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

Apr 12, 2015

The Ride

It's not just fancy food in books, it's fancy food in music as well. How about this one in The Ride by Drake?

And you do dinners
at French Laundry
in Napa Valley

Scallops and
glasses of Dolce,
that shit's right up
your alley

Apr 6, 2015

Stalin's Grub

Comrade Stalin was not stingy when it came to food. There was salmon roe and herring and salted cucumbers and meat salad and grilled vegetables and borsht and pelmeni and blini and lamb cutlets and pierogi with ice cream. There was wine of various colours and of course there was vodka. And even more vodka.
From Jonas Jonasson's very silly caper, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.

(Image: The Daily Telegraph.)

The heart-stoppingly gorgeous Margaret Audrey White was denied a job in the BBC as a television announcer in 1951. The reason was that her loveliness could have "alarmed timid men from Wigan and country districts". A commentator said, “Could you watch Miss White talking about depressions over Iceland and absorb what she was saying?”

She graciously accepted the decision: "I do not want to scare any timid male viewers."

Instead, she went on to become a famous bibliophile, supporter of charities, and most importantly to educate women on financial planning and cash management. It ran for eight years - very successfully - until she had to close it when the Equal Opportunities Commission said she was being discriminatory.

(Reference: Lady Wardington - obituary. The Daily Telegraph, Nov 14, 2014.)

Mar 25, 2015


I was reading Kirmen Uribe's novel Bilbao - New York - Bilbao, translated from the Basque into English by Elizabeth Macklin, when I encountered the following poem:

Naine on vesi – selge,
Puhas ja igavene.

Mehed on maitseained
sajandi supi sees.

This is not Basque! It's Estonian, and it's by the poet Doris Kareva, whom Uribe met at a poetry symposium, which meeting he describes in the book. The poem itself has been translated by Kareva and Andres Aule, a lovely little piece:

Woman is water — clear,
pure and eternal.

Men are the spices
in the century’s soup.

Mar 19, 2015

My Neck of the Woods

Liverpool Street Station, by Ebbe Sadolin (via Spitalfields Life.)

Mar 13, 2015

An Abundance of Riches

In the early 90s, shortly after the implosion of the USSR, the world was suddenly awash with brilliant Soviet scientists and engineers who found themselves unemployed and impoverished. Many of them wanted nothing more than to continue their work, while others seized the opportunity to move to greener pastures abroad. A small number were coopted by countries and terrorists seeking nuclear and biochemical weapons know-how. In order to keep the rest from succumbing to such temptation, US institutions organised monthly stipends for them, while George Soros created the International Science Foundation to support the sciences in the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, a large-scale emigration of Jewish scientists began to Israel, which found itself swamped by these riches.

I was at TIFR in the summer one of those years, and the notice-boards in the cafe were festooned with newspaper clippings describing efforts by various countries to attract the scientists. Some pooh-poohed the miserly stipends the US were paying out - $500 a year or so. Some marvelled at the Chinese willingness to pay top dollar for expertise. And many bemoaned Indian bureaucratic intransigence and hierarchical pig-headedness that prevented us from paying higher salaries to attract Soviet scientists than our own professors were earning. And thus a superb opportunity to revamp our scientific and technical base, and to improve the calibre of our research and our universities was forever lost.

For the Israelis, though, the incoming rush was a mixed blessing. Haaretz recently had a beautiful piece on the diaspora from the Soviet Union. The Jews of the USSR did much to change the political landscape in Israel, especially towards a conservative direction. They also added considerable fillip to cultural diversity. But many of them found it hard to adjust to their new lives. Israel did not have the capacity to accommodate every brilliant Jewish scientist who arrived. After two or three top-notch algebraic theorists arrived, for example, where would the fourth be placed? And so many a scientist, who anywhere else in the world would have been a superstar, found themselves sidelined and frustrated.

It is a heartbreaking thing when pearls are so abundant that their shine is lessened.

Mar 9, 2015

Blaming the Romanians

In the Sunday Times yesterday, Camilla Cavendish had this to say:
Many of the loudest voices now calling for a halt [to immigration] come from immigrants themselves. It was my Polish friend Urszula who told me the lady on our corner is one of hundreds of Romanian Big Issue sellers who are claiming to be self-employed and so eligible for all benefits. Urszula runs a business; she pays her taxes; she says she did not come here to see England "overwhelmed".
Ah, that good old Polish friend. When the Poles first started coming into this country a few years ago, there was general uproar. On the one hand, they were better builders than the Brits, cheaper and more reliable. Plus they didn't take tea-breaks. The middle classes loved them. On the other, they drove like they were in Poland, they ate weird food, and their numbers were straining the schools and hospitals. The working class didn't like them and the middle class suddenly wasn't all that sure they loved them either. All in all, they weren't really all that welcome.

