Articles- New Indian Express

Taking children on a trip of the universe

Lucy Hawking | Pic Courtesy: Alan Peebles

Lucy Hawking | Pic Courtesy: Alan Peebles

Lucy Hawking, daughter of the world famous theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, knows the art of telling a good story. Lucy is the author of two novels for adults (‘Run for your Life’ and ‘Jaded’) and the George Greenby series which includes ‘George’s Secret Key to the Universe,’ ‘George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt,’ ‘George and the Big Bang,’ ‘George and the Unbreakable Code,’ with the final book almost completed and a television series in the works. But she writes with a purpose, her single-minded objective being to make science accessible and entertaining to young readers. “Children find it difficult to relate to concepts of time or space. I use storytelling to explain scientific concepts. It is fun and engages their creativity,” she observes.

p5lucy2In the George series, we meet a charming young boy George Greenby and his friend Annie and, we learn about their adventures to the solar system and beyond. Lucy adds, “It is not just children’s fantasy, it is based on real science. To make it factually tenable, I took help from my father and his colleague, Christophe Galfard, and got them to write about the work they do.”

When not writing, Lucy travels the world, meeting children, “taking them on a trip around the universe.” She also visited India recently, making an appearance at the Bookaroo Festival for Children in New Delhi. But varied though the countries are, she notes that children everywhere share a common enthusiasm for space-related topics. “The countries themselves may be different — Japan, United States of America, Australia, Bangladesh, India. But what is the same everywhere is that these children are keen to know more about space travel and black holes. There is a willingness to learn and the wonder and joy at discovering something new is palpable.”

Though Lucy was introduced to science at a very young age, even before her father’s inevitable rise to fame, she never had the slightest inclination to emulate her father. “I loved reading books and developed a love for the arts from an early age. I therefore went on to study literature and foreign languages at Oxford and then became a journalist and a writer.” Having said that, Lucy admits that her father has had the strongest influence on her career as a writer. “He is a great writer himself. And now more than ever I look up to him, as I strive to use arts to make scientific concepts accessible.”

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The humorous world of children’s books

kapdia payal

A year after her children’s novel, Wisha Wozzariter, won the Crossword Award for Children’s writing, author Payal Kapadia is back with a new book. This new offering is “so absurdly horrid that it would make kids laugh.” Horrid High, published by Puffin India, is set in the world’s most horrid school where most of the grown-ups are utterly despicable and the kids are left to their own devices to save the day.

The book has five lead characters, each one blessed with an extraordinary skill to help them through school. “They have names to match those qualities too,” says Payal. We meet Phil Fingersmith who can crack all kinds of locks and Fermina Filch, a pickpocket par excellence. And then come the baddies. From the English teacher Vera Verbose who makes the kids read dictionaries to Coach Kallus who makes them run on their knees, these evil folks fill the book with their malicious designs. It is a melange of all things horrid. Payal laughs, “I figured the more horridness, the better! I have to confess: I couldn’t get enough!” And then there’s her favourite grown-up character: Granny Grit, who can save a school or a planet just as well. “Because it’s about time that grandmas figured in a big way in an action-packed children’s adventure!” she says.

Interestingly, she notes, the hero, Ferg Gottin, is an unremarkable-looking boy who might be easily forgotten, but he realizes that he also brings some valuable qualities to the final mix. Talking about how she etched this character, she says,”I needed to ask myself: do heroes have to be blatantly heroic, or is heroism about the choices you make when you’re cornered?”

Payal, an erstwhile journalist, always wanted to be a writer from as far back as she could remember. “Fresh out of college and looking for a credible Master’s degree option, I turned to journalism,” she says. “It would quench two desires at once, I supposed, a desire to write and a desire to change the world.” Journalism was meant to be a pit stop, a platform to develop a worldview and an authorial voice. But after ten years in the field and just around the birth of her first daughter, she was convinced that this pit stop would become a full stop unless she bit the bullet and wrote the books she had always dreamt of writing. “I was on the cusp of motherhood, poised to see the world again as a child. I had become a voracious reader of children’s books. Writing my first book for children felt like a natural choice at this time,” she recalls.

She is currently working on book two of Horrid High which “gets more horrid,” in her view. What does she think about children’s literature at present? Is writing for children different from writing for adults? She answers, “I think the gap between children’s fiction and adult fiction has closed considerably. The best children’s books have complicated plots and characters and even allow for satire and moral ambiguity. Children these days can handle sophisticated thought—maybe they always could, but we never spoke to them as equals, which is a big mistake; they make for very savvy readers.”

The one distinction she sees is that children’s fiction can be unapologetically imaginative. She says, “Children are much more willing to suspend disbelief, thank god for that!”

Horrid High Details of the book: 

Title: Horrid High
Author: Payal Kapadia
Publisher: Puffin Books
Published: September 2014
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780143333173
Genre: Children, Fiction
Buy the book here

Watch the trailer of the book here:

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Author Interviews, Books, Children's Fiction, Penguin Books | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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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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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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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Axwell /\ Ingrosso enthral audience with high-octane sounds

Axwell IngrossoAfter calling it quits, cohorts of the erstwhile trio Swedish House Mafia have come back as a team, Axwell /\ Ingrosso. Having debuted at the Governors Ball Music Festival at Randall’s Island in June, they recently wrapped up their gig in Bangalore at Sunburn Arena. At the concert, which was the first for the duo in India, they debuted new songs from an album due later this year like This time we can’t go home, Can’t hold us down, Sun is shining and so are you and On my Way. Their set also had a sprinkling of songs from Swedish House Mafia and from Alesso and Ghecko.

