some of the world’s most prominent bars, tailoring the programme to meet local requirements was very crucial to him, he recalls. When he first landed in India, he roamed the streets of New Delhi, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of the place. Upon visiting Dilli Haat, he found an array of ingredients on sale there, some very unique to the Indian subcontinent. And inspired by this, he created his first signature drink in India, ‘New Dilli’ with a mix of local flavours — apple, celery, lemon and others.

His ‘Signature 7’, whipped up specially for the programme, also includes a blend of locally available ingredients like Ginger, Fenugreek, Coriander, Sea Salt, Coffee, and a variety of fresh herbs and spices, to make it truly India-inspired. “It was very important for me to bring a bit of Indianness to the whole initiative. Of course, I could have taught something from London. But I did not want to do that,” he says.

This head bartender of one of London’s most influential bars, MASH, doesn’t consider himself a molecular mixologist, given that his art of mixology includes non-esoteric techniques and fun, adventurous cocktails. So what’s his favourite trick to make the perfect drink? “Keep it simple,” he responds promptly, “Infuse layers of flavour and pay attention to the texture rather than the complexity and techniques of making a drink.“


First published in The New Indian Express on October 6, 2014

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Stone Mattress: The queen of dark yarn shows her best yet again

Stone MattressTitle: Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: September
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9780385539128
Rating: 5/5

Good short stories are rare to come by. Not all novelists are adept at writing short stories, for such works do not have the luxury of a whole book to capture the reader’s interest. In my mind, very few have achieved this feat. I love Alice Munro for her captivating short takes, or Tanith Lee, who, some say, writes better short stories than novels or James Joyce, for his wonderful book, Dubliners. And then there’s Margaret Atwood, who is an accomplished novelist as she is a short story writer.

Stone Mattress, her latest book is one such masterpieces she has produced in her 50 years in the publishing industry. A missive with nine stories, some written or narrated by her in the course of her career, these stories are nothing short of exquisite. Her characters are old but feisty, callow but bold, self-aware but bohemian, lonely but free-spirited and her stories question the rules of gender, genre and age.

One may say, the collection has a theme, the theme of the transcending power of the story itself, as Atwood alludes in the afterword. It is no surprise, that those of who have devoured Atwood in the past, will find the stories imaginative and compelling, where her writing makes something magical out of the mundane.

The first story, Alphinland forms part of a (loosely put) trilogy. The subsequent stories are Revenant and Dark Lady which delve into the lives of a fantasy fiction writer, a dying poet and a muse/ex-lover.

This is followed by Lusus Naturae or ‘freak of nature’, which is one of the works which was previously published.  The other stories in the book The Dead Hand Loves You, The Freeze-Dried Groom, Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth and Torching the Dusties are equally laden with affliction. But the best, perhaps, is the ‘Stone Mattress’ which lends the book its title. Originally published in the New Yorker, the story about Verna who is raped at 14 and who now tries to avenge the brutality caused to her, is sharp and gritty and hits you with brute humour.

In her book Negotiating With the Dead, Atwood pondered: “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” This book, which is her 55th, illuminates themes that are dark and heavy, where the characters are plagued by inner demons and a desire to avenge the deeds done to them when they were young; the book satisfies you in a way that only Atwood can.

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Tracing the roots of Urdu in India and Pakistan

Rakhshanda JalilAuthor Rakhshanda Jalil, best known for her book ‘Invisible City: The hidden Monuments of India’, has been one of the frontrunners in the movement to create awareness for Hindi-Urdu literature in India. Having come to the field of writing as a translator in 1992, she had published a series of translated works before moving to the fray of critical writing and then increasingly veering towards academic pieces, biographies, historiographies and even English fiction.

Given this large oeuvre of works, what really interests Jalil are biographies and books that require rigorous amounts of research. She recently completed her book on Rashid Jahan, an Indian writer, a member of the Communist party and the Progressive Writers’ Association. “It was then I realised that this is what I enjoy doing. I like to locate writers in a certain context,” she says. At the moment, she is working on a biography on an Urdu poet, Sardar Jafri to be published by Oxford University Press.

At the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Festival, Jalil took part in a panel discussion that traced the roots of Urdu in India and Pakistan and also mapped its future. About the state of the language, she notes, “This whole business of script , going on for the past 60 or 80 years, where people are saying it has be written in Devanagari is contributing to its downfall. When we learn Japanese or Russian or Chinese, we take the trouble to learn their script. With Urdu, why do we want to take the easy way out? This is just doing more harm than good.”

Being a proponent of translating works from Urdu to English and making it available for the masses, she does feel that the essence of the language is most often lost in the process. “There is no way you can say that what you are translating is 100% right,” she says. In a language as disparate as Urdu and English or Hindi for that matter, not only the resonances or speech patterns differ but also the way of constructing sentences. Hence as a translator you have to work within these limitations and put out a work that is sincere and sensible, she says.

Childhood, they say, has a very strong impact on a writer’s psyche and it is true in Jalil’s case. Having grown up in a house filled with books, taught by a mother who retired as a librarian and having people who talked about books and gave books as birthday gifts, she was blessed. She adds,  “When I was in the eighth grade, I got a book called ‘The Exile’ by a French existentialist writer as a birthday gift. When most children got Enid Blyton books, I was encouraged to read books from different genres. That, in a way, drew me to writing and if I hadn’t been a writer I would have done something else in writing.”

Incidentally, Jalil started her career, first as a teacher and then as an editor in the publishing industry. She agrees, “I have felt words. I write them now. But I have known them all throughout.”


First published in The New Indian Express on September 30, 2014

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