MASALA DABBA by Michael Swamy

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not much of a cook.

Translation: I hardly know how to boil an egg.

So I am totally not the kind of person to seek out cookbooks, but “Masala Dhaba” is totally different.

Trust me.

Firstly, it is written by Michael Swamy, an absolutely charming, low-key, modest man I have met on a couple of occasions here in Delhi.

I wrote a story about Michael when he opened a Latin American restaurant, “Nueva” here in Delhi, and I follow him on social media, but that’s as far as it goes.

I didn’t even know he’d written this cookery book until I was asked whether I wanted to review it by the publishers, Om Books International.

So there you have it, full disclosure – including the fact that I am not a “food” person at all.

But this book might just change all that.

Michael Swamy has not only created the recipes in this elegant, attractive book, he has photographed them, too.  The book is a visual treat, absolutely gorgeous.

And the recipes, my dears, the recipes.

They are readable, simple, and brilliant.

What Chef has done is to take the traditional Indian spice “dabba” and turn it inside out, blending, mixing and re-thinking old favourites.

Chef takes familiar dishes and re-invents them, by using unusual spices, contrasting & unusual combinations, slightly different flavours, by pairing contrasting tastes.

On the day the book arrived from the publisher, I sat down and started reading it (truly I did.  Cross my heart and hope to die) and almost immediately came across Chef’s recipe for “Aloo matar tikki aur kurkuri bhindi” (everything is translated into English, by the way).

Now aloo tikkis are something I learned to enjoy in my Mumbai days, years ago, and we thought we knew how to make them.  My husband is half Sindhi and so his rellies always claim tikkis are typically Sindhi, and that they all know how to make them to perfection.

Well…Chef’s version was tikkis with a twist, let me tell you.

We’ve made it a couple of times since and it is set to become a new staple.

You have to excuse the photography, by the way.

I’m a photographer, as it so happens, but not a food photographer and food stylist, like the talented Chef Michael.  Not for nothing did I describe Chef as a “renaissance man” in my article – creating, cooking, writing, styling, photographing – he does it all.

Anyway, with that in mind, here is Michael’s version of tikkis:
And here is my photo of our attempt, exactly 3 hours after the book had been delivered (seriously!):

Yeah.  You’re right.  I need to learn food styling…

But, joking aside, these “tikki”s were delicious.

We have also tried and enjoyed the “chhole aur jau ka pulao” (chickpea and barley pilaf) and there are loads more recipes earmarked for trying.

Re the pulao recipe I just mentioned – there are just 5 steps in the cooking.  Well 4 actually, since the 5th instruction is “Serve hot with raita”.  For a non-cook like me, I don’t find this book in the last bit intimidating.  Recipes are succinct.  The instructions are clear and uncomplicated.

And some of the combos are amazing sounding –  yogurt chilli pepper cupcakes anyone?!

As well as a host of interesting recipes just begging to be tried, there is a section telling you how to make your own masalas, and lots of useful definitions.

For our complicated household –  vegetarian/no meat but fish/no fish but meat, this book is a godsend.

As I mentioned at the outset, I was sent a copy of the book by the publishers, but am under no obligation to write a review.

None at all.

But having read this cookery book, loved it, & already bought 2 copies to give to friends, I thoroughly recommend it.

Here you go.  A link to buy it online.

HALF THE NIGHT IS GONE by AMITABHA BAGCHI

“Like an old man, which I am, I found myself yearning for the time, no, not the time, for the life that has gone by.  Not my own biological, chronological life, but the life of the place where I was born.”

These words, written by a distinguished Hindi author, Vishwanath, in a letter to a friend, are at the very heart of this complex, densely-woven, generation-spanning novel.

An old man, a writer, clever with words, is writing.

As he writes, he reminisces about the Delhi that he knew as a child, he writes about family, he writes about the child he has lost, he writes about regret.

These themes – family, loss, regret, emotion, memory – are the warp and weft of this sweeping novel.

Family is at the very heart of the book.  Well, families, more precisely, since we follow the stories of different families, with their stories paralleling each other and intertwining over the generations.

Lineage, protecting your family and its wealth, passing the baton to future generations – these sentiments are counterpointed against the sad reality of exclusion, of love unfulfilled, of the inability to express the love that steers so many of the emotions and reaction in the novel.

