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:

WHISPERINGS FROM BEYOND by Lakshmi Narayan

What an amazing world we live in.

You know someone for almost 30 years, and only now discover the hidden, almost-mystical side to them.

My Mumbai-based friend Lakshmi Narayan has just published her second book (& here’s a link to my review of her debut novel) and what a revelation it is.

“Whisperings from Beyond” is a collection of thoughts, precepts, call them what you will, one for each day of the year, making this a book to keep by your side and dip into regularly.

It was in her introduction to her book that I saw a side of my otherwise down-to-earth, no-nonsense friend, a side I never knew existed.  Couched in her own inimitable style, Lakshmi explains how this collection came to be:

“This collection of “thoughts” has been coming to me on a regular basis from November 2008 to present day.  Where do they ideate from? Is it my alter-ego? I’m your average aunt-next-door, averagely good, averagely bad, averagely intelligent, averagely mixed-up.  So why do these “thoughts” – so unlike my conscious concepts or leanings – bombard me?”

Now that’s the Lakshmi I know! Articulate, no nonsense, and delightfully self deprecating.

It is in this no-nonsense way of hers, that she opens her heart and shares her thoughts with us, explaining that prayer has always been important to her:

“From personal experience I can honestly say that prayer has been the single most motivating factor in my life and it has definitely moved mountains, making the impossible possible.”

The author offers us a thought – more like a short reading – for every day of the year and on opening the book, I turned straight to my birthday reading.

2 September

It is called “Accepting the unacceptable” and the final stanza of Lakshmi’s musing gave me pause for thought :

…If we stop resisting

and go with the flow

soon enough

good will come

out of the bad and

the seemingly bad”

There are thoughts on topics as varied as money, value systems, resisting temptation, negativity…something for everyone, which is part of the appeal of this book.

You can dip in and out, and always find something to make you think.

A good-looking book, attractively presented.

Published in 2017 by Hay House, “Whisperings from Beyond” costs Rs399.

You can order it here, by clicking on the link…but, hey! You all know how to do that without any explanations from me, right?

HOLY HERBS by Sudhir Ahluwalia

“Holy Herbs

Modern connections to ancient plants”

 

What an erudite and interesting reference book this is.

For anyone curious about the history and origins, the uses and the science of herbs and plants, Mr. Ahluwalia’s book is one to refer to.

With many years of his career spent in the Indian Forestry Service, Mr. Ahluwalia clearly has a wealth of knowledge and shares it generously.

The book was especially interesting for me, on a purely personal level, since I am a Christian and since much of the book focuses on herbs and plants and trees mentioned in the Bible, many references were familiar from childhood bible study classes.

But the author covers ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, the Indus valley, Jewish traditions, and it is this very wide ranging nature of his research that makes this such a good reference work.

I dipped in and out of the book, but always ended up reading more and more.

For example, when I received my review copy of the book, I had just returned from a trip to Oman, and so the chapter on Frankincense was of particular interest.  From there it was just one small logical step to learn about the medicinal properties of African Frankincense, and suddenly I realised that, yes, I’d heard of Boswellia as a possible treatment against cognitive decline.  One further step and I learned that India, too, has its variety of Frankincense, something I didn’t know before.

As I said, one thing leads to another in this book, a bit like pieces of a jigsaw fitting together, as you connect plants with history, and culture, and folk medicine and modern medicine.

I was sent the book by the publishers, the delightfully named Fingerprint!  (the exclamation mark is theirs, not mine, by the way)

Colour photographs would have been lovely, and definitely added to the look of the book, but even so, this is a useful book to keep on your bookshelf, and to consult.

If you would like to order the book, you can do so directly from here, using the link below:

THE JEERA PACKER by PRASHANT YADAV

What an extraordinarily good read this book is.

And, rather puzzlingly, what an extraordinarily uneven book it is too.

I dislike crisiticising someone’s writing, because it is such an intensely personal thing, but this excellent book is so uneven in its writing that it could almost have been written by two people – one of them fluent and funny and spot-on descriptive, and the other making silly, sloppy grammatical mistakes.

Take the opening page of the novel, for example:

“How I wish this candle trips over…”

“…sitting on the front counter…”

And then, a couple of paragraphs later:

“All-powerful, all-pervasive sameness this, it drags me in even on my day off…”

See what I mean?

From poor grammar to stunning prose in just a few lines.

I think tighter editing might have done the trick, for I do not for a moment believe that a writer of the obvious calibre of Mr. Yadav would say things like ” I pretend not hearing her” or “a couple of boys touching twenties”.

For a while, I wondered whether the grammatical mistakes were not deliberate, putting poor English into the mouths of his Hindi speaking politicians.

