The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 13, 2014

Gaseous Matter

I was thirteen years old when I first encountered the word 'fart'. Until then I had used the expressions 'gas' or 'break wind' in English. You can imagine that a kid saying 'break wind' is unutterably cute, or inexpressibly cloying, but that's the truth of it.

On the other hand, I knew how to say 'fart' in several other languages. Hindi and Malayalam were top on the list. In Delhi, we sang romantic songs with 'paad' replacing words of affection. Hilarity ensued all around. In Russia, where a few years earlier my friends and I had competed to come up with words comprising longer and longer sequences of consonants, 'vzbzdnul' was a wonderful word. When my classmate Misha told me this, I thought he had invented it. Then I heard his mother use the expression 'bzdkom pahnet' (or 'smells of fart'). That cracked me up.

Kids love digestive byproducts. Nothing gives them more joy. In Russia we swapped gastroenterological repartee. If I, for instance, accused someone of something, saying 'it was you, you' (or, in Russian, 'eto byl ty, ty!'), the defendant would respond with 'zhopa nyuhaet tsvety' ('your arse is smelling flowers'), to which I'd say 'zhopa zheleznaya, tsvetam ne poleznaya' ('your arse is of iron and poisonous to flowers') and he'd reply, 'zhopu nyuhal by i ya, tol'ko ochered' tvoya' ('I might have smelt your arse, but it's your turn').

Nobody said it made any logical sense.

These days, it's the boy's turn. The other day a smell pervaded the living room and we looked at him suspiciously. He pretended to be outraged.

'Whoever smelt it, dealt it.'

'Hey,' we said, 'It was not us!'

'Whoever denied it, supplied it.'

We wilted before this rhyming onslaught. The boy laughed and laughed. Then he offered us a way out:

'You should have said - whoever made the rhyme did the crime.'

Apr 5, 2014

School Clubs

The boy, seized with an afflatus of imagination, suggested to his pals at school that they start a club. They would call it the Naturality of Einstein. Or NOE, for short.

- Why Naturality? said I. That's not a word.
- Naturally because we're going to do experiments, said the boy. Like Einstein.
- I don't think Einstein ever did any experiments, I said. He was a theoret…
- Acha, please!

The plan, as I understand it, is to make train models during lunch recess. 

- Why trains? said the wife. What did Einstein have to do with trains?
- Actually, I said, feeling rather self-important, When Einstein thought about time and relativity, trains with on-board times different from either the origination or destination cities were suited for the purpose.

I then launched into a harangue about clock synchronisation, and the finite speed of light. The wife hid behind a newspaper. The boy listened carefully for a few seconds before beginning to fidget. Half an hour later my mouth was dry and the boy was nowhere to be seen.

A few days ago, he asked his headmaster for permission to set up the club. The headmaster gave him an appointment to explain the rationale for NOE. In the few days between the conversations, two boys dropped out of the club. (One cited the lack of action, and the other was miffed that his house was beaten at rugby by the boy's house.)

By the time of the appointment with the headmaster, NOE had become FOE. Followers of Einstein. The boy explained at length the raison-d'etre for the club. The principal heard him out, congratulated him on a sound plan, told him to get the art teacher involved. They would be using a space in the art room, and so the art teacher would have to agree as well.

- Amma, said the boy. I had a feeling that Mr Wilcox was trying not to laugh during our meeting.
- Why do you say that? said the wife, smiling.
- Because when I was leaving the room, he and Christie were laughing.

Two days ago, we heard that interest in the club had spread throughout the boy's year. Where initially there had been six boys keen to join, now about fifteen or twenty wanted to participate. The art teacher said he only had space for five. 

- What am I going to do, Amma? said the boy. This is a tricky situation.

He explained to the boys that he could only fit in five in all. One of the boys who had dropped out now wanted to rejoin.

- That's good, said the boy. But you can't - because there are others who are in line ahead of you.

One of the excluded fellows went to the form teacher and complained. The form teacher called the boy aside and said he had to include everyone.

- But there can only be five followers of Einstein, Amma, said the boy. Why is Miss Holmes interfering? Where am I going to put everybody?

He paced about the room, agitated.

- I know, he said. I'm going to ignore her.

Mar 30, 2014

Daylight Saving Scam

Here we go: another shortened Sunday. The clocks went forward a few hours ago. I woke up feeling cheated. An entire hour - lost. I understand exactly why people rioted when daylight saving time was introduced all those years ago. The loss of this hour, sneakily taken away in the middle of the night by a perfidious government, feels intrusive enough to make me want to join the Tea Party.

It was worse for me in the 90s when I travelled to the US on work from India. Each of my two stints were in spring and coincided with the time switch forward. Those were two hours I never got back because my stays ended in early summer, and by the time the clocks fell back in the fall, I was already in India.

Is this true, though? Did I really lose those two hours? It certainly felt like it when I woke up groggily at my usual hour and realised that the time was actually an hour ahead. Twice!

Here's what I thought. Imagine that the clocks switch forward at 1:00 am eastern time. Eastern standard time is 10.5 hours behind Indian time, so it would be 11:30am in India at that moment. Imagine that at 11:29am I was magically transported from India to New York. It would be 12:59am in New York. A minute later, the time would become 02:00. An hour lost! Now if I went back to India, it would only be 11:30. Did I lose an hour? Not in India! The mind boggles.

