London Posts

Q&A with Pramod Kapoor, Roli Books

Pramod Kapoor, Frankfurt Book Fair, 2015

Pramod Kapoor, the founder and publisher of Roli Books (established in 1978). A sepia aficionado, he has over the course of his illustrious career conceived and produced award-winning books that have proven to be game changers in the world of publishing. Be it the hit ‘Then and Now’ series and the seminal Made for Maharajas, or even the internationally acclaimed Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography and New Delhi: The Making of a Capital. In 2016, he was conferred with the prestigious Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour), the highest civil and military award in France, for his contribution towards producing books that have changed the landscape of Indian publishing. He is currently working on his forthcoming book on The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny in 1946

Q 1. Roli Books is known worldwide as the publisher of fine illustrated coffee-table books. Forty years ago this was a relatively unknown space of publishing. Why and how did you venture in to this niche area of publishing?

I followed my own marketing instincts. In 1978 when I started my own venture I saw that besides Taraporevala there was no illustrated book publisher in India. They too printed the books in B/W only. Most of the illustrated books those days were imported from UK / USA and they sold well. Roli Books was result of a strategic collaboration with one of the largest printers FEP International Singapore. Perhaps the reason for the instant success was that I skilfully combined superior Indian scholarship, photography and design with world class printing and production from Singapore. Result was that distributors would pre-purchase the entire print run sometimes just on the basis. 

Q2. How do you decide which topics to commission and which you will work upon yourself? What is it exactly about delving into the past that propels this excitement in you to make/commission these books for a modern audience? How do you hope to bridge the gap?

As I said earlier it was the marketing instinct and courage to take risks. We continue to publish on the same principle but now the instincts have matured with over forty years of experience in ever changing publishing world. I pick up books to work on personally largely on my personal interest. I like exploring and researching vintage visual material. That comes because of my interest in medieval and modern history. Over a period of time I have developed a keen eye for photographs and I use that skill to create books personally. Friends in publishing throughout the world help me keep abreast of the changes and I suppose because of my deep interest in visual arts I keep thinking of the newer formats to present a certain kind of work. In my mind I am engaged with my readers continuously. 

Q3. How do you find the time to be a researcher/writer while managing a publishing business? 

My hobby is my business. It comes naturally and when I am actively engaged in a project I plead guilty to being overly obsessive. 

Q4. A lot of thought and care goes into crafting the Roli Books list — creating the text, selection of pictures/ photographs accompanying, design etc. What is the average time a project of this magnitude takes in being executed? What is the process of fact checking instituted at Roli Books?

Fortunately, my colleagues who have been with me for decades and my next generation have not just imbibed that skill but have done better. I learn from each one of them. They are at times more concerned about quality and excellence. A project can take six months to three years on an average. My personal projects on an average get published after five or six years of comprehensive research. Our kind of publishing is result of pure teamwork. A typical book goes through various filters, from authors to editors, art director to graphic designers etc. There are systems in place that fact checks at every level. 

Q5. Some of the material you use in your books requires delving into archives, personal collections and literary/estates. It must be quite challenging at times to find the rightful owner of the material. Given that the 21C is considered to be an information-rich age, where content is at par with oil in value, what are some of the challenges you face while trying to get permissions in place?  

Over a period of time we have established relationships and goodwill in the world of archives. That certainly helps. Though I still like and enjoy visiting archives. Technology has made it simpler. More defined copyright laws and easy enforcement also helps. Unlike before there are very few grey areas. That certainly helps. 

Q6. Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now epitomises the nature of publishing Roli Books is synonymous with — making visible the old for new audiences. How was this project conceptualised and executed? Also, why did you choose to make it a “flip” book? 

This is fifth book in Then and Now series. The format was first conceived with India Then and Now almost fifteen years ago after consultations with some of our international co publishers. It was not easy to convince them. Nor was it easy to sell it to our own sales team and leading booksellers. But we persisted. Each title in the series has been reprinted several times. India book published fifteen years ago is still popular and gets reprinted every second year. 

Q7. Many of the books you publish are on extremely well-known topics with examples of iconic literature on the same subject. For instance, with Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now it is impossible to not recall Raghubir Singh’s classic art book Calcutta and yet both books have distinctive identities. So how do you find that particular peg to position your publication? 

Sometimes it is challenge that propels excellence. Strong urge to make a better book and differently than the ones available helps to create a successful book. Raghubir Singh’s book was pure art, his personal brilliance that showed through his images of Calcutta. My book is on Calcutta as a city first and in that process I endeavoured to collect best that was in the family, personal and public collection throughout the world. 

Q8. Roli Books make history accessible to the lay person — whether it was visiting the British Archives to use the appropriate image by Margaret Bourke-White in the Lotus imprint edition of Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, to Gandhi and more recently Calcutta Then, Kolkata Now. There is a strong underpinning of a historical narrative with equal emphasis on the visual element.  When embarking on these projects, what comes first in production — the text or the pictures or does it fall in place simultaneously or is it more like a dance, step by step? 

There is no fixed formula. In case of Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Manohar Magaokar Men Who Killed Gandhi the text was available and from my past research I knew where the visuals were. (They are not in British Library but Time Life collection at Getty Images.) We skilfully combined them. For many other ideas like Calcutta Then Kolkata Now I strived to get the rarest of rare imagery and visited scores of old Calcutta families to look through their personal family albums hidden in their attics for decades. Of course there were other images from top archives throughout the world. 

Q9. Food history is a specialised genre and fast gaining popularity among lay readers. It is timely the publication of The Mughal Feast, atranslation of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, recipes from the time of Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan (1628 – 58). But why is the subtitle of the book “transcreation”? 

I was shown the original Persian manuscript by a friendly curator in the British Library London. We got it scanned . A facsimile copy was with us for three or four years. Salma Hussain, brilliantly translated it from Persian and added her great scholarship in adapting the recipes for modern kitchen and added a wonderful introduction. I suppose you will agree that all this amounts to ‘transcreation’. 