But I fear it might just be sloppy editing

Right, now that’s off my chest, let me rave about a great contemporary Indian novel.

I have mentioned in other reviews, that although the circumstances of reading a novel should not necessarily influence one’s appreciation of the writing, the fact still remains that very often they do.

And so, reading a book like this, living in North India as I do, and with non-stop talk and coverage of  the political shenanigans in the tumultuous, populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in a few weeks – well, Mr. Yadav has painted us a vivid, all too imaginable scenario.  Corruption, internecine fighting, rent-a-crowd, all the elements of North Indian politics are brilliantly reflected in this novel.

The struggle for the Chief Ministership of India’s largest state, the dream of eventually becoming Prime Minister, are the guiding forces of Dada’s life, and his entourage of feckless family, hangers-on, corrupt cops, venal politicians…oh, it is all too familiar and therefore totally believable.

The noise and chaos and dirt and scruffiness that characterises so much of small town north India is perfectly described. You can hear the incessant noise from that traffic jam – actually, sitting in Delhi as I write this, I really CAN hear the racket from the traffic outside, but you take my meaning.

Mr. Yadav writes powerfully and brings his cast of characters to life, from the interesting jeera packer himself with his lovely wife Jyoti, to the Pathan who dreams of riding off into the sunset on his Bullet, to the about-to-retire policeman, terrified of life outside the toadying, protective bubble of official cars and drivers and the saluting deference which he has come to love.

This is a fast-paced, good read, and never for once does it tip over into clichés.  This is India “warts and all” and the ending is a cracker.

Heartlly recommended.

Excitingly, this is a brand new book, published in 2017 and since the year is just a week old, you don’t get much more contemporary than this.

Published by the energetic Fingreprint! (& I do so love that ! in their name)

DVARCA by Madhav Mathur

When and where you read a book should not be an influencing factor in your appreciation of it.  Or should it?

Reading Madhav Mathur’s intriguing novel “Dvarca” in India (where I live), during the worst days of demonetisation, when millions of people found themselves with no access to their own cash, added a definite piquancy, I have to admit.  India in late 2016 – now very early 2017 – is a far cry from the Dvarca of the 22nd century, but I couldn’t help finding disturbing parallels as I read.  Growing intolerance of what are dubbed “minority” religions here (read Islam), the brazen way Hindu-fundamentalist trolls harass people on line, and, of course, the wholesale buying into the demonetisation move, with dissenters being labelled anti-national…again, I repeat, we are, thank goodness, far far away from 22nd century Dvarca.  But it makes you think.

And it’s a chilling thought.

Madhav Mathur’s Dvarca is a world where the (Hindu) state controls every aspects of one’s life, projecting images – literally – of a supposedly ideal world into your head, and monitoring every aspect of your life, from your moment of birth to your place in society. The state is all-seeing, and projects itself as all-knowing and all-caring, and the citizens of Dvarca are expected to follow the dictates of society without any questions.

The parallels with “1984” are telling, but even more frightening, for this is a world where love has been eradicated, where sexual contact is prohibited, and where women are impregnated by the state, at a time of the state’s choosing, with a baby designed for and by the state.  The scene when Jyoti is made pregnant is terrifying – little more than state ordered rape.

I found the book disturbing and thought-provoking, and every time I said “No, don’t be silly, this is just fiction…” I’d remember the millions of people getting up in the winter dark to stand in serpentine queues to try and get access to their own money, and then I’d be even more disturbed.

Initially, as a non-Indian – and a non-Hindu – some of the more Sanskrit-based words and religious concepts were a bit of a barrier, but with time, they became more familiar.

A good, interesting, thought-provoking read – especially in these disturbing times we live in.

Published by Fingerprint! and if you would like to read this book, just click on the link below.

CACTI CULTURE by Major General C.S.Bewli

This attractive-looking, beautifully photographed book is good-looking enough to be a coffee-table book, while also being a useful reference book that is well-written, and easy to read for a non-specialist.

Sharing his extensive knowledge with the reader, the author begins with basic facts about cacti and succulents, and then explains how to identify, grow, propagate, repot – just about everything the home gardener wants to know.

The book is lavishly illustrated with lovely photographs by Siegfried N. Lodwig – which enabled me to ID some of my own plants, which was pretty good going.

Inspired by Major General Bewli’s book, I’m going to try and make a terrarium in the New Year, cleverly using that unused fish tank we have.

Excellent and useful reference book, published by Fingerprint!

Highly recommended.

