Rainbow’s gravity

Thomas Pynchon’s book Gravity’s Rainbow was a bit of a cult classic when I encountered it early in my college days. A single copy was passed on from hand to hand. I took it out of turn, and was badgered into finishing it in three breathless marathon reads. Classes? Skip them and get back to reading. Back then I had a different take on reading. I hoovered up every bit of text, including context-free pages of notebooks, rolled up into cones by roadside chanawalas. All of it was grist to the mill of undergrad bull sessions. Pynchon stood out. I found and read his two previous novels. He didn’t write another book until much later. In those pre-internet days it was hard to find his articles. Eventually, Pynchon’s works were assimilated into the compact mass of ideas which I acquired as a young adult, and retained as the basement of my memory palace. If scum rises to the top, then it must be true that the good sinks to the bottom.

What’s past is prologue.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Today, I despaired of ever identifying all the herbs that I photographed in Vaitarna. Instead I did some random reading. From Wikipedia’s page on Thomas Pynchon I found an article he wrote in 1966 on a race riot in LA. It is called A Journey into the Mind of Watts.

… and despair

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

There aren’t many articles in the NYT magazine which are worth thinking about 55 years later. But it is obvious that Pynchon took his work very seriously. When you read this small piece you suspect that more than a little bit of research and thinking went into these words. I hear that good literature is universal. This small article seemed universal to me, very unfortunately. You can read into it the story of incidents in the US today. But you can also read into it stories from your context across the world. I’m glad I rediscovered the thought-provoking writings of Thomas Pynchon.

July’s books

My reading had become extremely sparse after the second lock down started in April. Finally, in July I decided to change things. I set aside every weekend for reading. The first book I finished was an interesting example of what is being called counter-Lovecraft. I can never manage to plod my way through any of Lovecraft’s writings, but this movement produces good things out of that turgid mess of racist text. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle was well-written, quick moving, and worked by itself as a horror story, without missing the more mundane horrors of a racist place. I’m ready for more LaValle.

Kazuo Ishiguro keeps getting better. Some people have compared Klara and the Sun to his earlier book Never Let Me Go. It is comparable in some ways: both are about constructed individuals who are meant to serve people. But this explores more ground in that clean uncluttered way that Ishiguro has. So much goes on under the surface. Ishiguro leaves you clues; you have to begin to read the boxes, to see how stressful certain situations become for Klara. The ending, specially, was beautifully constructed. If I’d skipped ahead I would have missed its emotional content.

The humanitarian cost of the first lockdown was explored by Vinod Kapri in a movie with the same title, 1232 Km: The Long Journey Home. He writes in the preface why the movie left him unsatisfied, and he felt that the story had to be written up. The result is a book unlike anything else that will be written. Very few journalists, perhaps no one else, did what Kapri managed: build trust with a group of migrant labourers who cycled home, and follow them in their journey. This is an unique document about how people do not panic in the face of dire adversity, but just do what they think they need to in order to live. Perhaps in the years to come the memory of the migrants’ return will be erased from mass memory, but a book like this gives one hope that it won’t be completely forgotten.

I chose a much lighter book next. I’d read a couple of short stories written by Marko Kloos, and found them good fun. When I found Hugo winner Jo Walton recommending this series of novels, I decided to pick the first of them. Terms of Enlistment falls in the little niche which calls itself Military-SF, and is not something I usually enjoy. But Walton is right. This builds a recognizable future to the present, one in which things go downhill for most, but others, like Musk and Bezos, fund hugely expensive space programs. I’m not sure I’ll read the rest of this series, but Kloos is an author I’ll take a look at now and then.

Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s early books read like the older generation of Bengali novels which must have influenced her parents. With Whereabouts she reinvents herself by writing in Italian. I don’t read that language, and had to read the translation (from her own book Dove mi trovo). The most fascinating aspect of the novel is the listless movement of a person without connections in a city. It feels more like a movie than a novel: a camera moving around some people, following their lives at a distance. The city is Italian, but nothing seems very Italian about the novel. I could recognize part of this distancing, that of a foreigner who knows they are never going to put down roots, that they will move on. But that’s not who the fictional narrator is. With all that, it is very much a book by Lahiri, and quite in keeping with the views she expresses about otherness in a recent interview.

