Category Archives: Travelogue

The Year through the Reads – Part 2

…..continued from here

The year saw few books on food. Quite a surprise, considering the ardent foodie that I am. Maybe it has to do with the amount of baking that I did last year. It might have been an overkill. But, read I did, a few. The aroma of bread baking in your oven must be one of the most heavenly ones that you could ever experience. No wonder then that Barbara O’Neal’s ‘How to Bake a Perfect Life‘ found a place on the list. A simple, heart warming story of a single mother, this is an easy and pleasant read. Perfect for a winter afternoon or a rainy evening.

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table‘ by Molly Wizenberg was the next on the list. Another one that I would recommend only if you are a foodie. I loved it, by the way.

tuscanyI’ve always been envious of restaurant reviewers and critics. The amount of free and scrumptious dishes that they get to taste and the way they write about it so authoritatively leaves me wondering at the kind of life they lead. The fact that many of them still look fit and lean in spite of all the gourmet food confounds me no end. Frank Bruni’s ‘Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater‘ was an eye opener in many aspects. This was a four star one on my scale.

As each book of 2014 flashes by in my thoughts, I realize this was an year I turned a book infidel. Margaret Atwood is the only author who was lucky enough to pass through the hands more than once. The year also showed me that an author being a favorite is no guarantee for your liking their books. Sue Monk Kidd turned a favourite last year after ‘The Secret Life of Bees‘. Less than 4 months after reading her ‘The Mermaid Chair‘ , I don’t remember a thing about the story. Never take anyone for granted, authors including. Even Atwood let me down, ‘Wilderness Tips‘ left me bewildered. Markus Zusak was the next one in line. While his ‘Book Thief‘ stole my heart the year before, there was no message for me in his ‘I Am the Messenger.

The best part of having book lovers for friends are the new authors and genres that you get introduced to. And when they come in a group, that’s the biggest blessing a wannabe bibliophile could ask for. Some of the best reads of the year reached me through these kindred souls. It was from Maya that I first heard of  ‘Infidel.‘ Promptly bought, the book stayed in the shelf staring at me for more than a few months. But, there was no stopping once it was opened. Some say half of it is made up. Even if the the other half is true, it’s too gruesome a tale to believe, it has to have happened. And I respect the spirit of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to have not only escaped a prison but also to fight for women like her.

Call me a cynic or even an old hag, books with the tag of ‘Young Adult’ are one of the few things that I run miles away from. And I have to thank my business consultant friend who made me pick up ‘The Fault In Our Stars.‘  Yes, it is a typical teenage love story with a Bollywood type illness thrown in for good measure. It also taught me not to be prejudiced, that young does not mean immature. It was again the same friend who prodded me towards another gentle and enchanting story, ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor.‘ A brilliant maths professor with a short memory span of eighty minutes, a single mother who is trying hard to make both ends meet and her bright 10 year old boy, this is one read that will leave you with a feeling of ‘all’s well with the world.’

History and war were anathema to me until I got to know this oil man. Carlotta Gall has written in detail tuscanyabout the war in Afganistan, the origin of Taliban and how Pakistan has abetted it silently and otherwise in her ‘The Wrong Enemy : America in Afghanistan, 2001 – 2014.‘ The war stories continued with Samanth Subramanian’s ‘ This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War.‘ An unbiased view of what happens to normal human beings in a war that may or may not be theirs is written in a down to earth manner. Hope seems too far away as the author leaves you with these words,

“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”

Some of the much touted ones left the reader in me disappointed. Neither the story nor the style could hold my interest whether it was Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants‘ or Sidin Vadukut’s ‘The Sceptical Patriot‘.