Now that the new immigrants are from even poorer Romania and Bulgaria, the Poles are all right, and the newcomers are scum. Even the Poles have no truck with the Romanians. A Polish woman we know (not Urszula) used to work as a cleaner at various hotels. "Romanians? They are horrible. Horrible. Do you know what they do?" she said the other day. "They use bleach to clean the cups and plates, and they steal everything. The towels, the toiler paper, the little soap bars, the small shampoos..."

When we asked her why the Romanians did that, she sniffed. "They send everything back home to Romania!"

Meanwhile, why should Cavendish's Polish friend have any particular insight into Big Issue vendors? Why should we believe Urszula anyway? If Cavendish can throw anecdotes such as the one above in support of her thesis, perhaps I can be permitted one as well. I see on a regular basis exactly four Big Issue vendors. One of them is a middle-aged Englishman in a wheelchair. He is polite and wishes passers-by good evening as they head home after work. Another is a polite Eastern European man who bows to people and repeats "Good morning, have a good day" in a sing-song manner as they pass him on their way to work. A third is a quiet Eastern European woman - possibly Albanian, or perhaps Bosnian - who says 'Big Issue, please' in a tired voice. And the fourth is a Englishwoman in a wheelchair, who also smiles at people passing by. 

At least Cavendish is consistent. This is her on January 22, 2004 before the big influx of the Poles began:
Instead, the prosperous countries will have to protect their interests by making it harder to claim state benefits — the NHS being particularly vulnerable as one of the few free, universal healthcare systems in Europe. Here, our greatest allies will be the newly legalised Hungarians and Poles who have worked too hard to have a smidgin of sympathy for freeriders from back home.

Mar 5, 2015

Fine China

Rupert and Hyacinth pealed with laughter and applauded politely. Hot towels came in, followed by cooled waitresses, frozen glasses and lukewarm beer; then julienned eel, smoked bacon and seared green beans; a medley of chicken beaks and claws; pork sliced so thinly it melted on their chopsticks like cheese. Finally a two-foot long steamed carp, arranged on the plate with its head and tail in the attitude of leaping out of a bed of golden lily flowers.

Paul Mason, Rare Earth.

You cannot feel sorry for Durrani.

This is a man with an eye on the main chance. To obtain it, he doesn't care how many people he steps over. He doesn't care how he achieves that main chance. Were he only a little bit smarter, he might even obtain it.

Durrani gets married early to a Pakistani woman. The marriage does not last very long, and when it falls apart, we expect Durrani to be upset. Durrani does not appear to mind. He continues to behave in the same optimistic yet pushy way that alienates his wife.

Then he marries a Hindu woman. He looks as pleased as ever while his new wife begins to look wan.

One day his father-in-law calls him home.

"I want you to divorce my daughter," he says. "How much money do you want?"

Durrani doesn't think long.

"250,000 pounds," he says.

"For far less than that, I could have you shot and disappeared," says the father-in-law. "Think again."

It's not clear how long they negotiate or what sum is agreed, but soon thereafter this marriage also dissolves.

Meanwhile, Durrani's career is on an upward trajectory. Somehow he manages to impress bosses, alienate his colleagues, and progress from one juicy contract to another.

He also gets married a third time. This marriage - to a Muslim woman again - looks quite successful. He has two kids. He buys a fancy house in a fancy part of town. He continues to pull in the bucks at a prodigious rate.

One day he goes home and said, "Good news, honey. I've made the final payment on the mortgage. We own the house now!"

"Very good," says his wife.

That night, she gives him a bunch of papers.

"I want a divorce," she says.

She wants custody of the kids and possession of the house. Based on his earnings, she wants £7,000 every month.

Durrani's lawyer thinks that is excessive. The case goes to court.

The judge listens to the arguments. He awards the wife £8,000.

Soon after, Durrani loses his lucrative contract. His pay rate plummets.

Any other person will be crushed by these whammies. Durrani is unfazed. He continues to keep his eye on the main chance. He talks of new plans to make money. He keeps sucking up to his bosses and he keeps pissing off his colleagues. He is unable to keep up the alimony payments, which are calculated at the peak of his earning days. He does not look particularly bothered.

As I say, you cannot feel sorry for Durrani.

Feb 23, 2015

New Names

Sometime after the boy's seventh birthday I told him not to get too attached to his name. When he is around nine years old, I said, his name would be changed.

