Monday, September 27, 2010

Commonwealth obligatory post

A bridge collapsed, so much maanam mariyadai gone for India no? I feel compelled to list off one list of stereotypes according to category of people and their opinion of the games.

Intellectual jhola wearer The politicians are greedy.khel nahin khana do.Journalists are dumb sell outs, people are starving and I cannot invite them into my south Delhi home because the carpet will be stained.Profession: Employed by an NGO

European Non British
I don't care about anything except the football world cup, I haven't even heard of these games. (fashionable voice.)

Looks at India like a paapa nerdy boy in class who was only noticed when math scores were read out and laughs at him trying to hit on the hottest girls in class by wearing clothes that he went UNFASHIONABLY out of the way to get.
Sarkari Man: India is superpower, no question ,no answer.
South Indian: Why Delhi Why Delhi? They are only in a mess because they are in Delhi. Chennai or namma Bengaluru are wayyyyyyy better as potential hosts.
American: Man,why would the US report on the Commonwealth games unless there is a terror attack.
Labourer 1: Apparently something is happening, big where they will build palaces for white people so they are throwing me out of myh ouse to godknowswhere.
Labourer2: I made much more money digging roads here than I would in my godforsakenmonsoonlesslandlordinfestedvillage where it is polluting to touch me.
Jaya Jaitley: "I don;t know why we have to break already normal pavements and make them better to impress our colonizers who probably won't notice them anyway. (At a protest against the alleged killing of stray dogs in preparation for the games.)
Italian intern: Delhi is nice the way it is, it cannot be a 'world class city' and its nicer this way anyway. You know what'll teach them a lesson; if there is a terror attack.
@Jama Masjid : There are enough cops to give you a sense that there is war. But when you enter, they peep into your bag, don't feel you up for bombs and I don't get how it is difficult to shoot there again.
(Plus auto driver, markets the chandni chowk wala gate as the gate to go by because the firing happened there.)

@Sam's Cafe: Gunshots heard outside.English woman wiggles in her flowery skirt as do her ears ,mouth and hands. Other goras stand up in Guardianstyle terrorism enthusiasm and rush to take photos. I am sitting there eating spoilt omellete and fearing the worst.Bloody hell, it was firecrackers.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Stand up Comedy or what?

There was this time at The Edinburgh festival, when I went for one of the Fringe shows in a little den underground. The audience consisted of a couple of staid, skirted , lipsticked brits, some cricket lovers and maybe seven Europeans. So comedy boy talks about this strange phenomenon of American accent epidemics. America is the only country you come back from with a guaranteed accent apparently. I myself have lost many friends to that drawl. The comedian began to wonder, in order to humour us, why people don't ever come back fromIndia with an accent…and he did a stereotypical Indian accent. It was actually pretty funny, truth is funny.No one laughed. 30 odd brits and 7 Europeans with frozen upper lips.Comedy boy, edges them on… "Everyone is wondering whether to laugh or whether that is racist."

Yikes. I was the only Indian in the room feeling major responsibility for killing laughter. It was awful and this man came and apologized to me after the show although I still didn't get what the fuss was about.

According to Vidur KapurNew York based comedian who performed a couple of weeks back at the Park told me about how one just can't do accents inBritain. they are too "politically correct." I guess the problem with these types is that they are constantly taking notes in their head, stealing jokes, situations. And especially because you know how everyone loves to laugh at the Indian media (quite understandably), I was slightly intimidated to meet him. Vidur talked about this expressionless woman who interviewed him and he just wanted her to LEAVE! Yeah, but it was ok although it brought back this memory of some stand up show I'd been to in Bombay where the comedian tastelessly went on and on about some Aromita Paromita from Horny 24/7.

Another thing I wonder about is how people can use their personal lives with so much ease. Vidur loves making fun of his parents and his grandmother in particular."My grandmother mainly cares about how much money I make. I told her I want to be a prostitute.When I told her how much I would earn she thought it would be great.." Apparently, though, most times he lifts things straight out of real life." Oh yeah, my mother and grandmother would get really sensitive. I would tell them that I am not just picking on them. I am picking on everyone, including myself so they shouldn't take things so literally, you know?"

