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!

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.

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