Mr. Bagchi writes beautifully, offering us lovely, long complex sentences that are a joy to read, quite apart from their narrative value.  One imagines the author to be a deeply thoughtful and eloquent man, so well does he understand the driving force of a writer, and of one who yearns to learn more about religion and philosophy.

His male characters, across the generations and the class divisions are strongly drawn.  Although a couple of his female characters are also strongly portrayed, men dominate this story, their histories the ones that bind the generations.  The connection between a family’s history and its forefathers is constantly played out and replayed in this novel, which spans generations of the same families.

As the rich trader Lala Motichand musing about family and its origins and future obligations puts it:

“After all, they belonged to the class of people for whom the family and its generations are like a single living organism whose long lifespan…is an unending thread woven into the unrolling tapestry of human history.”

This is a novel to be savoured – for its fine writing, its beautiful prose and for a long, languorous telling of the history of ordinary men and women, of their families, of their errors, and very often their regrets.

I was sent a copy of the book by the publishers Juggernaut, but absolutely no pressure was put on me for a review, favourable or otherwise.  Thank you.

Do read this novel.  It is a great read.

Here’s the link to buy it online:

SANJAY DUTT by Yasser Usman

Having lived in Mumbai during the tumultuous days of 1992 and 1993, when this most cosmopolitan of Indian cities city lived through anti-Muslim riots and the subsequent bomb attacks, I was naturally intrigued by the story of Sanjay Dutt.

Mr. Dutt, a Bollywood star, and the son of a well-respected, secular politician, was embroiled in the traumatic and violent events after the 1993 attacks, and spent several years in jail as a result.

Yasser Usman’s “Sanjay Dutt” is well-written, well-researched and is an easy read.

The book is as fast-paced as the life of the central figure in his book, Sanjay Dutt.

The original little prince, if ever there was one, born of Bollywood “royalty” and given every privilege in life, Dutt would, we are told, turn out to be a spoiled brat, an entitled child who seems to enjoy breaking rules just for the heck of it.  He is unmotivated at school, drops out of college, and then decides to make it in Bollywood, the son of an iconic Bollywood couple.

Sanjay Dutt has spent much of his life mired in drugs and alcohol, and – to his credit – has never shied away from the truth.  He is known to be a frank, outspoken man, even if the narrative is not always  in his favour and it is clear that the author respects him for this.

Mr. Usman has researched every stage of Sanjay Dutt’s life, but the book reads easily, without any hint of judgment.

We feel that the author probably has a soft spot for his subject, but he never judges him on our behalf.

We are told all the facts of Mr. Dutt’s life and behaviour, and allowed to make up our own minds.

The writer does not try to influence our opinion : Mr. Usman simply shines a light on the conduct and behaviour of a man used to being indulged all his life, and allows us to draw our own conclusions.

I confess to not having been as passionately supportive of Sanjay Dutt as many of my acquaintances were, in those weird, frightening Mumbai days.

Most people I knew were absolutely incredulous that an actor like him, from his background, would have any truck with terrorism.

Most people really wanted to believe Mr. Dutt, when he claimed he had weapons to protect himself because he was half Muslim.

This claim is put forward in the book, but in his even-handed way, the author also recounts the many contacts Mr. Dutt had with the underworld. It is left to us to make our own minds up.

It is a fascinating look at a life of privilege that becomes a life of horror for those who care for Mr. Dutt, a man who inspired affection and loyalty amongst his close circle, though he appears to take this love and loyalty somewhat for granted.

Alcohol, drugs on a terrifying scale, detox, rehab, failed marriages, jail – to use an easy analogy, Mr. Dutt’s life reads a lot like the many forgettable run-of-the-mill Bollywood potboilers in which he acted.

Mr. Usman is not shy of quoting comments over the years, from various people, that suggest Mr. Dutt is nothing worse than immature and impetuous.

That appears to be the general consensus.

He is not considered to be a criminal or a terrorist, which is what he was initially convicted of, but rather a stupid man, who had an unhealthy love of guns, and an equally unhealthy interest in the criminal underworld.

“This incident aptly describes the Sanjay Dutt of those times: an impulsive, immature, egotist junkie.”

An interesting read, and I found it fascinating to flesh out my memories of those traumatic times, with an insight that I certainly didn’t have at the time.

Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of the book by the publishers, Juggernaut Books, but (as in the past) they have scrupulously sent me the book with absolutely no strings attached.

And now you want to read the book, don’t you?

Do.  It’s a cracking good read.

You don’t need me to explain how to order online, do you?  Thought not.

Here you go: