The appeal of grumpiness

a man called OveA book that apparently began with a blog about the writer’s pet peeves was then turned into a surprisingly successful novel about a cantankerous old man whose attempts to commit suicide are constantly being interrupted by his neighbours. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, is about the transformation that can be brought about by social interactions.

Although it would be easy to attribute all the peeves that Ove has in the book – with the younger generation, the local council, people working in IT, hospitals, parking lots, foreign brands of cars etc.- to normal old age behaviour, we realised that we identified with most of Ove’s complaints and obviously so does the author who is so much younger than us. Which is a relief because it just goes to prove that one is allowed to be cranky at any age. Particularly when it comes to the opinions about IT professionals! Leaving all that aside, the gradual change of a reclusive and curmudgeonly man through forced association and socialising with those much younger than him including his adoption by a stray cat, is not very new and distinctly Silas Marnerish. But the book is touching and humorous despite the underlying theme of loneliness and despair.

As with the earlier book of Fredrick Backman that we had reviewed (My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises) A Man Called Ove is translated from the Swedish. But if, as they say, something is always lost in translation we can only wonder at how well the original must read. 

The book is incredibly funny and readable despite being totally politically incorrect. Or perhaps because of it, since political incorrectness is now fashionable across the world. ‘Covefe’? 

It is all chemistry

Murder needs chemistry. We are not talking about the rash, violent type where the murderer grabs a gun or a knife but the more cold blooded, subtle kind that requires the use of poisons. We realised this when we started writing a murder mystery and were flummoxed at each stage because the minimal chemistry learnt in school did not equip us to know which is the more suitable poison if you want the victim discovered only the next day after having taken a phone call the previous evening, not looking obviously poisoned, what would be the dosage required, and because we are soft we wouldn’t want them to have suffered too much and  it would also help the story line if we could get the murderer to distill the poison in a home lab. Just the basics of any old murder mystery but the details are important to build up the story.

Consequently we have been bemoaning the lack of practical chemistry education in schools, which seems to be true even today going by all the kids who are less than enthused by the subject. Beyond tedious memorising of the periodic table and the distinct rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulphide there is not much else that stays in one’s mind from school chemistry lessons. Alan Bradley‘s eighth Flavia de Luce book ‘Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed‘ which we read recently, had the twelve year old precocious detective going about the countryside solving murders effortlessly through the use of chemistry; inciting sighs of envy at each turn of the page at Mr. Bradley’s knowledge of not just the subject but also its history.

So we wonder why we had not been inspired to look at chemistry in a different light in school. To think of the possibilities and the practical uses we could have put it too! We could have been amazing gardeners ensuring the most spectacular garden because our plants would have been fed the correct nutrients and the right combinations of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium etc. Or, we imagine ourselves as ground breaking organic farmers recognising the artificial chemicals from the natural ones and throwing them out. We may have been world class, constellation level, Michelin starred chefs knowing the exact chemical reactions of the ingredients with each other and with degrees of heat, not to mention the chemical interactions between our creations and saliva for optimum effect. We could also have been intrepid archaeologists, discovering lost civilisations or even a palaeontologist discovering dinosaur bones and cleaning up our finds with the gentlest chemicals, carbon dating and carrying out the correct DNA sequencing. Not to mention the pharmaceutical and bio chemical uses of chemistry for developing lifesaving drugs.

Truly, it’s only when one is older that one realises how pervasive chemistry is, being as it is, the stuff of life. Is there anything that we do or any human behaviour which is not dictated by chemical reactions within our bodies or our brains? And in knowing how these chemical reactions make us work, can we not control them? There are also the numerous nefarious uses of chemistry like the processing of fossil fuels, manufacturing of plastics and of hallucinatory substances which we shall leave out. There are limits, after all, to the practical applications that should be taught in schools, except perhaps as a warning about the rampant destruction that can also be caused by misuse of any subject.

But the need we have for chemistry right now is to enable us to effectively plot and detect a murder. Asking friends and acquaintances who have some knowledge of the subject seems dodgy and would garner a lot of strange looks and snide comments, which we can do without. Google searches are likely to raise a lot of eyebrows from persons who have access to our search history; possibly also trepidation at the reasons for such searches, requiring lengthy explanations from us of the plot and story line. All of it best avoided. The search is on for a practical workshop for murder mystery writers. Chemistry teachers, are you reading?

Magically Strung Out

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Miracles do happen. Authors do manage to complete a series that they set out to write, without making their readers wait for inordinate lengths of time. V E Schwab‘s, A Conjuring of Light, the third and final book in her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of those rare series concluding books. When we thought about it, we realised that out of all the major, new fantasy series we have started to read in the last decade, or so, this is probably the only one that has actually finished. Just for that V E Schwab deserves to be applauded.

The final book would have been a door stopper had we bought the physical book. As it was, while reading the ebook we didn’t even realise, till we were half way through, that the book didn’t seem to be anywhere near an end. That in itself is an indication of the pace of writing which kept us gripped throughout.

The trilogy is set in parallels worlds with different levels of magic. The only thing they have in common is the city of London which exists on each one of them. People are not supposed to travel between worlds, except the Antari, the rare breed of higher magician born on these worlds. The barrier between the worlds keeps out the poisonous magic from Black London which had been overrun and corrupted by inordinate use of that magic. But, as is the nature of evil, it always manages to find a way of getting out. On the face of it the series abounds with the tropes of fantasy: the magicians drunk on power, the maniacal Rulers as compared with the good King and Queen, the spoilt and wild prince, the dashing pirates, et all. But Schwab’s style of writing provides a lot more. It is not just the descriptions of the various worlds and the characters but also their relationships with each other which are explored. All the relationships, even the friendly ones, are complicated, not just with suspicion but sometimes with the desire to kill. The good are constantly struggling with the temptations of power and their own strengths, and things can go wrong very quickly and very easily where magic is involved.

This book, like the second one in the series, is set largely in the world of Red London where magic abounds. It begins where book two ended – right in the middle of the action. Interestingly enough Schwab intersperses the story of evil magic which now infests Red London with the back story of Holland the Antari from the colourless and vicious White London. While the earlier books had focused more on Kell, the Red London Antari and Lila the thief from Grey London who becomes a pirate, this one deals with the nature of Holland, causing the reader to sympathise with a character who, until now, was more of a villain.

The book has elaborate descriptions and spectacular imagery- what with castles that appear magically in the air, a ship that is a floating market of all varieties of magical contraband and the megalomaniacal personification of magic itself. It is a satisfying conclusion to the series but with perhaps more violence than we were comfortable with; though fairly tame in comparison to the Game of Thrones. V E Schwab does not seem to be particularly partial to any of her main characters and makes them all suffer terribly and equally but perhaps we detected a slight preference for the Pirate captain, Alucard Emery. Or maybe that’s just us. Although the story ties in nicely from the earlier books in the series and many of the questions are answered, there are enough lose ends left for a either a sequel or a prequel. Although we hope Schwab avoids the temptation of either. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.

 

Cooling Summer

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The Sun God seems more upset than usual this year and is breathing down fire. April’s barely begun and the ceiling fans are working overtime. There are reports that certain parts of North India, already in the mid-forties, are going to hit fifty degrees Celsius this year. There was a time when we in Bangalore would moan and groan and collapse into puddles if the temperature hit thirty degrees but now we are glad if we just about manage to avoid forty degrees.

The happiest people at this time of the year, that too when the school holidays have started, are the cola companies with their incessant advertising on TV, showing people noisily quenching their thirst with chilled bottles appealingly covered with condensation. All of it gives you the impression that you can build a bubble of coolness around yourself, just by reaching out for that bottle or can.

But we know better. Traditionally there are so many drinks that used to be made in homes across India, designed specifically to beat the heat. Those drinks have the capacity to truly quench thirst and cool down the entire body from the inside, instead of just making you hanker for more and loading you with sugar. They come from natural sources, don’t contain BVO and also sometimes contain actual fruit pulp. Of course those drinks would lose out on the ‘coolness’ quotient because they are not accompanied by fancy packaging and glitzy advertising.

The very first one that deserves to be mentioned is the matka stored water. Those round earthenware pots that were brought out every summer to store drinking water, giving it a faint earthy taste, and chilling it in a much friendlier way than the refrigerator. And without power consumption, we might add.

At least in Bangalore, down every street corner, there is a man selling tender coconut water. If you walk down a hot blazing street, there is heaven to be found within the confines of that green coconut shell, the top of which is expertly hacked off and a straw stuck into the hole for you to access the cool, enervating liquid inside.

Then there is the ubiquitous aam panna. A visitor to any north Indian household in the summer is invariably served a glass of this tangy, sweet and salty raw mango drink. Large amounts of the concentrate are made and kept in the fridge, to be readily consumed by the parched multitudes, after adding more water. We must add that we have since discovered the joys of aam panna spiked with white wine. Modernity, must after all, be accommodated in some ways.

The other favourite is the drink made from the Bael fruit, also called the wood apple. The fruit juice is supposed to be one of the most cooling drinks that one can have in the blazing heat of summer, not to mention many other health benefits of the fruit. Similarly, glasses of watermelon juice with mint leaves floating on top make an appearance in most homes at this time of the year. The watermelon vendors appear magically on the pavements of the city as the weather starts warming up. Then there is the buttermilk, lightly spiced with curry leaves and popped mustard seeds to add flavour and the cooling green drink made from khus grass (Vetiver). All of them providing coolness and additional nutrients.

Thirty years or so ago, the only bottled drinks that were consumed widely in summer were the fresh lime soda and the drink made from the Rooh afza concentrate which has been around since 1906. The concentrate contains a gooey mix of various cooling agents including rose petals and has an equal number of people who either love it or hate it. Possibly it needs a modernising impact by way of spiking!