Q10. How have the changes in digital and printing technology impacted the commissioning and production of your exquisite art books? 

No they have only added to the process.

Q11. Why did a successful publishing house like Roli Books choose to expand into bookselling by establishing the CMYK bookstores? 

To provide more shelf space for our titles and for world’s top illustrated book publishers like Thames & Hudson, Phaidon, TASCHEN, Abrams, etc. whom we distribute in Indian sub-continent. 

Q12. What is next on the cards for Roli Books and yourself? 

I enjoy picture research and that keeps me going. There are several projects which are going on simultaneously in my mind and in action. They are in nascent stage. This year I hope to finish and publish Royal Indian Navy Uprising in 1946, a non-pictorial, all text book. As regards Roli Books youngsters like Priya and Kapil can articulate that better. But I know a division creating books on Family Histories fascinates me immensely. We have recently launched a new imprint Roots for this. 

22 June 2020

“A Woven Life” by Jenny Housego

Memoirs, autobiographies and biographies are a great introduction to a life. They also share a period through personal stories making history come alive. Memoirs are mostly a great story told from one person’s perspective — “my story”. As Eric Idle says to John Cleese while discussing the latter’s memoir in a public conversation, “well it is very hard to write about yourself” but a memoir is also only a slice of history or what you choose to tell.

In textile historian, entrepreneur and collector Jenny Housego discusses her childhood in England, her marriage to journalist David Housego and her passion for textiles that was ignited during her stint at V&A, London. She developed a fascination for “Anatolian carpets of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries … [she wanted to show in her research] that the so-called early Egyptian carpets had actually been made in Anatolia and displayed many examples of early Christian and Byzantine art which seemed to me to bear close similarities to the designs on these carpets.” Her husband, David, was soon posted to Iran, Afghanistan and later India. She accompanied him and sometimes on the tours he undertook. Along the way her love for textiles deepened. On her travels she was able to collect exquisite samples. When she came to India she developed an interest in the paisley designs of Kashmiri shawls. It sparked a lifelong love for the handloom. Jenny Housego managed to convert her keen interest in Indian handlooms into a successful business. At first she set up a company with her then husband, David Housego, called Shades of India. Subsequently when her marriage fell apart she set up another one — Kashmir Loom. This time focussing specifically on her interest for handlooms from Kashmir.

A Woven Life has been co-authored by Maya Mirchandani as Jenny Housego’s left side is paralysed due to a stroke she suffered some years ago. It is a memoir that is easy to read. It has tiny illuminating details that only reinforce how good art combined with talent can survive through the ages. For example, Jenny Housego’s granduncle was the famous American painter, John Singer Sargent. In one of his portraits uses a Kashmiri paisley shawl woven in India. Jenny Housego spotted it in the painting while searching for antique shawls whose motifs she could incorporate in the Kashmir Loom design library. She decided to find out if the shawl still existed. Sure enough. It did. She sent the image to Warren Adelson, a friend
and well-known art dealer in New York who specialized in Sargent paintings. The shawl had been used as a regular prop in many of Sargent’s paintings but he had decided to gift it to one of his clients. Incredibly the shawl was now owned by a British peer, Lord Cholmondeley, who kept it at his stately home.

Presumably, Sargent must have painted an ancestor of the lord’s wife with the shawl wrapped around her and then must have given it to her. Warren wrote to him on my behalf and his Lordship kindly agreed to bring it to London for me to see. In the hallway of his Mayfair home on a cold, dark rainy day, the shawl was brought to me and placed on a table. The hallway was badly lit and no one offered to hold it up for me to photograph properly. I remember draping it over a side table as well as I could, then my flash failed. The wool was coarse, clearly woven from local sheep, not pashmina at all, but the shawl was exquisite in spite of the rough wool. It had been looked after well. Woven using the technique called ‘kani’ for which Kashmir is renowned, it had patterns on a large border and on either end of the shawl were big paisleys in shades of blue with accents of kashmir loom: stepping out of another’s shadow reds and pinks. Each paisley was made up of tiny leaves and flowers woven to form the shape. Above the main border was another row of much smaller paisleys woven the same way, but set at an angle, slanting to the right. The outer border at the very end of the paisleys wrapped around the entire shawl like a vine of tiny blue-green leaves. Bent over it in that dark hallway, I knew I had to try and recreate it. I didn’t know if it would work, but I was certain it would become Kashmir Loom’s signature item if it did.

Her life with David Housego had very interesting moments. For instance, they were living in Iran in the period before the revolution, so the shift in sentiments from the Shah to the Ayatollah were palpable. Then as a prominent foreign correspondent, David Housego, had access to many sensitive stories. For instance, David had written in the Economist, saying that the Iranians were building a naval base at Chabahar on the eastern side of the Gulf coast. Husband and wife journeyed to Chabahar where the Iranian government representatives denied the existence of such a base until a night watchman who had obviously not briefed by the officials confirmed that David’s report was correct. Another terrifying moment is Jenny Housego’s account of David and her younger son, Kim’s, abduction by militants in Kashmir. Kim was taken away from his parents in Srinagar and there was no trace of him for seventeen days. Given that David was a well-known British correspondent based in South Asia, he knew relevant people across the subcontinent. These included politicians, diplomats, journalists etc. As a result, according to Jenny’s memoir, David was able to keep the pressure on the militants since he had activated all the channels and would hold regular press conferences. David too mentions the abduction of Kim in an article he published in 2011. ( David Housego, “An Indian Journey“, Seminar, 2011.)