This album, for Universal Music Group’s Def Jam Recordings, is one of the firsts for the duo, as SHM never released an LP of their songs. Says Sebastian Ingrosso, “We’ve been working for almost a year on this album. But we are almost done. We are going to start releasing the singles soon and we are really excited for what’s coming.”

Despite riding a wave that popularised electronic dance music across the world, the brand of music they love to listen to is very different from what they produce and doesn’t always include progressive/house elements. “When it comes to listening to music, electronic music is very low on the list. Both of us listen to a lot of rock, hip-hop and folk. I listen to classical music sometimes,” Ingrosso confesses, to which Axwell adds, “We love listening to stuff we don’t normally get to hear in our line. Sometimes I go on to Spotify and just discover new music.”

A year since their last show in Bangalore for ‘One Last Tour’, this show rounded off their debut in style, as they enthralled the audience with high-octane sounds and a cacophony of pyrotechnics and SFX. How did it feel to be back in Bangalore? Ingrosso responds, “It was really really exciting. The weather is nice and here there’s a certain energy in the air. Last time, it was phenomenal but we didn’t know we would ever come back to India. But the feedback we got on social media for this tour is equally overwhelming; the excitement that we have come back to the city is great.”

Their gig at the Ultra Music Festival 2013 marked an end of an era in electronic dance music, as they parted ways to pursue their solo careers. Will they ever come back again as Swedish House Mafia? “No, that’s not we are thinking about right now,” informs Axwell.

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‘The word difficult doesn’t exist to me’

Shobhaa De

Writer and columnist Shobhaa De has nothing but praise for the literary environment in Bangalore. Having been part of Bangalore Literature Festival, the city’s uber event to celebrate the written word, De maintains that Bangalore has a very vibrant core, far removed from the IT tag it enjoys. “One thing that we cannot and should not lose sight of is the rich literary tradition that the state has always enjoyed over several hundred years. And Bangalore, in particular, being the hub of Karnataka, is a city which is way way beyond just a IT hub,” she states.

She notes that a literary festival here was overdue and she is glad that it is run by people who have genuine level of commitment and passion to provide a platform for diverse opinions, diverse points of view, debate, dissent and more. 

On freedom of expression

De has been quite vocal about issues plaguing the country, especially those concerning women. Yes, she admits that her writing has, time and again, drawn criticism from various quarters, but that doesn’t deter her. “The word difficult doesn’t exist to me. To tell the truth and to tell it fearlessly is every human being’s right. And we should take full advantage of being a part of a democracy, where our freedom, the constitution guarantees, will not be curtailed if there’s something worth fighting for.” Of course there will be people in the world who have more clout, who are more powerful, who want to harm you, she observes. But then again, that’s the test of your own character, of who you are, what you believe in. “Isn’t that the price worth paying?,” she asks emphatically.

On UR Ananthamurthy

This year, the festival commemorated UR Ananthamurthy, one of the exemplars of Kannada literature. De has her own experience to recount about the great storyteller. “We were on the panel at the last edition of Bangalore Lit Fest. And I like how fiery, feisty, articulate and unafraid he was in voicing his opinions. Not all of them were accepted, even by a very informed audience and crowd. Despite that, he was a giant as a thinker, as an iconic litterateur, who broke so many shackles, so many rules, freed so many people from their limited thinking and limited imagination.”

On writing

“I write every day of my life,” she declares, “I write for weekly columns, blogs, Twitter — writing on every level defines me and consumes me and that’s the way I want it to be always.” She is looking to start a new book soon. But she’s not sure what it will be about. “It’s only when an idea is about to explode inside my head and makes life unbearable for me, that I actually start the book. Because the idea has to be powerful enough for me to want to write it with that sense of passion and intensity.”

On the recent brouhaha on ‘ethical journalism’

Shobhaa De has gone on record, on her blog and on Twitter, about the recent spat between Deepika Padukone and a leading newspaper. Most of her comments stress that there is nothing wrong with sensational stories and the issue has been blown out of proportion by the actress who she once termed is “overrated and average-looking”. But when we asked her about it, she refused to comment, saying, “I write for the newspaper and I don’t have anything to say against them.”


An abridged version published in The New Indian Express on September 29, 2014

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‘Congress driven more by dynasty now’

A scion of the Nehru family, Nayantara Sahgal, is known to not mince words. Driven by her belief in non-violence, she published fierce essays condemning her cousin Indira Gandhi when she declared Emergency.

Over the years, Sahgal has illustrated through her acerbic writing how Congress, once a beacon of democratic integrity, has departed from Nehru’s ideologies. Once again, she voiced her opinion of the Gandhi family at the second day of the Bangalore Literature Festival on Saturday. “Congress, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are different entities for me. Congress is nothing like what Gandhi had envisaged. It is now driven by dynastic succession,” she said.

But Sahgal believes Congress can revive itself under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership but Rahul Gandhi should not be associated with her.

In Modi, she sees a better time for India. “Modi has risen from humble origins. That is a great tribute to the foundation of democracy laid at Independence and the social mobility that rose out of it,” Sahgal said.

Talking about her political personage, author Ritu Menon, whose book Out of Line dwells on Sahgal’s life and works, said, “She is a writer who has continued to be politically engaged with the kind of integrity that is rare in writers”.

On how she put together the biography, Menon said though Sahgal’s oeuvre is fiction, the political thread that runs through her writing forms the spine of the book. “Sahgal’s life, whether it is personal or familial, cannot be understood without understanding the political. Likewise, the literary cannot be read without a reference to the political and personal,” Menon concluded


First published in The New Indian Express on September 28, 2014

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