So, the ability to laugh at things means you are comfortable with it right? Because if you can't it means you think there is something wrong but you have been taught to be politically correct about it.

There was this time when Vidur asks us, the audience, if we have had phone sex. An aunty responds saying she has. "Aunty, you have had phone sex?" he asks in his special 'for aunties' tone. . Aunty tells him she thought she heard it as phone set!!

Hmm... so another wonder point is how much of this 'audience spontaneity' is rehearsed. This particular instance, I think was coincidence. But,a colleague said he knows people who were given a bottle of whisky at a Russel Peter's event just to be bakra..

Cross posted on

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Celebrating Delhi

Edited by Maya Dalal

Penguin, Rs.350


With time, landscapes get sedimented over with new meanings and new maps of movement; but the submerged Histories resonate at the sound of a place, says Narayani Gupta on the History that gets lost when names of streets are changed to adhere to the politics of the time. We learn stories about the curious mix of names in Lutyens Delhi for instance. Kasturba Gandhi had to step into Lord Curzon's seven league boots, and Copernicus was randomly chosen to replace Lytton in the naming of that road that we now associate with Mandi House. In Celebrating Delhi, a compilation of  eleven lectures  that were delivered at The India International Centre in 2006, we are treated to an intelligent digging into Delhi's past and present, it's streets, its music and even it's first foundation stone.

In My father, the builder, Khuswant Singh writes in a warm, humourous style about how his father Sir Sobha Singh transported secretly, the foundation stones of Delhi in the middle of the night and how he watched the birth of New Delhi, brick by brick . Going back to the First War of Independence, William Darymple critically examines the religious rhetoric around it and why what mattered most then was the threat that the Company posed to religion. Dunu Roy brings us back into independent India's Delhi, questioning who makes a city, who breaks it and in the course of History, who is completely excluded. The city of Delhi, he says, was claimed for the elites, with the acquisition of the Southern basin and then the approval of the slum clearance project in 1924.Roy outlines what he calls selective inclusion and systematic exclusion - a history from Independence to the Commonwealth games.


The book then shifts from politics to food with Priti Narain talking about the asli khana of Delhi. She traces the eating habits of the Mughals (Apparently many were vegetarian and Akbar started his meal with curd and rice).We learn how colonisers influenced our food. It is the Europeans who first brought chilies, tomatoes and potatoes ,now such an integral part of Indian cuisine. In the last piece, Ravi Dayal concludes that there is thus no such thing as a Dilliwallah anymore and this absence seems to be part of the present, amorphous identity.


If the question is whether the collection is comphrehensive, the question itself is not valid because comprehensiveness can only be attempted for a subject as varied as Delhi with its many histories. As a cohesive whole, you can sense that these are words written(spoken?) with love and from a point of belonging and knowledge. Celebration , in its true sense and for the average reader, the best moments are the "Oh really? I never knew that.." ones.  When you pick up the book, attractive cover design apart, you get the sense that you are in for some drab Historical non - fiction but in fact the prose leads you in and makes for a breezy informative read. We would have liked some photos!  A good introduction to understanding the capital and its many facets- some glorious, others just dubious.




Saturday, September 18, 2010

The last of the Tonga.

This might be our last tonga ride in Delhi what with the proposed ban on the traditional
mode of transport. We decided to take it with Veeren Singh who has been riding on the ancient roads of this part of town for forty years.

Where are you from
I was born and brought up in Delhi. I have been riding this tonga for forty years now.

Did you go to school?
You think that if I went to school, I’d be a tongawallah?

Where in Delhi do you live?
I live here (near the Old Delhi Railway Station). This is our area.

Who all are in your family?
I have a wife and two children.

Do you like Delhi ?
Well, I’ve lived here forever.

Do you like your job?
What can I say? Suddenly they say I can’t ride this tonga anymore, do they want me to die of hunger? I don’t know anything else.

How much do you earn in a day?
I earn Rs.200 to Rs.300 a day and spend Rs.150 on feeding the horse everyday.

What do you in the free time?
Ghode ka kaam karte hain. (After work, I take care of the horse)

Do you watch television or films?
I never watch tv/cinema.

Which actors and actresses do you like?
I don’t know any film actors.