Short, brilliant, dense with meaning waiting to unfold. Ghachar ghochar was written in Kannada by Vivek Shanbhag. I read the translation by Srinath Perur. It was a completely modern story about India in the twenty first century, but it reminded me of Turgenev’s nineteenth century novel Fathers and Sons, delightfully turned on its head. Every review I read compared it to yet another classic. The book moves easily through the narrator’s family history, ending in the location that it began. I read the six chapters-long book, with its allusions to off-scene violence, in a breathless two hour sitting, and have spent days unpacking it in my head. It is right up there with Ishiguro in my July’s reading list: the same clear prose, a similar disquieting flow in the story, the same density of ideas.

Reading in the rain

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

John Ashbery (Some Trees, 1956)

I first came across John Ashbery a decade ago, through his translations of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry. Rain, Kalidasa, Tagore and Verlaine, and through them Rimbaud and Ashbery. Such a simple straight line!

Survivors

Downtown Mumbai is a mess of memories right now. Many of our favourite old restaurants are shut. Some lanes are completely shuttered. Walking aimlessly through them I noticed a restaurant in a lane I seldom pass. It is a survivor. It had created a pleasant space in the middle of a crowded street with a forest of potted plants. They are still green and watered. It had to give up an upper floor, apparently. An empty facade looks out on the street with open shutters on windows which are now a mere windbreak. But below that they still advertise tea and cakes. The Family inspected the menu and said “We have to come here.” She wants to support the businesses which are still open.

Bollywood has barely responded to the ongoing crisis. We streamed the anthology film Unpaused, which is perhaps the only take on the ongoing crisis till now. I liked all five stories in their own ways. None of the stories had any stars, but many fine actors. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, and Shardul Bhardwaj are among the newer actors whom I would like to see again. Vishaanu, written by Shubham, was the best of the segments: sensitive, and not a false moment. Avinash Arun Dhaware, known for the series Paatal Lok, directs this segment.

The anthology reminded me of how it is hard to break out of middle class solipsism in this epidemic. Only one of the five stories was about migrant labourers. Looking for books to read, I lingered over The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (I’m afraid I never bothered to read it) but an algorithm directed me to 1232 km, The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri, converted from his documentary. That’s what I’m reading now, a book of reportage which follows a group of migrant labourers walking home during the first lockdown.

No tiger in Mukteshwar

The tiny village of Mukteshwar (called Muktesar before 1947) has not changed substantially since Jim Corbett visited about a hundred years ago and met the brave little girl with the buffalo, before shooting the man eating tiger of Muktesar. You can do worse than follow his description of the place.

“Eighteen miles to the north-north-east of Naini Tal is a hill eight thousand feet high and twelve to fifteen miles long, running east and west. The western end of the hill rises steeply and near this end is the Muktesar Veterinary Research Institute, where lymph and vaccines are produced to fight India’s cattle diseases. The laboratory and staff quarters are situated on the northern face of the hill and command one of the best views to be had anywhere of the Himalayan snowy range.” The beginning of the story sets the scene. The Institute was relocated to this place in 1893. The population of the village remains small, but standing at 812 in 2011, has probably quadrupled since Corbett’s days. The number of resorts has increased substantially as word of the views have spread, but they are strung out along the road without crowding the bazaar.

“Accompanied by a servant and two men carrying a roll of bedding and a suitcase, I left Naini Tal at midday and walked ten miles to the Ramgarh Dak Bungalow, where I spent the night. The Dak Bungalow khansama (cook, bottle-washer, and general factotum) was a friend of mine, and when he learnt that I was on my way to shoot the man-eater, he warned me to be very careful while negotiating the last two miles into Muktesar for, he said, several people had recently been killed on that stretch of the road.” Corbett continued on foot the next morning, and reached Muktesar by early morning. Our drive took us a little more than two hours, allowing for a halt for chai. The road is good enough to do bettter.

“This was the first time I had ever climbed that hill, and I was very interested to see the caves, hollowed out by wind, in the sandstone cliffs overhanging the road. In a gale I imagine these caves must produce some very weird sounds, for they are of different sizes and, while some are shallow, others appear to penetrate deep into the sandstone.” I’d kept a look out for these formations described by Corbett, but nothing we passed seemed to fit. It is possible that the caves were dynamited to widen the roads. The only similar formation today is Chauli ki Jali, which is a steep rock face used by rapellers, and could not possibly have been an alternative route up.

“Where the road comes out on a saddle of the hill there is a small area of flat ground flanked on the far side by the Muktesar Post Office, and a small bazaar.” This description is still true, and corroborates my conclusion that the road is the same as in Corbett’s time, but without the caves he described. The flat ground is where we parked the car. Beyond the bazaar are the two famous guest houses of the place. By not taking the upper path I missed out on Chauli ki Jali and went instead to where Corbett has his breakfast. “[T]he khansama in charge of the bungalow, and I, incurred the displeasure of the red tape brigade, the khansama by providing me with breakfast, and I by partaking of it.” In the century since the Muktesar man-eater raged here, the Dak Bungalow has become a State Tourism (KMVN) guest house, accreted a number of cooks and waiters, and, as I found, is still so tied up in red tape that it takes a long time to fill in the paper work needed to serve a cuppa chai.

After a chai and toast, I picked up my camera, and followed Corbett, who continues, “Then, picking up my rifle, I went up to the post office to send a telegram to my mother to let her know I had arrived safely.” Meeting up with The Family, back from her jaunt to the ridge, we found that the sturdy colonial era house has changed in many ways in the century since Corbett was here. I am sure the paved forecourt is no more than a decade old, the solar panels are substantially more recent, the sign over the gate perhaps a couple of decades old, and the gate itself is half a century old if it is a day. Telegrams no longer exist; I had sent The Family one of the last, but that is another story. Nevertheless, the post-office is still one that Corbett might recognize if he were to reappear here.

“In rural India, the post office and bania’s shop are to village folk what taverns and clubs are to people of other lands, and if information on any particular subject is sought, the post office and the bania’s shop are the best places to seek it.” The shops have been remade in the last century, and the post office has probably lost its social standing. But the bania’s shop is still a place where people gather. I was amazed at how much sense Corbett’s description of Mukteshwar still made.

The man-eaters of Kumaon

It is never a bad idea to prepare for a trip to Kumaon by reading the most famous book of all written about the region. I began at the beginning, reading again Jim Corbett’s story The Champawat man-eater. Whenever I read it there is an underlying memory of myself as a child, prone on my stomach, reading through this breathlessly, half wanting to hide in terror. Now I notice the little descriptions, some of which I recognize from personal experience.

… a covey of kalege pheasants fluttered screaming out of [some bushes] …

[I] asked the villagers if they could direct me to where I could shoot a ghooral (mountain goat).

… but eye-witnesses are not always reliable, whereas jungle signs are a true record of all that has transpired.

In the soft earth round the spring were tiger pugmarks several days old, but these tracks were quite different from the pugmarks I had seen, and carefully examined, in the ravine in which the woman from Pali village had been killed.

… one of those exasperating individuals whose legs and tongue cannot function at the same time.

A bed of Strobilanthes, the bent stalks of which were slowly regaining their upright positions, showed where, and how recently, the tigress had passed …

The hill in front of me, rising to a height of some two thousand feet, was clothed in short grass with a pine tree dotted here and there …

In the 1940s, when the book was published as an almost instant international best-seller, the conventions for transcribing words from Indian languages to the Roman script were slightly different. Nowadays one would write about the khaleej pheasant and the ghoral, although local dialects still have the same fluidity as ever, and a case could be supported for the older transliterations.

The book was adapted into a Hollywood movie, about which Corbett had the most delightful comment, “The best actor was the tiger.” In his final years the most famous shikari in India joined his voice with those of other conservationists. Independence was then still a novelty, and his words had the opposite effect to what he would have liked to have achieved. It is good to see that his reputation has slowly risen again, like the bent stalks of a bed of karvi.

Downsizing

My bookshelves are full. Years ago I started to keep two rows of books on each shelf, as most readers eventually do. I thought about access to the back row and decided that I wouldn’t keep the front row of books upright, but stack them so that I could read the spines of both the rows. At one point I decided to keep them alphabetised by (the first) authors’ names. Perfect when The Family asks “Do we have anything else by Terry Pratchett?” Easy for me when my niece comes and asks me “Do you have a copy of Dune?” I can pull out a book which I had bought when I was younger than her. She has trouble imagining an artifact which is thrice as old as her.