AND – since you now all want to buy one of these, now, don’t you? – here are the links to help you get hold of a copy straight away.

http://www.fingerprintpublishing.com/

THE STRONGMAN’S DAUGHTER by Madhuri Iyer

We are living in interesting times here in India, ever since the government decided to wage a high-profile campaign against black money, but – everyone believes – actually aimed at political opposition.  Which means that the just-published novel, “The Strongman’s Daughter” is deliciously bang up-to-date.

For in the character of Vithalrao Narvekar, the corrupt, domineering, larger than life Chief Minister of Goa, we have the perfect example of what is perceived to be wrong with so much of India’s political system.  Money greases the corrupt wheels of governance, the environment is wrecked for profit, money is looted from the public coffers, siphoned off, stashed away…Ms Iyer tells it as it is, making her novel totally credible.

But this novel only has corruption and strongman politics as part of its plot.  Set against all this illegal money and power-play is the 21 year old daughter of the Chief Minister, an idealistic young girl, just graduated, and eager to live life and to love life, on her own terms.

Her father, used to getting his own way in all things, decides that Aditi will enter politics and get married.  And when she refuses both options, all hell breaks loose.

This is a fun read – love story, clash of wills, politics, dirty business as usual –  and all set against the pretty backdrop of Goa, one of India’s most laid back places.

There are some unexpected twists to the story, which I won’t share for fear of spoiling the book for you.

Very enjoyable, although it’s a bit of a sad reflection on the state of Indian politics that you, the reader, feel so familiar with the lies and money and bullying that make up Vithalrao Narvekar’s DNA.  Ms Iyer has him down to a T, the archetypal overweight, calculating politician, trampling over everyone (including his only child) to get what he wants.

A modern Goan love story with a strong political background – great fun.

Published by the young, energetic publishing house of Fingerprint! (with an !), The Strongman’s Daughter costs Rs 250 in paperback.

If you want to order it now, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link…you know the rest!

The Pain Handbook by Dr. Rajat Chauhan

Dr. Rajat Chauhan is a respected figure amongst the Indian running community, and the wider, international community of ultra-runners. A doctor who runs ultra-marathons. A specialist in pain management who has conceptualised and organized one of the world’s toughest ultra marathons, the high altitude “La Ultra” in the Indian Himalayas.

But more than anything else, Dr. Chauhan is respected as a man who speaks his mind candidly, and who believes firmly in plain-speaking and no-nonsense explanations.

Dr. Chauhan’s book “The Pain Handbook, A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain” is a master class in the art of his famed plain-speaking, and throughout this excellent and very readable book, the author strives to explain medical issues in the simplest lay-person-friendly terms.

Dr. Chauhan is a firm believer in the importance of people taking control of their own lives and their own bodies, and of investing in their own health, and not just passively accepting what a doctor says.

In the opening pages of this book, he makes the point forcibly:

“You need this book because you or your loved ones are suffering from pain. Stop outsourcing your problems. You need to solve them yourself. I will help you do it, but you have to participate proactively…It’s your job to be better informed rather than blaming the “experts” years later.”

There you have it: the good doctor’s mission statement. He will help. But you the reader/patient have to participate proactively.

Throughout his book, Dr. Chauhan exhorts his readers to question the doctors they consult, to think, to inform themselves, and above all to move, and to keep moving:

“To do justice to your body, you owe it to yourself to understand it better. It is of no interest to any other party to educate you. It is a waste of time for them.

What’s in it for the healthcare industry to educate you better and reduce their revenues? So, the onus is on you. It’s your body. Know it better.”

Through an entertaining combination of medical information, a little history, case studies and illustrated exercises, Dr. Chauhan tackles three areas of injury and pain management that especially concern him – the back, the neck and the knee.

Our increasingly computer-driven lifestyle, our penchant for video games over outside games, our reluctance to exercise and keep fit, these are the evils of modern society which the author wants us to be aware of and to learn how to handle them.

For the author, moving is a mantra, as is consciously taking control of one’s body and, if needs be, the pain that has possibly driven you to read this book. We need to move our bodies, and we need to be able to articulate our pain and fears:

“You aren’t born a piece of furniture. You moved to be born and you were born to move. More importantly, you can feel and think. There is something that initiates your movement…When you start looking at yourself as a piece of furniture, you cannot blame the doctors for doing the same. You have ceased to exist as an intelligent human being who moves and has feelings, too.”

This book is a great read – the furthest thing from a dry medical handbook you could ever imagine. It is lively, thought-provoking, full of advice and exercises, and above all, it is easy to read. Never once does the author try and blind us with science. Rather he speaks in a friendly, down-to-earth way, admonishing us a little, but always ready with pointers and advice.

For anyone who has had an injury, or who wishes to be better informed about their body, and the need to exercise and keep potential injuries at bay, this book is a must-read.

And now, if you want to order this excellent book, nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below: