Hachette India Posts

“A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins is a tech entrepreneur, computer pioneer, and a neuroscientist. He was the co-founder of Palm Pilot, handheld computing. He is the cofounder of Numenta, a neuroscience research company and founder of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute. The intersection of neuroscience and technology fascinates him but it is the manner in which the human brain operates that interests him the most. In A Thousand Brains, Jeff Hawkins ( Basic Books, Hachette India) answers two of life’s most important questions: What is intelligence? How do brains create it?

For centuries now, the concept of tabula rasa has been discussed. It basically states that babies are born in this world with their minds as a blank slate. Slowly, over a period of time, their brain collects information and stores it. How this happens has been a mystery and will continue to be for a long time to come. There is another theory too that if the brain is kept stimulated, age becomes just a number, as the neurons continue to make new connections. (In fact, Dr Sanjay Gupta, the CNN journalist, makes a strong case for this in Keep Sharp.) Jeff Hawkins and his colleagues have formed a new theory of intelligence called the Thousand Brains Theory. They argue that the brain uses maplike structures called reference frames to build models of the world — not just one but hundreds of thousands, which then vote together to reach a consensus.

A key discovery that Jeff Hawkins made was that the organ of intelligence is the neocortex. The human neocortex is particularly large, occupying about 70% of the volume of our brain. It wraps around the older parts of the brain such that when you look at the human brain, most of what you see is the neocortex ( with its characteristic folds and creases), with bits of the old brain and the spinal cord sticking out at the bottom. Almost all the capabilities that we think of as intelligence — such as vision, language, music, math, science, and engineering — are created by the neocortex. It consists of millions of neurons, many more connections between the neurons called synapses and several kilometres of axons and dendrites. It consists of many vertical cortical columns that are critical in mapping the world for the individual. But each column maps only a certain number of reference frames. The brain has the uncanny ability to connect with each region, enabling it form a holistic picture. The ability to form these conenctions is determined by our genes. So, when a child is born, its neocortex is a tabula rasa. The brain has 150,000 cortical columns where each column is a sensory-motor system. It is a learning machine. These columns are complementary to each other. Basically, Hawkins argues that the Thousand Brain Theory explains how we learn and recognize objects. It also states that there are thousands of models for every object perceived by the individual in their brain. Finally, the theory shows how the neocortex learns three-dimensional models of objects using reference frames.

Bulk of this book is devoted to discussing the Thousand Brains Theory of Intelligence suggesting that the future of machine intelligence is going to be substantially different from what most AI practioners are thinking today. AI is currently undergoing a renaissance. It is one of the hottest fields in technology. The field is dominated by artificial neural networks, although they are nothing like the networks of neurons we see in brains. Hawkins argues that the future of AI will be based on different principles than those used today, principles that most closely mimic the brain. The aim should be to build truly intelligent machines and he sees the shift of AI towards brain-based principles as inevitable.

A fundamental characteristic of the human brain is that it is constantly learning. As a result, humans are flexible in what we learn. Deep learning AI systems exhibit almost no flexibility. A Go-playing computer may play the game better than any human,but it can’t do anything else. A self-driving car may be a safer driver than any human, but it can’t play Go or fix a flat tire.

The long-term goal of AI research is to create machines that exhibit human-like intelligence — machines that can rapidly learn new tasks, seeanalogies between different tasks, and flexibly solve new problems. this goal is called “artificial general intelligence”, or AGI, to distinguish it from today’s limited AI.

It is not clear where, when, and how intelligent machines will be made or how will they be used; but it may be easier to define the attributes that determine an intellignt being. These attributes are: the ability to learn continuously, learning via movement, the ability of the neocortex to create multiple models that are complementary and thus provide flexibility ( “mental agility”?), and finally, using general-purpose reference frames to store knowledge. Hence, we as humans are intelligent not because we can do one thing particularly well, but because we can learn to do practically anything. The extreme flexibility of human intelligence requires the aforementioned attributes.

The future of machine intelligence is hard to predict but an important component of its behaviour would be safety. According to Hawkins ( who does NOT like science fiction stories), the three laws of robotics as defined by Isaac Asimov are like a safety protocol but don’t necessarily apply to all forms of machine intelligence:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It is really impossible to say how long or when these changes will occur, if at all. It is certain that machines are here to stay. Humans and machines have to co-exist. But I could not help pondering over a key fact. It is not discussed in the book, but I think it can easily be surmised.

The Internet was invented to share files between scientific and military computers. It was previously done manually. In recent years, tech entrepreneurs have created massive social media platforms that are user-based. These tech platforms rely upon their websites proving useful to multiple users, at the same time. It is a constant buzz of activity. It is also a bunch of algorithms, written by a team of programmers determining how users can be encouraged to use the platform except that they do not reckon with how rapidly individuals can reprogramme their behaviours. Thereby also changing their expectations of the platform. This is probably the reason for digital strategists unable to work on anything more than a three month-time frame as opposed to earlier times when it was possible to work on 1-3 year strategies. No more. The older strategies presumed a certain amount of stability. Now, with so many human brains plugged into one platform simultaneously can result in the creation of a supercomputer whose size and intelligence is unimaginable. It is gargantuan! Also, just as many social media sites are discovering that people are sinking deeper into the platform to create little bubbles of communities, are happy being within those spaces, and in all likelihood, creating their own micro-histories. It is only IF these communities choose to communicate with each other, that connections can be created and larger communities can be formed. To what purpose, is still unclear, but they can exhibit behaviour that is like a single-celled large organism or it can be construed as herd mentality. Similarly, the neocortex is the intelligence organ of the individual, it consists of numerous cortical columns/users that map reference frames; these exist and are complementary but do not necessarily communicate with each other. IF they do, then it is for the benefit of the individual in building up knowledge and using their intelligence to assess the situation. So, while many tech giants are fascinated by AI and its applications, it is perhaps the study of human behaviour affected by AI and its response in real time that should be investigated in greater depth. Changes are happening at such a rapid pace in the digital world, they are probably not driven as much by algorithms and AI as many would like to believe, but it is the response of many individuals that are forcing the Internet/social media platforms to transform. The Thousand Brain theory illustrates the significance of the neocortex and its identification as the intelligent organ in our body, but if this theory is applied to the Internet wherein many individuals are like many thousand brains multiplied many times over, can you imagine the speed at which the digital landscape will evolve? No wonder Hawkins is not very amused at the current state of AI. It simply cannot keep pace with the human brain. It will take time, if at all.

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins is an astonishing book. Perhaps there are more like it in the market but the lucidity with which this is written is splendid. It makes extremely difficult concepts manageable as well as recognising the limitations of what can be included in the book or not. It will be influencing tech discourse for a very long time to come. Don’t miss reading it.

2 May 2022

A pile of books read — 4 April 2022

In recent days and weeks, I have read a pile of books but not had the time to write individual posts. So, perhaps it is best to create a combined blog post.

The two debut novels that I read were poles apart in tone and pace. The first debut novel is The Elements of Fog by Boudhayan Sen ( Juggernaut Books) is an unexpected pleasant surprise. It is a combination of old-fashioned ( read nineteenth century) novel and a twenty-first century contemporary fiction. It is a reflection of the plot too that is set apart in time by a century and a half. The common factor being that the story is set in a high school/boarding school that was set up in a hill station near Madurai. It is a love story that is very well told. Perhaps Boudhayan Sen will follow it up with another novel/ a collection of short stories that is equally well paced. The second debut novel is The Shotgun Wedding by Suchandra Roychowdhury ( Aleph Book Company) that is a fast-paced, comic, romance novel. It is more in the ilk of commercial fiction, noisy with chattering dialogue propelling the plot, easily read; with the potential of spawniing back stories,and perhaps Malgudi Days-like stories. Who knows?! Time will tell.

The two collections of prose and poetry are also very diverse. Why do you fear my way so much? : Poems and Letters from Prison by G. N. Saibaba ( Speaking Tiger Books) is very powerful. Most of the poems were written in the form of letters to his wife to avoid censoring by the prison authorities. Saibaba is an academic and an activist who is confined to a wheelchair and has been incarcerated since 2014. In 2017, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his links to a banned organisation, CPI-Maoist.

