British India Posts

Interview with translator Debali Mookerjea-Leonard

Debali Mookerjea-Leonard is a Bengali translator, author, and professor of English and world literature. She lives in Virginia with her husband and plants. She has translated the late Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel Blood. Set in Britain and America of the late 60s and early 70s, it is about a highly successful Bengali physicist Tapan who settles abroad. Despite all the successes he has garnered he is unable to put to rest the trauma he suffered as a child when his father was killed by a British officer. This occurred a little before India attained Independence. Coincidentally he meets Alice in London; she is the daughter of his father’s killer. Tapan’s world goes topsy-turvy as he tries to figure out what to do since he nurses a visceral hatred for the former colonial rulers of India. It is a peculiar situation to be in given that he has more or less decided to relocate abroad and never to return to India. It impacts his relationship with Alice too who is more than sympathetic to his feelings and is willing to let the past be bygones but it is a demon that Tapan finds hard to forget. He does go to India briefly to attend a wedding and meet his paternal grandmother — someone whom he loves dearly and who had lost two sons in the Indian Freedom Struggle. So much so that the Indian politicians are now keen to bestow upon her a monthly allowance recognising her sons’ contribution as freedom fighters. It is upon meeting his grandmother, who is past eighty and who witnessed much sorrow in her lifetime, that Tapan realises it is best to forget and forgive that which happened in the past and move on. Otherwise the past becomes an impossible burden to shed. Blood is a brilliantly translated novel that does not seem dated despite its preoccupations with the Indian Freedom struggle and a newly independent India. For all the stories and their intersections, it is evident that Blood is a modern novel which is worth resurrecting in the twenty-first century. The issues it raises regarding immigrants, familial ties, free will, social acceptance, loneliness, etc will resonate with many readers. As Debali says in the interview that “As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.”

Sunil Gangopadhyay, who died in 2012, was one of Bengal’s best-loved and most-acclaimed writers. He is the author of over a hundred books, including fiction, poetry, travelogues and works for children. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel Those Days. This novel Blood was first published in 1973.

Debali Mookerjea-Leonard

Here is a lightly edited interview conducted via email with the translator:

1 . How long did it take you to translate Blood? In the translator’s note you refer to two editions of the novel. What are the differences in the two editions?

I was on sabbatical during the spring semester of 2018 and Blood was my new project. I began working on it around the middle of January and completed the first draft in May. However, I let it sit for a year before returning to revise it.

I chose to use the second edition (1974) of Blood, rather than the first (1973), because the author made a few revisions. The alterations are minor, mostly cosmetic, and include replacing a few words in the text. These are mostly English words transliterated into Bengali: For instance, in Chapter 1, when Tapan asks Alice if she has the right glasses for serving champagne she responds, in the first edition, with “Don’t be fussy, Tapan” whereas, in the second, she says, “Don’t be funny, Tapan.” The revised second edition also corrects spelling errors and misprints.

2. The book may have been first published in 1973 but it seems a very modern text in terms of its preoccupations especially the immigrants. What were the thoughts zipping through your mind while translating the story?

To me the novel’s handling of immigrant concerns feels brutally honest. Blood refuses to romanticise the expatriate condition as exile and, instead, adopts an ironic stance towards immigrant angst, homesickness, and nostalgia. Yet, the irony is tempered with pathos in the narration’s uncovering of immigrant dilemmas. For instance, an Indian immigrant uneasy about her fluency in English chooses to stay indoors, but remains enamoured with England which she nevertheless cannot fully experience. Through the exchanges between the novel’s protagonist Tapan and his friend Dibakar, Blood also offers the realistic view that immigration is often driven by practical considerations. As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.

This does not mean that western societies get a pass in the novel. Through situations both small and large the novel exposes the racist and anti-immigration views prevailing in the United Kingdom, during the 1960s. That said, Blood is also critical of racial prejudice amongst Indians. Given current debates around immigration and citizenship both in India and across the globe, the novel’s treatment of this subject remains relevant.

Connected to issues of migration and home, the novel brings to the fore complex questions about homeland and belonging, uncovering how the location of “home” has been rendered unstable through the Partition’s severing of birthplace and homeland.

3. What is the methodology you adopt while translating? For instance, some translators make rough translations at first and then edit the text. There are others who work painstakingly on every sentence before proceeding to the next passage/section. How do you work?

For me it is a mix of both. I typically plan on translating a text it in its entirety before proceeding with the revisions but this intention is usually short-lived and seldom lasts beyond the first few pages. I find it difficult to progress until the translation feels most appropriate to the context, fits the voice, and fully conveys the meaning of the original. While translating Blood I have spent entire mornings deciding between synonyms. It is like working on a jigsaw puzzle because there is only one piece/word that fits. And sometimes I have had to redraft an entire sentence (even entire paragraphs) to elegantly capture the sense of the whole!

4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project?

First, the cons, the impulse to interpret. And the pros: the joy of being able to partake in the (re-)making of something beautiful.

5. Are there any questions that you wished you could have asked Sunil Gangopadhyay while translating his novel?

Were he alive, I would have requested him to read a completed draft of my translation.

6. What prompted you to become a professional translator?

My translation-work is driven primarily by the love of the text and the desire to find it a larger audience. In the future, I hope to be able to devote more time to it.

There is also a pedagogical dimension to this. In my capacity as a teacher of world literature, I aim to expose students to the vast and rich body of vernacular writings from the Indian subcontinent, inevitably through translations. And from personal experiences in the classroom, I know that many of my students are genuinely curious about writings from around the world. Blood is a small step in that direction. It is a book I want to teach.

7. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation?

I believe the first translated book I read was one of the many “Adventures of Tintin”, The Secret of the Unicorn. But children’s books aside, the book that came to mind immediately upon reading your question is Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It may not have been the first translated work I read, but it ranks among the most memorable ones. This is because while I knew that Marquez wrote in Spanish, Rabassa’s translation preserved the novel’s artistic qualities so meticulously that it lulled me into thinking that I was reading the original. It is a quality I aspire to bring to my work.

8. How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project?

Not to sound self-absorbed, but my decision is based largely on how deeply the work moves me. My first translation project involved a short story by the Bengali author Jyotirmoyee Devi, entitled “Shei Chheleta” (“That Little Boy”). It depicts the predicament of a young woman who lost a family-member in the Partition riots. The author handled the subject with great sensitivity without resorting to the maudlin. The story would not leave me alone. I had to translate it because I needed to share it, and discuss it with friends and colleagues who did not read Bengali. Similarly, Gangopadhyay’s novel intrigued me when I first read it. I thought about the characters long after I had finished the book, imagined their lives beyond the novel. I knew that one day I would translate it. It hibernated within me for years because, in the meanwhile, there were Ph.D. dissertations to write and research to publish. Finally, a sabbatical gave me the gift of time, and I just had to do it.

9. How would you define a “good” translation?

Preserving the artistic, poetic, and, of course, propositional content of the original is central to my understanding of a good translation. To resort to the old cliché, it is about conveying the letter and, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the original. The translated text, I feel, must itself be a literary work, a work imbued with the beauty of the original. Additionally, readability is fundamental. Therefore, I asked family members and friends to read the draft translation for lucidity and fluency. For this reason, I am immensely gratified by your observation about Blood that, “It has been a long time since I managed to read a translation effortlessly and not having to wonder about the original language. There is no awkwardness in the English translation”.

10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?

It is difficult for me to say since I never received any formal training in translation-work. To me, translation is more than just an academic exercise, it is an act of love — love for the text itself, love of the language, and the love of reading. For me the best preparation was reading, and reading widely, even indiscriminately. While my love of reading was nurtured from early childhood by my mother, I had the privilege of being exposed to some of the finest works of world literature through my training in comparative literature at Jadavpur University in Calcutta and, later, in literature departments in America.

11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?

The translator walks a tightrope between the two, where tipping towards either side is perilous. A translation is, by definition, derivative, so fidelity to the original text is essential. Yet, a translation of a literary work is much more than a stringing together of words in another language. It is itself a literary work. And it is incumbent upon the translator not only to make the work accurate and readable but also literary in a way that is faithful to the literary qualities of the original.