A Woven Life has two very distinct narratives embedded in it. One is Jenny Housego’s passion for textiles particulary Kashmiri weaves. The second is her life with David Housego. In fact it was David who inadvertantly set her off on this journey of textiles by encouraging her to apply for a job as a museum assistant at the Victoria and Albert Museum ( V&A) in London. She was apprenticed to Dr May Beattie, a leading scholar of her time in
Oriental rugs and carpets. It obviously ignited a passion that Laila Tyabji, Chairperson, Dastkar, recognised upon meeting Jenny Housego for the first time. She recalls it in her foreword to the book:

... we settled down to watch her slide presentation of the Punja durries’ documentation and out came the second side of Jenny! Behind the diffident, very British, understated, rather shy exterior was an insightful, academically trained mind; the scholarship coupled with a passionate excitement about her subject. …I still remember Jenny’s illuminating exposition of ‘interlocking circles’ and how so many motifs and designs are based on combinations of this. After that I saw interlocking circles everywhere – on Etruscan mosaics, Celtic stone carving, Mughal jaali lattice work, Kutchi ajrakh block prints, rococo wrought iron, Indonesian wax resist batiks.

Despite her marriage falling apart after thirty years, Jenny Housego is unable to recount incidents in her memoir without mentioning David regularly. She comes across as bitter while talking about his non-existent parental duties when their sons were toddlers. Having said that David was an integral part of her life and to a large extent seems to have given her the opportunities to pursue her interests in textiles. In the book trailer for A Woven Life there are lovely snapshots recorded from Jenny Housego’s life, many of them are of the Housegos as a happy family — a bit at variance from what the text portrays. Regretfully it does not have sufficient details about textile histories and Kashmiri handlooms. The book would have been richer by offering more detailed insight into these traditional forms of weaving. Nevertheless A Woven Life is a quick read.

PS I read an advance proof of the book, given the current lockdown due to the Covid19 healthcare crisis. Sadly, it did not have a single photograph. But I am assured by the marketing team that the print edition will have photographs accompanying the text.

4 May 2020

Interview with Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books US

Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books

Susan Van Metre is the Executive Editorial Director of Walker Books US, a new division of Candlewick Press and the Walker Group. Previously she was at Abrams, where she founded the Amulet imprint and edited El Deafo by Cece Bell, the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger, the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki, and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Fornatale, and their daughter and Lab mix.

Susan and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers delegation organised by the Australia Council and Sydney Writers Festival. It was an incredibly enriching time we spent with other publishing professionals from around the world. Meeting Susan was fabulous as Walker Books is synonymous with very high standards of production in children’s literature. Over the decades the firm has established a formidable reputation. Susan very kindly agreed to do an interview via email. Here are lightly edited excerpts.


1.        How did you get into publishing children’s literature? Why join children’s publishing at a time when it was not very much in the public eye?

I never stopped reading children’s books, even as a teen and young adult.  I have always been in love with story.  I was a quiet, lonely young person and storytelling pulled me out of my small world and set me down in wonderful places in the company of people I admired.  I couldn’t easily find the same richness of plot and character in the adult books of the era so stuck with Joan Aiken and CS Lewis and E Nesbit and Ellen Raskin. And I loved the books themselves, as objects, and, in college, had the idea of helping to make them.  I applied to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, now at Columbia, met some editors from Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin there, and was invited to interview.  Though I couldn’t type at all (a requirement at the time), I think I won the job with my passionate conviction that the best children’s books are great literature, and arguably more crucial to our culture in that they create readers. 

2.        How do you commission books? Is it always through literary agents?

Most of the books I publish come from agents but occasionally I’ll reach out to a writer who has written an article that impressed me and ask if they have thought of writing a book. Recently, I bought a book based on hearing the makings of the plot in a podcast episode.

3.        How have the books you read as a child formed you as an editor/publisher? If you worry about the world being shaped by men, does this imply you have a soft corner for fiction by women? ( Your essay, “Rewriting the Stories that Shape Us”)

What a good question. I definitely look for books with protagonists that don’t typically take centre stage, whether it’s a girl or a character of colour or a character with a disability. I have always been attracted to heroes who are underdogs or outsiders, ones that prevail not because they have special powers or abilities but because they have determination and heart. I am in love with a book on our Fall ’19 list, a fantasy whose hero is a teen girl with Down syndrome. It’s The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott.  I have never met a character like Agatha before—she’s all momentum and loyalty.  Readers will love her.

4. Who are the writers/artists that have influenced your publishing career/choices?

I am very influenced by brainy, hardworking creators like Ellen Raskin and Cece Bell and Mac Barnett and Sophie Blackall and Jillian Tamaki.  I admire a great work ethic, outside-the-box thinking, an instinct for how words and images can work together to create a richly-realized story, and respect for kids as fully intelligent and emotional beings with more at stake than many adults.

5.  As an employee- and author-owned company, Candlewick is used to working collaboratively in-house and with the other firms in the Walker groups. How does this inform your publishing programme? Does it nudge the boundaries of creativity?

There is so much pride at Walker and Candlewick.  Owning the company makes us feel that much more invested in what we are making because it is truly a reflection of us and our values and tastes. Plus, we only make children’s books and thus put our complete resources behind them. There are no pesky, costly adult books and authors to distract us. And I think the strong lines of communication amongst the offices in Boston, New York, London, and Sydney mean that we have a good global perspective on children’s literature and endeavour to make books with universal appeal. I think all these factors contribute to innovation and quality.

6.  You have spent many years in publishing, garnering experience in three prominent firms —Penguin USA, Abrams and Candlewick Press. In your opinion have the rules of the game for children’s publishing changed from when you joined to present day?

Oh, definitely.  When I started, children’s publishing was a quiet corner of the business, mostly dependent on library sales.  There was no Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Wimpy Kid; no great juggernauts driving millions of copies and dollars.  And not really much YA.  YA might be one spinner rack at the library, not the vast sections you see now, full of adult readers. Now children’s and YA is big business and mostly bright spots in the market. The deals are bigger and the risk is bigger and the speed of business is so much faster!

7.   Do you discern a change in reading patterns? Do these vary across formats like picture books, novels, graphic novels? Are there noticeable differences in the consumption patterns between fiction and nonfiction? Do gender preferences play a significant role in deciding the market?

