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

Apr 20, 2017

Serial reading

Scarcely a month after my remarks on reading more than one book by the same author, I find myself in the midst of not one, not two, but three series.

One of them is a one-woman demolition of Bechdel tests: Victoria Schwab's Grey London series in which women barely talk to each other except to discuss men. There are three Londons with varying degrees of magic, there are rare blood magicians who can travel between them, and there are envies and resentments between the rulers of the three worlds. There's also a murderous thief who insinuates herself into the politics and remains insouciant and irritating throughout. It's rip-roaring in the first book and rapidly bulks up and becomes a bit too self involved in the next two.

Self involvement is the last thought in my mind when I consider N K Jemisin's books of Orogeny, the first of which, The Fifth Season, I polished off at rapid clip. Set in a far future earth of a single continent and tectonic violence, the world is divided into communities of normal people, derisively called "stills", by the Orogenes, humans capable of extracting telekinetic power from the environment and reducing the effects of tectonics. Orogenes are generally hated by the stills, who kill them as soon as they're detected, but a large number are enslaved and trained by a shadowy organisation that then sends them out to the world to sort out environmental problems. Jemisin's imagination is superb and her controlled pace of revelation leaves one panting for more. I'm rather keenly awating the weekend so I can go grab the second book in the sequence, The Obelisk Gate.

Much to Sakura's dismay, I picked up the first of Steven Erickson's Kharkanas trilogy before ever reading the Malazan set. On her admonishment I slunk back to the library to return it unread and there I found Seth Dickinson's fantasy of economics and politics, The Traitor, which I'm now half way through, and it's grippinger than an octopus. I'll probably be quite disgusted very soon when I find that it ends on a cliffhanger and the second book, The Monster, is as yet unpublished.

I also, for old times sake, read the latest in the Flavia de Luce series. I was previously going off the set for its self indulgence and unnecessary conspiracy theories, but is a triumphant reversion to Flavia's skills of detection and brilliance of character. All to the good.

(Now I hear that Jason Goodwin's detective series set in the Ottoman world is being adapted for TV. Woot woot is what I say, as the books are good fun. Check out one of JK's reviews here.)

Apr 3, 2017

Fine Food in Bookholm

I stood marvelling for a long time in front of a blackboard on which all the delicious fare one could order was listed in chalk. I was bewildered by the abundance of food and drink bearing names with literary associations. Printer's Ink Wine and Blood and Thunder Coffee; Sweetpaper Sandwiches (they could not only be eaten but also written on); Muse's Kiss Cocoa and Liquid Inspiration (the latter a brutally high-proof spirit); Horror Candies (to be eaten while reading thrillers, many of them with surprise fillings of vinegar, cod liver oil or desiccated ants); and seventeen types of pastries named after various classical poets, for example, Bethelzia B. Binngrow Buns and Ardelf Nennytos Cookies. Those in need of more substantial fare could gorge themselves on dishes named after popular novelists or their heroes, for instance Prince Sangfroid Pie or Risotto a la Avisko Dosti, but there was also a light Syllabic Salad incorporating alphabet spaghetti and trombophone mushrooms. It was enough to make your head spin.

Having pulled myself together at last, I ordered a big jug of Midnight Oil Espresso and a pastry known as a Poet's Ringlet.

- Walter Moers, The City Of Dreaming Books, translated from the German by John Brownjohn.

Mar 10, 2017


It appears that J P Vaswani is still going strong, nearly a century after he was born. While he is known for his spiritual teachings, at one time his c.v. also included a line to the effect that he was the nephew of T L Vaswani, a boon companion of Mohandas Gandhi himself, and a founder of a mission. I was never clear on what that mission's mission was.

Back in Jakarta in the 80s he would visit our school frequently. As a Shukracharya for the kids, he would hold forth on a variety of topics for our moral instruction. We'd sit in the assembly hall, wilting with boredom, and listen to him go on about matters of the soul and supreme powers and the like. Once in a while he'd come out with an illustrative story or two. We rarely paid much attention.