12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?

Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; J.M. Cohen’s translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; and A.K. Ramanujan’s translation of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.

More recently, Supriya Chaudhuri, Daisy Rockwell, and Arunava Sinha have produced quality translations from Indian languages.

Blood is published by Juggernaut Books ( 2020).

3 May 2020

‘Kitty’s War’ review: War in the gunj

My review of Daman Singh’s novel Kitty’s War has been published in The Hindu Literary Supplement. It is online on 4 August 2018 and is in print on 5 August 2018. Here is the original link and the review is c&p below. 

Katherine Riddle alias Kitty lives in a sleepy railway junction town in eastern India called Pipli. Her widower father, Terence Riddle, is a British railway man. Kitty, who works as a school teacher, returns home ostensibly for the summer break but more to decide her future as she nurses a broken heart for her high-school sweetheart, Jonathan, an Anglo-Indian.

They were engaged to be married except that as assistant mechanical engineer Jonathan is extremely busy. His billets-doux speak less of his love for Kitty than of the battles taking place abroad. Once home, Kitty either mopes around with her nameless tribal Ayah and the cook Latif or seeks the company of her old friends, Dan, Pat and Jimmy.

Kitty’s War is set in the 1940s against the backdrop of the Civil Disobedience movement in India, the Blitz in London, the Pearl Harbour attack, the siege of Leningrad, and the Japanese invasion of Rangoon and subsequent pouring in of refugees into Calcutta.

The events of the novel are seemingly untouched by World War II except for passing references to bogies being acquired or trenches being dug.

While the war is upturning hierarchies outside Pipli, in this town, the class lines between the British, Anglo-Indian and Indian communities are clearly drawn. Yet these people who have nothing in common with each other socially are united in their anxiety for relatives stuck in conflict zones.

For instance, the father of assistant station master Chuckerbatty, Dan’s uncle, and the Ayah’s son are all working in Rangoon. Kitty is affected by the war because of Jonathan in particular, but also because it metaphorically throws all her future plans into disarray. But Kitty knows her mind and makes her choices.

Kitty’s War is an atmospheric novel — the historical details are seamlessly woven into the plot. There are levels of oppression — of native Indians by the British, of the powerless by the moneyed class, of women by men.

It is where choice becomes paramount — not only for Kitty but also for Indians and the British, who must make vital decisions in these last years of the Empire.

To buy on Amazon India: 

Print

Kindle 

Kitty’s War; Daman Singh, Tranquebar/ Westland Publications, ₹350

Abir Mukherjee’s Capt. Sam Wyndham novels

Crime writer-cum-accountant Abir Mukherjee has written three novels — A Rising Man  (2016)A Necessary Evil (2017)Smoke and Ashes (2018) . These novels feature opium addict Capt. Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective and a World War I veteran. Sam Wyndham is posted to Calcutta where his sidekick is a Bengali educated in England, Surendranath or “Surrender-not” Bannerjee as many refer to him. The three novels are set during the turbulent period of British India when the Independence movement was gaining strength. It is a challenging scenario for both police officers since the Englishman is viewed with suspicion to whatever crime scene he visits and the Indian is also receives a hostile reception for he is considered to be a traitor working with the colonial rulers. It is a fine balance the two investigating officers have to negotiate on a daily basis but they manage supremely well. It is also a balance managed with aplomb by the author himself who is a British Asian and culturally identifies with both nations.

With every novel Abir Mukherjee’s confidence as a writer seems to grow. The stupendous opening lines of each novel are a testament to the fact. They hook the reader immediately.

At least he was well-dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best. ( A Rising Man)

It’s not often you see a man with a diamond in his beard. But when a prince runs out of space on his ears, fingers and clothes, I suppose the whiskers on his chin are as good as place as any. ( A Necessary Evil)

It’s not unusual to find a corpse in a funeral parlour. It’s just rare for them to walk in the door under their own steam. It was a riddle worth savouring, but I didn’t have the time, seeing as I was running for my life. ( Smoke and Ashes)

The characters are more alive and they come into their own with the subsequent novels — A Necessary Evil and Smoke and Ashes. Also Capt Wyndham and Surendranath Bannerjee understand each other better. Astonishingly they begin to share an apartment together which is wishful thinking on the part of the author as such a scenario would never have occurred in history — a British officer cohabiting with his Indian colleague. Nevertheless it makes for a nice little creative touch to the novels.