He was disbelieving at first, then delighted.

"Can I be called O'Henry?" he said. He stretched out the name like so: H E E E N N N R Y.

"No," I said.

"Why not?" he said.

"The Queen will decide your name," I said.

"What will she call me?" he said.

"Bhaktavatsalam Arumugam," I said.

"What?" he said.

"Bhaktavatsalam Arumugam," I said.

"I can't pronounce that!" he said.

"You have two years to learn it," I said.

"Are you joking, acha?" he said. "Are you being ironic?"

"Does it look like I'm being ironic?" I said.

"Wait till the letter from the Queen comes," I added.

Every once in a while I'd remind him that his name would soon be Bhaktavatsalam Arumugam. He went and told everyone at school. His teacher asked him to bring a letter from his parents explaining that his name has been changed.

Soon after his ninth birthday, he wanted to know when he'd get the letter from the Queen. By now he could say 'Bhaktavatsalam Arumugam' without any trouble. He was actually looking forward to a bit of correspondence from royalty.

He also was a bit suspicious.

In school, he advised his friends to start calling him 'Bucky'.

Then he told his teachers that he would soon have a new name.

One of the teachers huffed up to his mum and said - eyes wide as a moon, "The boy says his name is going to be changed!"

"We're just pranking him," said the wife.

The gossip in the school is that Feanor and family are peculiar.

As for the boy, he realises on one level that we were kidding. On another, he's not entirely sure.

They sure fuck you up, your mum and dad.

There's a book recently published in Russia, titled Литературный авангард русского Парижа. 1920—1926. История. Хроника. Антология. Документы. Written by Leonid Livak and Andrei Ustinov, it is 992 pages of history, chronicles, anthologies and documents pertaining to the great Russian diaspora in Paris between 1920-1926. By all accounts (including this review, by Vasily Molodyakov, from which I've shamelessly and poorly translated this article), it is a tour-de-force, a seminal work, a book that shreds the usual templates of study of emigre Russian literature.

What sort of avant-garde? the Soviets would say. Sure, a bunch of Russians legged it after the Revolution - some to Berlin initially, and then to Paris - and they may have written a thing or two.  Bunin, Kuprin, Shmelev, Zaitsev, Aldanov... The Soviets claimed that the real literature remained in Russia. The emigres were undeserving pretenders filled with nostalgia for their homeland; talented painters bemoaned their exile or returned with tails between their legs; the youth there was effete. The Soviets would bring up Marina Tsvetaeva, that most avant-garde of poets: what did emigration do for her?

Viktor Bart, Sergei Romov, Konstantin Tereshkovich. Founders of the group "Через" (1923).
The emigres would counter that the Soviets had defiled the avant-garde. The diaspora carried with it the forces of Russian tradition and the legacy of its great classical literature. The youth may quest for modernity, but the majority of them prefer to follow the great preceptors. Those who behave are published in "Modern Notes", while those who don't appear in "Numbers". This version of the argument is canonised by Adamovich and Gleb Struve after the second world war. The other version, that emigre literature is weak and ineffectual, and that the real literature is in Russia, is canonised in the English-language "Modern Russian Literature" by Marc Slonim.
"Merry Dynamite", manuscript by Dovid Knut. 1923.

So why do we have a thousand-page exposition from Livak and Ustinov? Well, for one thing, it illuminates little-known aspects of the Russian emigre experience, not just artistic but also literary. It overturns the myth of the absence of the avant-garde abroad, or of its marginalisation or insignificance. The Russian avant-garde was active, visible, powerful: "Gataparak", "The Palace of Poets", the Union of Russian Artists in France. But until 1924, the literary life of the Russian youth in Paris had three characteristic features: 1) an absence of anti-Soviet sentiment among the organisers and participants in the artistic groups; 2) a markedly pronounced popularity of the Soviet avant-garde in literature (Futurism) and art (Constructivism); and 3) close ties with the French Dadaist movement." (page 16).
Portrait of Mikhail Larionov by Man Ray. (1922-23).

The book also disposes of the myth that Russian Paris was somehow lesser than the Russian Berlin in 1921-23. The two capitals were not in opposition to each other; rather they were in consonance. And how could they not be, given that the same personages drove the avant-garde in both places?

Who were these people? You can learn nearly everything you might ever want about them, because nearly 3/4 of the book is comprised of the texts of the heroes of the avant-garde, the poetry and experimental prose of ten authors: Valentin Parnakh, Sergei Sharshun, Mark Talov, Georgi Evangulov, Alexander Ginger, Dovid Knut, Boris Bozhnev, Boris Poplavsky, Ilya Zdanevich and Vladimir Sveshnikov. Some of the text has appeared in print before, but gathered in one place, they offer a wonderful view. Another 250 pages deal with manifestoes, essays, letters as well as a reprint of all four volumes of the rare journal "Udar" ("Impact") by Sergei Romov. This sort of a Russian diaspora we haven't known. And such a Russian avant-garde we haven't known.

