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.


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.

The joy of rereading

Several times in my life I found myself losing all desire to read. Sometimes it has been times like now, when your mind creates an emergency you can’t seem to snap out of. Sometimes you are unable to stop reading a worthy book which you just cannot get yourself to pick up again. Whatever the reason, I find that my way back to enjoying reading again is to pick up one of the nearly hundred books by P. G. Wodehouse. One of the copies of a book I have quotes Evelyn Waugh in a prophetic mode: “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.”

I picked up two old favourites. I’ve bought and lost copies of them many times since at age 12 I inserted them between the covers of my social studies book and read them in class until I was discovered because I burst out laughing aloud. Now I read the stories I know every turn of for those wonderfully burnished sentences which Wodehouse was a master craftsman of.

“It made such a difference to someone, he explained, if someone had someone someone could lean on at times like this.”

“At this point Bingo fell into a trance, and only came out of it to wrap himself around a pie and a macaroon.”

“Vanessa was conscious of a thrill of happiness which had the effect of making even the Earls and Countesses beautiful.”

“When Jeeves came shimmering in the next morning with the breakfast tray, I lost no time in supplying him the full information re the harrow I found myself the toad under.”

“He was a great writer of letters to the Times, the government could not move a step without hearing from him.”

“Silly ass, don’t you see that this is going to do you a bit of good when the Revolution breaks loose? When you see old Rowbotham sprinting up Piccadilly with a dripping knife in each hand, you’ll be jolly thankful to be able to remind him that he once ate your tea and shrimps.”

“Very good,” I said coldly. “In that case, tinkerty tonk.” And I meant it to sting.

“Then I noticed that she looked considerably rattled, and as for the brother, he looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.”

I can’t think of better lines to end the last post of this year than the following: “Lord Emsworth lay back in bed. His letter on its way, he was wondering, like all authors who have sent their stuff off, if it could not have been polished a bit and given those last little touches which make all the difference.”

Books that I wish someone would write

Independence Day is a good time to imagine a country transformed. I will review a few books that I wish someone would write.

Marching through Forests
Author: Unknown

Westminster’s eye opened to stare at North-East India during the Second World War, when the Free Indian Army advanced through the disputed frontier between two empires. That forgotten war is brought to life by a naturalist who spent a year in these forests, listening to the stories of the last old men and women who remember that war passing through their villages. Interspersed with this oral history are stories of the wildflowers, insects, and birds of this region.

Author: Unknown

Sailing between the Andaman and Nicobar islands is something that many of us may have dreamed of. Very few would think of doing this alone on a Lightning class sailboat. That could be something like crossing the Thar desert on a bicycle. The author sails between islands during the day, and mostly spends nights on land, except in two memorable long sails on open seas. The description of the all-important weather, the birds of the deep sea, and the nights when she doesn’t get to port are fascinating. But even more amazing are her descriptions of diving in the shallow waters of the reefs.

Ghaur Mota to Kibithu
Authors: Unknown

The story of two teenagers who took a break year in high school to travel through India, from west to east, makes for a fascinating reading. Even the varied modes of transport are interesting: lugging bicycles on to bullock carts and backs of trucks, the occasional train ride, and the inevitable slog of pedaling through mountain roads. They write extensively about the “tribals” they meet, detailing their ways of life. The fascinating book results from their collaboration with a historian, who traces what is known of the history of these “tribes” from the middle ages to today. Each of these threads is a book. The two together is a gem.

Water and empire
Author: Unknown

That a hydraulic engineer would write about water and its distribution is understandable. When such a person turns her professional lens to understanding medieval and early modern India history, she can throw new light on the rise and (mainly) fall of empires. The climate of India has not been stable over nine hundred years. These instabilities in the monsoon have forced kingdoms to adapt their water use. The impact on history has never been written about so well.

Slugs and Snails, and Tigers’ Tails: Nature writers of India
Author: Unknown

This slim volume is almost a bibliography of lost books. In classical Sanskrit poetry and in Mughal miniature paintings, we see passing glimpses of nature. The genre of nature writing is very modern; even Jim Corbett describes nature in passing. The author sifts through four centuries of history, tracing nature writing in India from the early modern era to its burgeoning today. The wealth of information recorded incidentally can only be rivaled by the amount of information about the present day that you get by examining the backgrounds of selfies posted on Instagram.

Reading in the time of a pandemic

I had two or three books scattered about the living room, the last few I’d bought before the lock down. But elsewhere in the flat is a growing pile of books which have slipped below the radar. William Dalrymple’s latest, The Anarchy, promises to be a great read of the world’s most out of control corporation: the British East India Company. To go with it I picked up an older book which I think I’ll read through, Opium City by Farooqui. This is a history of the rise of Bombay, from a port with nothing to do, into its modern avatar. Two more bits of Indian history round off this part of my collection. One is the highly recommended book on Dara Shikoh, The Emperor Who Never Was by Supriya Gandhi. The other is below most radars, The Deoliwallahs by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza chrolicles the incarceration of all Chinese in India during the 1962 China war. That covers about four centuries. Enough.

Why did I let a Michael Ondaatje slip to the bottom of a pile. COVID-19 gives me a boon: rediscovering one of the great novelists from Africa. I know nothing about Otessa Moshfegh, except that The Family kept telling me to read My Year of Rest and Relaxation after she finished. Now that my year (or less) of rest and relaxation has come around, I’m getting round to it. I know even less about Anna Burns and the book Milkman. It’ll surprise me, no matter what.

Light reading? Yes, I have a thriller: Pythagoras’ Revenge, and a graphic novel, First Hand, by a collection of Indian artists. Nine books for mortal men doomed to die another day.

Preparing for Jordan

I hadn’t thought of visiting Jordan until I saw a post on Jerash by Harinda Bama. Then I realized that right there in the middle of the middle east, a place so full of history, where the remnants of the European wars of a hundred years ago are still being fought, in the middle of a beautiful and once peaceful land, there is a part which is easy for tourists to visit.

There were over 4 million tourists to Jordan two years ago, and that number might have gone up to 7 million this year if it were not for COVID-19. I suppose only a small fraction of travelers blog, but that number still produces a lot of stories and opinions. I started by reading some of what wordpress has on offer: Amman’s street art, Kerak, Raqmu, also known as Petra, Wadi Musa and Little Petra, Jerash and the Cats of Amman.

This was definitely a place I wanted to visit. The Family was also interested. So I looked deeper. The first book I took up was a translation of the travel diaries of Johann ludwig Burckhardt, the man who rediscovered Raqmu (Petra) in 1812. The translation of “Travels in Syria and the Holy Land” that I had contained a very long and interesting foreword by William Martin Leake. I found this really interesting, not only for the description of the geography (it helped to keep a map with contour lines open on my laptop as I read) but also for the interesting tidbits about how accurately the Greeks and Romans had mapped this land. Raqmu need not have been lost at all.

There is quite a bit of European writing on Jordan. The most well known is “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by Thomas Edward Lawrence. From today’s perspective one can see the broad line between Lawrence of Arabia and to the present wars in West Asia. The book is a little too verbose for my taste, but I found it interesting to skim through, pausing at bits here and there. Gertrude Bell‘s book “The Desert and the Sown” was an easier read, from a slightly earlier time, and left me with the same unsettling feeling of imperial powers meddling in local politics. As a travel book, it too has its positive points. One could add a dash of whipped cream by adding Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, not one of her best Hercule Poirot books, but one in which the murder occurs in Raqmu.