Are you interested in politics?
I don’t know anything about politics.

Do you know the name of our Prime Minister?

First it was Nehru then Indira Gandhi. Bahut pehle tha, tab bahut badiya tha. (It was long back, it was a good time then.) Now things are so expensive and Desh ki sharam chali gayi. (The nation has no shame now.)
Do you believe in God?
Do you know about Aids?

I am a Hindu, I do not know about Id. (We clarify our meaning.) No, I haven’t heard of it.

The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves
Hachette India

‘The Swan Thieves’ promises to be a saga about love, obsession, art and history, similar to Kostova’s bestselling debut, The Historian. The characters in the present are irresistibly drawn to the past and history manifests in their own lives in tangible, life altering forms. Robert Oliver is the genius artist we romanticise, love and hate. When he attacks a painting at the National Gallery of Art, he is taken into psychiatric care and becomes the patient of Dr. Marlow, also a hobbyist painter. Marlow is drawn into the mysteries behind Robert’s obsessions with French impressionism and in particular the artist Beatrice De Clerval, whose letters to her artist uncle Olivier Vignot, Robert possesses and is obsessed by.
Kostova treats us to the cinema of a painter’s mind, lush watercolours, nuanced
brushstrokes ,every detail in place .There is a gradual, layered and intelligent build up. You feel like you are in New York of the eighties when Robert and his lover (later wife) navigate the art world. You empathise with artist Beatrice living in 19th century France who lives ahead of her time, when her intense genius is suppressed by the need to conform. With Kate keeping her dignity intact even though Robert has wrecked it without explanations of the coherent kind. There is Marlow who crosses all professional boundaries to understand Robert even if out of a personal fascination for an extreme pursuing of art that he himself hasn’t done in his comparatively sane psychiatric practice. Robert himself never speaks much during the period of his treatment and that’s probably why you never get an authentic insight into his tormented mind throughout the book.
Kostova takes us into the mind of love, into the staid atmosphere of its remnants, of Robert’s girlfriend Mary, the then scandalous relationship between a young Beatrice and her aging uncle who she knows will die leaving her to hold their secret for life. Marlow lets love cross the forbidden line of professionalism. Lush prose and a handholding into the geography of these characters, painting by the French Channel, teaching in a suburban art school in Virginia. You are there, almost, but you would want this to be offset by mastery of plot. The narrative pace is mostly competent; the beginning of the book turns out to be a page-turner. However, Kostova falters in the end when you sense a sudden constructed-ness. Letters as narrative devices? Sure. But Marlow imagines a letter that Olivier Vignot might have written to his niece. Suspension of disbelief suspended. The plot comes together as a quick tying together of the mysteries which after 500 hundred odd pages of lush prose and crazed expectation disappoints.

Historical mystery, love stories, and the obsessive ness that accompanies the transcending of the ordinary, anchored by bright, engaging prose.

Rating: ***

Monday, September 13, 2010

From a press release

"create an air of internationalisation of India's corporate sector, ushering in holistic western food values."

Chuma. hamburger vitamins or what. 

Sorry about the nazar

Dude, Sometimes I worry that this nazar thing works .All through June and July I whined about the absence of a decent monsoon.Now it looks like we'll all drown.Storm threatening my balcony, aiyo!

Also quote of the day.
A friend's friend is in Kashmir, under house(boat) arrest. She asked "How bad is the flood situation in Delhi? You think it is advisable to leave Kashmir and come to Delhi."

War or Flood?Flood or War? 

Friday, September 10, 2010


C is always complaining about the absence of Swiss perfection in India.(Understandably.) The more I think about it, the more I realise that India can never compete in the most basic things.

Just for instance, the whole process of house hunting.It turned out that I found a house. The landlord agreed to rent it to us, we met him on two occasions (please take into account the time , the auto fare, the office hours off) and finally on a third to pay the token amount and move in!. At this point, he tells us that we cannot move in because the house will take 20 days to be ready.By this point,I have moved out of my previous house and am homeless in the big bad city. Thanks to Sou's generous generous hospitality though, I managed. Who backs out last minute? What about professionalism? How can you completely disregard your customers/tenants situation.

It's got , in this case , to do with power games.If I own this place, I can order everyone around.I love Delhi for many reasons but what I hate it most for is this sense of entitlement some people have.You can see a stark difference of tone when they talk to their servants and their guests. I really think the mark of a person's character is in his behavior towards people supposedly "inferior" to him. You have to respect people, no matter what their class is right?You cannot scream at someone twenty years older than you for no reason at all apart from your feudal inherited sense of entitlement.

It is an already understood fact that getting an internet, a gas connection will involve hours of red tape.
But who has the time?It's unfortunate that we have to run our own lives behind schedule because people can't be professional because we really have better things to do than spend 5 days getting a gas connection , right?

I am dying of dizzy fainting syndrome now for instance, because I haven't eaten in 24 hours. I ordered food two hours ago and it isn't here even though I called this person three times in between.

Then what's even worse is when people commit to you because they are afraid of disappointing you. 
But I'd rather be dissapointed than wait hours at some place expecting someone to turn up.I could have met a friend for a drink in that time, filed a story,cleaned my wardrobe,repaired my camera,read my book something.

Where else can people get away with this.I know this is a rant but I am sick of flakiness, the inability to carry out anything with some sense of commitment and responsibility. the bureaucracy,complacency and how my life is constantly on hold because I am waiting. 

It is really uncharacteristic of me to write like this but I am just angry.

Monday, September 06, 2010


Dhaba but chic and no, not the variety that has a rusty tractor set up in a corner. Ambarsari, the newest eatery that’s opened up in Sikh hub in Kailash colony is a pleasant surprise for many reasons. Cow dung roof (simulation , we aren’t quite transporting a Punjabi village here), colourful but suffused lighting and understated décor. Punjabi and understated, you ask? The only hint of any loudness, were the T shirts , quietly framed in a corner with slogans like “Mighty Sikh”.Bhangra music too, but soft enough to hear the crunch of tandoori chicken.

Apparently,Lawrence Road Tandoori Chicken(Rs159- half and Rs.289-full) is famous in Amritsar so that’s what we tried first and each bite is spiced to the very end - no surface spicing here.
The Veg Sheekh (Rs.139) with the crunch of peanuts and cashews was a satisfying starter.
The Tandoori Aloo was aloo mush (which could have been more firm) with a sesame crust (which was interesting with the aloo.)All this, we washed down with the mildly chatpata Namkeen Lassi and the complimentary Jaljeera in shot glasses.

For the main course, we couldn’t help but order the Butter Chicken of course. It was too much like Kissan Tomato puree with Amul butter but we would definitely recommend the Chicken Kali Mirch-creamy gravy with a sharp attack of a peppery after taste. The Dal Ambarsari (Like Dal Makhni but with tadka, onion and tomato), any Punjabi will tell you that aDal well done has an orange tinge to it and not just boring brown. The aroma was convincing enough of its star status. Another Amritsari specialty was the Gobi Adraki aur Anardani, crispy spiced cauliflower with the pinch of ginger and the tang of pomegranate - expertly prepared since we know how hard it is to keep the gobi srisp and still uniformly spiced. The Ambarsari Kulcha (Rs.59) was over stuffed and falling apart but the Kali Mirch paratha (Rs.25) added new zing to the good old paratha.
We ended with the refreshing and surprisingly light Paan Kulfi. (Rs.49). For the price,
the Punjabi- ness and the quiet, we had a ball(e)!

AMBARSARI HS-17, Kailash Colony Market, Greater Kailash Part I. Ph: 46535672/79.
Meal for two: Rs.700 - Rs.1000
Food: ***1/2
Ambience: ***1/2

Friday, September 03, 2010

P'tit Bar

The European street style café is an experience that is over sold and extremely elusive.
Flavors, Delhi’s legendary park edged Italian restaurant, gets close and now across the park is a p’tit delight.
You enter to a formal ground floor and a nice looking bar but since the monsoons have bestowed on us a gentle breeze you walk up to the little terrace overlooking the park and settle down in one corner. Women in cotton dresses and the typical expats in shorts and long kurtas are all gushing over the real Cheese Platter (Rs.450) before ordering food.