One day he was talking about the immensity of God.

'Do you know osmium?' he said. 'It is the heaviest metal in the world.'

We stirred.

'It is so heavy,' he said, 'that you could not lift a spoonful of it.'

At this point half the class turned to look at me. I was no less than JP at throwing out random assertions.

I shook my head in teenage outrage.

'He is wrong,' I said through clenched teeth.

After the lesson, my classmates laughed at me.

'Come on, guys,' I said. 'Work it out.'

A spoon is about 15 millilitres. The density of osmium is 22.6 grammes / ml. So you have 339 grammes of osmium in a spoon.

I'm yet to find a person who can't lift 339 grammes.

Mar 7, 2017

Reading Habits

How easy it is to fall into habit. A few years ago I decided to read every novel under 200 pages at my local library. Now, automatically, my eyes glide over fat books and focus only on the slim ones. A few years earlier I had started reading fiction in translation. So what do we have now? I look for non-English authors among thin books.

Last year, of course, my reading was dominated by women writers. As a result, these days I almost by default ignore fat books that are not translated and are by men.

I guess that means that it will be an effort for me to even locate the next book in G.R.R. Martin's saga.


Meanwhile, in my constant search for new authors, I find myself reading very little by authors I had already read before. Exceptions remain, though, and they're usually in genre fiction. Now that it appears no new translations are forthcoming in Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin series, or in Arturo Pérez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste series, my series reads are restricted to Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards sequence and Robert Galbraith's Cormorant Strike set. Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce has become far too self-indulgent and unnecessarily conspiratorial, so I'm losing interest there. And, to be honest, I'm getting a bit tired of Precious Rhamotswe as well. These are a generally time-pass sort of books, requiring little concentration or effort, but now that Mma Makutsi is happily married, there's not much to look forward to.


I keep thinking I should read the Malazan series but have you seen the size of those tomes? Each is thousands of pages long and there are at least 13 in the series. Sakura is a long-standing fan and has been urging me to give it a go for years. I persuaded a colleague to get the lot and he's utterly captivated. In turn, he wanted me to check out Stephen King's Dark Tower novels. I don't know if I have the enthu.

From the Economist's Prospero blog:

If these songs are a fascinating historical record of a changing city, they are also important linguistically. Svampa and his colleagues sang in Milan’s nasal dialect. Its mixed-up vocabulary is a reminder of how recently Italy was a jumble of independent states with connections to different neighbours. French terms like coeur (heart) and oeuf (egg) are just two examples. Indeed, the prevalence of the French oeu and ch sounds can make Milanese seem more Parisian than Italian. Its peculiar negation, using minga instead of non, also distinguishes Milanese from regular Italian.

Indeed, Milanese can often be a struggle just to understand for someone from Naples or Rome. A typical song, “El ridicol matrimoni”, lists the huge quantities of food eaten by a bride before her wedding night:

Trii padéj de risòtt giald
quatter mastèj de lasàgn cald
ses cavagn fra uga e pêr
e quatter navasc de caffè ner.

Compared to this, almost every word is spelt and pronounced differently in Italian:

Tre padelle di risotto g[i]allo
quattro mastelli di lasagna calda
sei cesti di uva e pere
e quattro fiaschi di caffè nero.

In English, the feast included

Three pans of saffron risotto
four trays of hot lasagna
six baskets of grapes and pears
and four large jugs of black coffee.