The second is an anthology Khushk Zubaan, Bebaak Jigar: Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts that has been edited by Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali (published by Red River). It consists of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and artworks. Red River publications go from strength to strength. This particular anthology when it was first published had a limited print run as the publisher, Dibyajyoti Sarma, was unsure whether it would sell. It sold so fast that a second print run had to be done within a month. The publications in this frontlist are experimental, grungy, and generous as many voices — established and new — are offered a platform with equal grace and respect. Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts is no different. It explores the theme of “ghar-bahir” or “in the home and outside”. All the contributors are women even though it may not be clear from the bios published in the book. Because the editors did not want to foreground gender, instead the focus is on the individual identities, the myriad voices. This book is meant for everyone. Do read it.

Perhaps at this point, it may be appropriate to mention Elena Ferrante’s new book, In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions. The four essays included in this book are the Eco Lectures that the author wrote. In November 2021, the actress Manuela Mandracchia, in the guise of Elena Ferrante, presented the lectures at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, together with ERT, Emilia Romagna Teatro. There are many pearls of wisdom that Ferrante shares with regard to close reading of texts, her own writing craft and experience of reading some of her favourite writers such as Dante, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Ingebord Bachmann, and others. There are many portions in my copy of the book that I have underlined heavily. There is a particular section that is worth sharing:

…in order to devote ourselves to literary work must we subscribe to the great scroll of writing? Yes. Writing inevitably has to reckong with other writing, and it’s from the terrain of the already written that the sentence might jump out that sets in motion a small admirable book or the great book that displays a trajectory and constructs a unique world of words, characters, and conflicts.

If that’s true for the male “I” who writes, it’s even more so for the female. A woman who wants to write has unavoidably to deal not only with the entire literary patrimony she’s been brought up on and in virtue of which she wants to and can express herself but with the fact that that patrimony is essentially male and by its nature doesn’t provide true female sentences. Since I was six my “I” brought up on male writing also has had to incorporate a kind of writing by women for women that belonged to it, was appropriate to it — writing in itself minor precisely because it was barely known by men, and considered by them something for women, that is, inessential. I’ve known in my life very cultured men who not only had not read Elsa Morante or Natalia Ginzburg or Anna Maria Ortese but had never read Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf. And I myself, as a girl, wished to avoid as far as possible writing by women: I felt I had different ambitions.
(p. 76-78)

Suddenly, the title is illuminating. It is not merely about being a professional writer preoccupied with the craft of writing but metaphorically, it is about being a woman and a writer. It is incredible how the same stuff has been said over and over again and yet, it seems new. Read the book.

The idea of writing and what it takes to write are eternal questions. In the new age of publishing, “content” works in multiple ways. No longer is it necessary to first publish a book before exploring other platforms. The next two books belong to this category. Both are publications stemming from talks delivered over the radio and short stories shared on YouTube. The first is by well-known ornithologist, Dr Salim Ali called Words for Birds. It is a collection of radio broadcasts that have been edited by Tara Gandhi. It has been published by Black Kite (an imprint of Permanent Black) in collaboration with Ashoka University and distributed by Hachette India. These broadcasts are from 1941 to 1980 with the bulk being spanning 1950s-60s. It is an interesting exercise reading the essays as there is a gentle pace to them, much as one would hear over the radio, enunciate slowly and clearly to be heard. The idea being to communicate. The second one is The Stories We Tell by noted mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik ( published by Aleph Book Company). It consists of short stories that originated in a webcast that Pattanaik began from 21 March to 31 May 2020. It was in the early days of India’s countrywide lockdown to combat Covid-19. He says:

People were terrified of the virus and I wanted to life their spirits by telling them stories from our mythology that would make them less anxious. At these stories were told from 4pm to 5pm, around teatime, I named my webcast “Teatime Tales”. I genuinely believed the lockdown would end in a few weeks, but it became clear that we would remain indoors for a long time. I knew I would not be able to sustaing the enterprise endlessly. So, I decided to end it gracefully after seventy-two episodes. [ Seventy-two being an important number across cultures. He elaborates upon it beautifully in the book.]

These are very short, short stories. Very easily read. The sentences are short. The ideas develop slowly and methodically. There is no cluttering. The conversion of the oral into print has been done very well. The stories retain their capacity to be read out aloud. Also, as with many age-old stories and folklore, these stories narrated by Pattanaik lend themselves to be expanded and embellished. In his introduction, he provides a general description as “our mythology” and since his name is synonymous with mostly retelling of the Hindu epics, many readers would probably expect more of the same. Extraordinarily enough, Pattanaik displays extensive knowledge and understanding of other faiths too. Slim book, easily shared and presented.