I think we are in a great time for illustrated books, whether they are picture books, nonfiction, chapter books, or graphic novels.  And now children can move from reading picture books to chapter books to graphic novels without giving up full colour illustrations as they age.  And why should they? Visual literacy is so important to our internet age—an important way to communicate online.

8.  One of the iconic books of modern times that you have worked upon are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Tell me more about the back story, how it came to be etc. Also what is your opinion on the increasing popularity of graphic novels and how has it impacted children’s publishing?

I am not the editor of the Wimpy Kid books—that’s Charles Kochman—but I was lucky enough to help sign them up and bring them to publication as the then head of the imprint they are published under, Amulet Books.  Charlie comes out of comics so when he saw the proposal for Wimpy Kid, which had been turned down elsewhere, he understood the skill and appeal of it. I have NEVER published anything that took off so immediately.  I think we printed 25,000 copies, initially, and we sold out of them in two weeks.  It showed how hungry readers were for that strong play of words and images, and how they longed for a protagonist who was flawed but who didn’t have to learn a lesson.  Adult readers have many such protagonists to enjoy but they are rarer in kids’ books.

9.  Walker Books are inevitably heavily illustrated, where each page has had to be carefully designed. Have any of your books been translated? If so what are the pros and cons of such an exercise?

Our lead Fall title, Malamander, is illustrated and has been sold in a dozen languages.  I think illustration can be a big plus in conveying story in a universally accessible way.

10. The Walker Group is known for its outstanding production quality of printed books. Has the advancement of digital technology affected the world of children’s publishing? If so, how?

I think they incredible efficiency of modern four-colour printing has allowed us to spend money on other aspects of the book, like cloth covers or deckled edges.  That sort of thing.  Children’s books are incredible physical objects these days.

11. Walker Books’ reputation is built on its ability to be creatively innovative and constantly adapt to a changing environment. How has the group managed to retain its influence in this multimedia culture?

First, thank you for saying so!  I think the rest of media still looks to book publishing for great stories and as a house that has always invested in talent, we are lucky enough to have stories that work across many forms of media.

12.  Have any of books you have worked upon in your career been banned? If so, why? What has been the reaction?

Yes.  In fact, I am working with Lauren Myracle on a young adult novel, publishing in Spring ’21, called This Boy. Lauren is the author of the ttyl series, which was on the ALA’s Banned Book list for many years. It was challenged for its depictions of teenage sexuality.  I was raised to be modest and rule following so my personal reaction was horror—especially when parents started phoning me directly to complain—but I feel so strongly that kids and teens deserve to read about life as it really is—not just as we wish it would be.  So I came to be proud of the designation.  Nothing is scarier than the truth.

Bibliography:

Hannah Lambert (2010) Sebastian Walker and Walker Books: A Commercial Case Study, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 15:2, 114-127, DOI: 10.1080/13614540903498885. Published online: 03 Feb 2010.

25 Sept 2019

“Where No Daffodils Grow” by Sandeep Raina

On 24/25 August 2019, Sandeep Raina’s “Where No Daffodils Grow” was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement. Here is the link. Given the space restrictions in print, the article had to be edited. Reproduced below with the kind permission of the author is the unedited version.

Sandeep Raina was born and brought up in Baramulla, Kashmir. He studied engineering in Srinagar, and when in 1990 militancy gripped the Kashmir valley, he finished his education and left for Delhi. He lived in Delhi for 10 years and then in Istanbul for 3 years before moving to Surrey, England where he has been living for the past 15+ years with his wife and 3 children. Sandeep’s wife is a doctor in Surrey, their daughter studies medicine at the University of London, and their twin sons are studying engineering at the Cambridge University.

Sandeep has worked as a senior engineering executive in mobile telecoms for the past 28 years and travels globally for his work. As a mobile telecoms evangelist, he has been invited to speak at many conferences across Europe and the USA, and has published numerous professional articles. Currently, he works for a French-American telecommunications software company in London.

Sandeep has written a novel based on Kashmir, which took him over 11 years to write. The reason to write a novel was that it worked as a slow cathartic process to counter the traumatic and violent experiences of the early-90s Kashmir, and the harsh life of being a migrant/refugee in Delhi. As part of his life and travels outside Kashmir, he has acquired different perspectives of the Kashmir conflict. Through his writing about the Kashmiri people, of all communities, caught in the long-drawn, brutal conflict, he aims to present a better understanding of their predicament.

Sandeep has also published short stories about Kashmir, which reflect the exchanges with people caught in conflicts like Kashmir. They not only highlight the broken relationships, the loss of trust, the rising communal politics of Kashmir and India, but also offer introspection and a hope for the communities that have been disadvantaged because of the strife.

His stories have been published in several magazines and papers, including, The Hindu, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times of India/The Economic Times.

****

Men in tall black hats and flowing black robes strode briskly down an empty street. Some of them had long side burns and some had long beards.  It was a summer afternoon, hot, and they were quite overdressed. I was visiting a friend in Golders Green in London and asked him what was going on, who were those people, why the costumes?

“Nothing, they are our Jewish neighbours back from a synagogue,” said the Kashmiri Pandit friend. “Many Jews live here since the 40s.”

Why were they dressed in such a pronounced manner? I wondered. Here was I, trying my best to assimilate, just landed in London. It didn’t make sense.

We had lunch at our friend’s home, typical Pandit cuisine, mostly lamb dishes: rogan josh, yakhni and matsch. I had met him and his wife after many years. We chatted for long on the table, reminiscing. The flat was sparsely furnished but had a few Kashmiri rugs. I noticed a small ornate candle stand in the window and asked what it was.

“It is a menorah,” said my friend’s wife. “To light candles in the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah.”  

Until then I had thought Diwali was the only festival of lights.

 “Everybody in this apartment building is a Jew, most of them old,” said my friend. “And they are very nice people.”