Most of the British books from the early part of the 20th century CE are imperial and racist by today’s standards, and totally ignore the post-Roman history of the area. They deal with the Ottoman Empire as a vile occupying power (an Indian finds this ironic). It was only when I started in on the next phase of reading, guide books, that I began to appreciate the modern history of the area. After some thought I chose the Blue Guide and Lonely Planet. I like Blue Guides for their detailed explanations of cultural artifacts, especially in and around Europe. Byzantine power supplanted Rome in this part of the world, until it was checked by the Umayyads and, later, Abbasids. After the brief Crusader incursion, Ayyubids and Mamluks held this land until the coming of the Ottomans. Each of these periods has left its artifacts across the land. This was a good point from which to expand my reading. I was feeling a little rushed last week, since our plan would have taken us to Raqmu today.

Now, under the new social distancing conventions, I remain in my flat. Airlines have cancelled flights, and the world has broken up into little islands. It gives me more time to read about this tiny country. I hope that when this calamity has gone, The Family and I are still able to take this cancelled trip.

Reading Jordanian literature

The beautiful piece of Arabic calligraphy that you see as the featured image is by Tanya Fedorova. Traditional Arabic calligraphy is very different from the Chinese, but to my untrained eye, this piece incorporates aspects of both. I liked it for this reason.

I was this leaf once
falling slowly

I was the tiger thinking it is free
while in a fenced garden

I was the woodworm gnawing
at the cradle and the scepter

I was the dirt disintegrating
in a pot of Geranium
The hand that used to water it
no longer there

— Song of Myself
by Amjad Nasser

I find that my ability to understand the world I live in is very constrained because I can read so few of the many languages that people write in. I was trying to prepare for a trip to Jordan by reading about it, and most of the searches yielded books by Europeans and Jordan emigrés. This coulldn’t be all, I thought. After all, Arabic literature is vast and vital. It turns out that little is translated into English. I was not able to find a translation of Columns of Foam (1987), a book by the Jordanian writer Elias Farkouh, although it has been named as one of the hundred best Arabic novels of the last century by the Arab Writers’ Union. Eventually I traced some of his stories in the magazine Banipal, based in London, which publishes translations of works from Arabic to English.

To this day my conviction is that writing in support of a cause should never be an excuse for lowering the standard of a literary work. It is the way you deal with the cause, rather, that makes your writing different. … For me language is not simply a means of conveying ideas, it is itself the idea, the end of writing, and it embodies memory — the memory of a culture, and the memory of the writer himself. … More and more people are asking me — writers and readers as well as critics — whether I am producing generic short stories or mere texts. It is obviously because I abide less and less by the technical rules of short story composition. But I believe a real artist must be pushing at the edges of generic convention — and constantly experimenting with his compositional techniques in order to do so.

— Elias Farkouh in an interview with Masress

Once I found magazines about Arab literature written in English, it was easy to get small pieces by writers who use Arabic as their main language. I was really fascinated by interviews. Everyone who uses language eventually talks of the craft: how to use language to achieve their ends. This same discussion is common in every language that I know, and it is interesting to see what is common and how much is dependent on the language and the culture it is immersed in.

This rose is made of mud
This glitter is made of coal
This child,
this scoundrel,
this good man,
this acrobat are
made of clay
–From Adam’s Kingdom
by Amjad Nasser

Dribs and drabs of Arabic poetry are also easy to come by. It is not hard to find a few pieces in translation from the works of Amjad Nasser; I quote a couple of pieces here. The more recent work of the Bedouin poet, Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya, is easy to come by, perhaps because he has appeared on Emirati TV shows in recent times. The translations don’t read so well. His work is said to be like hip-hop, meant to be heard or read aloud. This description probably means that the sounds and cadence are important, so translations are bound to suffer. Examples of the work of Ibrahim Nasrallah can also be found easily. It is not easy to find translations of their books. There are collections of Arabic literature in bilingual versions published by academic researchers. They seem to be good places to start from if one is interested in the whole of Arabic literature. I was searching more particularly for Jordanian authors before COVID-19 forced me to cancel my trip. I’m still searching.