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.

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:

The subtle art of not giving a f*ck by Mark Manson

Obviously the title of the book has something to do with it.

Even at my age, who can resist being seen reading something with such an in-your-face title?

“The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” certainly delivers on the shock value, with the F word peppering the earlier chapters, but you know what, it’s actually not a bad read at all, shock tactics notwithstanding.

Mark Manson, the 30-something author, has achieved maturity and wisdom beyond his years, and much of what he says made sense.

I thought it was just me, getting old, and no longer caring so much about so many of the things that used up my energies in earlier decades…but apparently, it’s actually more a case of “in life, we have a limited amount of fucks to give. So you must choose your fucks wisely.”

Seriously, why couldn’t I have read this book in my 30s?

It might well have given me the courage I so clearly lacked at the time to say “no” to so many futile things.

School art projects, for one…helping the kiddos make a model of the Great Pyramid of Giza out of toilet rolls and kitchen paper rolls being one of the worst time-wasters of my life.

Ah well, I didn’t have the benefit of Mr. Manson’s trenchant advice at the time.

The author makes some very interesting and thought provoking statements to make his pretty-much central premise that 99.99% of us are, in point of fact, not special.

In Mr. Manson’s view, until we disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are special/talented/beautiful/desirable, and therefore somehow “deserve” gratification/success/money/adulation because of the aforementioned, we are destined to go through life feeling cheated:

“It turns out that merely feeling good about yourself doesn’t really mean anything unless you have a good reason to feel good about yourself. It turns out that adversity and failure are actually useful and even necessary for developing strong-minded and successful adults. It turns out that teaching people to believe they’re exceptional and to feel good about themselves no matter what doesn’t lead to a population full of Bill Gates and Martin Luther Kings.”

Mr. Manson is refreshingly harsh about the current sense of entitlement and molly-coddling that seems to have seeped into society the world over:

“Numerous professors and educators have noted a lack of emotional resilience and an excess of selfish demands in today’s young people. It’s not uncommon for books to be removed from a class’s curriculum for no other reason than that they made someone feel bad…School counsellors note that more students than ever are exhibiting severe signs of emotional distress over what are otherwise run-of-the-Mlle daily college experiences, such as an argument with a roommate, or getting a low grade in a class.”

The author goes on to say, “It’s strange that in an age when we are more connected than ever, entitlement seems to be at an all-time high. Something about recently technology seems to allow our insecurities to run amok like never before. The more freedom we’re given to express ourselves, the more we want to be free of having to deal with anyone who I may disagree with us or upset us.”

Whew! Spoken like an old fogey like me, not a youngster. How refreshing!

Mr. Manson is spot-on when he says, talking of the internet and social media: “Perhaps these same technologies that have liberated and educated so many are simultaneously enabling people’s sense of entitlement more than ever before.”

I enjoyed the book, and it made me smile in many places. Anyone who quotes Yoda is a star in my book.

I enjoyed the author’s vivid use of language, truly I did, including that fabulous verb “to unpretzel”.

I applaud his view of how to live your life.

An all-round good read.

Since this is a review of a book encouraging a counterintuitive approach to life, I won’t tell you how to go ahead & order your copy…you can work it out for yourselves, right?!

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:

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 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:

THE LADYBIRD BOOK OF MINDFULNESS

This was another Christmas present from my clever sister, who clearly knows her older sibling oh-so-well.  After tackling midlife crisis, I now have a brilliant Ladybird book to guide me through the tricky waters of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness is the skill of thinking you are doing something when you are doing nothing.”

(Ouch, Jane, is there a hidden message here?)

Love the skewering of our middle-aged pretensions:

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I also love (& humour me here, folks) the sheer Englishness of these books.

The dotty text, the wholesome illustrations, the deliberate throw-back to our childhood books, the tweaking of our nostalgia – oh the whole thing is too clever and such light-hearted fun.

Meet my favourite mindful character…

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If you wish – mindfully of course – to buy this book, couldn’t be easier.

Just click on the link below.

Love Jaipur by Fiona Caulfield

Whoever said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover has obviously never read any of Fiona Caulfield’s travel guides.

They are simply stunning.

And that’s before you even start to read them.

Just the look and the feel of Ms Caulfield’s gorgeously produced guide book are enough to make you fall in love with Jaipur, and that’s before you follow her, as she wanders through the city, sharing her insider knowledge on shopping and eating and drinking and exploring and yet more shopping…

Enveloped in a lovely case, the book has a retro feel to it, and yes, a luxurious aura.

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Ms Caulfield writes about Jaipur with huge affection and shares her special places generously, wearing her knowledge lightly.  She sounds like a fun person to go exploring with.  Food, drink, shopping, hotels –  all are tackled efficiently, in separate sections, with lots of her personal tips and advice thrown in for good measure.  The book never for a second reads like an advertorial.

Even though we used the first edition of the book, published in 2010, all the shops and places we visited were exactly as she described them, and she is remembered with a certain amount of esteem and respect.

For those people who want to move beyond the bland and the predictable and who also want to get out into the city and explore –  this is your book.

Recommended.  (Indeed my book is looking a tad exhausted, after a hectic 3 days in Jaipur last week).

If you feel like buying “Love Jaipur” right now, then it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link below.

FIXING YOUR FEET by John Vonhof

Before I start, let me tell you that running has changed my life.  In so, so many ways.

Such as?
Well, one of them being that winning a book called “Fixing your feet’ in a competition organised by a local Delhi running group made me as pleased as punch.  Because now I could look up blackened toenails and pronation and how to treat blisters…oh sorry, is this too much information?!

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Since starting running 2 years ago, my feet have become of major importance to me, if that doesn’t sound silly –  a blister or a sore toe means no running.  End of story.  Miserable day….all you runners out there know the feeling.

So I cosset my feet now way more than I ever did my pre-running days.

And, of course, my feet look terrible, compared to pre-running days.   All those blackened toe nails.

This book is, therefore, a perfect reference book.  I have dipped in and out of the relevant chapters, and will keep it handy for any future aches and pains.

The book is published in the US by Wilderness Press and costs $18.95.  It was originally published in 1997 and has been reprinted many times over the years.

Should you wish to order it now, you can do so now by clicking on one of the links below.  Couldn’t be easier.