Reading “Bangkok Days” whilst on holiday in Bangkok was a wonderful, border-line surreal experience, since it made me simultaneously embarrassed at how little I know the city, whilst also inspiring me to try and follow in Mr. Osborne’s steps.

Not with the drinking nor the dentistry (the original reason the author landed up in Bangkok) but for the long wanders through the city, leisurely exploring. Not the well known palaces and Wats, but everyday neighbourhoods.

This wonderful memoir was published in 2009, and although much of the city must have changed in the intervening decade, there is a timelessness to Mr. Osborne’s portrayal of a city that clearly fascinates him.

He explores Bangkok, usually on foot, and usually at night, seeing beauty in the ordinary, and finding stories in the most mundane of places:

“I preferred nights there…I grew to like the atmosphere of stale basil & exhausted marijuana which Bangkok seems to breathe out of invisible nostrils…”

The author wanders the streets, and drinks in bars, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of fellow ex-pats. He explores the city with friends, men who have washed up in Thailand and then stay on, working, pretending to work, or simply just living there. It is a raffish, down-at-heel crowd, but seen through Mr. Osborne’s generous eye, there is genuine affection in his portrayal of these often lonely, often eccentric men.

Mr. Osborne clearly loves Bangkok, warts and all, and it is a tribute to his writing that I caught myself Googling places he mentions, planning to go and see for myself how the city has fared in the last 10 years or so.

I’m inspired, truly.

A wonderful book.

A wonderful tribute to a fascinating city.

Recommended, whether you know Bangkok well, or not at all.

Here’s a link to buy the book.

You’re very welcome.

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.

Love Jaipur_5241

Love Jaipur_5242

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.

Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater

It has been a few years since I re-re-read Alexander Frater’s  “Chasing the Monsoon”, one of those books that so perfectly captures India that it is, well, perfect.

(And yes, what a shockingly inadequate sentence that is.)

I loved this book the first time I read it, when I was fairly new to India.

A couple of decades later, this book is every bit as marvellous and funny and oh-so-beautifully written.  A truly sensational piece of writing.

But this time, my 3rd (or is it 4th?) reading of “Chasing the monsoon” made me very nostalgic, for I fear that the India Mr. Frater describes in such luminous prose is slowly but surely disappearing.

The India of 1987 when he travelled across India following the monsoon was a slower, gentler paced India than the country where I now live circa 2014.  India in 1987 was a country of poor telecommunications (oh, how I remember those days…how well…) of erratic internal flights (oh, how I remember those days…how well…) but of a chattiness and friendliness and generous warmth and slight dottiness that I loved and adored, and now miss.

Mr. Frater travels from Kanyakumari to Cherrapunji, the famed wettest place in earth (though it was dry as a bone when we visited a few years ago) tracking the monsoon as it makes its slow and life-giving way across India.

Mr. Frater wears his obvious scholarship very lightly, seamlessly weaving into his picaresque story snippets of history, lots of personal memories from an extraordinary childhood in the New Hebrides, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of climatology.

He is a man who travels lightly and well. The kind of man one would love for a travel companion. Observant, affectionate, ready to go with whatever flow takes him gradually across India. He clearly loves India, and even the bad moments (usually bureaucracy) bear witness to a resigned shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance.

And what a fabulous cast of characters we meet as we wander across India in Mr. Frater’s company. He meets and chats with and describes people so well, that I was often sorry when his travels took him on and away from such characters who positively leap out of the pages.

My latest reading of this book took place in my home, Delhi, in that week in late June when you pray for the rains. 29 June (the “traditional” day for the onset) came and went, with only a couple of showers, and just as Mr. Frater read the met reports assiduously in 1987, so I found myself reading my 2014 versions with a little more interest than usual, comparing the language.

2014 not looking good this late June, what with the monsoon being in a tailspin…

met report

I have said in other book reviews that you don’t necessarily have to be in a particular place to enjoy a book, but if you are in situ, then the pleasure is heightened, and the fact that I am languishing in hot, powercut-y Delhi, all of us waiting for the monsoon, made “Chasing the Monsoon ” absolutely perfect.

There are too many wonderful encounters to detail them all, but I do have my favourites. Such as the naked sadhu who made a century for the West Bengal Water Board. This encounter in the shimmering heat of Deeg in Rajasthan is delicious and utterly delightful :



There are some moments that make you laugh out loud at the sheer dottiness of it all, such as this vignette from Shillong :


It is from Shillong that the author has to make a dash to the airport to leave a restricted area, since his permit is about to run out.  To anyone who has driven in India, this fabulous description will ring a hilarious (but scary) bell :



This is a marvellous book, written with elegance, and I finished it with sadness. I didn’t want the quest to be over.  So it is fitting that one of the very last people we meet in India in Mr. Frater’s company is 75 year old Tom Richmond, who came to India in 1933 and never left :


I cannot recommend “Chasing the Monsoon” too highly.