With A Rising Man there is always a very surprised and yet tentative tone to the writing style as if the author’s own astonishment at what he is achieved is apparent on every page. This is only discernible after having read all the other novels in quick succession. In fact the writing becomes pithier in every novel almost as if the skill of precision learned as an accountant has  enabled Abir Mukherjee to write fine crime novels. This is a genre of writing whose prerequisite is to have a keen eye for details, precise dialogue, and exacting descriptions without flabby sentences. In the case of historical fiction such as these novels fact checking also becomes critical.

Abir’s parents emigrated from Calcutta to Britain in the late 1960s. Abir was raised in Scotland and so it is no surprise when at the Edinburgh Festival he was introduced as a Scottish crime writer ( “Crime Writing: Val McDermid, Abir Mukherjee and Lucy Ribchester” in conversation with Mariella Frostrup. BBC Radio 4,  Open Book, 1 Sept 2016). Approaching his fortieth birthday he was going through a mid-life crisis hoping there was more to life than accounting. It was then he chanced upon a TV breakfast show with acclaimed crime writer Lee Child. Abir Mukherjee immediately bought the first Jack Reacher book Killing Floor and was hooked. He says “I was amazed at how simply written and well plotted it was. I’d recently had an idea for a story centered on a British detective who travels to India after the First World War, and reading Killing Floor gave me the motivation to put pen to paper..” He had written about 10,000 words whenever he could spare the time from his day job when he chanced upon the newly announced Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition. This was 2013. He chose to send in the first 5,000 words of his incomplete manuscript and waited to hear. Three months later he did. He discovered that of over 400 applicants he had won the £5,000 competition and a publishing contract. He was very surprised as he writes in this Dead Good article ( April 2016) at having won . His debut, A Rising Man, won the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger 2017 and was picked as one of Waterstones best books of 2017. Abir Mukherjee is now a part-time accountant as of January 2018 as he would like to devote more time to writing crime novels. (  Smokes and Ashes BBC Radio 4 interview with Samira Ahmed , June 2018) For the Harvill Secker crime writing competition 2018 he has been appointed as a mentor.

And yes, Capt. Sam Wyndham is a worthy creation, true to the spirit of Jack Reacher. Both the characters blossom with every passing novel; it is as if their creators become more comfortable living with the characters on a daily basis. (Listen to “In the Studio” by BBC World Service. In this episode Lee Child speaks of creating Jack Reacher.)  The storytelling of Abir Mukherjee and Lee Child too becomes richer and tauter with every novel of the series. It will be curious to see how the Capt. Wyndham novels evolve. Will the Englishman stay on in Calcutta as the Independence movement intensifies? Or will the author choose to keep his detective like a fly caught in amber and spin out a number of stories set at a particular moment of history? For now it is impossible to say since the first three novels of this series are set in successive years — A Rising Man ( 1919), A Necessary Evil (1920),  Smoke and Ashes ( 1921). Only time will tell. Perhaps with time too it may become clear if these books are optioned for film/television adaptations just as Arjun Raj Gaind‘s historical crime fiction novels set during British India have been optioned.

For now read these crackling historical fiction crime novels set during British India and you will not be disappointed!

Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man Harvill Secker, London, 2016, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. 390. Rs. 399

                                  A Necessary Evil Harvill Secker, London, 2017, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 

                                  Smoke and Ashes Harvill Secker, London, 2018.  Pb. pp. Rs 599 

14 June 2018 

 

An interview with Arjun Raj Gaind, author of “The Maharaja Mysteries”

An interview with Arjun Raj Gaind, author of “The Maharaja Mysteries” — A Very Pukka Murder and Death At The Durbar. Two delightful books, set during the British Raj, charmingly written much in the vein of an Agatha Christie story, and partly inspired by the author’s grandfather. Incredible amounts of research done to get the period details accurate and it is evident. Recently these stories were sold to a television network for adaptation to the small screen. 

