Carry on reading

Usually at year’s end you would find a story about the books that I’ve finished reading this year, or those that I look forward to reading. But the turning of one year into another is seldom a new beginning. More often it is a mark on a long journey. To commemorate that, let me list books which I didn’t manage to finish reading in 403 ME, but which I will continue to read in 404 ME.

Tomb of Sand, by Geetanjali Shree is at the top of the list. If you haven’t read it, or don’t have it on your reading list, then you might remember it as the winner of the first International Booker prize. The small cast of characters, mainly one family, gives rise to a sprawling narrative which I found extremely engrossing. I’d finished about a quarter of the book in a few days in August, and I was so into it that I didn’t want to read a page a day when a lot of work suddenly descended on me. I want to finish it at a stretch and I estimate I can do it if I get about ten days.

Silverview, John le Carre’s final book, buzzes round my head every now and then. After the end of the cold war he’d seemed to lose his touch, and I’d slowly forgotten about his books. Then in early 2018 I picked up his final book set in the George Smiley cycle, and I was hooked again. I went back to the books I’d read, and the ones from the 90s and later which I’d missed and I enjoyed them all. I don’t know anything about the story, other than that it is set in le Carre’s usual world. I must say I’m conflicted about cracking it open. Once I’m through I will never have another new book by le Carre to look forward to. Still, it is there, beckoning me, every time I look for something to read. Should I, should I not?

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch has been on my list much longer than Shree’s book, and for much the same reason. Once I enter the world of this book, I don’t want to leave it. And the density of the writing is such that you can’t pick it up to read just a page or two every day until you finish it. In that kind of reading I will lose all pleasure that I could get out of it (I’m so sorry I read Hilary Mantel that way; I must go back and read her again properly). I’ve started it three times in the last decade, most recently last year. Perhaps I will get to it only after I retire. But I will get to it certainly, unless life plays an unkind trick.

India in the Persianate Age by Richard M. Eaton has been highly praised by people who do not believe the colonial lie that Indian culture stagnated in the second millenium CE. I read three chapters in a couple of days, holding the threads of Eaton’s arguments in my mind. But when I put it down for a week I found that the threads I’d teased out had become a dense tangle. I’ll have to start again, and bookmark it and jot down marginal notes so that I do not have to read it in one go. It’s not that kind of a book.

I think of Alberuni’s India by Edward C. Sachau as a companion book. Alberuni is both interesting and exasperating, so I can never read a lot at one go. But since my copy of it is bristling with post-it notes with scribbled directions and marginalia, it is easy to pick it up and continue. Reading it has been a continuing work that I haven’t finished yet. Even though I’m sure I’ll pick it up several times this year, it is quite possible that it will remain on my list of unfinished books at the end of the coming year.

While going through the unfinished pile I came across A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar. I’d forgotten that I hadn’t finished it, because very little of it remains. Of the many alternate histories imagined about Hitler and his time, I think this stands out for the detective-noir twist. But that is only a half story. The most interesting part of the book is the anti-twist. It’s the book that I think I’ll start on first, and maybe not just to finish the last few pages, but to reread.

I guess that’s a good enough list to start the next year with.

Corbett’s gift

Jim Corbett. Like many other children of my age, I’d devoured his books about the man-eaters of Kumaon. Boy’s adventure stories, as I recalled later. In my twenties when I reread them, I found that the stories are about his hunts, but they do not revel in the kill. More, I found loving descriptions of his native Kumaon, and realized why he is now feted more as a conservationist than a hunter. So, staying in a homestay just outside the walled village of Chhoti Haldwani, I was intrigued to see the inscription by a gate that you can see in the photo above.

Corbett owned a tract of land at the point where the wonderful hill road from Nainital through Pangot and Kilbury joins State Highway 41. He gave it to several families who still farm this land. A low stone wall, nine kilometers long, surrounds this land. A century ago this land was full of wild boars, which would destroy crops. Corbett was unwilling to hunt them down, and had the wall built at his own expense. In the short run it was a wonderful conservation measure. But in the long run, human expansion has urbanized the jungle and, by depriving the boars of space, driven them to extinction. Still, one is advised not to walk around this wall alone at night. You see stray deer, and there is a slight danger of running into a leopard or a tiger. I wonder how this land will fare in another fifty years.