If you now feel like buying the book (and for Indian readers, it would make perfect monsoon/pre-monsoon reading) then nothing could be simpler. Simply click on the links below:

You can also buy this as an ebook :


Ursula Bower, author and anthropologist (died November 1988). She lived with the Naga tribesmen and fought against the Japanese in World War II

I read this sadly out of print book a year ago, when I visited Nagaland and became fascinated with the tale of Ursula Graham Bower.  Ms Graham Bower’s “Naga Path” (that is a link to my review, obviously) covers her years in Nagaland, and “The Hidden Land” takes up the story.  Ursula is now married – only just –  and with her husband, Lt. Col Tim Betts, they set off on their new posting, to the virtually unknown, uncharted Lower Subansiri region of Arunachal Pradesh.

Now, let me stop here for a moment and give you some background information.

Ursula and Tim’s daughter, Catriona Child is a friend of mine in Delhi, and we have just returned from an amazing trip together to Arunachal, following in the steps of her parents.  A friend and passionate historian accompanied us, identifying places where Catriona’s parents lived, camped, visited – nothing short of amazing, recreating a journey of over 60 years ago.

So, having read “The Hidden Land” once and found it poignantly sad compared with “Naga Path,” I re-read the book before our trip, and no sooner had I closed the last page, on a frosty morning in the Apa Tani valley, than I turned right back to the first page and re-re-read it.

And that I have never done.  Ever.  Read a book literally back to back.

But so fascinating was it to put faces to names, and to put the exciting adventure that the Betts couple live into perspective, that it made sense to keep on reading this book which is still so fresh that it is hard to imagine that the events in it took place in a very different India.  To read about the men whose families we would meet was both moving and highly emotional.

Ms Graham Bower is still desperately in love with the tribal North East during her years in Arunachal, but their time in the Lower Subansiri district was a trying one, with feuding and sparring tribes to contend with, as well as the couple’s growing anxiety about their future in India after Independence. (I did just say that they lived in a very different India, remember).

Their mission statement would have terrified many a current politician:Untitled 3

And so off they set, to trek into this virtually uncharted land –  the hidden land of the title – in their pragmatic, down-to-earth way.  Supplies were in desperately short supply, in those years immediately after the Second World War.  Porters were hard to find.  They had no idea if the tribes would be hostile.  And the going was physically tough, but from the very start, from the opening paragraph, you are captivated and ready to accompany Ursula and Tim on their big adventure :


The famed Apa Tani valley, a place that captured the heart and the imagination of this intrepid couple still is beautiful, despite “progress” in the form of buildings and traffic and satellite dishes, but to the Betts’ it was literally breathtaking :

Untitled 2Their final departure from this beautiful land, when India becomes Independent, is heart-breaking.

They loved the country with a passion, and the hidden land of the title becomes hidden to them for ever, as they walk out of the Valley for the last time, unable to look back, such is their grief.

This book is a wonderful read.

If you know India and especially the north east it is compelling.

Track it down online – I have added an Amazon link below – and let yourself be swept back to a time when voyages of discovery were literally possible.

NAGA PATH by Ursula Graham Bower

Ursula Bower, author and anthropologist (died November 1988). She lived with the Naga tribesmen and fought against the Japanese in World War II

Before reviewing Ursula Graham Bower’s “Naga Path”, let me put a couple of things in context, so that I don’t seem to be unfairly partial towards this wonderful book.

The author’s daughter, Catriona, is a friend, and indeed we are in book club together in Delhi. So, yes, I knew a little from Catriona about her mother, but since the former is as well mannered as her mother seems to have been, there is no bragging whatsoever, so I only knew a little.

Then, in December, I went to Nagaland for the first time, to the Hornbill Festival with one of my oldest and dearest friends from Oxford, Jane, who had read the book as a teenager, and dreamed of going ever since. In fact, it was “Naga Path” that inspired Jane to go to Nagaland, and I went along for the ride, as it were.

I hadn’t quite joined the book-Jane-read-as-a-teenager and Catriona’s-mother dots, until the three of us all met in Kohima for the Festival.

I have just finished reading “Naga Path”, while holidaying in Assam, appropriately enough, and can quite understand how such a well-written, derring-do story would capture any teenager’s imagination. It captured mine, I can tell you.

Now for the facts.

Ursula Graham Bower arrived in India as a young woman, a pretty debutante who developed a passion and an unflinching love for the Naga people, in what was then Assam.

Ms Graham Bower lived for years in the late 1930s/early 1940s amongst the Zemi tribe, as an anthropologist but also as a mentor, and, for some, a reincarnation of one of their legendary heroines.

And thus the legend of the Naga Queen came into being. Ms Graham Bower seems never to have traded on the adulation and devotion of her beloved Zemi tribe, living with them in harmony, affection, occasional irritation, and much humour.

The author’s descriptive prose is little short of intoxicating, making the reader see the serried ranks of hills going on into the horizon, and smell the fire and dust and smoke. Her love for the land and the people is palpable in her writing, which is almost a love-song to the Nagas.

Ms Graham Bower’s writing makes you fall in love with the Zemis in the way she did. We meet a cast of characters whom she describes succinctly and affectionately, pointing out their foibles, their worries, their problems, with great humour and respect.

She never once patronises the Nagas, who were (for those who may not know it) head-hunters. Far from it, she is quick to point out the intelligence and wicked sense of humour of the Nagas.