If someone can explain all this to me, I'll be much obliged.

Mar 21, 2014

Tough Man Eats

In Ted Allbeury's Dangerous Arrivals, tough man Max is having a meal with notorious criminal Gianni.
He clanged the silver lids off two dishes and the steam came up. There were gnolotti, pasta stuffed with meat - a sort of rich man's ravioli. There was a small bowl of those roasted chestnuts that Italians call castagne. The second dish was filet all' Tartara, a wonderful mixture of ground filet of beef, raw, mixed with raw egg, chopped onions and parsley. The sort of things they shovel into world class heavyweights the night before the fight. We finished up with spumoni, a frozen dessert shaped like a heart with candied fruit.
Gianni was pouring out coffee when there was a knock at the door. He shouted, 'Si venga.' 

Mar 14, 2014

A Spot of Reading

When I first learned to read, my dad would insist that I do so loudly. In turn, when the boy started to read, I would ask him to do it out loud.

In both cases, we (that is, the boy and I) quickly realised that we read much slower when articulating the words than when reading in our minds.

When I grew up a bit, I also learned that some people who read in their minds were sub-vocalising. In other words, they were mentally pronouncing each word. This meant, of course, that they were reading slowly.

Did it really make a difference, whether one read loudly or quietly? Was subvocalised reading less efficient than speed-reading? Was it important to be an efficient reader?

When my boy read loudly, he sometimes slurred the words. I had to ask him to slow down. I wanted to make sure he pronounced each word correctly - after all, while his vocabulary was growing, he needed to know what the words sounded like. 


I noticed that when I was paying attention to the act of reading, I tended to understand less of what I read. That is to say, observing myself reading affected my reading - and comprehension.

One day, when I was about thirteen years old, I decided I would read an entire James Bond book. I was in the library and there were about two hours to closing. I finished it just in time. When I got home, I had forgotten the entire plot of the book - and yet, as I was reading it, I was enjoying it! (The sexy bits, at least.)


When I was little, every time I came across a new word, I'd ask my dad what it meant. He'd direct me to the dictionary, and as it was too much of a hassle to stop reading, pick up the dictionary and look up the word, I stopped asking for meanings. My boy asks me for meanings, as I once did. I don't direct him to the dictionary; I tell him the meanings; but I find that he doesn't always remember what I said. The asking appears to be more important than the hearing.


Historically, reading was a communal affair - at least here in England. Sister-familias would read loudly to the family, mater-familias would knit, pater familias would smoke a pipe, frater-familias would get a kick every time he fidgeted. The family spent some time as a unit, welcomed new worlds into its midst, enjoyed the sonority of the words.

How did reading become a solitary affair? Here is St Augustine, writing about his mentor, St Ambrose:
When he was reading, he drew his eyes along over the leaves, and his heart searched into its sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Oft-times when we were present... we still saw him reading to himself, and never otherwise... . But with what intent soever he did it, that man certainly had a good meaning to it.
Was Augustine surprised at the silent reading? Did this mean that silent reading at the time (4th century AD) was considered an oddity? Or was he more perturbed by the fact that Ambrose was reading to himself whilst in company? Was reading expected to be a shared experience?

These days, privacy is all and individualism is paramount. The occasions for shared reading are few and circumscribed. An author reads excerpts on a publicity tour. A parent reads to a child. A pastor reads to the congregation. The magic of the written word is now a purely personal thing.

Mar 8, 2014

Good Air Houses

In Claudia Piñeiro's A Crack in the Wall, the middle-aged and rather hapless Pablo Simó has a chance to impress a lovely young photographer when she asks him for five of his favourite buildings in Buenos Aires. His first thought, upon waking up, is that there are far too many buildings on his mind.
So he crosses out the Kavanagh, the old offices of the Diario Crítica, the Obras Sanitarias building on Avenida Córdoba, the Banco Nación and the Olivetti, facing Plaza San Martín...
Here they are. Very Art Deco, wouldn't you say?

Kavanagh building.

Old offices of the Diario Crítica (those air conditioners sure are unsightly)
Then there's the eclecticism of the Obras Sanitarias building, the headquarters of the Buenos Aires water company:

And a somewhat disappointing neo-Classical National Bank building:

And a run-of-the-mill, to my eye at least, International-style Olivetti building:

Indeed, Simó wanted to be a bit more imaginative than to select the typical. After all, after decades of faithful and staid married life, here was a chance at freshness.
…it's not that they don't deserve to be on his list but that, to different degrees, they are emblematic of this city's architecture, buildings that anyone might choose, and he doesn't want to be anyone.
He chooses Mario Palanti's building on 1900 Avenida Rivadavia, an art-nouveau facade on 2000 (or was it 2100?), and Virginio Colombo's building on the same street at 3200, and two more by Colombo on Hipólito Yrigoyen that faced each other. Then he adds a housing complex on Calle La Rioja; a rationalist building on Alsina and Entre Ríos, and the Liberty at 1300 Paraguay; then, the best balconies in Buenos Aires - Avenida Riobamba, and 3800 Beruti … Then he realises he has more than five, and has to cut back, and eventually ends up with the following list:
Palanti, the art nouveau, the three by Colombo which, by cheating, he counts as one, plus Liberty and the railings: that's five. A sneaky five, but he reckons that's OK.
I'm having a bit of trouble with the Palanti: this Italian architect built the Edificio de los Atlantes at 1916 Avenida Rivadavia - is that the one Simó had in mind? If so:

1916 Avenida Rivadavia, by Mario Palanti.
Here's the Liberty building:

And here are a couple of Virginio Colombo's:

3200 Rivadavia, by Colombo.
Facade of 2562 Hipolito Yrigoyen.
Can't seem to locate those balcony railings, though...

Mar 3, 2014

Sweetly Greek

Sofia Papalenou felt the changing seasons through her confectionery: in spring, there were the special Lenten biscuits and Easter breads to be baked; then came the summer wedding season and the demand for cakes and the deep fried pastry dipped in honey, kserotigano, that was handed out at nuptials. August was also the month when they made their own ice-creams in amazing flavours. Then came autumn which was specially busy for celebratory gateaux for saints' days, with Stavros, Elpida and Thomas being particularly popular names in this town. After that were the St Nicholas specialities at the beginning of December, the frantic Christmas period and finally the Vasilopita cakes for the New Year that reminded her that yet another twelve months had gone by and her daughter was still unattached.

From Victoria Hislop's "The Zacharoplasteion" in The Last Dance and Other Stories.

Feb 24, 2014


The boy's friend is half-Scottish by birth, and wholly Scottish by inclination. Recently, he said, "If I could vote, I would vote for Scottish independence."

Then he added, "You know, the English are scared of the Scots."

"Why?" said the boy.

"Well, without the Scots, the English wouldn't have TV," said the friend.

(He claims that John Logie Baird is a relative.)

The boy thought about this for a bit and said, "You know, the Indians are scared of the English."

"Why?" said the friend.

"Well, think about it. The English ruled over India for a long time. And they had chainmail! Armour! What did the Indians have? Turbans! What were they supposed to do with turbans? Flick them at the English?"

(I blame Amar Chitra Katha - once again.)

Feb 18, 2014

Chez Estorick

I lived in Islington for years, rambled around Canonbury and Barnsbury, but in all that time didn't venture into the Estorick Collection. Why is that? Well, one answer is that I didn't notice the building. The other is that Italian modern art didn't hold much appeal to me all those years ago. It's only more recently, when I learned about the influence the Futurists had on the Russian avant-garde that I have begun to pay a bit more attention to it.

So the other day I ventured back into those old stomping grounds. The museum is on the northern side of Canonbury Square in a Georgian building that was called Northampton Lodge. It has some of the finest works of the Italian moderne in the UK - di Chirico, Boccioni, Sironi, Modigliani and Severini. I took some pictures. A woman at the front desk said I could do so without flash; another woman sitting next to her laughed when she heard my question. Later, when I was leaving, I asked if the displays were rotated frequently. Surely the Estoricks had more than one di Chirico? (It turns out that some of the paintings are replaced every four months or so. But the Estorick is planning a di Chirico exhibition in 2014, so I should be able to catch more of his oeuvre then.) The woman laughed again. 

The Revolt of the Sage, by Giorgio de Chirico. (1916).
The Revolt of the Sage, by Giorgio di Chirico. (1916).

The Engineer's Mistress, by Carlo Carra. (1920/40).
The Engineer's Mistress, by Carlo Carra. (1920/40).

The Boulevard, by Gino Severini. (1910-11).
The Boulevard, by Gino Severini. (1910-11).

The Hand of the Violinist, by Giacomo Balla. (1912).
The Hand of the Violinist, by Giacomo Balla. (1912).

Quaker Oats - Cubist Still Life, by Gino Severini. (1917).
Quaker Oats - Cubist Still Life, by Gino Severini. (1917).

Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp, by Ardengo Soffici. (1912-13).
Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp, by Ardengo Soffici. (1912-13).

Leaving the Theatre, by Carlo Carra. (1910).
Leaving the Theatre, by Carlo Carra. (1910).

Man Waiting, by Ottone Rosai. (1919).
Man Waiting, by Ottone Rosai. (1919).

Two Women, by Massimo Campigli. (1943).
Two Women, by Massimo Campigli. (1943).

The Belvedere, by Massimo Campigli. (1930).
The Belvedere, by Massimo Campigli. (1930).

Feb 12, 2014


What do I know of Orissa? Very little, as it turns out. Other than Konarak and Kalinga, I don't recall any coverage at all of this eastern state of India in all my years of education. History and geography, science and mathematics, all have ignored it. In my posts on various aspects of Indian history, too, I have paid it little attention. Time for a small remedy.

In the 1800s, the previously open-minded interactions between the British in India and the Indians were beginning to harden into disdain towards the latter's culture, art, traditions and behaviours. Indian religions were considered primitive, Indian learning was dismissed, and where there once were meetings of the mind, now there was British superciliousness and arrogance.