French food without the fuss and snobbery. P’tit bar is a cheery bistro with a small but interesting menu of dishes you would imagine a French mother making. We started with a Cheese Platter, a Tomato and Mozzarella Quiche ( Rs.300) and some Chardonnay(Rs.250 a glass) .The Wine list includes French and Italian wines at an average price of Rs.1400, a bottle. (They have a selection of Belgian and French beers and the usual suspects among the cocktails.)
The quiche was creamy, soft and “just like in France” according to my European companion. Encouraged by the stamp of authenticity, we ordered a plate of excellent cured meats, specially sourced from a French organic farm in the hills (The Emperor’s platter, Rs.500) and Goat cheese salad -French baguette, (as authentic as the humidity will allow, says chef) with goat cheese and salad leaves with French dressing. At Rs.250, it is divine, divine.

The vegetarians have more options in the entrées, soups and salads. (The French Onion soup, Rs.150) is competent.) For the main course (all dishes priced at Rs.500), we had Chicken Cordon Bleu, the quintessential French meal- chicken grilled to perfection with ham, cheese and a trickle of mushrooms. Hacchis Permentier is potatoes baked with organic vegetables and cheese served with ratatouille - herbed tomato stew with aubergines and peppers. Not the star of the vegetarian menu but no one can pretend that French food was made for vegetarians, anyway.
Clafoutis of Peach (Rs 150) , freshly baked peach pie of sorts ze good ending! Bon appetite. Good for a sparkling evening out and Bacchus’ dream. As far, as foreign food in Delhi goes, it is a French revolution, this one.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Kostova interview

Elizabeth Kostova, bestselling author of The Historian and now, The Swan Thieves in an email interview talks to FCBOOKS about the "parallels (in)the way past and present can echo each other in real life, or the way history holds information we can use somehow in the present" , her involvement with the making of the movie The Historian and why no one really resolves the conflict between art and responsibility in …






The crossing of boundaries, of youth and old age, of professional and personal, of real life as we know it and of being drawn to impossible geniuses. The ones who we know will never settle into the sober atmosphere of domesticity and then the obsession of those who want to create art; this is the core of Elizabeth Kostova's second novel The Swan Thieves.

Kostova who has a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan says "

As a child and teenager I loved to paint and draw, but that was a very long time ago; for The Swan Thieves I was careful to interview and observe several painters at their work.  Their knowledge and perspectives were incredibly helpful to me."


Robert Oliver is the brilliant artist who attacks a painting Leda by French artist Gilbert Thomas at the National Gallery.  Dr. Marlow, also an amateur painter is on his case. Robert himself has stopped talking except to tell Marlow that (he) did it for her..the woman (he) loved.  Dr. Marlow's need to understand his patient leads him bang into the intimate space of Robert's life-his women, his contemporaries in the art world and the men who hold the secrets of History and also across continents , picking up fragments from the past to piece together coherently. The most fascinating of Roberts's works is a series of paintings featuring an intense dark haired woman. Mystery surrounds the exchange of letters between French Impressionists Beatrice De Clerval and her uncle, artist Olivier Vignot both fictional characters created by Kostova. Robert possesses these letters which are given to us as snippets of their life in nineteenth century France and the stories they tell emerge, stark and disturbing, in Robert's paintings.

 Kostova's debut novel, The Historian was a spooky Historical thriller where a young girl gets drawn into the story of Vlad the Impaler, Wallachia's dreaded ruler who later became associated with the legend of Dracula. Kostova's characters in this novel dig out evidence of the real life inspiration of the Dracula myth traveling across Europe. In Swan Thieves, you have these nineteenth century artists and the substance of their life finds resonance in the life of Robert and those associated with him in America of the eighties. "Yes, those situations are all deliberately constructed parallels for the structure of the novel, but I also wanted to show in those parallels the way past and present can echo each other in real life, or the way history holds information we can use somehow in the present."