Nowadays, terms like navasc are dying out. Only about 2% of Milanese still speak the dialect fluently. Ironically, the upheavals of the “economic miracle”—which provided so much inspiration for Svampa and Jannacci—ultimately doomed their dialect. Now that Milan is a thoroughly multicultural city, with immigrants from all over Italy and beyond, it makes sense to just speak Italian. “There are people born in Milan, but who perhaps don’t feel Milanese because they have parents from Puglia or Campania,” says Edoardo Bossi, a Milanese dialect teacher. This is in contrast to parts of Italy that have attracted fewer outsiders, where dialect is still dominant: Sicilian, for example, is spoken by 4.7m people throughout southern Italy. Moreover, young people are shy to speak milanes. The dialect’s gruff reputation hardly helps. According to Mr Bossi, “when you speak Milanese in public, people look at you as if you’re being rude.”

The dish of the day was a splendid roast guinea fowl cooked in sea-salt, with a chickpea purée. Lola ordered it without thinking twice. Ingrid had gone for a seared steak tartare with French fries.

Dominique Sylvain, The Dark Angel.

The headmaster saw the boy in the corridor between classes.

"Where are you going?" he said.

"To the toilet, sir," said the boy.

"You may have not been here for very long," said the headmaster, "but in this country we call it 'lavatory'."

"I've lived here all my life, sir," said the boy.

"Well, you don't look like it," said the headmaster.

Jan 19, 2017

An Actor on Jury Duty

I was on jury duty a while ago. Two weeks of my life spent on my civic responsibility. Most of the time was spent waiting to be selected for a trial. During that time, I had little to do than eavesdrop on my fellow jurors.

An actor waited in the summoning room. He held forth at length to an attentive young woman.

I was called to audition for The Crown, he said. To be a doctor.

I thought to myself, do I really want to be a doctor? It is far too generic. So I declined.

I didn't want the role. It is better to chase a role not wanting it and not getting it, than chase it wanting it and not getting it.


I am going to be rather busy in the New Year, he said.

Do you know Robert Fisk? He has written a book on the Middle East. I'll be doing readings from it in Rotherhithe.

I am teaching at an acting boot camp. It is a somewhat difficult balance to achieve. If I spend too much time on any one person, they won't learn their lines. If I spend too little, they are resentful.


Last year was interesting, he said. I was in Italy. The fringe theatre scene there is incredible. It is in the most unlikely places, and inexpensive, and people turn up after a long day's hard work.


My family? Well, there are actors, he said. My sister directs. My mum runs a bed and breakfast. It tides over the lean times.

She is like you, he said, she has an arts background. But she is more practically-minded.


My sister organised a panel discussion with the remaining cast of Solaris. Yes, for the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's flight. It was awesome.


You know, the real creatives in TV are the producers and the scriptwriters. The director is like a glorified first assistant.


Can you imagine Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman with all those kids? Here you have the best of British acting and the camera is focused at their knees and all those children milling about. Paid good money, though.

We went for dinner once with Rickman and when the bill came, Rickman stopped us, saying: "Two words: Harry Potter."

The actor was so pleased with his drawling imitation of Rickman that he said it again:

"Two words: Harry Potter."

Continuing the round-up of 2016: three more non-fiction titles that were well worth my time.

Elizabeth Pisani is a multitalented woman - journalist, health-worker, linguist. If you look past the arrogance of her wanting to 'introduce' Indonesia to the world (a phrase she has repeated in her preface and several interviews) and the irritating comparison of the country to an old flame, her Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation is a comprehensive account of the lives and times of the fourth most populous country in the world. While the general tourist will likely visit a city or two in Java and Bali, Pisani travels across the archipelago, living with subsistence farmers, fishermen, smugglers, the nouveau riche, the up and coming politicos, the religious fanatics, and the indigent. Many times, the story is ostensibly repetitious - she arrives at an island, discovers a quirk of the local society, meets the bottom and the top of local society - and after a while, every island seems to blend into every other. But the people are affectionately described, and combining sociology with a thorough exposition of modern Indonesian history and political economy, this becomes overall a fine book.