Ultimately, it is the Internet that has made the revival and dissemination of literature possible. Earlier, a few copies were printed and circulated. But now, there is mass distribution of books and content — whether legitimately or pirated versions is not the point right now. The fact is literature is available to many, many people. Physical and ebooks can be bought online. Payments are made. Today, we take digital payments for granted but there was a time, in the not too distant past, that this concept did not even exist. In the 1990s, people were experimenting with the idea but it was not taken too seriously. Then, came along a bunch of youngsters, from 19 to their early 20s, who felt that this was worth investigating. The Founders by Jimmy Soni is about these young men such as Max Levichin, Reed Hastings, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. It is a book that is full of details regarding the fintech startup, surving the dot com bubble and its ultimate sale to eBay for US$1.5 billion — at a time when such figures were unheard of and certainly not for technology. This story is told at a furious pace, it is intoxicating reading about the highs and lows of the founders, but it is also seeped in masculinity. It confirms the belief that professionalism is a philosophy that is acceptable when imbued with patriarchy and makes no allowances for women and other responsibilities of life. It is almost as if one has to be wedded to the job and even in a marriage there is more leeway than these startups provide. On a separate note, I had emailed Jimmy Soni a bunch of questions for an interview on my blog. He had agreed in principle but then chose not to acknowledge the email, later asked the person who had set up the interview if he could change my questions, then suggested that one of the questions was incorrect but would not say which one and ultimately, he refused to do the interview. Here are the questions. Despite this unfortunate glitch, I would recommend The Founders.

Finally, an integral feature of the Internet is the search option. It is a critical part of the world wide web. It enables information to be discovered and shared. This is done by searching a vast index that the search engines maintain. It is nothing more basic than that — a feature that has been a significant part of the codex for more than 800 years, is now a fundamental feature of the Internet. So despite technological advancements being made, certain characteristics remain and continue to be adopted and adapted to new frameworks. Read more about it in this incredibly fascinating account by Dennis Duncan in Index, A History of the . I loved this book!

A vast and eclectic selection of books to choose from!

4 April 2022

“Glossy: The Inside Story of Vogue” by Nina-Sophia Miralles

Glossy: The Inside Story of Vogue by Nina-Sophia Miralles is a fascinating history of the iconic fashion magazine, Vogue. ( It is published by Quercus and distributed by Hachette India.) Vogue was founded in 1892 in New York by Arthur Turnure. He wanted to launch a high-quality weekly journal. “With one paper he seduced two social groups: middle-class readers would buy it so they could finally see what the rich and distinguished were up to and upper class readers would buy it to feed their egos.” After his death in 1906, the magazine was going through a hard time. Conde Nast who had had his eye on it for a while, proposed to the widow of Arthur Turnure to buy it. The deal was finalised in 1907. Ever since then, Vogue has remained a part of the Conde Nast group of publications. Even when the Newhouse family took over the group, Vogue remained.

Glossy is an extraordinary story about the survival of this magazine for more than a century, with many of its editors working for decades, including the war years. The transformations in the content of the magazine as a response to the times. From its first launch, in the fin de siecle, where it was filled with high society news and gossip, to offering advice to women about rationing and recognising women as a key part of the workforce (1914- 1940s) and to post-war years (1950s) trying to achieve the balance between the variety of readers across age-groups. The 1960s and ’70s proved to be testing times for the magazine as it took into account the rise of the women’s movement, braced itself for arguments about sexism, fashion and patriarchal expectations etc. Yet, at the same time, an editor like Diana Vreeland spent obnoxious amounts of money in organising a photoshoot in Japan with models draped in fur — “The Great Fur Caravan“. It cost $1 million that in current terms is approximately $7.5 million. The 1980s and 90s brought about another fundamental change in the magazine as it began to access a larger group of readers and the advertisement revenue it brought in was substantial. In the twenty-first century, the magazine was launched in many more countries. It expanded into new markets that would earlier have not been considered as a possibility. Also, the management structure was changed and for the first time an “outsider” was brought in as CEO of the company so as to create a media empire for the future. Roger Lynch, the former head of Pandora, a music streaming service, with a strong entertainment and tech background was appointed. This is the new age and now the fashion industry is estimated to be worth $1 trillion.

This book is a repository of information regarding the evolution of the magazine, editorial inputs, production challenges, experiments with writers and photographers, changing attitudes towards models and managing markets. The Newhouse mantra is that the bottomline is always about profits. The history of the magazine is inextricably linked with the personalities of its editors, photographers, art directors, writers and some models especially in recent years. Many of the editors are legendary such as Edna Woolman Chase, Dorothy Todd, Michel de Brunhoff, Edmonde Charles-Roux, Diana Veerland, Grace Mirabella, Anna Wintour, Alexandra Shulman, Emmanuelle Alt and Edward Enninful. While the author delves into minute details with many of the editors of the past, Miralles is a tad disappointing when recounting tales of editors such as Anna Wintour. It is almost as if Wintour continues to be a power to reckon with and it is best that not much is said about her. There are other careless lapses such as mentioning Donyale Luna as the first black model on the cover of 1966 British Vogue but omitting to mentioning the name of the first black model on the cover of the 1974 American Vogue — Beverly Johnson. The next time a black model made it to the cover was Gail O’Neill (1986) and Naomi Campbell (1987). So, the Feb 2022 cover of supermodel Naomi Campbell holding her baby girl is pathbreaking.

Despite the few shortcomings, Glossy is an immensely readably and brilliant account of the establishment, sustainability and survival of a women’s magazine through the ages. It has had a fair mix of contributors. The managment has made mistakes but it has learned to adapt and flourish. It may be a well-defined fashion magazine but it certainly cannot be ignored. If I could, I would show how extensively dog-eared and heavily underlined my copy of the book is!

27 March 2022

“A Sip in Time: India’s Finest Teas and Teatime Treats” by Pallavi Nigam Sahay

A Sip in Time: India’s Finest Teas and Teatime Treats by Pallavi Nigam Sahay is a fabulous collection of easy-to-make recipes that are paired with different kinds of teas. It has been published by Hachette India. The recipes read like a handwritten recipe book that is passed down generations within a family for its mad combination of dishes. To have Amaretti biscuits, pakoras, kathi rolls, scones, gur ke parathe, raisin bread, spicy macaroni, chicken nuggets, theplas, Kerala Golden Sev, and sponge cakes in one place can only be the handiwork of a practitioner. Otherwise most cookery books are organised due to category of dishes. Whereas in this case, the excuse for pairing dishes with teas, is the perfect springboard to put together favourite dishes. The teas that she refers to are perennial favourites in India at least, probably elsewhere too — Assam tea, masala chai, phalap, Assam orthodox, English Breakfast tea, Darjeeling tea, Alle Sang, Earl Grey, and Munnar. The descriptions of making tea on the tea estates to offering tips on the best way to brew a cup of tea is easily shared. One of the gems is not to pour boiling water over tea leaves as it excessively boiled water implies that the oxygen in the water is reduced; thus affecting the flavour of the tea. Ideally, simmering water should be poured over tea leaves / tea bags and let it stand for the time stipulated. And voila, it works!

The no fuss manner in which every recipe is explained is a delight. It makes it convenient to understand a recipe and figure out the time required to prepare the dish. The idea of having snacks accompanying tea is an old fashioned one but this book ensures that a wide variety of recipes are presented while recognising the new reality — many popular ingredients are available worldwide. So it is relatively easy to assemble these dishes. Offering titbits of advice such as some of these dishes make wonderfully wholesome breakfast or ready-to-go meals, is an excellent touch. Hopefully, it will inspire more people to cook healthy homemade meals rather than rely on takeaways. Sadly, as with most Indian cookery books, food photography is always not up to the mark. But it should not deter anyone from buying the book and using it extensively. A Sip in Time is a great gift for beginners and experienced cooks. It is easy to carry. It has wide margins and generous layouts, making provision for plenty of scribble to scribble upon.

Buy it. Use it. Gift it.

24 Feb 2022

“Sin” by Wajida Tabassum, translated from the Urdu by Reema Abbasi

This is a Muslim Syed girl from a family where liberties for women were thought odious. My father forbade us to attend school and purdah was our bounden duty. My parents passed away when I was three years old and a paternal uncle persuaded our grandmother to educate us. She relented, keeping a lidless eye on each of us.