That well-considered order is long gone. The stacking technique traveled to Berlin with my old professor, who, on a visit to Mumbai, became convinced that this was the way to arrange his books. I hear that it has traveled to Malmö with his daughter who has begun to arrange her books the same way. Isn’t it interesting how ideas travel? It doesn’t even have to be artifacts like the books which I once read. But all is not well. I don’t have a librarian’s habit of checking the stacks regularly. So people who go through my shelves sometimes leave the books in the wrong order, sometimes even upside down. And not only that.

Over the years the collection has grown so large that I can no longer invent systems for their storage. At one time I stacked books over the rows to keep their spines visible. Now they are just stacked up on any surface which can hold them. It is time to downsize. I started to dust off my shelves and begin to weed out books which I have no desire to re-read. Once upon a time every lane in Mumbai had a lending library of books. That is decades in the past. There is no one to give these books to. Perhaps I should just declare a give-away weekend after The Family and I have agreed on which books should go.

No middle

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Arthur Conan Doyle put these words into the mouth of his creature, Sherlock Holmes. This principle is very hard to use in the real world. Take the example of the caterpillar in the featured photo (black and white version below). Which butterfly does it develop into? I suppose it does not grow into a moth, but maybe it could. It is estimated that there could be about 10,000 species of moths in India, and about 1,500 species of butterflies. So a caterpillar is 6 times more likely to grow into a moth. Butterfly or moth, from this picture, and the internet, it would take half a lifetime to eliminate all the lepidopterans that this caterpillar would not grow into, and so figure out which is the only it could be. The problem of how to eliminate a very large number of hypotheses seems to have inflamed the imagination of several philosophers of science. In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig gave one answer to this problem: use aesthetic judgement to narrow the field. That way lies danger. I don’t have to explain how difficult it would be to apply this method to the question of the caterpillar.

Conan Doyle’s conceit was to transpose logic from the realm of simple problems into the “real” world. It usually doesn’t work, of course. That’s why great detectives are found in works of fiction, and not in the evening news on TV. Much better to reduce the problem: from colour to black and white. In the realm of formal logic, Leibniz had a simpler formulation: a statement must be either true or false. This led in various ways to the ferment in mathematics at the beginning of the last century. Famous names enter into the debate: David Hilbert, Leopold Kronecker, Hermann Weyl, Ernst Zermelo, Bertrand Russel, Kurt Gödel. In this exploration of black and white I don’t intend to go there. I just wanted to point out the spikes on the back of the butterfly; so much more eye-catching in the B&W version, don’t you think?

Food only for the thought

With this horrendous pandemic, there are books I should avoid. By mistake I opened an absolute page turner with a description of a meal in almost every chapter. Just the kind of book which makes you want to jump into a passing ship and make your way to Sicily. Unfortunately, there is no way I’ll be able to do that in the near future. So, please eat a cannoli or torroncini for me if you are in Sicily or nearby. If you are not, you can read the quotes below.

Next to his right hand was a bottle of Corvo white, still corked and sealed.

For the main course, I’ve prepared alalonga all’agrodolce, and hake in a sauce of anchovies.

‘Bring me a generous serving of the hake. Ah, and, while I’m waiting, make me a nice plate of seafood antipasto.’ … One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.

[He] returned with a platter on which there was a bread roll, a sizable slice of caciocavallo cheese, five slices of salami, and a glass of wine.

‘For today she’s made pasta alla Norma, you know, with fried aubergine and ricotta salata.’ … ‘And braised beed for the second course.’

[The] old woman immediately ate two cannoli as an appetizer. [He] wasn’t too thrilled with the kubba, but the kebabs had a tart, herbal flavour that made them a little more sprightly, or so, at least, he defined them according to his imperfect use of adjectives.

He sat back down at his table, where a pound of mullet awaited him, fried to a delicate crisp.

Inside were some ham sandwiches, bananas, cookies and two cans of Coca-Cola.