As in food, I turn adventurous with books also. Sometimes, it is the title that calls out to me, while at other times it could be the blurb. This habit has led me to some treasures and to some disappointments as well. The one that I loved in this group is Jonas Jonasson’s ‘ The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared‘. The story is as outrageous as the title. A sprightly centenarian who was instrumental in inventing the atom bomb, was friends with Truman, Franco, Mao and Nixon, not to mention some higher ups in KGB, and then decides to run away from the old age home on his hundredth birthday. What follows is equally hilarious. A suitcase full of money, a dead body and an elephant. This one was a riot. One that totally disappointed in spite of a promising start was ‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman‘ by Denis Theriault.

I finally read an Anees Salim book in the last month of the year, ‘Vanity Bagh‘. Maybe the expectation was so high, that it had to be a disappointment. Loved the language and the images, especially of Vanity Bagh which in itself is a character, but there was this nagging feeling of missing that special something. Shashi Tharoor did not disappoint with his short essays on reading, writing, books and authors with his ‘Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writings and Writers‘, though I have to admit a few chapters were beyond my comprehension.

tuscanyAnd now, for the book of the year. If I were asked to choose one from the eighty plus that were covered during the year, without a second thought it has to be ‘Aarachar‘ by K.R.Meera. Set in Kolkata, this is the story of Chetna Mallick, last in the line of a family of  hangmen, with a lineage of more than 400 years. Meera’s women were always a class apart. Chetna is no different. Courageously moving into a role that was till then reserved for men who were strong in character and build, she is fearless and practical. Interspersed with history, Kolkata comes to life in front of your eyes as does its characters. The story also brings out the shallow world of media, of which the author herself was a part of. Meera is easily one of the best writers in India today. It is indeed a pity that she and her works are rarely known out of Kerala. ‘Hang Woman,’ an English translation by J. Devika is now available.

2014 has also been an year in which the reader in me slowly started shifting focus to non-fiction. The New Year has also started with the same genre. As I wander through Psyche Abraham’s ‘From Kippers to Karimeen‘ I realize again, life is indeed far more interesting than fiction. But then, doesn’t fiction grow out of life?

‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman’ by Alice Steinbach

aliceDo you remember that exhilarating feeling when you meet someone and instantly feel connected? Your thoughts seem to be similar, you react to things the same way, you even seem to complete each other’s sentences and you decide, at last, I’ve found someone who totally gets me. Then, you get to know more of each other and a sense of foreboding starts creeping up, the sixth sense that seldom goes wrong tries to warn you that what you see may not be what you get. And ultimately, a sense of resignation, a foreboding feeling of being fooled does you in. That’s exactly what happened to me with this book.

Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist had always dreamed about chucking it all and seeking out an unencumbered life free of plans and schedules, at least temporarily. And she does just that, her sons having moved out and she herself having reached a phase in life where she could afford to do it. The book is a chronicle of her journey through Paris, London, Oxford and Italy over a period of six to seven months.

The connect was instant. The yearnings and the apprehensions were very familiar. On one side were the years of longing to go out on one’s own, be just who you are sans any limiting definitions of being a daughter, wife, sister, mother, professional and all hundreds of labels by which one is defined. On the other side, the thoughts of whether one could actually do it, that nagging feeling of what would the family and friends say, however sure you are they would encourage you. These were the exact thoughts that seemed to have gone through the author’s mind as well. The beginning was quite exciting. The flutter in your heart as you anticipate the unknown, interspersed with the excitement of finally doing something that you have always wanted to. Adding to the lure was the thought that here is a woman who seemed to have transcended the need for a man in her life, one who could stand on her own and enjoy  life on her own terms.

The fascination started waning even before Paris was done. It was probably a mismatch in expectations. Here I was on one side, with an audacity to think that a prize winning Baltimore Sun columnist’s journey would be similar to a nobody’s week long solo trip to an unknown place. The fault is entirely mine. Instead of on a shoe string budget sojourn across Europe that was expected, what I got was exquisitely beautiful people, exotic shopping and dining in gourmet restaurants. And of course, an adoring and understanding, rich Japanese man who falls in love with you at first sight. Yes, the fault is entirely mine, what right did I have to expect anything different?

Paris is detailed and charming as expected, London a little less so, Oxford is fine and Italy is a rush. More than the places, it is the people and the author’s reminiscences that stayed with me and that is what I loved about the book. I was amazed at the manner in which she strikes conversations people and how she is able to get their stories out so easily. But then, that’s what she’s been doing for a living is a consoling thought. The one thread that runs through is the bonding between women, wherever you go and whatever you do. After a certain age, the rivalry for men is long gone, women gets to know and is comfortable in their own space and they realize that other women are their best allies. The liberated feeling is so well brought out in Jeanne Moreau‘s words as narrated by the author,

She told me that at twenty she was considered ‘unphotogenic’ and that it hurt her to read such a description. But as a woman in her fifties, she had stopped – and this is the way she put it – “looking into the mirror that others hold up to me”

What I found quite unsettling is the fact that in spite of portraying herself as the quintessential woman of today, she still seemed to feel incomplete without a man in her life. Even while writing about the places she traveled to and the people she met on the way, it was as if her mind was revolving around her Japanese love. Everything else felt incidental.

 

Verdict – Loved the language and her insights on places, relationships and life in general. Passing through a similar phase of trying to seek and find who I really am, I could relate to her thoughts. She failed to impress  as an independent woman, though. As mentioned earlier, could be a mismatch of what I wanted and what I got 🙂
An easy read, for a lazy afternoon. You will love it , if you love Danielle Steele novels.

3.5/5

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton

travelThe title was misleading. I was expecting to read about how to travel in an artistic manner or the science of artistic travel , whatever that would have been. As for the author, the only relationship till now were a few quotes, mostly from his ‘On Love’. The first few pages were more less on the expected lines – the anticipation that is mostly colored by a travel agency brochure. Palm fringed beaches, multi hued sea in shades of green , blue or a more sexy sounding aquamarine, the ubiquitous ‘hotel bungalow with a view through French doors into a room decorated with wooden floors and white bedlinen‘ and an almost always ‘azure sky.’

You think you know it all when the author comments on , how in the course of anticipation of a travel, mortal human beings like us tend to forget the details of what happens between the time that we get into a car on the way to airport and reach the hotel at your dream destination. We get an almost bleak picture of however exotic the destination maybe, how we experience it depends to a large extent, on a lot of other factors, beyond our control. The bliss cannot be permanent, and therein lies the beauty or the reality, as the case maybe.

The book is neatly divided into five parts – Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return – two chapters each, except the last, that has one. Enlightenment struck in the second chapter of ‘Departure’ where Botton talks about a remote service station somewhere between London and Manchester and connects his thoughts to the French poet Charles Baudelaire and how his poems borne out of yearning for places afar inspired the American painter Edward Hopper. This was much more than what I had hoped for. Poets and artists I’d never heard of, why they did what they did, how their travels and what they noticed in details en route affected their art and their views on people and life….literary bliss indeed.

In the first chapter  ‘Motives’ of travel, Botton talks about how the very term ‘Exotic’ was synonymous with Middle East at one point of time. Did you know Gustave Flaubert hated his homeland with a passion and was obsessed with the Orient? As the author observes, “What we find exotic abroad maybe what we hunger for in vain at home,” you can’t help nodding in agreement. You also wonder whether the places that you call home are really that , or as the cliche goes, ‘isn’t home where your heart is?’

Curiosity could be another factor that prompts one to take up travel. He talks of the extreme levels of curiosity that one can go to citing the example of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who went on an expedition to South America and came back with details as diverse and detailed as to cover biology, geology, physics, chemistry and whatever else you could think of. (His biography is aptly sub titled ‘What May Be Accomplished in a Lifetime‘). If you are overwhelmed with this super human’s endeavors, Botton leaves us with a consoling thought,

“Instead of bringing back sixteen thousand new plant species, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts.”

‘Landscape’ and ‘Art’ are what really captured my heart. Serendipity strikes when you listen to Wordsworth echoing your thoughts on living in the city as against the country. It was on a visit to Red Hills in Ooty a few years ago that the fact of how your surroundings  can actually affect the kind of person you are, first came into mind as a conscious thought. Every morning, Vijay, the owner of the serene home stay could be seen sitting on the green wrought iron bench in the front garden, staring at the emerald lake below. He was a man of gentle manners and I wondered whether it was the lake and its surroundings that passed on its sage like qualities to him. Over the years, I’ve noticed the changes that come over people based on where they lived and who their constant companions were at any point of time. Some places leave a lasting impression on one’s mind that you are found going back to it time and again, especially when the mind is in turmoil and longs for peace. Isn’t this what the great poet meant when he said,

“For oft on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye….

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the Daffodils.”

The two chapters that follow goes on to tell us about what sublime is all about and how art influences our appreciation of certain things and places, which we might not have otherwise. At some time or other, most of us are influenced by the various reviews and historical significance of places and people. It is as if we are some idiots if we fail to find the same awe and wonder as others mostly pretend to. ‘On Eye-Opening Art’ tells us a different story. Botton , who is totally not impressed by the much appreciated Provence with its quintessential olive and cypress trees and wheat fields. It took aVincent van Gogh to make him appreciate the beauty of the place and its colours.

He saved the best for the last. ‘On Possessing Beauty’ is about John Ruskin, who I must admit, was someone whom I’d never heard of before. He gave a kick on my backside and how. Do we really see what we are looking at, and if at all we do, how much? According to Ruskin, humans have this innate desire to possess beauty. (That explains our hoarding mentality , I guess. The definition of what is beautiful may vary, though. ) And he says, the only way to possess it is by understanding it. And the most effective way to understand, you ask?

“by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.”

The catchword is of course, ‘irrespective.’ We are so worried about what others think and say of our work, all the while forgetting the real essence of art. For, isn’t art something that should give you absolute joy? Irrespective of definition, of what others term as good or bad, if it is something that gives you joy, without harming anyone else, isn’t that the ultimate aim of art? In Ruskin’s words again,

“Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.”

Art can never be separated from life. And when someone links one of the deepest longings – travel – to an object of beauty and makes you think of how you can never be really away from life and its twists and turns, with the added pleasure of finding new artists to enjoy and new authors to be read, you realize you have found a treasure, and a true one at that.

Botton says,

“I had seen many oak trees in my life, but only after an hour spent drawing one in the Langdale Valley (the result would have shamed an infant) did I begin to appreciate, and remember, their identity.”

True of people in our life as well, isn’t it?

ruskin2

‘The Small Brick Bridge’ by John Ruskin

 

Verdict : You love travel ? Art ? Poetry? Go read!

4/5 for the book and 5/5 for ‘On Possessing Beauty’

 

‘One Life to Ride – A Motorcycle Journey to the High Himalayas’ by Ajit Harisinghani

rideAfter ‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions’, I went on a downloading spree of biking books. Started with this one, the main reason was the ‘Himalayas’ in the name. Mountains have always fascinated me. Coming from a place where the land is flat and below sea level to boot, the first sight of mountains was pure awe. The hills of Idukki paled in comparison to the Snow Lord’s abode is something that I realized a few years later. Since then, Leh, Ladakh and The Valley of Flowers have been beckoning from far.

Coming back to the book, the author, in his mid fifties, decides to go on a trip of his dreams, all alone. Based out of Pune, he first makes a trip to Goa, to attune himself and his bike to the long and arduous trip later.

The book goes in a somewhat documentary style, describing places and people that he meets on the way, adding his thoughts to it. A couple of incidents, or rather people caught my heart. The first one was a fakir , a true one, cycling his way to Mecca from Mumbai. At times, profound thoughts turn into words and comes from least expected sources. To the author’s question of how long it takes to reach Mecca, the wise man replies,

“Sirf badan ko wahan le jaana hai.

Rooh to wahin rahtee hai.” *

The part that  stays with me is his meeting with the jawans in Kashmir. There is one incident where the author is frightened by a group of young men rushing at him, only to realize they were soldiers from the Maratha regiment and they had run to him seeing the MH number plate on his bike. They take him to their barracks and he realizes as he talks to them,

“The moment to moment stress is taking its toll. They try to camouflage it by an outward show of bravado but these young men, so far away from their homes, standing around me, look like lonely children marooned in a dangerous world.”

The longing for home, the need to talk to someone, the catch in their throats, the knowledge that this might be their last day, and the feeling of not knowing whom you can trust keep resonating in your heart long after you’re done reading . I was left with a feeling of guilt and despair at the world that we so take for granted.

Otherwise, the narration seemed quite ordinary in most places. Not one that tugged at my heart.

Verdict – A light read, may delight if you are interested in travel, not so much for a bike enthusiast.

3/5 for the story and narration and 5/5 for those encounters with the jawans.

 

(* He was merely transporting his body to where his soul already lived)

 

‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions’ by P.G. Tenzing

blokeMany of us go through the existential pangs of life from time to time, especially when we are in a place that we don’t want to be or working with people whom we hate. Rarely does anyone show the courage to say out loud, “to hell with it” and walk the talk. Here is one guy who did just that and if that was not enough, went on a 25,000 km bike ride across the country.

P.G. Tenzing, an IAS officer from Sikkim, who spent almost 20 years in Kerala did just that when he was 43. This is his account of that journey, told in a no nonsense manner, in an inimitable style. Along with observations about his friends and people whom he meets along the way, he also writes about his disillusionment about the system and his helplessness about many a thing political as well.

His sense of humor is brilliant and is evident throughout the narration. Particularly enticing to me was his love for food,

” Food in Kerala is to die for. Fish, chicken, pork, beef, whatever, all cooked in delectable coconut oil. Except ‘putte’ – a rice based cylindrical piece of poison which can choke you during breakfast.”

Starting from Varkala beach near Trivandrum, he rides up north, spending a minimum of 6-7 hours on the bike as he traverses the length and breadth of the country.

What makes his story more interesting in retrospect is his thoughts on death. Having survived it twice – once from an illness and the from an accident, he seems almost casual in his observation,

” my father tried to prepare us for death. He used to talk about its certainty, it’s inevitability. So when I started my search for life’s meaning, death was a significant part of the equation. I am nowhere near understanding anything, but am nowhere near understanding anything, but am at this point comfortable with the idea of death. It happens. Shit happens. Be prepared. Prepare your family, friends and all who will listen.”

Premonition? Definitely so. Not much later after his book was published, he passes on after a brief illness.

The story makes you want to just go and do whatever it is that you have always wanted to. It reminds us that life can sometimes to be too short. The friends along the way, in almost every town and village, give us glimpses of a man who was loved by many. And that makes us realize what a life well lived means. The tale ends with a thought that is so relevant to all of us ,

“I may have issues with my life, and I have been buffeted about a bit, but those are nothing compared to the daily battering taken by Mohan and his ilk. Living with them has made me rethink many established idiocies and realize that all those high-sounding spiritual, psychological and emotional arguments we have the luxury to engage in, in our temperature-controlled drawing rooms, take a very low backseat indeed when you are existing – subsisting- day to day.”

Verdict – A must read, I would say.

4/5

‘From The Holy Mountain: A Journey In The Shadow of Byzantium’ by William Dalrymple

holy mountainThat William Dalrymple is a travel writer par excellence is a well known fact. Even while being accused of being biased in his opinions, his ability to churn out brilliant stories were never disputed. This book is no different , a story which has its roots drawn from the writings of a sixth century Byzantine monk, John Moschos, it takes us through the paths that  Moschos traversed in the sixth century and Dalrymple followed some 1500 years later.