My third sister was bright and obstinate, with great love for books. She listened intently to every story, which slowly became an obsession. At only three, she forced Nani to enroll her in a school. As time went by, she read, and with her passion came to a gradual swell.

Several magazines — Shamaa, Jamalistaan, Ariyavarat, Kaamyaab and more — could be found in our house. I leafed through them, attentive OR clutching on to every word. The groceries were wrapped in pages torn out of magazines and I read every line on them. They were more exciting than journals. I took them into obscure corners to scan through the incomplete stories. It felt like all the knowledge in the world was mine.

I have a Master of Arts degree and the impulse to know every word ever written soars as despeerately as it did when I was a girl in the fifth standard. However, my passion was tied to our situation. To us, money was a lofty reverie, like a gulp of the sun. The desire to go to markets, exploer bookshops and buy literature caved before our meagre means.

….

I could not buy a book. When I asked for one, she refused and said that such books were unsuitable for girls from aristocratic families. Nani had vowed to keep us away from them … .

Books were my source of light and warmth.

… A book was always with me. My novels snug in school books, I basked in their language and immersive imagery through the exams too. …

books became my refuge and my friends. In school, my performance was seen as exemplary and pleased teached accepted my many requests for books from the library. These became the happiest days of my life. I would go through a book in two hours and would immediately pick up another one.

….In Hyderabad, the rules of our library were rigid and the shrunked stock of books hit me the hardest. Once a week, a girl could get one book at a time. ….
One morning, I was humming in class and a girl at the opposite desk said, “Wajida, please sing a little louder.”
My were were fixed on Munshi Premchand’s Godaan in her hand.
“On one condition,” I replied.
“What?”

“I will sing for you if you lend me your book,” I negotiated.

She agreed. I sang.

The next moment, her book was in my hands. Soon after, books flowed to me. I sang to get them and girls from other classes began making similar deals with me — books for songs. I was relentless. The world spread out in an immense space, crowded with writers and varied themes. The ones I read in my harsh circumstances brought smiles and pride. However, as I write these lines, I am sad to think that this, like a sip of air, was a trivial scale.

Wajida Tabassum’s ( 16 March 1935 – 7 December 2011) was an Urdu writer. She was known for her “audacious and semi-erotic stories and her formidable power of storytelling”. She was born into an aristocratic family but her parents lost their wealth and died very young too. By the time she was three, Wajida Tabassum was an orphan. Her maternal grandmother, Nani, brought up the eight children. These were tough times and they were poor. Wajida Tabassum was a voracious reader with a flair for writing and she put it to good use by contributing short stories to magazines. Soon, she was being spoken of and as she mentions in her autobiographical essay, “Meri Kahaani” ( My Story), that soon the very same relatives who had earlier shunned them, were now readily acknowledging her.

Sin is a collection of nineteen short stories translated by Reema Abbasi ( Hachette India). It also marks the first time that Wajida Tabassum’s stories are being translated into English. According to the translator, the four sections in thevolume deal with “dark, debauched and tragic aspects of life and are structured on the theme of the ‘deadly sins’, namely, lust, pride, greed and envy. The stories are translated competently though at times certain Urdu words could do with a little more explanation through the context. Unfortunately, I did not maintain a list while reading but kept wondering about the meaning of the words. Having said that, the stories are well translated. Structurally to place “My Story” in the middle of the book is a very good idea as it provides a break from the stories. In many ways, the stories seem bold by contemporary standards of writing as well. But clubbing so many together seems to diminish their oomph factor. Perhaps, if they had been arranged chronologically, according to the date of publication, then the growth of the writer would also have been evident. For now, the stories are enjoyable but in small doses.

Once the stories are read, then Wajida Tabassum’s rant about be open to stories rather than being led by the nose becomes obvious in paragraphs such as this about endorsements. She is so clear about her views.

In our literature, forewords have become customary. I feel they lean our readers in a certain direction, which is worrying. Why do we need a renowned name to endorse our work to the extent that critique is printed onthe dust cover? I have many letters from celebrated writers, who applaud my work. Many of them are dear to me. They would compose a preface in an instant. But I disagree with the idea. The foreword to me is a diversion for the reader’s mind and a tool of cheap publicity. When someone wants to move ahead, they should walk without a crutch. Even if they means taking an uneasy road to the last stop.

This kind of sharp clarity is required in more and more writers of today. Perhaps the resurrection of a powerful women writer such as Wajida Tabassum in English will ensure that not only is she read far and wide but she inspires and influences new generations of writers to share their opinions in an equally forthright manner.

Sin is definitely a collection of short stories worth recommending.

2 Feb 2022

“The Paris Bookseller” by Kerri Maher

22 Feb 2022 marks the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The person responsible for publishing it was Sylvia Beach after the manuscript was rejected by umpteen publishers. Later, she relinquished the rights to Random House. But she was the key person who believed in the book.
Read about this extraordinary woman and the first twenty years of her famous bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher ( Hachette India). The novel is as interesting as the Afterword.

Here is a piece of history. Sylvia Beach interviewed three days before she passed away. She speaks about meeting James Joyce at a party and offers to publish Ulysses. ( “Publishing James Joyce’s “Ulysses” 1962, RTE Archives)

And here is an image of Sylvia Beach’s gravestone in Princeton. It was tweeted by Irish Times journalist, Fintan O’ Toole on 2 Feb 2022.

22 Feb 2022

“Tarkari” by Rohit Ghai

I love cooking. I cook very day. I enjoy reading recipe books. I have done so as long as I can remember. I collect recipes. I have four notebooks of handwritten recipes, spanning generations. They are a repository of so much information in terms of food habits, what is in vogue in a particular age, etc. Inevitably recipes get passed orally within families. Writing down recipes presumes that the families are educated, especially women, and cooking techniques are clearly spelt out. Families like mine have written and shared recipes for generations. I have handwritten recipes from the last century. These are precisely written. Short. Nothing elaborate. Easy to replicate. No fuss. Recipes by women meant to be used. No time wasted in reading and understanding.

In recent years, especially ever since Paul Hamlyn made four-colour, illustrated cookery books by Margueritte Patten phenomenal bestsellers, recipe books sell consistently. Most often, little expense is spared when it comes to scrumptious layouts, specialist food photographers are hired and double-page spreads are the norm. In recent years, this domain has slowly and steadily been overtaken by male writers. Again, fine. Except that some of the bestselling recipes books are becoming more and more tedious to read. For instance, Jamie Oliver. His early cookbooks were a delight to read but the newer ones are too elaborate. Even Joe Wicks churns out some interesting recipes but far too expensive in terms of ingredients used and too complicated when it comes to increasing portions. Cookbooks should be easy to read, easy to understand, and the recipes are easy to visualise in one’s minds eyes. Of course, printed cookbooks are now competing with the Internet where many recipes and videos are available, not tucked away behind paywalls. So to maintain the fine balance that will persuade readers/consumers to buy expensive hardbacks for a few recipes is tricky. Having said that, London-based restauranteur and Michelin star chef Rohit Ghai’s Tarakari: Vegetarian and Vegan Indian Dishes with Heart and Soul seems to achieve this balance. It is a pleasure reading the recipes. Easy instructions. To-the-point. He adds details like focusing on consistency or batters and gives reasons. Most of the recipes included in “Tarkari” are adaptations of what he learned in his mother’s kitchen. So they are familiar recipes such as “Aloo Tikki”, “Dal Makhani”, “Pesarattu”, “Chole Bhature”, “Tadka Dal”, “Jaipuri Bhindi”, but as happens with Indian households, there are variations. Also, being in London, some of the dishes like “Chickpea and Samphire Salad”, “Kadai Tofu” and “Courgette Mussalam” are examples of fusion food. They are not classic Indian dishes but they work.

Tarkari is reminiscent of very well-made Indian cookbooks by non-resident South Asians like Meera Taneja, Sameena Rushdie and Madhur Jaffrey. I am definitely going to be trying some of these dishes. Rohit provides tips and cooking methods with generosity, love and kindness and not the niggardliness that exists in some folks when asked to shares recipes. Rohit Ghai’s explanations of vegetarian and vegan dishes fulfil many of the parameters I seek while reading or sharing recipes.

Buy Tarkari. Use it.