The next day, I told Mike, my colleague in office, about the Jews in costume. Mike was a small young man, who once had said that being Jewish, Catholic and French was the worst one could be in England, and he was all of them. One of his parents was French and Catholic, the other English and Jewish.

“There are other interesting things that we do, such as not doing anything on Sabbath,” he laughed. “Not even switching on a light.”

“Why?” I said.

He didn’t want to explain or didn’t know.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In Kashmir, on days of fasts, women in our Kashmiri Pandit family cooked strict vegetarian meals, cleaning and praying, and not doing much else. And the fasts followed the moon’s wax and wane.  Punim, aetham, mavas. On full moon, mid moon, and no moon. There seemed to be much in common with the Jews.

 “We are also really good with money,” laughed Mike.

My grandfather’s father had been a zamindar, a landowner, in Kashmir. My mother said that he was so rich that he didn’t count coins, he weighed them out of hand balances. But, my grandfather was not rich, nor us. My mental comparisons with the Jews ended at this thought.

Years went by. In which my grandfather died. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but his memories kept on coming back to me in many different ways. By now we had moved into a new house, and I worked for a different company, in a different town in England, where I became friendly with an older Iranian colleague, Paymon.

It was the Persian new year, on spring equinox, when the day equals night, and the opposites balance out, when I told Paymon about Navreh, the Kashmiri Pandit new year. How on the eve, we filled a thaal, a deep plate with rice, milk, yogurt, a pen, a coin, some lentils, a daffodil. Bits that made life.

“We do something similar on Navroz, and we call it haft seen,” he said, surprised.

I felt a sudden connection build. We discussed Navroz and Navreh in snatches between meetings, across our office desks, on the coffee machine. Iran is so far from Kashmir, but it suddenly felt close. I told Paymon about the chinars, the papier-mâché, and the floral woollen carpets that had travelled from Iran, and the origins of rogan josh. Things began to tumble out. I even snatched a paper napkin and wrote my name in Nastaliq, the script that had travelled from Iran to Kashmir.

“I didn’t know this,” he laughed.

I didn’t know either, when growing up in Kashmir. If it’s a part of you, you don’t think much of it. I remembered my grandfather. I remembered his bold loud voice, his very sociable manner, his rambling conversations, his strong physical presence, his eloquent Farsi.

Grandfather used to recite Farsi couplets when he was in a good mood, when he had an audience, which could be my reluctant father or a hapless neighbour who had chanced to step by. Grandfather rolled off the Farsi couplets with the same verve as chanting mantras in Sanskrit, when he did his puja every morning, with lots of flower petals and incense sticks, in front of an array of gods. I was small, the Farsi and the Sanskrit both sounded magical to me, inspiring awe.

I told Paymon all this in the office canteen, and he listened to me with an older man’s patience.

My euphoria was unabated. For a Foodie Friday in the office, I woke up early and cooked rogan josh in the morning over low flame for three hours.  My wife wasn’t happy that I hadn’t let her cook. I packed the rogan josh carefully in a large plastic box, with a sticker on top and wrote- Kashmiri Rogan Josh in my wobbly Nastaliq, and sped to office, just in time for lunch. My colleagues had already begun eating, and there were foods of all kinds on the large canteen table. Italian, Greek, English, Brazilian, Welsh, Indian, Iranian. The rogan josh was late. Then Paymon saw me.

“So, you can read and write Farsi?” said Paymon, looking at the sticker, asking me to put some rogan josh on his plate.

“I can’t,” I said. I couldn’t even read and write Kashmiri.

Rogan josh disappeared fast, everyone ate it. It was declared the best cooked food on that Friday. I brimmed with pride.

When I left that job, on my last day, Paymon wrote four lines in Farsi on my farewell card. Under those he wrote in English: Thank you for enlightening me about Persian Kashmir. It has been great talking with you. It is sad to see you go but I wish you all the best.”

I think Paymon said something about those Farsi words in the card, but in my farewell hurry, I didn’t hear too well.

The card remained unread for years. Later, I wished I had learnt some Farsi, some Nastaliq from my grandfather. I wonder why I didn’t. My question took me back to a faint conversation from my childhood. I was reading out two Kashmiri words written in Nastaliq on a ten rupee note. In those days, currency notes in India had the value written in 15 official languages, each in its own script.

“Dah ropiye,” I read out, trying to decipher the curls, whirls, and dots.

“It’s not dah ropiye, its duh ropiye,” said my mother.

“What’s the difference?”

“Muslims say dah, but Pandits say duh, because dah in Sanskrit means cremation. And Muslims bury their dead.”  

My mother also told me that the ancient script for Kashmiri was Sharada, now dead, and nobody knew what it had looked like.

Pandits and Muslims had other differences too.  I was aware of some. My pheran, the long woollen garment that I wore in winters, had an extra fold, ladh, near its hem, while Bitta, my Muslim friend’s pheran fell straight. My grandfather wore a pajama, not a shalwar. My great grandmother’s pheran was ankle-length, with long sleeves, while old Muslim women wore knee length pherans, and shorter sleeves.

Many differences, all small. Until someone powerful outside Kashmir, heard about the tiny twists of tongue, the lengths and folds of pherans. And questioned if Kashmiri had more Farsi or more Sanskrit? Whether its script was Nastaliq or Sharada? When the powerful became more powerful with this knowledge, a powerless man in a tempo bus, after a squabble over a seat, called my grandfather a kafir, godless. Hurled the word like a weapon. I was with my grandfather in that bus. I had seen him pray to God every morning, in fact, many gods. My proud grandfather’s face was livid, his complaint to the bus driver a mere mumble. I remember my own inertness, the tremble in my fingers.

Not much later, a powerless young boy, just out of teens, gunned down my grandfather’s nephew and niece, my mother’s cousins, with their partners, inside their home. We fled Kashmir.

It’s been 29 springs since that happened. This year, in London, I forgot to fill up the Navreh thaal. Or look up the new panchang, the Hindu calendar book, which my mother posts from India every spring. On Navreh eve, when I was small in Kashmir, I would run out to pluck a handful of nargis, white daffodils, that grew in our garden. They had the sweetest of scents, but I wasn’t allowed to sniff; they were meant for God. And on Navreh morning, when the April air pinched my winter-chapped cheeks, I would wear a new kurta-pajama. Forgetting the thaal has brought sweet nostalgia and tremendous guilt.

Pictures of Navreh thaals flooded Facebook, on cue. Rice, milk, yogurt, coin, pen. No daffodils. Where most Kashmiri Pandits now live, daffodils don’t grow. A panchang said the year is 5094 by the Saptrishi calendar, 2075 by the Vikrami calendar.

“29 by the Pandit exile calendar,” a friend messaged. My heart stopped for a long moment.

On the cover of a panchang, I saw a script that I had never seen before. Sharada. It had fonts like thick brush strokes or like engravings on stone. Blurry, awoken from a deep sleep.

I had read a book long ago about the revival of Hebrew after the Jews had fled from European towns. How Hebrew was invoked to string the scattered Jews. How they would all go home, with a common language and a new script to a land they could call their own. In a desert.

I think of Thar or Kharan, when I think of deserts. One on the India-Pakistan border and the other on the Pakistan-Iran border. I grew up with snow and mountains, I grew up with lush fields, streams and lakes. What would I do in a desert? What if someone powerful traced my roots to the Aryan Iranians? And sent me to Kharan in Balochistan. Would I go? Would my children go? Would my children’s children go?

I am sure the Jews had said this too.

I thought about Iran. I remembered my conversations about Navroz and Navreh with Paymon. I hunted for the farewell card from my last job and found it in a stack of birthday cards that our children had given me over the years. Among dozens of messages written in English was the quatrain written by Paymon in Farsi, in flowing Nastaliq. Asking to be read.

I messaged a photo of the lines to Paymon, asking him if he could translate it for me. Paymon did not reply, I don’t know why. I had thought Paymon would be a friend for life. Friendship’s a promise. I thought of who else could help me: Grandfather. But he was not around anymore to fill me with the awe and magic of his Farsi. Not hearing back from Paymon, not able to read his message brought a deep sense of loss. Like a forgotten Navreh. Like a broken promise.

I asked an English friend to help me. He sent a photo of the Farsi message, all the way to Tehran to his sister-in-law. A week later, I received the transliteration and the translation in my inbox. Grandfather appeared before me. And read out in a bold, loud voice:

Yari keh beh nazd e oo gol o khar yekist

Dar maz hab e oo mos haf o zonnar yekist

Ma ra gham e on yar che bayad khordan

Koo ra khar e lang o asb e rahvar yekist

(Rumi)

“A friend who sees no difference between a flower and a thorn,

In whose religion, the Quran and Zonnar are the same,

Why should we worry about him?

As for him, a lame donkey and a swift horse are the same.”

Zonnar used to be a girdle which Jews wore to distinguish them from Muslims, long back in time.

Paymon had not forgotten, he had kept his promise, he had written me a message to remember for life. Like a true friend, he knew me more than I knew myself.

A few days later, I pulled out a pheran from my clothes cupboard, which my wife had bought from a Kashmiri trader many years ago. It is dull brown and woollen, a bit scratchy at the neck, and it does not have a Pandit fold near the hem. I had never worn it.

That summer day, I wore it. It warmed me up. I looked at myself in the mirror, and the image of the Golders Green Jews walking briskly down a street flashed in front of my eyes. Now I knew why they were dressed like that.

What they were holding on to.

Next spring, I won’t forget Navreh. I will fill up a thaal with rice, pluck a yellow daffodil from our English garden, place a pound coin, a pen and an idol of a god in the thaal. Some milk and yogurt too. And pray. That I’m not sent to a desert.

Note: Names changed to protect identity

17 August 2019

Literary Tube Map of London

In The Book are a children’s book publisher, established in 2017 in Hertfordshire. They are passionate about reading, and getting people excited about books. They believe that novels provide a fantastic way for children to safely explore their imagination, develop their confidence and improve their understanding of different cultures and societies.

In The Book created this Literary Tube Map of London to get people to engage with novels, because they believe that good pieces of literature have a way of painting places like nothing else can. The books featured on this map have been hand-picked because they have an incredible ability of transporting a person to their London settings.

This map shows where your favourite characters made a name for themselves. From the legendary Harry Potter boarding his train to Hogwarts at Kings Cross, to Mary Poppins flying into the Banks’ family home just off the Central Line. You can vividly picture Ebenezer Scrooge skulking home after work through the streets near Monument station, and Sherlock storming out of his address at Baker Street to solve another case – closely followed by faithful Watson.

Fascinating!

20 June 2019

Of ghosts, musicians and children

In an interesting coincidence two stories I read recently — Michael Morpurgo’s beautiful Lucky Button and the short story “They call me Ramatanu” in Subhadra Sengupta’s A Bagful of History — both involved ghosts and eminent musicians. Lucky Button is a haunting tale about the Foundling Hospital which opened in London in 1741. Its patrons included the cartoonist William Hogarth and musician Handel whose Messiah was often sung in the building. One of the foundlings later becomes a friendly ghost who remains in the chapel. Centuries later when young Jonah takes refuge in the building to escape his class bullies, the ghost makes himself visible to the boy and tells him a tale — a tale of his life as an orphan who found happiness for a while as the young prodigy, Mozart’s, companion on his trip to Britain. For Jonah music especially Handel’s music and Mozart’s piano compositions are dear since they remind him of his mother’s fondness for the compositions when she was fit and well and not confined to her wheelchair. It is like all the stories Michael Morpurgo spins — evocative and memorable.

Subhadra Sengupta’s story is about Parvez Khan, son of Ustad Amanullah Khan, the great Dhrupad singer who is visiting his maternal grandparents in Gwalior. One day while visiting the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Sheikh Muhammad Ghaus, an important shrine for Parvez Khan’s family because one of the disciples of Ghaus was the singer Tansen. While at the shrine Parvez meets a stranger and gets into an interesting conversation about music and his desire to give up singing. The stranger gently persuades Parvez to sing him a Raag Todi and is pleasantly surprised to hear that Parvez would soon be graduating to his second Raag Malhar soon. The stranger himself was not permitted to learn the second Raag for at least two years, not till he had mastered Raag Yaman. The stranger as it turns out to be is the ghost of Tansen who had been born as a Ramtanu Pandey but later became a sufi. The Agra gharana of Hindustani classical music traces its lineage to the children of Tansen. “They call me Ramatanu” stands out as one of three good stories in what is an otherwise a problematic collection of twelve “historical” tales. ( The other two good stories are “The young monk” and “Disobedient girl”.)

Michael Morpurgo Lucky Button ( Illustrated by Michael Foreman) Walker Books, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 170 Rs 599 

Subhadra Sen Gupta A Bagful of History ( Illustrated by Tapas Guha) Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2018. Pb. pp. 240 Rs 250

8 May 2018 

 

 

Elizabeth Strout “Anything is Possible”

It seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old—the more he understood that he would not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.

… 

She came to understand that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live. 

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible is an exquisitely written novel about rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois. It is about the people of the town Lucy Barton had left behind when she moved to New York to become a successful writer. Lucy is the heroine of Strout’s equally well-told novel My Name is Lucy Barton. In Amgash as like any other settlement, irrespective of whether it is a small town or a big city, there is great diversity across the socio-economic spectrum. There are people like Lucy’s siblings all of whom grew up in abject poverty and somehow managed a decent life as grownups. Since rarely do these people move out of Amgash, the past just as the present of the townspeople is an open book. It is claustrophobic and debilitating as it does not allow individuals to grow. The shadow of the past always looms large. This is precisely the reason why Lucy Barton fled. Despite this people continue to live in Amgash making adjustments to their lifestyles with growing old age and some are even successful in their social mobility.

This was a matter of different cultures, Dottie knew that, although she felt it had taken her many years to learn this. She thought that this matter of different cultures was a fact that got lost in the country these days. And culture included class, which of course nobody ever talked about in this country, because it wasn’t polite, but Dottie also thought people didn’t talk about class because they didn’t really understand what it was.

In Anything is Possible Lucy Barton is on a book tour in Chicago and decides to return to Amgash after seventeen years to meet her siblings. Unfortunately the flood of unpleasant childhood memories hits her as soon as she enters her parents cottage. She has a panic attack and decides to return immediately to Chicago. In the interim she has had smattering of conversations with her siblings who have updated her on the lives of people they knew as kids. None of the people have had a predictable lifestyle and it is certainly stranger than the fiction Lucy Barton possibly writes. For instance her distant cousin Abel who along with his sister Dottie would sometimes be found scavenging for scraps of food in a dumpster went on to become one of the richest men in Chicago. This story was the least sad of all that are shared. On the surface of it Amgash inhabitants were living the typical homely small-town-American lives you would expect them to have except there was a murkier underbelly to this. But as Abel Blaine realises it is possible to live the American Dream and improve on one’s status just as Lucy and he did—-“Anything was possible for anyone”.

Elizabeth Strout is known for deftly creating these fictional landscapes that are as finely detailed as a miniature painting. The characters, their personality traits, their lives and the umpteen cultural references are so well packed in the sparingly told narratives that they continue to be with one for a long time after the book is closed. She conjures up the scenes so minutely and exactly that it is crystal clear in mind’s eye. It is not surprising that Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible was on President Obama’s list of favourite books of 2017. Anything is Possible is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist 2018.

Two legendary women writers have endorsed these books and truer words were never said:

Hilary Mantel on My Name is Lucy Barton: “Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.’

Ann Patchett on Anything is Possible: “Strout proves to us again and again that where she’s concerned, anything is possible. This book, this writer, are magnificent.”

Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 260 Rs 599

Elizabeth Strout My Name is Lucy Barton Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 699

28 March 2018 

 

 

 

Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

We are all migrants through time. 

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West published nearly a year ago in spring 2017 was received positively worldwide to rapturous reviews. Despite the extremely long and breathless sentences with innumerable sub-clauses the story itself moves smoothly while unveiling a bleak yet monstrously fragile world of migrants, violence and lawlessness. It is told through the lives of Saeed and Nadia but the narrator remains in complete control, much like a cameraman choosing to tell the story through selected frames. The prose is structured almost like a slow dance fusing reality with elements of speculative fiction. Take the black doors for instance which open like portals to another land, not necessarily another dimension of time, leading refugees away from one physical space to the next.

This aspect of the story has in fact resulted in an incredible art installation in London. It can be viewed till 20 February 2018. According to The Bookseller, Penguin Random House UK has teamed up with Audible and Jack Arts to celebrate the paperback launch of Exit West. To quote the article:

Penguin is partnering with Jack Arts and Audible to celebrate the paperback publication of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) with an interactive poster installation on Commercial Street, London.

Working with Jack Arts, themes explored by the Man Booker shortlisted novel such as movement and migration – and, as Penguin puts it, “the thin boundaries that exist in our world” and “the doors between neighbours” – will be “brought to life” in the form of poster art.

Taking a recessed wall space on Commercial Street, Penguin and Jack Arts have replicated the book jacket artwork of Exit West and installed posters with book extracts and cityscapes from locations in the book. Functioning doors open onto the posters, inviting people to engage with the story and to “rethink what the doors around them might mean”, according to Penguin. The campaign strapline reads: “You sometimes need a way out. You always need a way in.”

Penguin also teamed up with Audible, identifying the Commercial Street site profile as “directly overlapping” with Audible’s audience. The audiobook retailer is tagged on the installation and will promote the audio edition of the book to its four million UK social followers. Exit West will be an Audible Editorial pick and a recorded interview with author Mohsin Hamid will be available as an Audible Session.

The book’s author, Hamid said: “It was kind of magical for me to see the black doors on Commercial Street, to discover they could open, and to find words from Exit West inside.”

It is very exciting to see how many forms a good story will take. More so in this information age when readers have very high expectations and there are behavioural changes apparent in how people approach a book. With the blending of formats making it available in physical reality is truly marvellous — just as this unique book.

Read it if you have not already done so!

Mohsin Hamid Exit West Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017. Hb.pp. 230 Rs 599

18 February 2018 

“Centaur” by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference. 

“The Serenity Prayer” Declan Murphy would recite in school everyday.

 

On 4 May 1994 jockey Declan Murphy was fell down while racing and before he could get up he was kicked in the head by another horse. It has been termed as one of the biggest racing horse accidents ever. Internationally it was a disastrous weekend for the sports world. The day before the world had lost the legendary Formula1 racing driver Ayrton Senna and the day before that Roland Ratzenberger. Declan Murphy was the third sportsman to be injured in what was deemed to be a fatal fall.  He was so badly injured with his skull being fractured in twelve places. There is a vivid description of the course doctor placing Declan Murphy’s helmet and colours still dripping with his  blood in the middle of the room and all the horsemen watching on horror. Racing Post had even readied his obituary which they fortunately never published but only showed it to him once he recovered. Yet within eighteen months he was back riding and won a race!

A racehorse in full flight is a thing of beauty; an artist, an enigma. An elite athlete that bursts into life in a bid to perform. Every minute at full gallop, a thoroughbread pumps some 1,800 cubic litres of air in and out of its lungs. Its heart beats 250 times — nearly five beats a second — to pump 300 litres of blood around its body, all to achieve that singular goal: speed.

That day, the light shone on Jibereen. He was performing for me, one breath perfectly in time with one stride as he raced towards the finish, the organs in his body working together in exquisite harmony, pumping the oxygen from his lungs to his heart, from his heart to the muscles that powered his spectacular speed. 

And I felt it. At that moment, I felt it, like I had felt it my whole life. The spirit of the animal underneath me: the power and the pride, the swiftness and the strength, the majesty and the gentleness and the grace. 

I felt my horse. 

I was at one with it. 

I was a liminal being.

I was CENTAUR.

In a fabulous Afternoon  Edition Extra Declan Murphy described his “deep reluctance” to do this book. It was Ami Rao’s persuasiveness that won him over. He was hesitant to do Centaur as no one knew till he agreed to do this project that he had absolutely no memory of the four years prior to his accident. In the interview he adds graciously that it was “to her credit and to her brilliance really she regained her composure restructuring the period. She had determination. ”

Centaur is a book about sportsmanship. The grit and determination a sportsman has to win over and over again comes through very clearly. This is a book which does deal with the passion and single-minded focus of Declan to win every single race. A great example of his determination and putting mind over matter is the battered and bruised jockey at Cheltenham who insisted on going in for his race only to win it even though his valet Johnny Buckingham said Deccan looked as if he was on a “completely different planet”.  He may not have wanted to be a jockey but when he found himself one he was not going to be mediocre at it. He gave it all that it took and he did a fine job!
Centaur is an extraordinary account of fate and strong faith which are absolutely impossible to explain logically. Ami Rao may recount what occurred but why it happened the way it did can never be comprehended by a logical human brain.  It’s best to go with the flow and appreciate the sequence of events and in the miracle of life.
Renowned brain surgeon Henry Marsh said in his though-provoking memoir  Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery   “The brain cannot feel pain:  pain is a sensation created within the brain in response to electrochemical signals to it from the nerve endings in the body. …Thought and feeling,  and pain,  are all physical processes going on within our brains.  There is no reason why pain caused by injury to the body to which the brain is connected should be any more painful,  or any more ‘real’,  than pain generated by the brain itself without any external stimulus from the body…. The dualism of seeing mind and matter as separate entities is deeply ingrained in us,  as is the belief in an immaterial  soul which will somehow outlive our bodies and brains. “
Centaur is full of hope and the writing style is so refreshing — probably because both Declan Murphy and Ami Rao are writing straight from the heart that the narrative style does not follow any predictable structure. No wonder the book is being lauded and made it even to the Sunday Times Bestseller List.
Read Centaur.
Declan Murphy and Ami Rao Centaur Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 308 

22 July 2017

Alec Ross “The Industries of the Future”

The day history is made in USA with Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee and endorsed by outgoing President of the USA, Barack Obama it is worth looking at Alec Ross’s book The Industries of the Future. Alec Ross served as Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation while she was Secretary of State. Before working for Clinton, Alec Ross had worked as the convenor for technology and media policy on the Obama campaign that beat her in the 2008 presidential primary.

Alec Ross’s The Industries of the Future is a fascinating account of how much innovation is taking place in the world,Alec Ross in geographical corners that are mostly hidden from media view. He discusses robotics, genomics, cyber security, digital technology and finance, blockchains and bitcoins, etc. This is the kind of book that will be a reference document now to understand innovations and will have a long shelflife for its historical value in contextualising and explaining innovations that will define twenty-first century. What comes across strongly is that Alex Ross does not view innovations as disruptive but with wide-eyed wonder at the business potential and positive socio-economic impact these measures will have in future. Today it may seem as if these innovations are nudging just the limits of that is plausible yet many of these practices/ predictions are slowly coming true in one’s lifetime. Much like the automatic sliding doors of Gene Roddenberry’s stories of the 1960s were considered to be innovative are now very common in modern life.

Here is a wonderful interview with Alex Ross by Jinoy Jose P in the Hindu Businessline : http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/the-future-world/article8544279.ece . It was published on 1 May 2016.

Alex Ross’s book is truly stupendous. Hilary Clinton will do well to have him return to her team. Meanwhile read it. Buy it.

Alex Ross Industries of the Future Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 310 Rs 599

10 June 2016 

 

Web Analytics Made Easy -
StatCounter