Shiva and Parvati. Oriyan temple sculpture. (13th century AD).
In such a clime, there were a few British men who would try to educate their countrymen about the wonders of the subcontinent. One of them was Charles Stuart, also known as Hindoo Stuart, an East India Company officer who amassed a large collection of Indian art, which is today found in the British Museum. In Stuart's house in Calcutta, he created a gallery which was one of the earliest systematic displays of Indian art aimed at the public. (To be sure, English public - I'm not sure if many Indians attended, despite Stuart's deep fondness for the natives.)

Five hundred years earlier, Orissa was ruled by a Hindu raja. Orissa was a Shaivite state - the God Shiva was supposed to be its lord, and the kingdom was dotted with grandly ornamented Shiva temples. One particularly magnificent sculpture - of Shiva and Parvati - likely stood at the entrance to one of the great temples. It found its way to Stuart and thence to the British Museum.

This was a life-size sculpture, and originally would have been brightly painted. Shiva would have been white, signifying the ash with which the ascetic God adorned himself, with a blue throat, from the poison he swallowed during the churning of the ocean for amrit. Observe the tenderness and devotion between him and his consort - this was no impersonal deity thundering abstinence and damnation upon his followers. Ganesha, their son, appears at the bottom, while figures representing the donor of the sculpture and his wife appear to the left and right of the Gods.
Mithuna, Eastern Ganga dynasty, Orissa. (13th century AD).
Another sculpture of love and devotion can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This too dates to the 13th century Orissa. It shows a loving couple (mithuna) and is also of stone, and was part of an Oriyan temple decoration. The kings of the time belonged to the Eastern Ganga dynasty, who had established the superb Sun temple at Konarak. They were allied by descent and marriage to the Cholas of the south and the Chalukyas of the west. By the time these sculptures were created, their kingdom was already in decline. Faced with aggression from the Muslim rulers of Bengal and Delhi, the Gangas slowly fragmented; a defeat by the Vijayanagar empire reduced their importance further. In 1425, a minister usurped power from the last 'mad' king, and the Eastern Gangas came to an end.

Feb 3, 2014

Church Food

In Evelio Rosero's venomously anti-Church novel Good Offices, the three Lilias, old and worn-out and attached to the Church have prepared a meal of eyewatering ambition and mouthwatering delicacy when the priest, Father Almida, has a local benefactor over for repast.
On one occasion, Don Justiniano had agreed to have lunch with the Father in the presbytery dining room; they had dined alone, behind closed doors. The three Lilias had outdone themselves: spicy potato stew, avocados, passion-fruit pudding, flank steak, fruit cocktail, chicken with dried fruit and almonds, saffron rice with parsley, triple dairy flan, melon, soursop sorbet, stewed curuba fruit and a creamy cheese with honey that the Lilias called manna. But it had all been in vain, because in the end, lunch had been delivered from the kitchens of the Hilton Hotel: American-style fried chicken breasts, pork loin in sherry, eggs à la king, ravioli in sauce, curried rice and a Normandy pear tart.
Almida did apologise to them, so don't worry. 

The boy and I have been watching This is Jinsy, a peculiarly funny brand of British television programming. We liked this song and sang it several times, giggling helplessly. You should imagine it being set to a rather soothing melody. There's also a faint background vocal, commenting ethereally on the situation.

You left a parsnip on my chair
I found some sweetcorn in my underwear
You placed a broccoli on every stair.
And it frightened me.

I found a broad bean in my wine
And a spinach on my washing line
You shoved a marrow where the sun don't shine
And it frightened me.

* You're playing vegetable vegetable tricks
Is that how you're getting your kicks?
You're playing vegetable vegetable tricks
I'm dealing with someone who's sick.

You put a cabbage in my summer hat
You force fed beetroot to my favourite cat (Anus)
Now there are purple patches where it sat
And it frightened me.

I found twelve mushrooms in my shoe (In My Shoe)
What a horrid horrid thing to do (What a h o r r i d thing to do)
I was going to use them in tomorrow's stew
You knew that, didn't you?

Repeat * twice

But you don't have to imagine the soothing melody. Here it is:

The world of translated fiction is truly a mind boggling one - there is so much wealth and variety, so much to explore and discover. And yet far fewer books are translated into English from other languages than, say, from English into German. It is a depressing state of affairs.

I think the first book translated into English that I read was Premchand's Godaan. I'm not entirely sure of this - I read it before my record-keeping began, and it might be that I didn't read it; I certainly recall my mum reading it, and it's possible that she told me the story, and somehow it now feels as though I read it myself.

But it's fairly safe to say that in my teens and well into my early twenties, the fraction of translated books read remained very small. I read some Russian books in the original; everything else was pretty much solidly English writing. The occasional exceptions were the works of Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne, and The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi. There was also a burst of Georges Simenons.

The 1990s were a sad vista of untranslatedness. 39 translated books in 10 years! Terrible stuff. I read some Erich Maria Remarques and some early Nabokovs (by this time, my knowledge of Russian was atrophying rapidly). I also discovered Arturo Pérez-Reverte's historical fiction, which perked me up.

The 2000s were much better - 165 translated books. Most of these were consumed in 2008 and 2010 when I was trawling the world of translated crime fiction - some of you may recall my blog posts of the time. And I have gone through 130 translated books in the three years of this decade.

374 translated works out of 2439 books read since 1990 in total isn't such a tremendous fraction, though, is it? 15%. And the variety of source languages is not that great either:

French     German     Italian    Bengali   Russian    Spanish    
Greek      Norwegian  Dutch      Czech     Japanese   Arabic     
Croat      Portuguese Vietnamese Polish    Chinese    Swedish    
Malayalam  Hebrew     Icelandic  Danish    Albanian   Oriya     
Turkish    Magyar     Finnish    Afrikaans Tamil      Swedish    
Urdu       Persian    Dari

In fact, if you look at the numbers, there's a huge preponderance of the major European languages. This is probably a fair reflection of the relative fraction of languages translated into English.

I guess the plan for the next reading binge should be to address the less-represented languages. The Indian ones, for a start? In view of my current lack of patience with thick tomes, I should look for sub-200 page books in Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi… What about books from the northeastern states? A world of possibilities awaits. So please throw in your suggestions!


I can actually recognise the names of translators now. At one time I'd not have given them a second look, but I am getting a renewed appreciation for them. The great ones - at least, going by the books I've read - are Edith Grossman and Margaret Jull Costa (for Spanish and Portuguese), Andrew Bromfield (Russian), Anthea Bell and Carol Brown Janeway (German), Michael Henry Heim (for as many languages as you can shake a stick at, the man was a true wonder). Howard Curtis and Stephen Sartarelli are prolific in Italian translations, and other names such as Sonia Soto (Spanish) and Carlos Lopez (Spanish) also pop up increasingly. Danusia Stok (Polish), Ina Rilke (Dutch) and Denys Johnson-Davies (Arabic) also appear more than once in my list. They are all deserving of comprehensive Wikipedia pages, that's for sure.

[Continued from Part II, and loosely translated from A Russian Missionary in India: Archimandrite Andronicus.]

After his departure from the Bethany ashram, Andronicus settled in Pattanapuram at the English school of St Stephen. He was then able to travel as a pastor around Travancore; occasionally, he was invited by Russians living in other parts of India to perform rites in Calcutta, Bangalore and Bombay. He also visited the Portuguese colony of Goa.

In 1939, he was established an Orthodox chapel in the village of Patali, a few miles from Pattanapuram, and began offering services. Next door was a Hindu temple of Bhadrakali. The locals were not pleased that the church was being set up, and complained to the government, which ignored them and permitted the church to continue.

Andronicus, as ecumenical as ever, established cordial relations with the chief priest of the Bhadrakali temple, as well as the local Muslim clergy. (Subsequently, he even attended a series of lectures on Hinduism in Madras, offered in 1948 by Somasundaram Iyer.) In Patali, there were Jacobites as well, whose church Andronicus often visited, and who also came to him during the Holy Week for confession. He was tireless in his works - preached, performed the liturgy at the St Thomas Church, constantly visited the sick. His superiors considered him a prime example of the apostolic man, hard-working and self-sacrificing, courageously undergoing all sorts of hardships and dangers both physical and spiritual, and continuing for years without confession.

Andronicus's superior, the Parisian metropolitan Eulogius, did all he could to publicise among the faithful in the Church. He wrote to the Russian Orthodox flock living in India about Andronicus, praising his steadfastness and urging the Russians to go to him for all their spiritual needs. 'His work is great and difficult,' wrote Eulogius. 'He brought from the Mother Church and lit up in distant India the lamp of the holy Orthodox faith that will not only illuminate the Russian peoples scattered there, but also, possibly, attract the native non-Christian folk and kindle in them a feeling for the Saviour, so that they may exclaim in an incandescence of faith as did St Thomas: My Lord and my God!'

Eulogius concluded his epistle with an exhortation to the Russians to assist father Andronicus in his lonely task. Let not the light of Orthodoxy be extinguished, he wrote, let it shine its saving grace on everything - be it ours or their's, be it near or far.

In 1934, for the first time Andronicus was able to hold a service for a distinctly Russian audience - nearly sixty peasants who had come to India in the previous two years, but who were now getting ready to leave for Brazil. For the first time in three and a half years in India, wrote Andronicus to Eulogius, I was able to serve as in Russia, and offer confession and communion.

In 1937, Andronicus was promoted to the rank of Archimandrite; his investment was performed at the Catholicos' residence, and conducted by the Serbian metropolitan Dosifej who was in India attending an international conference of the YMCA at Mysore.

Andronicus's travels around India continued. In 1944, he served the nearly 80 Russians in Calcutta, and performed office for the local Armenians as well at their cemetery church. There were fewer Russians in Bombay but there was still a need for pastoral care. During a visit to Delhi, Andronicus got acquainted with Nicholas Roerich's assistant, Shibayev, from whom he came learn of the various activities and interests of the great Russian artist, writer and Orientalist, who lived in the Himalayas at the time.

In 1947, Andronicus was invited to teach Russian at the University of Delhi. He had learned over his travels in India that Indians were interested in Russia and the Orthodox faith, although to varying degrees: they were interested in Russian politics and economics, and vaguely so in the faith; indeed, most educated Indians tended to assert that all religions were equal and good. So Andronicus was happy to use the opportunity in Delhi to teach Indian students not only the language, but also (hoping that they would develop deeper interests in) Russian culture and religion.

Following Indian independence and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the Russian department at the University expanded considerably. Many students hoped to obtain employment at the Soviet embassy. 

Andronicus stayed in Delhi for over a year, during which he introduced the basics of Orthodoxy to his students. In one of the two rooms he occupied during his stay, he established a little chapel where he offered worship regularly. He then returned to the south, hoping to establish a monastery in the Nilgiris and to continue his monastic life. This did not quite work out, as in 1948, he was invited by bishop John (Shakhovsky) to travel to the United States to continue his pastoral work in the Americas. And so his eighteen-year stay in India came to an end.

He spent two months awaiting his passport and visa in Madras, where he often visited the site of the martyrdom of St Thomas the Apostle. The holy location was situated within a small Catholic nunnery. The Thomas church on the hill held an ancient revered stone cross and an icon of the Mother of God. There was a grand cathedral in Mylapore that Andronicus often went to, built over the tomb of St Thomas. 'These places, of course, remain shrines for all true Christians,' he wrote, 'and the Orthodox faithful from the western coast visit them in awe.'

In 1949, Andronicus travelled by sea to New York. There began a new period in his pastoral work. He also started to write his memoir of his Indian life. To the end of his life, he held India in especial esteem. No matter where I might be, he wrote, I cannot remove India from my heart and from my thoughts. The unification of the churches remained his lifelong occupation and concern.

Andronicus died in 1958. His book Eighteen Years in India was published in the Russian language in Argentina the next year. A review appeared in the Bulletin of the Russian Student Christian Movement, praising his selflessness, elevating him as an outstanding evangelist, talked about the lonely heroism of his mission, and celebrated his memoir a special example in the literature of exile. Others familiar with his work in India pointed out that his mission was essentially a failure, as he had been unable to convert the heathens to the faith, and did not establish his own church community either. The reason, of course, was that the Orthodox church of South India, while not in communion with the Russian Orthodox, was close enough to the latter in faith and spirit. And so after much deliberation, Andronicus concluded he should help the Syrian Orthodox church and not establish a separate congregation. Where Andronicus had established a small church in Patali, a lone Indian monk remained, continuing his work. The surrounding communities remembered the unusual Russian priest with gratitude and hoped he'd return, but it was not to happen.

Jan 9, 2014

2013 Bookwise 2

So, out of the 234 books read in 2013, here's a brief breakdown.

65 were by women. 

78 were by non-British/US/Canadian writers. (Should I have included Australians in the list?) I do not distinguish between white and non-white authors from these countries.

38 were non-fiction (memoirs, science, history, art).

Not a lot more to say, I guess.

I suspect that 2014 will see fewer than 100 books read - I'm already feeling exhausted after last year's marathon. 

Jan 3, 2014

2013 Bookwise 1

Happy New Year, folks. Here's wishing all good things in 2014!


Last year was a prodigious one book-wise. My decision to power my way through my local library's fiction - books under 200 pages - proved fruitful in manifold ways. I discovered new authors. I read a large number of translated works. Indeed, from my record-keeping of books read since 1982, the year 2013 has been particularly fertile: I read 234 books, which after the 248 in 1984 and 239 in 1997, is third in the ranks of prolificity (prolifitude? prolificness? prolification?)


On the other hand, I have discovered a newfound impatience with fat books. If so many books are sub-200 page and can state their cases in sparkling prose and taut plots, why waste time over chunky tomes? Avast, I say.

In particular, non-English authors seem to have mastered the art of concentrated writing. If nothing else, that discovery alone makes me grin from ear to ear. Thin books henceforth!


Okay, that's probably a bit extreme. 


2013 has been a year of remarkable discovery - a surfeit of superb writing. Alan Garner's Thursbitch was a linguistic tour-de-force and a moving piece of historical fiction. Equally lovely was George Mackay Brown's fictionalised exploration of the history of his native isles in Beside the Ocean of Time. A fictional autobiography of vividness was Dimitri Verhulst's The Misfortunates. Katie Kitamura's The Longshot was outstanding - a penetrating view into the world of machismo and competitiveness, written with terseness and barely suppressed power. Equal understanding and immersion in an alien world (that of Saudi life) was provided by Zoë Ferraris' wonderful trilogy (The Night of the Mi'raj, City of Veils, Kingdom of Strangers) - books with a glorious protagonist in Katia Hijazi. Herta Müller's The Passport was a deeply troubling and painful depiction of the tribulations of a Romanian German family during the corrupt and evil Ceausescu regime. Barry Unsworth's Morality Play equalled the brilliance of Alan Garner's novel mentioned above - a superbly written historical crime novel steeped in the idiom and atmosphere of medieval England. Another example of fine historical fiction was the farcical description of the snobberies and jazziness of 1930s Vienna in Alexander Lernet–Holenia's I Was Jack Mortimer. Vignettes of violent true crime, some bewilderingly Tarantino-esque, are the oeuvre of Ferdinand von Schirach: Guilt is staccato, dry, and veers between the impersonal and deeply troubling. To round off the excellence of translated fiction, I would heartily recommend Hiromi Kawakami's Strange Weather in Tokyo, which is a gorgeous and whimsical love story between a loner and a perfectionist.

Leo Rosten's The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n provided hearty humour after the bleakness of much of my reading, as did Karan Mahajan's Family Planning. Erlend Loe's Lazy Days was a side-splitting story of obsession and middle-aged angst, and strangely prescient about the fate of Nigella Lawson.

Fantasy was well supported by Andrzej Sapkowski's Time of Contempt, one in a series starring Geralt of Rivia, an assassin of supernatural creatures. Sapkowski's characters are ironic and the books are darkly humorous, providing considerable relief from the usual black-and-white nature of common fantasy.

In non-fiction, my top reads would be Norman Davies' Vanished Kingdoms – The History of Half–Forgotten Europe, a timely reminder that even the mightiest empire is not far from obsolescence and the reasons for decrepitude are often folly and unforeseen consequences of ostensibly rational decisions; and Oliver Bullough's Let Our Fame Be Great – Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus, on the terrible consequences of Russian state policy (both imperial and Communist) on the mountain peoples of the Caucasus.

[Part II of Russian Religious Missions to India, loosely translated excerpts from the original Russian.]

A special place in the history of Russian religious missions to India belongs to the archimandrite Andronicus, who spent eighteen years in India and established close ties with Indian Christians of various denominations. He was born in 1894 to a professor of church history, the seventh of twelve children, and he followed his brothers into the theological seminary of Olonets. Shortly after his graduation from the seminary in 1916, it occurred to him to travel to India. Having read in Eugraph Smirnov's history of the church that there were Christians in South India with rituals related to the Orthodox, he asked himself - why not travel there if they want to join us?

Andronicus took part in the Great War, during which he heard the happy news that he had been admitted to the St Petersburg Theological Academy. Of course, the Revolution intervened, and his studies were disrupted, with the result that he spent a few years in Finland and Germany, before moving to Paris in 1923. Two years later, at the St Sergius Church in Paris, he was tonsured as a monk, and ordained to the priesthood. He was then sent to the Belfort, close to the German frontier, to take over a parish.

He was a somewhat austere soul, reluctant to take money for religious services from his congregation: instead, he rented a house with a large garden where he grew his own food; he also worked at a local Peugeot factory. 

Again he brought up his desire to sojourn in India, a request that was granted by the Metropolitan Eulogius. With the money saved up from his Peugeot job, he travelled on the steamer General Messenger to Ceylon.

En route, he befriended a couple of Indians: one a Brahmin who had graduated from university in England, the other a Muslim Bengali merchant.

From Colombo, Andronicus travelled to India, and settled in Bangalore where he worked in an agricultural factory that employed an old Russian acquaintance of his. S. F. Kirichenko had bought a small estate in South India and taken up farming; unable to concentrate on his new projects, Kirichenko had asked for another worker to replace him, and Andronicus offered to take his place. 

Andronicus worked in Coimbatore as well. In one of the rooms of the factory, he established a little chapel. In those years, there were only around 300 Russian Orthodox Christians in the country, and it was his duty to provide pastoral care to them all. Prior to his arrival, Russian believers had to visit non-Orthodox clergy in times of trouble. One example was that of the Princess Urusova, who wanted to partake of Holy Communion on her deathbed in Bombay, and had to beseech the Anglican bishop who  initially refused, but finally relented. 'You may pretend that you are taking communion from the hands of an Orthodox priest,' he said to the princess, 'I shall get in touch with your bishop and ask him to approve the holy eucharist.' It was clear that there was an urgent need for an Orthodox priest in the country.

In October 1931, Andronicus visited Travancore for three weeks, during which he met Syrian Orthodox Christians. Their denomination had split 22 years earlier from the Syro-Jacobite patriarchate of Syria, and was interested in making peace with the patriarchate, but the latter's demand for complete submission prevented any harmony. After the death of Metropolitan Dionysius VI in 1934, the first Catholicos of the church, a constitution was drawn up at the conference of all the churches in Kottayam that established the independence of the Syrian Orthodox denomination under the leadership of a Catholicos, although it was still spoken of as a subsidiary of the Syrian church. (The issue was resolved only in 1962 with the recognition of the Malabar Syrian church by the Antiochian patriarch Ignatius-Jacob III.)

In Travancore, Andronicus visited the Catholicos Basil-Gregorius and had a conversation with him. He also visited the local seminary, sharing meals with the priests, teachers and students, followed by theological discussions. Subsequently, in Kottayam, Andronicus stayed with the Catholicos, and was thereafter always assured of the most welcoming hospitality. He established close links with the clergy and bishops of the Syrian Church of South India. In their conversations, Andronicus was quick to indicate the prominent drawback of the isolation of the Syrian church from the universal church, but was comforted by the desire for unification with the universal church through their links with the Russian Orthodox church.

In Kottayam, Andronicus was also able to meet the Jacobite patriarch Ilia, whose visit from Syria was an all too rare event for the local Christians. Ilia recalled the deep faith of the Russian Christians in Jerusalem and sang their praises. Andronicus then visited the Syro-Jacobite Metropolitan Athanasios in Alwaye; staying at his residence, he had the opportunity to speak with the clergy and seminarians.

Andronicus met the bishops of the Mar Thoma denomination, which was at the time headed by the Metropolitan Titus, and comprised a hundred thousand worshippers and a hundred churches. This church was allied with the Protestants, he discovered: among other things, it did not recognise saints. Rounding off his visits with the metropolitan Dionysius in Kunnamkullam, he was happy to inform his superiors back in Paris that he had met the heads of all the denominations of the Syrian church in South India that were of interest to the Russian Orthodox.

In 1932, Andronicus joined the monastery of Bethany ashram (near Vadasserikara) to study the religious life of Christians in India. He paid great attention to the missionary activities of St Thomas the Apostle in South India, the Nestorian movement and so on.

In particular, he was interested in the propagation of the Roman Catholic faith in India. He learned of St Francis Xavier, who had begun his mission in Goa, converting the locals, then moving on to Travancore, and Madras. Returning from Japan in 1562 to Goa, this energetic missionary then headed to China where he perished of malaria. He is interred in a magnificent tomb in Goa, and is considered the patron saint of India, reported Andronicus.

Andronicus noted that the Catholics had been very active in the previous decades in all parts of India, establishing great churches in Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta, Delhi, in the Nilgiris, all over Malabar, and in Goa; everywhere, there were crowds of pilgrims; one would hear of their bishops, their monasteries and nunneries. Their resources were tremendous, he said, they acquired land and buildings; in a pagan country, their presence was a cultural boost.

His greatest interest remained towards the Syrian Orthodox. He wrote of its doctrines, governance, peculiarities of ritual, the sacraments, the tradition of iconography, the church hierarchy and so on.

At the Bethany ashram, he was permitted to perform the orthodox liturgy, and even after his sojourn ended, he often visited the monks, whom he considered close friends. In his missives to Paris, he wrote detailed accounts of the monastery. He said that the Jacobite monastic charter was quite distinct from the Russian Orthodox: not as austere, no long services, no vows at tonsure, and no use of the Jesus Prayer; prayer and obedience were not the essence of monastic life; common prayers were frequent but brief; on the other hand, institutionalised hours among the Jacobites for meditation and silence were better defined.

[To be continued…]

Dec 25, 2013

Amatriciana Noir

As we have seen, the contamination of foodiness has spread across Italian crime noir. Here is the perfect pasta amatriciana, according to a thug in Giampiero Rigosi's Night Bus. Just the thing to cook while waiting for the mark to show up in the apartment.

"It's an old question. There are those who say that the true amatriciana, the original, was white, that is, without tomatoes. Pork cheek cut in strips and browned, to which you add only hot pepper and a generous amount of grated pecorino. Others don't agree. Who said that one must go back to historical research? I, for my part, don't give a damn about history. The best known amatriciana is the one with tomato. Except that usually it's made with pancetta, but this is another subject. The fact is that almost no one uses pork cheek anymore. Like lard, fat and all the other stuff that has gone out of fashion. As if the crap people eat today were good for your health. For example, I feel sick to my stomach at the idea of a soy beefsteak. What the fuck is a soy beefsteak? Does it seem logical that, with all the meat we have available, we should start concocting fake beefsteak, using shit like soy? Anyway, to return to our amatriciana, there are some who sauté the pork by itself, with a drop of oil, or even with a chopped onion. Then, of course, you add the hot pepper, the crushed tomatoes and the pecorino. This is definitely the most common recipe. But I've worked out a couple of small variations. Pay attention. First of all, I heat a spoonful of oil in a pan with a couple of crushed slivers of garlic. As soon as the garlic colours, I take it out and throw in the pork cheek, cut in strips. I sauté it for a bit, then pour a couple of spoonfuls of dry white wine over it. As soon as the wine hits the hot pork, it creates a steam that fills your nostrils with perfume and opens up the stomach nicely. In this way the pork cheek loses its fat and becomes crusty and had a delicious taste. When it browns, I add the pepper and some tomato purée. I cook it down until I get a thick sauce, then I sprinkle it with a spoonful of chopped basil. When the spaghetti is cooked, I drain it and put it in the pan along with the sauce and a generous amount of cheese. Half pecorino and half Parmigiano. What a perfume. Come on, don't tell me you don't want to taste it." 
Diolaiti looks with disgust at the giant plate that Garofano has filled.

Dec 22, 2013

The Tiger

More poetry from the boy on the theme of wildlife.

Forest dwellers
like bears
lions, bats.
All forest animals
happy until
the tiger
Eating anything
in its way.

Dec 19, 2013

Humour China Style

Xiao barged his way through several queues, trying to remember the plainclothes training. Problem is, Chinese plainclothes cops operate so as to be noticed. The idea is not to blend but to intimidate. Only foreigners and Gansu peasants can't spot a plainclothes cop, runs the police academy joke: foreigners because they have never seen China, Gansu peasants because they have never seen clothes.

Paul Mason, Rare Earth.