In his book, ‘The Spiritual Meadow,’ John Moschos talks about the monasteries  and the teachings and life styles of the monks and pilgrims that he and his pupil Sophronius met in the course of their journey through the heart of the Byzantine empire at its prime. Centuries later, Dalrymple decides to recreate the journey and retrace their steps in an attempt to chronicle a ‘dying civilization.’

Starting from a monastery on Mount Athos, Greece, in June 1994, Dalrymple takes us through the war and man torn lands of Istanbul, Antioch, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, the controversial West Bank, Jerusalem, Nazareth and finally ends a little less than a week before Christmas, in the desert of Kharga, in Egypt, once considered the Siberia of the Byzantine Empire.  As he travels across arid deserts and deserted monasteries, the recurring theme is that of a sometimes abandoned , most times destroyed remnants of a once powerful empire. Churches in ruins that even now would surpass the most well known and well preserved Basilicas, forgotten caves and desolate structures that are dispersed throughout the Middle East with a few old world inhabitants who refuse to leave, the pictures that he presents are vivid and depressing at the same time.

A few of the themes that recur throughout the book is how Christianity was essentially an Eastern religion, how similar  it is to Islam and how cultures across are so different yet remain similar. It is interesting to note how each change in culture mostly starts peacefully, then slowly the seeds of intolerance are sown to weed out what is not their own, finally culminating in a near total destruction of the one that was there originally. A matter of history repeating itself, or as a friend of mine put it, history echoing itself across regions and religions. Even in between all the strife and war, you can see Muslims coming to pray in obscure monasteries , bringing the weirdest of offerings and Orthodox priests assessing in these offerings in a very matter of fact way.

It is heart wrenching to read about people who are asked to leave their house overnight leaving behind  belongings of their lifetime, coming back to find strangers closing these very same doors on their faces and who still continue to live in the never ending hope of that ‘some day’.

One would expect Dalrymple to be biased especially since the theme is based on Christianity and its decline. He admits,

“When I began this journey I had expected that Islamic fundamentalism would prove to be the Christians’ main enemy in every country I visited. But it had turned out to be more complicated than that.”

Be it fundamentalism , questions of ethnicity or issues of compromising to the diktats of majority, one fact is indisputable – it is the alarming decrease in the population of a minority that was once a majority. Almost everywhere that he visited, the educated young  had already or were in the process of emigrating to the West or Australia.

You can glimpse the author’s innate sense of humor in places like Beirut where,

“Armageddon I expected, Armani I did not”

His conversations with the Orthodox priest Fr.Theophanes of the Monastery of Mar Saba on the Israeli occupied West Bank is particularly hilarious. Contrary to what my Sunday school nuns taught me, this priest says all Catholics will end up in hell along with Freemasons.

“I always thought Freemasons just held coffee mornings and whist drives and that sort of thing.”

“Wheest drives?” said Theophanes, pronouncing the word as if it were some sort of Satanic ritual. “Probably this wheest drive also. But their main activity is to worship the Devil. There are many steps,” he said knowingly. “But the last,the final step, is to meet with the Devil and have homosexual relations with him.  After this he makes you Pope or sometimes the President of the United States.”

“President of the United States….?”

“Certainly. This has been proved. All the Presidents of the United States have been Freemasons. Except Kennedy. And you know what happened to him….”

He had seen Christian population looking happy only in Syria and had warned that this may change “as soon as Asad’s repressive minority regime began to crumble.” Ten years down the lane, we are getting glimpses of what is happening in Syria. It would be interesting to know what happened to the scores of other not so happy and clearly unhappy people that he wrote about.

The book has now left me with an imminent urge to visit that mysterious place that has been beckoning for sometime…Istanbul and its Hagia Sophia

Verdict : Not an easy read, you need to take it slowly. But definitely worth it if you love reading about long forgotten lands, mysterious monks, disappearing cultures, enigmatic monasteries rising out of vast deserts, in voices that are sad, happy, nostalgic, angry, resigned, hopeful…in short, if you love reading about history, religion and travel.  

4/5