This week's best reads include a cookbook, a powerful novel set in early 80s Punjab, an examination of the cultural worth of the heritage walk, and lines wrenched from the innards of Mumbai.
Ministry of Hurt Sentiments
Rs 299 PP 100
Male writers who look fetching on book jackets automatically get minus marks from this reviewer but Altaf Tyrewala's Ministry of Hurt Sentiments is so good, you get over the bizarre prejudice. A gripping work that presents Mumbai like the paradox it is - at once claustrophobic and liberating, excruciating and comforting; an utterly charismatic succubus city. Tyrewala's narrative voice is by turns crazed, ironic, furious and funny: Ahem, Herr Hahnemann/Clever German quackery in highfalutin Latin?/No better than Eliot's Sanskrit hokum: /Datta. Dayadhvam.Damyata.
Here, images of Grandpa "blabbering in Bambaiya patois" jostle with those of failed love affairs and of Jaya who comes in to unclog the choked toilet. Tyrewala examines the sores on our collective conscience with unbearable clarity. The passage on the Gujrat riots reads: Pass that chick here before you throw her in the fire/Her name's Gulshan, isn't it? The one we grew up with?
With writers like this, who the hell cares about book jacket photographs.
Performing Heritage; Art of Exhibit Walks
Rs 559 PP 216
Scholar and regular conductor of heritage walks in Delhi, Navina Jafa's book is an erudite examination of the heritage walk. Jafa weaves in her personal experience of conducting walks with her knowledge of history, conservation, performing art and cultural studies in a work that's intellectual and wholely admirable. Her explorations and constant pushing of boundaries means Jafa has collated a wealth of information that's often considered not important enough to be recorded.
A walking exhibit through Meherauli that ended with the Kalbelia dance leads her to the realisation that the artform has been debased by tourism and "cultural impresarios who were mere businessmen with no cultural education". There is much here in terms of advice for others enthusiastic about treading the same path and for history geeks.
But what sets this book apart are the personal experiences woven into the text - including the excellent pages devoted to Benazir Bhutto's visit to the Nizamuddin dargah.
Roll of Honour
Rs 275 PP 242
Much of Indian English writing suffers from a dullness that creeps in because the characters and the milieu seems familiar and oft written about. That's not an accusation that can be directed at Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu. Set in a military school in Punjab against the turbulent early 1980s, the years of militancy in the state, Operation BlueStar, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the bloodshed that followed, this is an eminently readable novel.
Sandhu takes his readers into the conflicted mind of an adolescent Sikh boy struggling with questions of identity, power, sexuality, the nature of friendship and self respect as friends are killed in encounters or take to militancy.
Some of the scenes, especially those that deal with the depravity of school boys and their savagery are at once shocking and absorbing. Roll of Honour places much of its action in a particularly bloody time in the nation's recent history - one that's been largely ignored in Indian English fiction until now. This novel is doubly powerful as a result.
Cooking on the Run; An Average Indian Man's Encounters With Food
Rs 250 PP 177
Sports historian and journalist Boria Majumdar's book on cooking aimed at the pampered Indian male deprived of comforting 'ghar ka khana' is amusing, enlightening and useful all at once. The blurb pushes it as "A must-have manual for every Indian man who's living his life on the run" but there's much here that would interest anyone passionate about food.
In between instructing his readers on preparing doodh diye macher jhal and payesh and musing about the similarities between the Indian enclaves of Toronto and Melbourne, Majumdar launches into stories about cross cultural encounters.
Especially entertaining is the section on China: "Every meal I had was a banquet... knowing my apathy for red meat, they had resorted to feeding me the most exotic of delicacies - scorpion, cicada and a series of other insects... By the end of several such banquets, I had thrown in the towel... I was forced to limit myself to some really good watermelon and apples on offer." A book that makes you smile as you head to the kitchen - in itself a rare feat.