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

Lourdes also proceeded to demonstrate, to my amazement, that (at least in this region of the stratosphere) there was no apparent relation between the amount of food its inhabitants put away and the ligne of their figures. To put it bluntly, she gorged as though she had skipped lunch, but came out of it looking like the Sugar Plum Fairy, albeit one with truly wonderful breasts. She wanted some caviar en blini. She insisted that I try some of her duck liver, not forgetting one or two of its abundant nuggets of black truffle. If Laurent had had ortolans en caissette, those tiny and rare buntings served whole in fluted paper cases, I am sure her relentless and champing jaws would have disposed of half a dozen before proceeding to the civet de lièvre avec pommes soufflées, and thence to the tart of Anjou pears with a little rhyming pear sorbet on the side, and finally, like some marathon runner breaking the tape, to the immense trolley of cheeses. She ate her way through all this without the slightest appearance of strain. It was I who sweated and inwardly groaned, for my menu had prices on it whereas, in the chauvinistic manner of French restaurants then, hers did not.
From "The Spectacle of Skill", by Robert Hughes. 

Nov 3, 2015

Auschwitz Violinist

In Maria Àngels Anglada's The Auschwitz Violin, the young luthier Daniel remembers Passover feasts.
He would imagine the two holiday meals at Passover with all the relatives, uncles and cousins. The basket with the haroseth, the bitter herbs that would have tasted so good now, the hard-boiled eggs, the white silk cloth with blue stripes that covered them … What he would have given for a hard-boiled egg today! Or better still, a piece of lamb. He remembered the taste of the matzo - the unleavened bread - and the fun of searching for the hidden piece, the prize for the child who found it. He didn't want to think about the songs or the three toasts. If he could just have a few spoonfuls of cholent - the terrine of rice, eggs, dried beans and goose that had to be cooked all night in the community oven. As a young boy, he'd been sent more than once to fetch it.

Oct 15, 2015

Black Books

I read Hend Al Qassemi's Black Book of Arabia with an increasing sense of frustration. At a time when few books by international authors get published in the major presses, it seems unconscionable that an example of such pedestrian plodding prose would be released by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation. The tales in this book are supposedly stories told in secret to the author (who is a publisher of a Middle Eastern magazine called Velvet), and have some innate points of interest in them, but have been written at the level of a somewhat unimaginative teenager. 
I was seated next to my husband Eissa when the brain surgeon at Hamad General Hospital in Doha, Qatar, informed us that my partner of seventeen years had brain cancer. Had it been any other form of cancer I might have reacted more collectedly as recovery rates for many forms of cancer are well above fifty percent. But brain cancer is different. Its recovery rates remain low, and its treatment is difficult and painful. My father had died of another form of cancer, lung cancer, and the nightmare of his agony flashed before me. Cancer was taking everyone I loved from me. When were they going to invent a cure for this Black Death?
Kuwait, UAE, Saudi and Qatar, rich, holier-than-thou, are spoiled, cultural wastelands, with little to offer the rest of the world. What have they done with their ugly billions? And now you have Al Qassemi, Emirati royalty married into Qatari royalty, getting published. It smacks of ticking yet another box among her hobbies. Published author, tick. What is Bloomsbury thinking? There's enough superb literature coming out of the Arab world that such dross should be ignored.

In Irene Rozdobudko's The Lost Button, a manic pixie girl called Lika has a bit of Transcarpathian blackberry wine.

And what wine it was! The first drop was like blistering viscid resin. Sweet and thick lava flowed down my throat, its stream ran further, washing off all my insides. It was as if I saw myself from inside, felt my every cell - just like I did in the morning and ... I lost feeling in my legs. It was as if a butterfly-swallowtail was trying to open its glued wings inside my chest. The thick liquid had the taste of time - the bitterness of twenty-year-old dust ingrained into the glass of the bottle, the roughness of the wild berries that died long ago, and the sweetness of yellow sugar (of the kind that no longer can be found!). And also - a particular aroma of some kind of unknown potion. My lips nestled eagerly on the mug, and I tore myself away only when they had turned black and when whiteness glimmered on the bottom.

To Zi’an, Look out from the Riverside in Sadness

Myriads of maple leaves 
upon myriads of maple leaves 
silhouetted against the bridge, 
a few sails return late in the dusk.

 How do I miss you? 

 My thoughts run like 
the water in the West River, 
flowing eastward, never-ending, 
day and night

Yu Xuanji (844?-871?), Tang dynasty poet and courtesan

Sep 15, 2015


Since I began blogging - a bit late to the party, but early enough to catch the up-wave - I've been rather fortunate in being able to meet up with other bloggers. For some reason, London proved to be a strong attractor. People were either moving to live here, passing through, or just generally visiting. And so I got to know several lovely people - Veena, Space Bar, Singaporean in London, Sakura, Bint Battuta, SzerelemRochelle.

Most recently I met up with Aishwarya. Mucho gusto!

All we need now is for Arkady (or Kim) to turn up in London and introduce themselves, and 2015 will be complete.

Sep 3, 2015

At the Menagerie

In Saradindu Bandyopadhyay's The Menagerie and Other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries, the detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his sidekick Ajit are investigating a possible crime at an ex-judge's farm. The judge's wife cooks up a fine lunch for them.
In the next room, the food was laid out on the table. But no forks or knives had been provided - just spoons. We sat down to our meal. There was a variety of dishes before us: rice with ghee, roasted moong dal, green jackfruit curry, prawn cutlets, green mango chutney, kheer and cottage cheese barfi. We stuffed ourselves to our heart's content. Under the skilled supervision of Damayanti Devi and Bonolokhhi, lunch left us replete with food and contentment.

Aug 3, 2015

Lamora Starving

In Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards series of fantasies, the world building is impressive and so is the occasional mention of food. 
There were the underwater mushrooms of the Amathel, translucent and steamed to the texture of gossamer, paired with col-black truffles in malt and mustard sauce. There were cool buttercream cheeses an crackling, caustic golden peppers. Spicy fried bread wit sweet onions was drizzled with tart yellow yoghurt, a variation on a dish Locke recognised from the cuisine of Syrune. Each of these courses was bookended with wine and more wine. Though Locke felt his own wits softening, he was heartened to see the deepening blush on Sabetha's cheeks and the way her smiles grew steadily wider and easier as the evening wore on.

Jul 27, 2015

Jai Ratan, Translator

A recent article in by Daisy Rockwell, "Five timeless translations to read, and what bad translations are", mentions Jai Ratan (1917-2012), a prolific translator of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi literature. She found his translations to be catastrophic.

I don't think I've read any of Ratan's translations; certainly, unlike Rockwell, I haven't read any of the originals either. But surely others have? What did they think? I thought I might do a search for Jai Ratan to find out.

A foreword to Ratan's translation of Kamleshwar's "Not Flowers of Henna", published by Katha, says Ratan is an accomplished veteran ... Hindi and Urdu literature - and indeed, English literature, too - owe him a profound debt for his momentous contribution to them.

Uday Prakash, a notable Hindi writer, said that Ratan's translations of his works were targeted at an Indian English reader, and could not travel abroad.

A.G. Khan, a professor at Vikram University, reviewed Ratan's translation of Ilyas Ahmed Gaddi's Urdu novel "Fire Area". He says In spite of these subtle intricacies Jai Ratan's translation is an honest and convincing rendering of the text making the version quite engrossing. I took a look at some of these subtle intricacies. I have nothing to say about most of them, but Khan makes the following statement:
Rare is an adjective. It should not be used as a verb. "You are raring to go as if some woman is waiting to play Holi with you” (p 87). The correct expression should have been 'so keen / so eager’.
How, as a teacher of English, Khan is unable to see that 'raring to go' is correct, I don't know. Does this gap in his understanding of English negate the rest of his (positive) commentary on Ratan? Probably not.

Meanwhile, Jason Francisco agrees with Rockwell's claim that Ratan often dropped entire passages in his translations, and also blames him for deadening the impact of the original by (mis)translation.

Then we have Chitra Divakaruni, who said she liked Jai Ratan's translation of Premchand's "Godaan", though she doesn't get into specifics.

A bit of a mixed bag, it seems, from this cursory search at least...

Jul 9, 2015

Maximum Consumption

The Kinks going on about chowder. Yeah, food in music.

I'll have some clam
chowder, followed 
by beefsteak on rye

Pumpkin pie,
whipped cream and

I wanna green salad
on the side

Don't forget the
french fries

In Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator is having a meal with one of the women he is attracted to. He's not in Madrid at all. He is in Barcelona.
A few blocks away was the restaurant, Alkimia, full of fashionable people, and although it was crowded and we had no reservation we were immediately seated. I ordered a drink in Spanish and the waiter clarified my order in English, something that never happened in Madrid. Teresa ordered various small plates and they came quickly: tuna belly cut in the manner of Iberian ham and served over some kind of broad bean; white bread rubbed in oil and covered in tomato paste; a dish involving truffles and tiny pieces of sausage that might have been duck; it was all delicious. They brought us a bottle of white wine I hadn't heard Teresa order and by dessert I felt pleasantly drunk. Dessert was a wonderful and unfamiliar ice cream and I asked the waiter what was in it and he said "Eucalyptus." I was slow to recognise the gorgeous word as English.

Jun 25, 2015

Wiki Biases

For years now, people have highlighted Wikipedia's biases. The lack of coverage of topics outside a predominantly white, male interest. The lack of female editors. The drop in numbers of active editors. They have ascribed various reasons for these lacunae. They have tried to encourage new editors by promoting editathons. They encouraged university faculty to assign editorial tasks to their students. Still the biases remain.

So in my bid to make a small difference - at least where gender bias is concerned - I have been writing or rewriting a few articles. First, I thought I'd look at women novelists. The big names have a certain amount of coverage already. Recent award winners looked like a better bet. Maybe a few outside the Anglophone world, as well? I contributed: Hermione Eyre. Simone Schwarz-Bart. Hélia Correia. Michela Murgia. Ursula Krechel. Katie Kitamura. Shani Boianjiu.

Then, I cast my web a little wider. Art / Music / Acting? I contributed: Maria Yakunchikova. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin. Alla Sizova. Jyotsna Srikanth. Sudha Raghunathan.

Can you imagine that someone as luminous as Sudha Raghunathan had barely any coverage on the Wikipedia? Even now, it's quite limited.

Finally, I poked about the academic world. Historians? I contributed: Mridula Mukherjee. Physicists? Bimla Buti. I thought I might do more but I tell you, it's exhausting work.

You have to find secondary sources to evidence the statements you make in your article. You have to make sure that these secondary sources are 'reliable'. Often, you don't have access to scholarly journals, so you trawl through Google Scholar or Google Books and try to finesse the snippet view to find just the right text to reference. This way leads to early blindness. You have to look up interviews, reviews, controversies, photographs, material in other languages. Sometimes you have to fight off people who are protective of their pet subjects and want no correction to their articles.

As I said: exhausting.

Around two years ago I learned that Sidin Vadukut, Dominus Maximus himself, was in London on assignment for the Mint newspaper. Having been a fan of his writings I thought it might not be a scaly plan to meet up with the man. Cunning investigative work revealed his email address and I wrote off to him asking if he'd like to catch up over a coffee. He replied promptly that he was spending much of his time at the British Library, and while he got tremendously freaked out by new people, he saw no reason why we shouldn't meet.

To cut a long story short, we didn't.

Then his book The Sceptical Patriot: Exploring the Truths Behind the Zero and Other Indian Glories came out in early 2014, and the reason for his British Librarying became clear.

You must have seen emails popping up every now and then that listed all the ways India is excellent and unique. Most of the assertions are quite patently rubbish while others might have some kernel of truth in them. As a journalist, Vadukut decided to probe some of the claims. To see what he found, you would do well to read the book.

Vadukut's a humorist, as readers of his blog and fiction would know, and in this book he brings some of his humour to bear. But it is essentially an investigative work, interspersed with stories of growing up in the Gulf and his years of engineering school. He has fun with - among other things - 'zero' (turns out that the earliest representation of the number zero appears not in India but in Cambodia) and with ancient Indian plastic surgery, the supposed lack of Indian invasions of foreign countries, and the invention of radio. But above all, it is a timely reminder to be sceptical.

Jun 15, 2015

Chicken Again

The Boss has a thing to say about chicken.

Fried chicken on
the front seat, she's
sitting in my lap

We're wiping our
fingers on a Texaco
road map

Jun 9, 2015

An Armenian in India

In the 18th century, the Russians smashed their way across the Caucasus and forced the Ottomans to cede large chunks of territory to them. In the midst of the landgrab, Armenians began to think about a possible autonomous polity. They had not been independent for nearly a millennium, but with Russian support, perhaps they could re-establish themselves.

There were two proposals for an Armenian state. One, by an archbishop Hovsep Arghutian, was to have a kingdom with a capital at Vagharshapat. The king would chosen by the Russian czar, could be either Russian or Armenian, would mint his own currency and allow the Russians access to the Caspian sea. The other proposal, by Shahamir Shahamirian, was for an Armenian republic, one governed by a prime minister with a parliament, cleaving to Russia with a military and free-trade treaty.

Clearly, Arghutian's conservative approach was favoured by the traditionalists, the feudal and religious powers in Armenia. Shahamirian's proposal was modernist, hoping to curb the power of the aristocracy and give more voice to the bourgeoisie.

(In the end, neither approach bore any fruit. Political competition between the Russians, Persians and the Ottomans meant that Armenian hopes were put aside for generations.)

Who was this modernist Shahamir Shahamirian? It turns out he was an intellectual and a merchant - and based in Madras!

I had previously heard that the first Armenian printing press was established not in its homeland, but in India - in Madras, in fact, which was under British rule at the time. In 1771-72, Shahamirian had founded that press.

Encouraged by British parliamentary democracy (such as it was), Shahamirian hoped that a new Armenia would similarly be guided by the popular power of the middle class, thereby checking the illiberal nobility and the church. In his treatise of political philosophy, Shahamirian articulated a view of equality and opportunity that held true to the values of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it was quite likely the first blueprint for a constitutional democracy ever to appear in the world! In 1773, in the Vorogayt Parats (The Snare of Glory), he wrote:
Every human being, whether Armenian or of some other race, whether man or woman, born in Armenia or brought there from another country, shall live in equality and shall be free in all their occupations.

Check out:
  1. Agop Jack Hacikyan, Gabriel Basmajian, Edward S. Franchuk, The Heritage of Armenian Literature: From the eighteenth century to modern times, pp. 160-161.
  2. Simon Payaslian, The History of Armenia, pp. 109-110.

Jun 3, 2015


In case you wondered what it was that Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt were munching on during the Yalta conference, here's the menu for the last banquet (from the London Review of Books blog):

Caviar Pies 
White and Red Salmon 
Salted Herring 
Sturgeon in Aspic 

Swiss Cheese 
Suckling Pig with Horseradish Sauce 

Vol-au-Vent of Game 

Game Bouillon 
Cream of Chicken 

White Fish, Champagne Sauce 
Baked Kefal 

Shashlik of Mutton 
Wild Goat from the Steppes 
Pilau of Mutton 

Roast Turkey 
Roast Quails 
Roast Partridge 
Green Peas 

Ice Cream 
Petits Fours 
Roasted Almonds 


A tweeter called Simon Thomas has been broadcasting his displeasure:

As usual with cavillers of his ilk, this stems entirely from personal taste. There's no reason to not use gift as a verb. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of this usage from the nearly 400 years ago.

Prescriptivists such as Mr Thomas don't care. They'll probably be equally aghast at my split infinitive.

May 21, 2015

Hastings Trial

At the trial of Warren Hastings for corruption as Governor-General of Bengal in 1788, the following refreshments were on offer:
Sandwiches, of Veal and ham (for 1 shilling)
          , of Ham and Fowl (for 1 shilling)
          , of Tongue and Veal (for 1 shilling)
          , of Dutch Beef, with Butter (for 1 shilling)

Coffee and Chocolate,

Orange and Lemonade, with Queen's Cakes
different kinds of Bifcuits and Cakes



My mother learned to cook from her mother, my "Busia," a Polish peasant who immigrated at age 14, worked as a domestic, and could barely speak English. Our Polish food included stuffed cabbage, or green peppers (from our garden); the crispiest potato pancakes; beet soup (Borscht); chicken soup that cooks all day and fills the air with a smell that will make you anxious for dinner; beef soup with garden vegetables, and pierogie, those lovely noodles stuffed with cheese and potatoes or fresh fruit; bread made with eggs and raisins (rare--Dad hated raisins); sausages, and pickles of all varieties. And sautéed fresh wild mushrooms, which Busia hunted in the Chicago woods when we had family picnics. (See picture). Poland has an extensive vegetarian cuisine due to the scarcity of meat, which I would have welcomed on meatless Fridays instead of Kraft cheese.
Carol A. Westbrook, Not my mother's home cooking, please

May 9, 2015

Chicken Curry

More food in music, this time from that cool man Joey Bada$$.

I gotcha back, ain't
gotta worry

Only thing I ask is 
for some curry

Chicken when
we land we eatin'

Mama seen me on
TV lookin' 

But I'm lookin' like
a winner, aye