On the desk was a parcel wrapped in the paper of the Pipitone pastry shop. He opened it: cannoli, cream puffs, torroncini.

‘Excellent, this brusciulini.’

‘Got fresh-roasted peanuts here, nice and hot,’ the shopkeeper informed him. [He] had him add twenty or so to his coppo, the paper cornet already half-full of chickpeas and pumpkin seeds.

He drew up a rapid, unhappy inventory: as a first course, he could make a little pasta with garlic and oil; as a second course, he could throw something together using sardines in brine, olives, caciocavallo cheese and canned tuna. … The pasta came out overcooked, practically inedible.

While waiting for them to bring him a digestivo of anisette (the double helping of bass was beginning to weight on his stomach) …

In the oven he found a casserole of mullet and potatoes that smelled inviting. He sat down and tasted his first bite: exquisite.

… saute of clams in breadcrumbs, a heaped dish of spaghetti with white clam sauce, a roast turbot with oregano and caramelized lemon, and he topped it all off with a bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce.

‘So, exactly how do you prepare your striped mullet?’

[He] took a good half hour to eat his mullets. … [Afterwards, he] downed a demi-tasse of espresso. … [He] returned with a plate on which was a huge, hard piece of Sicilian cassata ice cream.

The pasta with crab was as graceful as a first-rate ballerina, but the stuffed bass in saffron sauce left him breathless, almost frightened.

So: fish, and, no question, onion, hot pepper, whisked eggs, salt, pepper, breadcrumbs. But two other flavours, hiding under the taste of the butter used in the frying, hadn’t yet answered the call. At the second mouthful, he recognized what had escaped him in the first: cumin and coriander. ‘Koftas!’ he shouted in amazement.

In the fridge he found ten or so olives, three sardines and a bit of Lampsedusan tuna in a small glass jar. On the kitchen table there was some bread wrapped in paper …

They are all quotes from a single small mystery novel: The Snack Thief (Il ladro di merendine in Italian) by Andrea Camilleri (1925-2017), the third book in his Inspector Montalbano series. I hope I haven’t missed any of the meals in this book.

Three Books for Christmas

Although it has been years since I was in a cold country in Christmas, by the second half of December I begin to miss the cold and dark, the perfect weather for murder and ghosts. I begin to buy plum cake, brew more tea than usual, and start looking for Christmas mysteries. This year I got hold of three which I’d missed. I finished two on the long flights to Kolkata and back, but it took me till yesterday to get on with the third.

This was my introduction to Celia Fremlin (1914-2009). And what an introduction! The slow building of a claustrophobic sense of foreboding, of slowly losing control, the growing feeling that there is layer to the world below what is known, the mystery building before the murder, all done in limpid prose. It was the ideal book to read while sitting inside a silent aluminum tube, surrounded by masked strangers. In a genre as well explored as murder mysteries, it is hard to overturn expectations any more, but this book must have done it in 1975, when it was first published. I hadn’t read Celia Fremlin before; her first book won a Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1960, and was made into a TV movie for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, starring Gena Rowlands. I’m now looking forward to reading more of her books.

I had my eyes on this collection of stories written between 1969 and 1996 by P.D.James (1920-2014) since it was published in 2017, and was happy to pick it as one in my pandemic winter set. If you know P.D.James you know what to expect. Each story is a perfect set piece mystery, an intricate mechanism which clicks open at the end to show you how it was done. All four were commissioned, and like vintage Christmas mysteries, start with cold and snow outside, warmth and cheer indoors, before a cold murder creeps into the house. Two of the stories feature Adam Dalgleish. I was happy to read this on a flight, renewing my auld acquaintance with the Baroness James of Holland Park, one of the past Queens of Murder.

It seems difficult to top Quebec as a setting for a cold Christmas. The second book by Louise Penny (b 1958) was a welcome introduction to her series featuring the French-Canadian detective Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. This book had won an Agatha Award in 2007, the year of its publication, and started an unbroken run of wins for the series until Margaret Maron ended it in 2011. I took my time with this book because I liked reading about the cold fictional town of Three Pines, which was as much of a star invention as the detective. Louise Penny is not a Queen of Crime; she works well within the boundaries of the genre, and she writes a good cozy mystery.