One of the most delicious episodes in the book is the account of how her inseparable companion and mentor Namkia (“the old sinner”) gets himself space on the otherwise crowded train to Calcutta. Namkia stands there, resplendent in his red cloak, telling the initially packed compartment about how, during hard times, he and his wife had agonized over which of their children to kill and eat, finally deciding on the baby.

“it really was exceptionally good, most tender – boiled with chillies”

By the end of the story, Namkia is alone on the train bench, and he “spread out his bedding and slept in comfort, at full length, all the way to Calcutta : and every time a fresh entrant approached him with a hint to move over, the rest of the carriage said, as one :”Look out ! Man-eater!” and Namkia turned slowly over and murmured :”Now the last time I tasted human flesh__________”

Ms Graham Bower’s story gets more and more fascinating, since at the outbreak of World War II she becomes part of V Division, gathering information on the Japanese movements on the far north-eastern flank of India. Although the story is fascinating, this is perhaps the least compelling part of the book, since there is an awful lot of technical detail, and far less of the colour and passion of the early days.

Throughout this section of the book, the author down-plays the risks involved in her wartime work, of the dangers and discomforts in which she and her Naga companions lived. Risk of capture, torture, death at the hands of the Japanese is not mentioned, and whatever discomforts she talks about is all done in an almost breezily cheerfully stoic style. No whingeing or complaining for Ms Graham Bower.

Rather, what comes across is the good humour and resilience of this young woman leading her Naga scouts through the countryside, intelligence gathering for the Allies, in difficult terrain, with minimal supplies, and in horrid weather.

Having just read Fergal Keane’s magnificent “Road of Bones” about the siege of Kohima, one can only begin to imagine the real risks the author ran, but which she almost glosses over.

The end of the book, which came far too quickly for my liking, introduces us to her husband, and describes their delightfully impromptu marriage, following what can only be called a super-whirlwind courtship and engagement. Ms Graham Bower’s Nagas approved of her choice, and the descriptions of the ceremony they hold for the newly wed couple, as befits the woman they consider their daughter, is as moving and romantic a piece of writing as you could wish to read.

A wonderful book, which other than a few archaic terms, is as much of a joy to read today, as it was for my then teenaged friend Jane.

The only sad part of this review is the fact that this wonderful book is out of print. But do track it down in a library or from a second-hand book-shop.

It will fire your imagination, I guarantee.


Having gone on several heritage walks in Delhi led by the historian Swapna Liddle, I was particularly interested in this book, which is a welcome and very worthwhile addition to any Delhi lover’s library.

As the title implies, Ms Liddle takes you, the reader, on 14 historic walks through the city, in which she describes in great detail the sights and sites, “guiding” you and allowing you to wander on your own using her book as your companion.  The walks she has chosen include lesser known areas such as Janahpanah, as well as absolutely classic Delhi must-see places such as the Red Fort and Qutb Minar, which are on every tourist’s itinerary.

The author’s reason for including these better-known Delhi sites is disarmingly frank :

This is the sad reality of much of the (non) signage at Delhi’s monuments, making this book even more useful.

Ms Liddle’s approach to choosing each of her chosen walks is practical.

Again, quoting her own words :

” It should be a fairly pleasant walk – I have left out the particularly litter-strewn or overgrown paths.”

Given the parlous state of much of the city, I couldn’t agree more with her pragmatic approach.

Each chapter starts with a simple but detailed map of the walk (more on the maps in a moment) followed by an eminently practical listing of such information as the opening times, the cost of entry tickets, the closest metro stations and, very sensibly, the difficulty level of the walk.  And, super sensibly for Delhi, Ms Liddle also provides details of what amenities are available – water, snacks and that all important loo.

So, armed with these practical details, the author then describes in great detail but in clear, easy prose, the main things to see as you wander through, say, Mehrauli Archeological Park, or Hauz Khas, or through the Lodi Gardens.  Each main monument, or vista, or church or tomb has a number which refers back to the map. The maps are clear and simple to follow, and provide names for places which many a better guidebook has failed to do. Thanks to Ms Liddle, I now know that those two tombs opposite Aurobindo Place Market, the outliers of the wonderful Hauz Khas complex, are actually called  the Dadi-Pito or Biwi-Bandi.

The author explains architectural terms simply, for the layman, and wears her obvious scholarship and knowledge lightly, and in a charmingly un-stuffy way. The book is easy and pleasant to read, with an easy-going style, not like reading a standard guide book at all. Rather, you feel as though you are wandering through Chandni Chowk, or the Red Fort, or Safdarjung’s Tomb with a knowledgeable friend, who is gently pointing out things you might otherwise have missed.

If it doesn’t sound silly, the book is also quite light to hold, making you much more likely to pop it in your bag when you set out to on a walk.

I know I certainly shall.

This book is going to go with me as I re-explore the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk, and take another walk down Rajpath from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhawan, learning more at the Lutyens Baker relationship as I stroll.

Published by Westland, “14 Historic Walks” costs Rs 495.

If you would like to buy the book now, simply click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier :

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!