Does she view her books as Historical fiction then? "I think my novels are literary fiction that deals with history, but I'm much more interested in writing about the way we modern people interact with the past than in producing classic standard historical fiction.  For me, the voice, style, and structure of a book are as important as its historical subjects, although I also work very hard to make my presentation of history as factually accurate as possible." The novel takes us through America, to Normandy in France and to Paris and shifts seamlessly between the nineteenth and twentieth century as though everything really belonged together and the core of the past cannot be separated from that of the present as one can't separate the sound from the echo. "I've always loved the study of history, myself—I see it as simply the greatest human story we tell and retell—and so I find it natural to write about characters who have the same obsession!  For The Swan Thieves, I had the various pleasures of reading about French art history, looking at great Impressionist paintings in person in every museum I could reach, and of visiting some of the French locations in which my characters De Clerval and Vignot find themselves.  It was a wonderful experience."

In this novel, we learn the story of Robert through first person narratives from Kate-his ex wife, lover Mary and Dr. Marlow. Many voices make a story but at times one wishes, one could really get into the mind of Robert's tormented genius which somehow can be only through him but Kostova has her reasons. "I love all those nineteenth-century novels in which voices from various perspectives of a story reach the reader through letters, journals, oral histories, even police reports.  To me, history is a collection of voices—we don't have much more to go on for the truth than those voices, in the end—that often tell different versions of one event.  I also love the art of storytelling, and for storytelling in the classic sense you need a storyteller (or two, or five)."



We have Kate,Robert's ex wife, holding together the pieces of her life that was somehow never whole despite her forgiving, stoic love for Robert. She herself was a practicing artist but becoming a single mother with children to support doesn't leave much time for art. The people in Robert's life make space for him and often excuse him in exchange for little empathy or understanding. I could see the skin of his face and neck beginning to age, the lines under his eyes the deep brown green  of his gaze, …the angelic curls threaded with silver, his largeness, his distance, his self sufficiency, his loneliness. I wanted to jump up and throw myself at him, but that was what he should have been doing for me. Instead I sat where I was, feeling smaller than ever, framed in a frame -a little straight haired, too clean person he had forgotten to look after in his big quest for art- an essential nobody. You wonder if the novel romanticises genius or is it a true exploration of it.  "I don't think the novel makes a moral case for supporting geniuses no matter what kind of mess they make of their lives; it's really an exploration of why other people sometimes love them and consent to do that, and what the results are for those people.  Some of the characters justify Robert's mode de vie, loving his work and him as they do, and some revile it—I tried to have a balance of voices on that subject."


All the female characters, as far as the practice of art is concerned are somehow overshadowed by their need to conform to social norms or simply to domestic responsibility. Robert on the other hand is let loose; he retreats into his own sphere of obsession and art. Nineteenth century Beatrice De Clerval for instance is told by her husband the he wouldn't want her to know too much about life-nature is a fine subject but life is grimmer than she can understand. Is the conflict ever really resolved? "I'm not sure anyone with any sense of responsibility ever resolves that conflict!  It's an especially difficult one for many female artists, and I wrestle with it daily myself.  I do think each of those spheres of life can enrich the others and that no artist really lives and works in a personal or societal void.  What would be the point?"



To write a dense paced Historical thriller needs discipline and much more than mulling over yellowed pages in old libraries. "I simply try to write as much as I can in whatever part of each day I can carve out for that.  I'm wary of developing habits and rituals, since life always interrupts them!  Writing takes discipline but it also takes a kind of habit of going at it again and again.  A dose of joy in the work helps, too.  I wrote The Historian over 10 very busy years, working much more than full time at other jobs and domestic; I often wrote in 20 minute bursts because I had so little time.  It was an escape from daily life, among other things."


Talking about her influences, Kostova says she is really influenced by nineteenth century and early twentieth century Literature. "I've been deeply influenced by some of the important writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially Henry James, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and E. M. Forster.  For The Historian, I learned a great deal from early mystery writer Wilkie Collins and from the ghost stories of Henry James—and of course from Bram Stoker's Dracula."The books and authors she admires are "too numerous to put down here in any adequate way!" She continues to write that she likes the work of her American contemporaries. "I admire such British writers as A. S. Byatt and John Banville, I read widely in the "classics," and I try to become acquainted with the rest of the world by reading plenty of translations.  At the moment, I'm reading all the translated work of poet Czeslaw Milosz, as well as a fantastic novel, Solo, by Rana Dasgupta."



 Extracts in Italics , published in First City Magazine