Read on for the interview. 

 

******

 

Arjun Raj Gaind is the author of the critically acclaimed historical mystery series, The Maharaja Mysteries, which are set against the picturesque backdrop of princely India during the heyday of the British Raj. Two installments have been released so far, A Very Pukka Murder (2016) and Death at the Durbar (2018). The third book in the series, The Missing Memsahib, is due for release early in 2019 by Harper Collins India and Poisoned Pen Press USA. He is also the creator and author of several comic books and graphic novels, including Empire of Blood, Project: Kalki, Reincarnation Man, The Mighty Yeti, Blade of the Warrior, and A Brief History of Death.

Here are excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

Why did you decide to write mystery stories after having been a graphic novelist?
I believe stories are universal, and that if a writer is a natural storyteller, they will refuse to allow themselves to be limited by genre or format. Ultimately, it is all about telling stories in an original and effective manner so that your readers keep wanting to turn to the next page. Everything else, it is just filler.

I have always been a keen aficionado of Golden Age detective fiction, and find the manners and mystique of classical mystery very enticing. It is really quite sad that in India, we don’t really have a culture and tradition of mystery fiction. I wanted to change that, to try and create an original Indian detective, someone with the savoir-faire of James Bond but also the deductive temperament of Hercule Poirot.

Maharaja Sikander Singh actually came to me as an epiphany while I was reading William Dalrymple’s White Mughals and I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had an Indian King who had fantastic adventures during the British Raj?” After that, I had no choice. I owed it to Sikander to bring him to life because as any writer will tell you, some characters are just too good to neglect.

Interestingly, he isn’t entirely fictional, but rather a composite of several real historical figures, based in part on Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala and partially on Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, both gentlemen of monumental appetites who lived very picturesque lives. My favourite character in the series however, is the Maharaja’s manservant and sidekick, Charan Singh. He is named for and modelled after my grandfather, who I believe epitomized everything admirable about being Sikh, from unswerving loyalty to a fierce sense of duty and honour that cannot be bought or sold, no matter what the price.

Why select the British Raj as the setting for your mysteries?
I am rather an inveterate brown sahib, and have always been very fascinated by the Raj, ever since my time at the Lawrence School, Sanawar. I think that in many ways, many facets of contemporary India, whether social, economic or political, have been defined by the clash of cultures that took place between East and West during the Colonial Era. Being Punjabi and an English speaker, it is impossible to deny what a pervasive and lasting impact Imperialism has had on our lives.

At the same time, I wanted to create an original character who could hold up a mirror to the innate racism of British India. Most Indians represented in colonial fiction are shown as subservients, as outsiders, but Maharaja Sikander Singh is very different. His wealth and rank allow him access to the highest echelons of British India, and is in many ways, he is the perfect foil to illustrate the hypocrisy of English India, better educated than most of the sahibs he encounters and far more worldly, but still doomed to be a second class citizen, restricted by his race and skin colour. That is what excited me, the notion of subverting the Raj, and revisiting it, only this time from the point of view of an educated, upper class Indian, rather than a servant or a serf.

Who are the crime writers you admire?
More than writers per se, I have a bunch of favourite books and series. Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie. Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. The Saint books by Leslie Charteris. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Simenon’s Maigret series. Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados books. The Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Inspectors Morse, Lynley and Alleyn. Nero Wolfe. The Thin Man by Dashiel Hammett. The Big Sleep by Philip Marlowe. Wallander. My name is Red. The Rose of Tibet. The Shadow of the Wind. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda books. The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olson. The Harry Hole books by Jo Nesbo. The list is quite endless.

Amongst historical mystery novelists, I am a fan of the Falco series by Lindsay Davis, Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa cycle, C.J Sansom’s Shardlake books, Caleb Carr’s Alienist series, Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands series, and Jason Goodwin’s Yashim the Eunuch book, to name
just a few.

Do you find there is a difference in the storytelling of a graphic novel and a mystery story? To a reader it is usually only the format that differs.
Actually, I believe the basic craft involved in writing mystery fiction and creating a sequential narrative is quite similar. The elements are exactly the same – Plot, Setting, Character, Conflict and Point of View. The main challenge with writing comics is that it is a static medium, where you are limited not only by the number of words you can use on a page, but also by the fact that you cannot really show movement. Instead, you have to suggest the illusion of movement by using a montage of fixed images that manipulate the reader, trick their imagination into seeing more than what is being said.

Interestingly, that is a great lesson to use in a mystery too, where you create and sustain a sense of suspense by deliberately placing hints and clues to keep the reader inveigled. Take Noir as an example. In a graphic novel, you create a sense of unease by using shadows and angles. In a mystery novel, you use mood and description. And of course, good dialogue is good dialogue, regardless of format.

How much research — period details, historical accuracy, language — was required for each story?
I confess, I went a little crazy doing the research. That is the part of writing historical fiction I enjoy the most, the excavation and accumulation of obscure details. It is rather like voyeurism, except you are spying on the lives of long dead people. In fact, that is what excites me about history, not the broad sweep of events, but rather the minutiae which textbooks do not reveal.

I am a firm believer in using primary sources, and while researching A Very Pukka Murder, I ended up reading more than 300 books about British India. I became obsessed with getting every detail right, from which cobbler my Maharaja would have used to have his shoes custom-made, to what brand of perfume he would have chosen to import from France. Funnily enough, along the way, i have ended up becoming somewhat of an expert about several abstruse subjects, from the variations in pugree and cummerbund styles across India to early luxury cars owned by Indian Maharajas. I also took great pains to try and get the cadences of how an educated Indian in fin de siecle India would have spoken, and also the phraseologies and parlances he would have used. By and large, I think was quite successful, although my first draft, which was about six hundred pages long, gave both my
agent and my editor indigestion, I am certain.

Why are you focused on a trilogy? A character like this evolves does he not?
Frankly, I would be delighted to release a Sikander book each year for the rest of my life. I have about eleven books plotted out so far, including one set against the backdrop of the First World War, and a
grand finale set in 1947 when the English depart and India attains independence. About the trilogy, I have been fortunate that Harper Collins India and Poisoned Pen Press have shown enough faith in my work to acquire three books. Hopefully, sales permitting, they will want to publish many more, and Maharaja Sikander Singh will be here to stay for a good many years.

The stories seem to creep forward in time, at least in the time difference between A Very Pukka Murder and Death at the Durbar. If you ever had to expand these into a series would you not find the timeline challenging?
I believe I am up to the task. Besides, I like the thought of the character growing older as his readers age. It worked for Harry Potter, didn’t it?

The stories are going to be adapted for television. Will you be doing the screenplay as well?
Not for all the money in the world. I am old and seasoned enough to recognize my limitations, and I think that the adaptation, whether for film or television, would best be served by a professional
script-writer. I do however, intend to look over his or her shoulder and backseat write every single sentence, at least until the producers decide to be rid of me.

12 May 2018

Modern day travelogues

Modern day travelogues

Punjabi ParmesanTravel writing has always had a special place in literature. Readers have been fascinated by stories of other places, cultures, people. In the past it was understandable when there were text-heavy descriptions of people, dresses, cities, architecture, food, vegetation and terrain. But today? To read modern-day travelogues when it is the “image age”, the most popular news feeds on social media platforms are photographs. It is akin to being immersed in a National Geographic-like environment 24×7. There are websites such as Flickr, Pinterest, Mashable, Tumblr, and YouTube, wonderful repositories of images and movie clips uploaded by institutions, media firms and individuals. So to read three books — Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from Europe in Crisis, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi and Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes — was an intriguing experience. Except for Sam Miller’s book that is peppered with black and white images laid within the text, the other two books are straightforward narratives. I would deem them as travelogues written in the “classical tradition” of relying solely upon the narrator/author taking the reader along a personal journey through a country/city different to the land of their birth. They make for a sharp perspective, intelligent analysis and just a sufficient mish-mash of history with a commentary on current social, political and economic developments, without really becoming dry anthropological studies. The writing style in all three books is lucid and easy.

Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan is a fascinating account of her travels through Europe from 2009 onward–at a time of economic gloom. It is part-memoir, part-journalism and part-analysis ( mostly economic) of what plagues Europe. It has anecdotes, plenty of statistics and footnotes, accounts of the meetings, conferences she was able to attend as journalist and have conversations with influential policy makers and politicians. After spending a few years in Beijing she moved to Brussels, so is able to draw astute observations about the decline in Europe. Having been a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from China, Europe and South East Asia, mostly on business stories from the “frontline” of action, she has an insightful understanding of the depressing scenario in Europe. It is a book worth reading.

Rana Dasgupta, CapitalRana Dasgupta’s Capital is about Delhi, the capital of India. Delhi has been settled for centuries, but became the capital of British India in 1911. The first wave of migrants who formed the character of modern Delhi came soon after the country became Independent in 1947. Over the years Delhi grew but at a moderately slow pace. Twenty years after post-liberalisation ( 1991), Delhi transformed so rapidly that the old world, old rhythms and culture became quietly invisible. Delhi continued to be a melting pot of immigrants. It became a city synonymous with wealth, material goods, luxury and uncivil behaviour, bordering on crassness. It is a city of networking and networked individuals. Rana Dasgupta’s book is a meander through the city. He meets a lot of people — the nouveau riche, the first wave of migrant settlers post-1947, members of the old city families who bemoan the decline of tehzeeb in the city. Capital is a commentary on Delhi of the twenty-first century, a city that is unrecognisable to the many who have been born and brought up here. Rana Dasgupta moved to the city recently — over a decade ago–but this brings a clarity to his narrative that a Delhiwallah may or may not agree with. It certainly is a narrative that will resonate with many across the globe since this is the version many want to hear — the new vibrant India, Shining India, the India where the good days ( “acche din”) are apparent. There is “prosperity”, clean broad streets, everything and anything can be had at the right price here. It is a perspective. Unfortunately the complexity of Delhi, the layers it has, the co-existence of poor and rich, the stories that the middle classes have to share are impossible to encapsulate in a book of 400-odd pages. It is a readable book that captures a moment in the city’s long history. It will be remembered, discussed, critiqued, and will remain for a long time to come in the literature associated with Delhi. (The cover design by Aditya Pande is stupendous! )

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller is a gentle walk through the history of India, mostly written as a memoir. William Dalrymple’s blurb for the book is apt —a “love letter to India”. When India was celebrating its fiftieth year of Independence there was a deluge of books and anthologies reflecting, discussing the history of India. To read Sam Miller’s book is to get a delightful and idiosyncratic understanding of this large landmass known as India, a puzzle few have been able to fathom. The author is not perturbed by doing a history of the things he truly likes about the country or that he has been intrigued by conversations he probably had. To his credit he has done the legwork as expected of a professional journalist and discovered people, regions, histories, spaces, cities for himself. For instance he states he is an “aficionado of cemetries and of tombs”, but discovered “many Indian are scared of cemetries — except when they house the tombs of ancient emperors and their consorts. They often find my desire to visit graveyards a little strange, as if I were a necrophile or had a perverse desire to disturb the ghosts of the dead.”( p.232) A fascinating observation since it is true — cemeteries are strangely peaceful oasis of calm. If you say that out aloud in India, people will look at you in a strange manner.

Anjan Sundaram, CongoModern-day travelogues are many, available in print and digital. Two recent examples stand out. Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey into Congo about his time in the African country. Fabulous stuff! Very reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s writing ( especially his diaries) written in Africa. And the other is a recent essay that physicist and well-known speculative fiction writer, Vandana Singh wrote on her blog, “Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF” ( http://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/alternate-visions-some-musings-on-diversity-in-sf/ ). It is a long and brilliant essay about her writing but also a though-provoking musing about diversity, different cultural experiences and writing — elements that are at the core of travel writing, have always been and continue to be.

6 July 2014 

Pallavi Aiyar Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 320 Rs. 599

Rana Dasgupta Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 460 Rs. 799

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 599