Corbett’s old house sits just outside the walled fields. I wandered through the small museum that this has now been turned into, and came across letters which bear on the transfer of this land. I was amused to find the phrase “manufacture of red tape”. He used it again in his story about the man-eating tiger of Mukteshwar.

I wandered through the museum, looking at the photos and paintings which show Jim Corbett at various ages. I’d never seen a photo of the man before, and was struck by how ordinary he looked. Wandering about the grounds of the museum I saw a little memorial to his dog, Robin. If you’ve read Man-eaters of Kumaon, you might remember that one of the stories is about Robin.

After the visit to the museum we cut through the walled village to get to our homestay. The path wound between houses and then through fields and orchards. I wondered about Corbett, a person who seemed to be completely at home in India. But his India was very different from now. The forests of Corbett National Park, originally set up through Corbett’s efforts, and the adjoining areas perhaps are the last we see of it. Fortunately, these are preserved as a transnational biosphere reserve which might give our wildlife a chance to adapt to climate changes.

Perry Mason explains how to deal with phishing

As more and more Indians get used to faceless conversations over the phone, confidence tricks like phishing are getting common: someone gets sensitive information from you under pretense of asking a legitimate question. There’s also a lot of help on how to avoid getting tricked. While reading Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason potboiler, The Case of the Sunbather’s Diary, I found the perfect example and explanation. The conversation highlighted in pink is the example of how to deal with a possible phisher. The later section, white text on a dark background, is the explanation.

Mason picked up the phone, said, “Hello,” and heard a cautious voice at the other end of the line saying, “Yes, Hello. This is Dr. Candler speaking.”

Mason said, “This is Perry Mason speaking. I am very anxious to get in touch with Miss Arlene Duvall, Doctor. She told me that she could be reached through you.”

“Am I to understand that you are Mr. Perry Mason, the attorney?”

“That’s right.”

“May I ask why you wish to get in touch with her, Mr. Mason?”

Mason said, “Miss Duvall told me that I could confide in you, that you were a friend of the family and were like an uncle to her.”

“That’s right.”

“Miss Duvall consulted me earlier in the day.”


“About a certain matter,” Mason said, “on which she wished me to take immediate action.”

“I see.”

“I would like to tell Miss Duvall that the action has been taken and has resulted in at least a partial success.”

“I’m sorry I can’t give you an address,” Dr. Candler said cautiously, “but I can try and get a message through to her. How long will you be in your office, Mr. Mason?”

“Will thirty minutes be satisfactory?”

“I think so. If you’ll wait there I’ll try and get a message through to her and then she can call you back.”

“Thank you,” Mason said, and hung up.

That’s a cautious conversation, as Mason’s secretary Della Street remarks. Perry Mason then explains. It is the perfect example of how to deal with a phishing attempt and not give out sensitive information.

“Playing them close to his chest,” Mason said. “However, you can’t blame him. How does he know that I’m not a detective calling up and assuming the identity of Perry Mason, the lawyer? After all, he doesn’t know me and is not familiar with my voice.”

“I see, and by having her call back he would –“

“Verify the number,” Mason said.

I’d never read the Perry Mason books before, but I liked the modern twist that the HBO serial gives them. If they are willing to drag the characters into the 21st century while pretending that they live and work in the 1930s, then maybe the stories are interesting, I thought. Goodreads told me that Sunbather’s Diary was the highest rated in the series. The mystery is nicely spun out, but the solution becomes obvious before the beginning of the courtroom drama. One thing that the serial got right is that the courtroom is the focus of the story, and the solution of the mystery happens as an addendum.

I read an ebook. The Bezos Corp seems to have produced it by scanning a printed version without editorial inputs. The digitization has resulted in many other such errors strewn through the text. For example, “are” has become “axe” in several places, “all” become “iill” once, and so on. There are chapter headers in the text, but the Bezos’ Beautiful Bookreader cannot interpret them, and treats the whole book as a single chapter. If you have a choice, read the paperback.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Winter’s tales

You don’t have to be standing in this desolate landscape at the roof of the world to be cold this winter. Bleak winter weather has had the western Himalayas in its grip since early in January. The first heavy snowfall attracted Pakistani tourists into a deathtrap in the town of Murree. Things have not been so bad in India, but trekkers reported difficulties in completing their routes. The effects can be felt in Mumbai too. Instead of being comfortable in shorts and a tee, I’m now forced to wear track pants at home. The nearby hill town of Mahabaleshwar twice reported freezing temperatures: zero Celsius. Amazing at an altitude of 1.3 kilometers in the tropics.

Instead of moaning about not being able to visit the Himalayas yet again, I looked for murder mysteries set in extreme cold. I’ve had a surfeit of Nordic noir recently. So when I saw a book which was touted as a worthy successor to Gorky Park, I picked it up. Disappointing, I thought, when I was part of the way through. But the story recalled the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 during the siege of Leningrad. So I finished the rest of the book with Shostakovich playing in my ear buds, and an unending supply of tea at hand. Not exactly a replacement for a walk in the mountains, but what can you do in an Omicron winter? I would have preferred a re-read of John Grimwood’s Moskva. Maybe I can still do it.

This would have been a good year to sit through long concerts of classical music. This is the music season in Mumbai, but the pandemic has put a stop to that. I’ve only heard one live performance in the last two years; that was by Ustad Rashid Khan earlier this year. It looks like Omicron will burn itself out soon, and perhaps there will be time for some music before spring sets in and I finally get to an altitude of 5 kilometers above where I sit. But one doesn’t know. The La Nina winter will shift the west Pacific typhoon nursery westwards, so the east coast of Asia will probably have more rain and storms. Will it affect the weather in the mountains?

The Good in 402

The end of the year is a time for reckonings. With just 4 days left before we close the calendar to the very bad year 402 ME, maybe you would not mind reading about some of the good things about this year.

Losing friends is never a good thing to happen to you, but it happened several times in the last two years. If I had to lose friends, it should be like this. All those I talked to just before their deaths were excited by the things they were doing right then, feeling on top of the world. Sudden death is shocking to us, until you realize that if you could choose, this might be how you would want to go. Unsuspecting, in the middle of something engrossing and exciting.

Diwali remains a warm memory of this year. Between the delta and the omicron there was a wonderful meeting with The Clan: a party lasting two days. For many of us cousins, it was a throwback to our childhood. It is such a commonplace joy that although the people keep changing through your lifetime, the pleasure that you get from partying with the family remains the same.

Although it was nice to finally get back to a movie theatre, some of the best films I saw were streamed. There’s such a huge library of movies available now, that it is not hard to find a movie that you always wanted to see. Even so, I think I should make a special mention of the movie Another Round by Thomas Vinterberg. Starting with a daft premise it builds an interesting story, but at the end the clearest memory I have of it is the acting by Mads Mikkelsen. I’m marking it down as something I’ll watch again.

As for my reading, I finally got over the barren patch of year 401, helped by generous doses of crime and P. G. Wodehouse. Your are spoilt for choice now, what with excellent books, wonderful reviews by fellow bloggers and the usual writers, and extensive catalogues on line. The most memorable read of the year? That has to be Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh.

But most of all, in spite of everything, we managed to make many trips around the country. Most of these were in places where we would meet few people. As a result, we saw really wonderful things. I got my first photos of a Malkoha. That’s the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis) which you see featured. I wonder why it has the sad species name. I certainly was not at all triste when I got the photo.

An unexpected book

There was a little joke which circulated in my college days. Q: What’s a mushroom? A: A library full of Georgette Heyer’s books. But apparently there is more to this redoubtable writer, who is now recalled vaguely as the Grande Dame of romance. Looking for Christmas mysteries, I found myself directed to a book by her, Envious Casca, first published in 1941. Apparently her crime novels, which she would dash off at the rate of one a year, sold about a tenth as many copies as her romances. That’s still a lot of copies. They have also remained popular enough to have gone through multiple editions, without ever going out of print. The featured image is a collage of some of the book covers that I found of this one book.

Cover of the first edition

In picking this up, I gave up again on books that you need to read slowly. I hear that this is happening around the world. In this it seems that history is repeating itself. After the flu pandemic of a century ago, “serious” literature went on a down swing, and the period between the world wars became known as the golden age of crime fiction. In this time the stories developed into a formula, which was lampooned by Robert Knox in his Ten Commandments (of crime fiction). Although they are not very relevant today, having been broken many times, you still feel a little annoyed if several of them are violated in one story. In any case, I wouldn’t mind spending my declining years on an armchair nursing cups of tea and reading the books (or streaming the shows) of our new golden age of crime. Perhaps I could even distill my experience into a new set of rules to write by.

But for now, back to Envious Casca. I thought for quite a bit that it was a stretch calling it a Christmas mystery, but at the end I decided that I could not take issue with this description at all. It is a nice locked-room mystery, with multiple suspects, many motives, and apparently no opportunities. The social setting is a little dated: ancient inter-generational bickering, and more than a little snobbery, some type-casting of the women (although on this last count the book partly redeems itself by the end). The mystery was a nice little puzzle, which left me quite satisfied.

Three of November’s books

After a hiatus, I started reading madly in November, fueled by a series of recommendations. Sometime in the last week I read a sentence which sticks to my mind: maybe there are only a few plots, but there are many stories to tell. Of the books that I read in November, the ones that stand out seem to have the same theme but tell three completely different stories.

Being alone doesn’t mean you have to be miserable

Yoko Ogawa

I’d picked up Yoko Ogawa’s book, called The Memory Police in a translation by Stephen Snyder, when it was published two years ago, during a meeting, but I drifted away before getting more than a few pages into it. Now I read it in a sustained burst. It was called 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na Kesshō) in the original Japanese, meaning Graceful/secret/soft crystallization. The beautiful but claustrophobic story is a reworking of Anne Frank in an imaginary island. The Memory Police enforces forgetting on its population: stamps, roses, birds, perfumes. The few people who don’t forget are rounded up and “disappeared”. In this setting a novelist hides her editor, a man who does not forget in a little secret space she builds in her house. You cannot help reading it as an allegory of what some have called a wave of fascism around the world. But, like Anne Frank’s diary, the power of this novel comes from more than its circumstances. As the islanders’ memories dissolve, it is interesting to think about the story in terms of its Japanese title.

I went through school with a lot of irony.

Michael Ondaatje on being an immigrant in an English school

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is the first book of his that I have read in a long time. The narrator in a young man who seems to be trying to reconstructing his memories of growing up in London after the war when his parents left him and his sister in the care of people who seem to be a little dodgy. The term warlight refers to the chiaroscuro of wartime blackouts: small things seen in clear light, the larger things obscure. The result is a sharp description of a boy’s teenage years, growing up on the margins of criminality, the danger of violence, the discovery of sex and love, but with the larger story coming into dim view only later. It is a beautiful book, and would have been so even without the twist that the Booker committee likes to have in its longlist selection.

Don’t write about fairies. They don’t like it.

Susanna Clarke on the long hiatus between her books

Sixteen years passed between the publication of Susanna Clarke’s first two books. I had my eyes on Piranesi for a while, but came to it immediately after I saw several etchings of imaginary prisons made by Giovanni Battista Piranesi after 1745, when he recovered from an illness. Interestingly, Susanna Clarke wrote this story of a man documenting an endless house during an illness. The man exists in a state of innocence, a “Child of the House that is the World”, exploring the halls and vestibules of the middle level of the house. The sea fills the lower levels and tides come and go. The upper level has clouds, and rain water flows down from them. The middle level has birds and enigmatic statues. But this is a book by Clarke, and mysteries soon appear, and eventually other worlds. Interestingly, each person is introduced with a characteristic smell. Clarke is a very clever writer, and you begin to see her concerns again in this book: gender, slavery, modernity, and, as in the other two books, memory and its distortions.

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!