Of city biographies

Of city biographies

Places appear on maps as flat spaces;they don’t appear as stories of neighbourhoods. 

( p.48  Amitava Kumar A Matter of Rats)

In 2013, Aleph Book company launched a new series, focused on cities. It was inaugurated with Amitava Kumar’s” A Matter of Rats, followed by Nirmala Lakshman’s Degree Coffee by the Yard and Naresh Fernandes’s City Adrift “on Patna, Madras ( Chennai) and Bombay (Mumbai) respectively. Slim, pocket-size, hardbound, beautifully produced volumes. Each one consists of chapters or long essays, with the authors commenting, reflecting and describing the city that they love dearly.

A Matter of RatsFor Amitava Kumar it is about the city where he grew up – Patna. He now lives in USA, but returns to Patna often. He writes about the city with fondness, all though acutely aware of the transformations it has been through, “but  a part of me has always believed that a trip to Patna offers a glimpse of the real India.” In his endorsement of the book, Teju Cole says that “A Matter of Rats is disconcerting, sophisticated, and recklessly courageous. The stories gathered here bring Patna to life, and accrete to an almost unbearable intensity.” Naresh Fernandes
Naresh Fernandes’s description of Bombay is fascinating. It is full of nuggets of information such as the trade between Bombay and China is forever remembered in the name given to the technique for weaving silk brocade – tanchoi. It is said to have been introduced to China by Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. The name is thought to reflect the fact that the three ( or ‘tan’ in Gujarati) received instruction from a Chinese master weaver named Choi. ( p.47) City Adrift contains historical information — the evolution of Bombay over the ages, what it meant to the locals, traders, the British etc. His social commentary is sharp, as he delineates the melting pot the city is of various communities, the horrors of communal violence that continue to smoulder but there is no getting away from the fact that this is a city firmly associated with commerce, finance and world of business. It always has and always will be.

Degree coffee, Nirmala LakshmanNirmala Lakshman’s account of Madras (Chennai) is of a city she adores. A city that she is familiar with since her family has been settled in it for generations. She comes from the family that established the national newspaper, The Hindu and continues to publish even today. Degree Coffee by the Yard is a historical and a contemporary account of another port city (like Bombay), an industrial hub and a rich cultural tradition that has patronised the Arts for many decades. The pleasure in reading Nirmala Lakshman’s book stems from knowing and sharing the details that go into making the city what it is.

The three titles in this series published so far are very personal accounts of the cities the authors adore. The chapters could work easily as a longread or bookmarked for ready reference on a mobile platform. The book cover designs are scrumptious but the text inside has not a single illustration or photograph in it. The books rely considerably on the strong personal voice of the authors to carry the books and make them interesting to read. The size of the books are in a convenient format, easy to carry in a bag while familiarising oneself with a city. The reasonable price too makes these as ideal gifts, and once the series take off, they would probably make a good box set. Now only if these books had an exclusive website (maybe on Tumblr or WordPress) dedicated to the series, with links and comments on resources. Much like what Mayank Austen Soofi has done for Delhi with his Delhiwalla.com website ( http://www.thedelhiwalla.com/ ). Maybe Naresh Fernandes’s lovely website on jazz musicians in Bombay, Taj Mahal Foxtrot ( http://www.tajmahalfoxtrot.com/ ), can be linked to such a website. Forthcoming is Indrajit Hazra on Kolkata called Grand Delusions.


Kolkata, Indrajit Hazra




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