Helena Attlee runs horticultural tours in Italy, and when she's not popping in and out of some of the finest gardens in the country, she studies the citrus fruit, and she writes absolutely riveting books, such as The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit. Weaving history and botany, architecture and landscape design and scrumptious foods, the book ranges across the peninsula and explores oranges, lemons and every citrus in between. (The blood orange is my own particular favourite, and her account of the groves beneath Etna made me want to hurry over and retire there immediately.)

Finally, we have Margalit Fox's Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, an excellent guide to the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, the ancient Minoan script. She is as good at the technical details of the decipherment as at the personages involved. In particular, she puts to the forefront the lesser-known Alice Kober who provided most of the impetus for the cracking of the code, though it was the ultimately tragic Michael Ventris, a self-taught decipherer, who managed the breakthrough. The tablets he read weren't stirring tales of kings but rather palace accounts; still, the thrill of the chase and the frustration of the dead-ends are well worth the time spent on the book.

Jan 3, 2017

Hussar Blowout

Before the Hussars even got to Waterloo, one of their chiefs, the 2nd Earl of Uxbridge, put down riots in London by hungry people protesting the Corn Laws. In their spare time between engagements, what did the Hussars do? They consumed:
‘Turtle, Fish, Venison of the best quality’ washed down with ‘Champagne, Hock, Burgundy, and Claret’ as well as ‘Vin de France and Hermitage drunk in copious libations.’

I didn't go to Reading, not this year, at least.

Poor pun, that... What a strange, troubling year this has been. Besides worrisome politics and deaths, there has been ill-health, injury and sickness in the family, and the boy was badly bullied in his new school and had to be moved when that school showed little inclination to tackle the issue. It has felt that there was no time to truly relax and unwind. Even books, at every other time a palliative, failed to boost the spirit, except during the brief snatched moments that they could be read. A strange, troubling year.


Considerably and consistently behind the times as usual, I decided to read books by women this year. Various luminaries had encouraged us to do so. Some spent a year practising what they preached. Others created lists for interested readers. My own reading over the decades has generally been dominated by male authors. This is because the default position - in libraries, newspapers, shops, review journals - is the promotion and preponderance of males. To look for books by women is an active choice, and the effort involved is considerable because of the sheer dominance of publications by men.

Over the past few years, I've pretty much given up reading more than one book by the same author. Except for the multi-volume fantasy or science fiction cycles, it seems that there are more authors for me to discover than to explore the variations of any given one. So too this year.

Total books: 105
By women: 81

of which

Fiction: 62
Non-fiction: 19


My attention span continues to dwindle, and my memory of the contents of the average book is fairly fuzzy. So I continue to read smaller books. Not many of the books this year exceeded 200 pages. The ones that did were mainly non-fiction ones.

There were some truly superb pieces of non-fiction. A particular favourite was Marwa al-Sabouni's The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect. Born and brought up in Homs, al-Sabouni is  an architect, and her book is a thoughtful exploration of the collapse of her native city and the role of alienating architecture in its fission. She intersperses her academic experiences with the horrors of living through wartime, and she beautifully analyses both theoretical and practical considerations in the design of living spaces. An amazing thought-provoking work.

In the vein of wartime stories was the The Diary of Lena Mukhina, a sixteen-year-old girl who survived the Siege of Leningrad. The book begins a month or so before the German invasion and all Mukhina can think of is a boy in her class and why he pays her no attention. Once the war begins, in between accounts of school exams and studies, and which of her girlfriends is really a friend, she is happy to repeat propaganda that the Soviets will triumph. It is after Leningrad is encircled and there is constant bombing and food begins to run out that she suddenly steps up her game: her intelligence and empathy is fascinatingly mature for one so young. In between puppy love and friendship and Communist platitudes are truly beautiful passages describing the lives she, her family and neighbours are leading. The terrors are all too real and the terse text is spellbinding. I couldn't bear to read another page and I couldn't bear not knowing what would happen next.

Again on the theme of war was Lizzie Collingham's magisterial account of the battle for food and the maintenance of its supplies for the soldiers and the home front during World War II: The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. This is well-written, often fast-paced albeit saturated with statistics. It was clear to the Nazis that they could never produce enough food to feed their armies and the Fatherland, and to this end they were willing to sacrifice any number of lesser beings in Eastern and Southern Europe to repopulate those lands with Germans who would, of course, be the most productive farmers ever. Meanwhile, Churchill was willing to sacrifice the health of the colonies (in particular India) to supply his armed forces, and is directly implicated in the horrors of the Bengal famine. The Japanese left their soldiers to forage as they advanced through Asia, resulting in more  military deaths from starvation than from actual fighting. The Americans, on the other hand, amped up their agricultural production so well that their civilians and soldiers remained the best-fed and healthiest on the planet, and managed to feed many of the Allies as well. At the end of the war, the US was the dominant agricultural and industrial power on the planet, and everybody else was in ruin.

Lest you think I was solely immersed in sanguinary matters, I'd like to highlight the fact that I looked up to the stars as well. Lisa Randall's Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universeis an exciting overview of the search for dark matter and an elucidation of her theory that explains why the Earth faces periodic bombardment from comets (among others leading to the death of the dinosaurs). Of course, nobody has seen dark matter, and nobody has a model that explains all aspects of cosmic evolution and the distribution of the galaxies. And this makes the situation exciting both scientifically and sociologically because there are various theories fighting to overcome each other as the cosmic model. Priyamvada Natarajan, another fine astrophysicist, wrote Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, a rather good explanation of the latest scientific thinking. 

The latest headmaster is a bit of an eccentric.

In the boy's class one day he announced that he hated Spanish women. (It is not clear what prompted the outburst.)

The boy's classmate, a Spanish girl, burst into tears.

'Stop snivelling,' said the headmaster.

In Rosa Liksom's excellent Compartment No 6, a nameless girl dines on the Trans-Mongolian railway with a brutish fellow.
'There isn't any vodka,' the waiter said gruffly. 'Is that so hard to understand, comrade?' 
'Bring me a bottle of cognac, then. Cognac will do nicely.' 
When he'd got his plate of vobla and his cognac he took a long swig, grinned, and bit off some of the dry fish. 
'Now we can order some food,' he said. 
The waiter looked at him wearily. 
'A bowl of selyanka to start with. For the main dish fifteen blinis, shashlik, some boiled tea sausage, salad, and a bottle of cognac.' 
Instead of shashlik they got some dry chicken legs and instead of salad some potatoes fried in margarine.

Nov 29, 2016


This morning I was frustrated to find that the entry gates at the local railways station were blocked by milling commuters. One woman kept touching her Oyster card to the reader and it kept beeping back to her without letting her through.

In some impatience, I said, 'Wait till the light turns yellow.'

'I did,' she said, 'And it turns red.'

I reached across her to brandish my Oyster card at the reader, just as its indicator light flashed yellow.

It turned red. So did I. The gate remained resolutely shut.

The woman grinned at me.

'That will teach me to pontificate,' I said.

We stood there alternating Oyster cards at the reader while the queue behind us grew and grew. 

'Oh dear,' I said, and moved to another line.

Just then the gate opened and the woman nipped through.

Nov 18, 2016


Growing up in Moscow in the 70s, I'd devour Russian books, as many as I could get my hands on. The Soviet publishing machine was prolific, especially where children's books were concerned, but their availability was always a matter of chance. As Mark Grigorian pointed out to me, in the USSR, one could never be sure which book would suddenly be banned. So books were a scarce commodity; they would always be treasured, passed from hand to hand, read till they fell apart from use.

My dad, meanwhile, stalked the bookstores for translations into English. He wasn't always successful. In any case, although the books were relatively cheap, his salary didn't quite extend to large-scale purchases. Still, he managed to amass a small collection of fiction by the great Russians.

When we came back to India, I discovered English translations of the books I'd loved. Exported from the USSR as part of cultural propaganda - no wonder hardly any were available in Moscow. At the time, I wasn't fussed about the quality of the translation - if it conveyed the story with fidelity, I was content. Nor did I particularly bother about the translators. Some of my favourite books were translated by a Margaret Wettlin. But other than wondering if her last name should have been spelled Wetlina, in the feminine Russian ending, I didn't think too much about it.

Recently, I found out that Wettlin was an American woman who had sailed off to Russian in 1932 to join what she thought was a great social experiment - the establishment of a new economic model for the world. Disappointed by the fraying of the American social fabric during the Great Depression, she fancied an adventure in an unknown land. She taught English for a bit in Russia, fell in love with a theatre director, had children. Then Stalin announced that foreigners would either have to take up Soviet citizenship, or leave. Unwilling to abandon her family, she naturalised. She would end up staying in the USSR for nearly fifty years.

Her house was a hotbed of artistic fervour. Her husband was a friend of Stanislavsky; there were actors and playwrights in and out of their lives. The family travelled extensively across the country, even to Mongolia, setting up regional theatres. It was a heady time. It was also a nervous time for her, personally, as the KGB recruited her to spy on her neighbours.

Then the war happened and they were caught in Moscow. The suffering of the Russians during that bitter conflict has been covered extensively. The famines in the Soviet Union caused by misguided Communist policies are also well-known. Her own voice was added with the eventual publication of Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman's Life in the Soviet Union.

After the war, Wettlin began to translate Russian fiction into English for publication by the Soviet press. Her translations of Gorky, Pasternak, and Tolstoy were well received. As I found out, she also translated Nikolai Nosov, whose books I still recall with undimmed affection.

She continued to live in Moscow till about 1980, when the Soviets finally granted permission for her, her daughter and grandson to leave the country. The US State Department determined that she had become a Soviet citizen under duress and restored her US citizenship. She returned to Philadelphia. Her son couldn't join her for another seven years.

Wettlin died in 2003.

Nov 15, 2016


My good friend Guru mentioned Swapna Liddle and I sat up.

Do you know she organises heritage walks in Delhi? he said.

She was our senior at College, he added.

I've heard the name, I said, but only because I read Madhulika Liddle's blog.

Sister? he said.

Quite possibly, I said.

Small world, he said.


When we were at Khan Market, we stopped to look at books at Faqirchand and Sons. A genial proprietor sat behind the desk at the entrance.

Do you have Madhulika Liddle's The Englishman's Cameo? I said.

Madhulika Liddle, Madhulika Liddle, he muttered and scratched his chin.

Book came out a few years ago, no? he said.

I nodded.

Oye, Suresh, he called. (Or Chotu. Or possibly Desai.) An assistant looked up.

Do you remember Madhulika Liddle? he said.

Suresh shook his head.

Sure you do, urged the proprietor. She gave a talk here. Just a few years ago.

Chotu shook his head again.

Yaar, history type book, prompted the proprietor.

Desai went back to his shelving.

Romance, no? the proprietor said to me.

Historical crime fiction, I said.

Yes, I remember, he said.

He looked into the distance.

So, do you have the book? I said.

No, he said.

In Joseph Hansen's work of gay noir, Backtrack, the narrator is looked after by a hospital orderly named Catch.
After that, he feeds me. For years, I didn't know there was anything for breakfast but sugar pops. These days, I get eggs turned over easy in deep butter, slabs of juicy ham, fried mush, porkchops, buckwheat cakes, country sausage, hashbrown potatoes. What I got yesterday was cornbread fresh out of the oven with melted butter and molasses. 
"You'd think you wanted to marry me," I said, and Catch said, "You'd be right."

Oct 3, 2016

A Sardinian Nuptials

In Michela Murgia's Accabadora, the oldest sister is getting married and the whole family rallies around to cook up sweetmeats. Sardinian delights ensue:

For three whole days the bride's home became an ants' nest of relatives and neighbours coming and going with baskets full of fresh ingredients and borrowed trays on which the finished cakes were laid. The Listru sisters worked almost without a break, alternating tasks to bring miraculously to life an army of capigliette decorated with sugar lace, kilos of tiliccas swollen with saba, baskets full of aranzadas with their spicy aroma, tin boxes full of crisp little sugar dolls, and hundreds of round almond gueffus, individually wrapped like sweets in white tissue paper with its edges fringed like the battlements of the Guelph towers. There was not a room in the house with space in it for anything more, and Giulia and Regina had to move basketfuls of finished delicacies off their beds before they could fall asleep in the gentle fragrance of orange-flower water.

I'm not sure that a recent third author writing crime fiction based in India constitutes a new trend, but after Tarquin Hall and Vasim Khan, it is the turn of yet another Brit, Abir Mukherjee, to take up the genre. Mukherjee, however, sets his new procedural A Rising Man, in the past - in Calcutta, where, in 1919, there is already a insurrectionist mood, and the imperial interlopers are feeling nervy. Into this arrives a veteran of the Great War - Wyndham - who, in true detective style, has a tragic past and an addiction problem. As he is new to India, he needs a big info dump, which is of course Mukherjee's way of educating the reader.

There seems to be a requirement these days to have a likeable protagonist, so Wyndham is suitably anti-imperialist, unsexist and unracist. Your typical modern liberal, in other words. To show him off as even more likeable, his deputy (another Brit) is a bigot; to demonstrate his manliness, his sergeant Banerjee is a nerd; to prove he is progressive, his love interests are all intelligent women.

Then there are the crimes: a murder of a British administrator, and a robbery and murder on a mail train. Naturally, there will be a connection and it will be unearthed by Wyndham, who has to battle not only his personal demons but also colleagues and rivals from other departments of the security establishment. As police procedurals go, this book ticks all the requisite points: a shifty witness at the crime site, autopsies and nauseous onlookers, bursts of derring-do, a twist or two in the tale. The novel strives to be bigger than that, with expository analyses of Bengali socio-economics and effete intellectuality. There are bitter outbursts about the iniquity of foreign occupation, the rootlessness of mixed-race people. There are long lectures by various characters. And you can't have Calcutta without a description of its imperial splendour and native squalour.

Soon after reading this book, I came across Barbara Cleverly's older series of historical crime fiction. This has Joe Sandilands, another decorated soldier and Scotland Yard detective, who arrives in India on some sort of lecture tour, but can't wait to leave. In the first book, titled The Last Kashmiri Rose, just as he is making tracks to leg it from India, he's dragged into investigating a death of a British woman at an outpost not far from Calcutta. Proceeding there, he soon comes to realise that this death is only the latest of a set. Once again, you have a likeable protagonist - somewhat naive, even - who is not swayed by imperial pretensions of superiority. You have a hyper-efficient Indian subaltern, a very clever Englishwoman who Sandilands is suddenly in love with  (and who also serves to educate both him and the reader on the mores and attitudes of the Raj and the natives), and various politicking Brits and suspicious babus. While Cleverly appears to have researched the milieu and era quite a bit, there are some jarring notes to an Indian ear: dubious mythologies and references to deities, some expressions that are quite unlikely to have been used at the time, and peculiar Indian names. The book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2002; it must have been a rather slow year for historical fiction for that paper.

Sep 3, 2016

Last Meal?

He brought us a litre of white wine. Then we each ordered a salad with octopus and fried whitebait as a starter, followed by spaghetti with mussels in tomato sauce, and for a main course marinated anchovies with broccoli rabe.  
Riccardo poured the wine. 
'To us,' he said, raising the glass. 
'And sod the others,' I said.

From Andrej Longo's short story Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness in Ten.