Yesterday at 7.00 heroic Theseus fought the red eyed Minotaur because every year 14 tributes were sent to Crete to be eaten by the Minotaur.

At 700 am heroic Theseus travelled to Crete to kill the fierce Minotaur because 14 tributes were sent to Crete because a old fierce king named king Minos was very sad of death of his son. It is well known that 14 tributes were sent to Crete because a terrifying King called King Minos was angry at the people of Crete. At Athens an Athenian went to King Ageus to declare that this year heroic Theseus should beat the half man-half bull creature.

It has been reported that one of the prisoners had seen Ariadne giving Theseus a ball of string. It has also been reported that as Theseus entered the cold dark labyrinth, he saw one horn sticking out behind a pillar.

"As I slowly crept along I saw the brutal Minotaur. I stabbed the cold bloodthirsty Minotaur. I have never been so nervous in my life," exclaimed Theseus.

The defeated King Minos said, "Theseus stole my daughter and the stupid Athenian prisoners and fled so fast."

It is reported that having fled the palace Theseus then cruelly left Ariadne on an island. "I can't believe that Theseus broke the agreement. I thought we had a deal," said Ariadne in anger.

(Newspaper report in the Athenian Metro, by the boy.)

Feb 8, 2015

Pancake Week

It's the Russian week of pancakes from tomorrow - Maslenitsa - and here's a bit of Chekhov (On Human Frailty):
Counselor Semyon Petrovich Podtykin sat down at the table…and at risk of burning his fingers, grabbed the two hottest bliny from the top of the pile and plopped them onto his plate with an appetizing smack. They were golden brown, light, and plump like the shoulder of a merchant’s daughter…

Feb 3, 2015

Djinn Goat

Alif turned his attention to the platter in front of him: it contained, or so he was fairly confident, stewed meat and saffron rice, along with a cooked green that might have been spinach. A pile of warm flatbread sat beside the food on the edge of the tray. Tearing a loaf in half, he scooped up meat and rice and took an experimental bite. The flavours of cardamon and pepper and gamey meat bloomed on his tongue. 
"Goat," he said. "Or at least, that's my guess." 
"A relative of one of those ladies at the other table, maybe," muttered NewQuarter.

- G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen.

Jan 27, 2015

Indo-Lusitanian Feast

It was served by caterers à la russe, one course following the other. It was more chic, was in fashion in Panjim, and in Paris according to the aide to the Crown Procurator. Nobody, however, knew the convenience in India, where people perish from the heat, of a dinner à la russe. Perhaps there was the apprehension that the food would freeze with the heat. 
The priest, nevertheless, was annoyed with the fashion. He wanted the whole larder on the table including the ham in its sack, procured on a returnable basis if not consumed, "so that the abundance could be seen," he murmured with legitimate pride. 
But he compromised when told that in this way the guest ate less and could neither have second helpings nor eat just the best. 
Accustomed to the old practices, the good old man helped himself distractedly to what was on the table: sweets, fruit and would be surprised when the waiter offered him ham or risotto
When fish was served after the soups, he became indignant; he assumed he had been deprived of his arroz refugado which should have been served according to the old custom. "Fish is not for such dinners," he roared, since he could not envisage fish except in a curry or fried and served with fonchró, the common rice.

From the brilliantly acerbic satire on Indo-Portuguese mores in Goa at the end of the 19th century, Jacob and Dulce, by João Francisco da Costa (a.k.a Gip).

Jan 21, 2015

Big Red Train Food

In 1926, the European correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, Junius Wood, travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway. He had this to say about the cuisine on board:
At 3.30 p.m. a plate of soup appeared - greasy hot water poured over cold pieces of fish that had been cooked earlier in bulk. The next course was pre-cooked cauliflower warmed with a sauce of unknown texture. Roast veal, cooked weeks earlier and now dry and hard, smothered in warm brown gravy, without vegetables, was the main course.
(It was not that much different on some of the trains when Christian Wolmar, author of To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World's Greatest Railroad (from where I got the above quote) travelled on the line in 2012.)

Jan 15, 2015

Technical Moksha

The boy likes to cuddle with his amma before bed and discuss philosophical matters. The other day, she read him some passages from the Bhagavad Gita about moksha and material desires preventing the soul from breaking out of the cycle of suffering and rebirth. 

"I hope your soul achieves moksha, amma," said the boy.

"Thank you, sweetie," said the wife. "But what about you?"

"It will be very difficult for me," said the boy.

"Why is that?" said the wife.

"Because I really, really want that 50-inch curved screen LED TV, amma," he said.

Jan 9, 2015

2014 Bookwise 1

I didn't really go to Reading in 2014, except to transit - if I recall correctly - at the station en route elsewhere. Otherwise I could have titled this post '2014 in Reading'.

But - happy new year! Here's hoping for new reading adventures and as much literary excitement as you can handle.

2014, it turns out, was another thumping year of reading translated fiction for me (by design, as you may recall). My original intention was to concentrate on fiction from various Indian languages. I was unable to find any until almost the end of the year, and I was forced to find other literatures to consume instead.

For instance, Arabic. Now, I know, I know, I was meant to discuss the Arabic fiction in translation that I read. I was variously lazy and dilatory, and then the year was over. 

In December, though, I landed a minor treasure-trove of fiction from the Sahitya Akademi, India's pre-eminent literary society. I spent a few days immersed in short stories and novels from various parts of the country. Some of the represented languages were Bodo, Nepali, Gujarati and Malayalam. The remainder I hope to consume in 2015.


I read 140 books in 2014. After the excesses of the previous year, this is a sharp drop-off, but to be honest, I didn't expect to cross a hundred at all. In fact, thinking about the books, not many stand out in my mind. I'll eventually mention the few that do - and this is not because others weren't important or interesting, but that my memory is a sieve and it gets worse every year.


Of the 140, 97 were translations. Since I intended to concentrate on translations, this is not surprising. There were 39 languages represented. Check 'em out:

The labels are a bit fuzzy, so here's the list (Indian languages in red):

Arabic     Bengali    Bodo       Catalan    Chinese    Croatian   Czech      Danish     Dutch      French     Galician   German     Greek     Gujarati   Hebrew     Hindi      Italian    Japanese   Kannada    Kashmiri   Korean    Magyar    Malayalam  Marathi    Nepali     Persian   Polish     Portuguese Romanian   Russian    Sesotho    Spanish    Swedish    Telugu     Turkish    Ukrainian  Vietnamese


Pretty cool, huh? Sesotho, even. And here is a chart of the countries involved:

Here's a clearer list:

Iran     Germany     France     Japan     Greece     Italy     Argentina     Romania     El Salvador Morocco     Finland     Sweden     France     Syria     Lesotho     China     Albania     Egypt     Lebanon     Libya     Iraq     India     Spain     Korea     Brazil     Russia     Turkey     Poland     Uzbekistan     Croatia     Holland     Denmark     Mexico     Sudan     Hungary     Ukraine     Tunisia     Czech     Israel     Vietnam


At this point, of course, you have no reason to believe me when I say that in another post I'll write about the books that made a (memorable) impression on me in 2014. 

Jan 3, 2015

Ghana Mealtime

On her good days I associated my mother with food: the scent of ripe guava, the orange of mango and pawpaw. I remembered meals that she cooked for me: a plate of kenkey, pepper and fish; groundnut soup on a bed of rice; mashed plantain seasoned with ginger and chilli, then transformed at leisure, by frying in palm oil, into tatale.

Yaba Badoe, True Murder.

I've been somewhat obsessed with Russian art for a bit.  A few months ago, the obsession combined with avarice when I heard about the publication of the Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-Garde, a three-volume masterpiece edited by D. Sarabyanov and V. Rakitin, featuring contributions from 170 specialists. It contains biographies of artists great and small, movements major and minor, groups, collectives and manifestos, and illustrations of fine calibre for every aspect of this great period of art. The editors had laboured over it for more than 10 years, and the final product looked like a beaut - superb production values and, dash it, a limited print run. The few copies that remained after the bulk had been sent to museums and archives were priced at tens of thousands of rubles. 

Eru Ilúvatar,
I've been good this year. Can I please have the Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-Garde? I promise to be good next year as well.

I found one online store selling the book. The price, as I said, was eye-watering, even when converting to pounds sterling. Recently the ruble collapsed to less than half its original value and I took a look at the website again. The book was no longer available! Drat and damn! Those pesky Russians, obviously trying to safeguard their money, had gone on a buying spree. They bought large-screen TVs, property in London, and this encyclopedia. Morgoth alone knows when copies will emerge for sale again.

There was talk about electronic versions and French translations, but where are they, I ask. Where?

Ilúvatar, what are you going to do about this?