13 Nov 2021

“Burntcoat” by Sarah Hall and “Earthspinner” by Anuradha Roy

Later, perhaps, I will write at length about these two extraordinary novels — Anuradha Roy’s The Earthspinner ( Hachette India) and Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat ( Faber & Faber). Both, very special in their own way. For now, I find the similarity between the two novels very striking. For instance, both stories raise critical questions about the point of art, significance of an artist, articulating personal sentiments or communicating zeitgeist through their installations and facing the consequences. The hauntingly moving and equally disturbing novel “The Earthspinner” is about the narrator, Sara and the potter, Elango. “Burntcoat” is about the narrator Edith, a sculptor, who writes her life’s testimony as she is dying to an unnamed virus. She reflects upon her work, her mission as an artist and her achievements. One of her last commissioned pieces is a memorial to commemorate those who died in the epidemic.


It was continually miraculous to him that fired clay did not melt back to earth again — it could be broken or weather-beaten but it had a life force that was inextinguishable.

The Earthspinner


…yes, of course, I’m the wood in the fire. I’ve experienced, altered in nature. I am burnt, damaged, more resilient. A life is a bead of water on the black surface, so frail, so strong, its world incredibly held.

Burntcoat


It is a remarkable coincidence that I read these in quick succession. The preoccupation of both novels with the role of the artist in society is truly worth reflecting upon. We need writers to document, interpret, share and preserve their witnessing of history. It survives. It raises important questions.

“Immune”

Philip Dettmer’s Immune is really very well written. Beautifully illustrated. Daughter has whisked it away. I don’t know how much she is comprehending but seems to be liking it. Her new found love in academics is science. She is chuckling while reading the descriptions of the immune system. Now this is really making science accessible!This book has been adapted from Dettmer’s very popular YouTube channel — “Kurzgesagt: In a Nutshell”. It has more than 14 million subscribers that reaches over 30 million viewers every month. He has a team of more than 40 people helping him create the content for the channel, while remaining true to science.It is a really fascinating book. A layman can understand it. A scientist will find it useful.

The detailed bibliography of the papers and books used for research can be found online at: https://kurzgesagt.org/immune-book-sources/

Read it. More so now when everyone is concerned about strengthening their immune systems.

The book has been published by Hodder & Stoughton. It is distributed in India by Hachette India.

24 November 2021

“A Fish in Alien Streams” by Herjinder

A Fish In Alien Streams by Herjinder is an extraordinary book. An account of the introduction of trout by the British. The colonial rulers missed angling as they did “back home”. So they figured out ways in which to transport ova, by sea, in cold conditions to lands as far as Tasmania and India. The Victorian Age was known for some incredible innovations but to discover a viable method of transporting trout ova from Europe to Tasmania and India was astonishing.

I picked up lovely fun facts. One of them being that the original British owners of Kissan jams and sauces were responsible for introducing trout into the sub-continent. Also, how floods have been responsible for dissemination of the fish into the streams of Kashmir, Nilgiris and Sri Lanka. The last interview in the book is with an eighty-three-year-old Jimmy Johnson, an angler. He is a Himachali / Anglo-Indian, whose father, Lt. Col. C. R. Johnson, was one of these British officers who were deeply involved with trout culture farming. But Jimmy learned angling not from his father but by watching the famous angler of the valley, T. Tyson ( the author of “Trout Fishing in Kulu, 1941”). Jimmy’s school was in Mahili, across the river from Katrain where Tyson used to fish virtually every day. And Jimmy would watch the great angler while playing with his friends on the left bank of the river. He started to like Tyson’s ‘game’ more than his own childish ones, seeing it as ‘an interesting game in which delicious lunch and dinner were also guaranteed’.

But in nearly a century since there was abundance of trout in the rivers, the fish is fast disappearing. One of the prime reasons being the rampant construction in the valley and global warming. There are many occasions that Jimmy goes to fish and returns home empty-handed. Yet he renews his angling license annually. In his lifetime, Jimmy has seen trout-abundant rivers to sparsely populated ones now.

It impossible to recapitulate the essence of A Fish in Alien Streams by Herjinder. Suffice to say that this is a wonderful mix of historical narrative and primary source material such as books and interviews. It is very easy to read even if you are not interested in fishing or trouts.

The book cover by Harshad Marathe deserves a special mention. It is unique.

Read it.

2 Nov 2021

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