All the fancy, bottled cola drinks claim to cool us down through the sheer power of our own refrigerators as there is absolutely nothing in the drink itself which has a cooling effect. So why are we all veering towards those drinks? Is it the appeal of advertising? Or the pull of sugar? When a plethora of alternatives is available, we all run towards the one that will ultimately do more harm than good.

 

 

 

Tabebuia Heaven

A short story inspired by and written as a tribute to those Bangaloreans who persisted with the protest against the proposed 6.72 kilometre steel flyover in the city. Also in memory of the seventeen trees recently killed on the outer ring road by acid being poured around their roots. This was done to provide a better view of an advertisement hoarding which displayed the beauty of sunsets in New York! And for the scores of other trees around the city suffering a similar fate, making way for ‘progress’.

 Tabebuia Heaven

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That day started with a series of objections. Vriksh’s father threw a fit, “You’re mad! I forbid you from going out and wasting the entire day standing in some foolish human chain. Your exams come first. You are seventeen years old, for heaven’s sake. Leave city management to other people. You need to focus on your exams because if you don’t get a good engineering seat, you won’t get a good job with a good salary and your life will be a waste!”

Being seventeen Vriksh couldn’t keep his mouth shut, “None of that will matter if I am going to be sick and dying in ten years’ time from choked air, chemical laden water and a plague ridden, rat infested city from all the garbage lying on the streets, not to mention  the plastic bags flying around in the apocalyptic breeze.”

“Oh stop the melodrama. At least you will have money to pay for your treatment.”

“No Appa, my pus oozing bubonic sores and wracking bronchial passages will prevent me from going to work and earning any money.”

On his way out he bumped into neighbour aunty who gave him her bit of ‘gyan’. “You will get heat stroke. Your parents will be so worried. You will miss college for so many days. And for what? So that you can post it on Facebook that you stood in a queue with so many crackpots?”

The watchman in the apartment complex was stoic “Bhayya, the politicians have already collected their share. Nothing will stop it now. Relax, you have AC at home. Why do you want to stand in the sun?”

At the end of the street his dad’s friend Sharma Uncle, who Vriksh was certain had been positioned there by his distraught father, waylaid him. “You young people these days! Because everything comes to you so easily you have no ambition. No seriousness towards life. Think of your parents and all the sacrifices they have made. This is how you repay them? By wasting your time in foolish and frivolous pursuits.”

By this time Vriksh was wilting under the weight of censure. His phone rang. “Dude!” exclaimed his friend Aaryan, “You are not seriously going ahead with this? Anyway we are going to get jobs in the US, so who cares how many trees are cut in this city? But now that you have broken out of the parental prison let’s spend the time more constructively. Meet me at the mall.”

The next time the phone rang he was chilling on the bus in a traffic jam. It turned out to be his father’s sister. Since aunts aren’t gentlemen, even the guy sitting next to him heard her. “Steel shmeel. Whatever. Progress cannot be stopped. Look at how horrible the traffic in the city is. Something has to be done. Only idiots are protesting against it. A few trees chopped here and there… what is eight or nine hundred in the larger scheme of things? It’s just collateral damage. If you are so concerned, plant one in front of your building.”

The human chain was pretty much well formed by the time Vriksh reached Mehkri Circle, with people of all ages from all over the city thronging around with a sense of purpose. It included celebrities and surprisingly, even some foreigners. Somebody handed him a placard which he faithfully held up after patting a nearby tree to reassure it. And then his mother called.

“Vriksh, I really appreciate that you want to take a stand. I brought you up to be an environmentally conscious boy. But I don’t want you to be disappointed. Because nobody ever listens. The protest will ultimately benefit no one but the TV channels who will get their sound bites. In reality all governance is infested with apathy and rampant corruption. And people like us are never heard. Come back home. You have made your point.”

But Vriksh rooted himself to the ground and stood firm in his conviction. Come what may he would show the government, along with the three thousand other people in the chain that Bangalore did not want the unholy massacre of trees to facilitate a steel flyover which would make no significant difference to the congestion in the city.

Four months later in the season of the Tabebuia Argentia, blooming golden across Bangalore, the government announced that the steel flyover project had been scrapped due to public demand. Vriksh, who had spent the intervening time dealing with questions the like of “What did you manage to achieve?” smiled. The next day in a small neighbourhood park he sat, books beside him, on the grass carpeted with sunshine blossoms as the light breeze dislodged more petals from the exuberant tree. At least in this one instance the protests had managed to thwart those who carelessly build “a Hell in Heaven’s despite”.

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(Thank you Shabri, for allowing us to use your photo ‘Meditation Under the Tabebuia’.)

Found in translation

my-grandmother-sends-her-regardsSweden is in the news. So not surprisingly, being readers, our conversation soon veered from supposed attacks, to horses rescued from wells, to an English translation of a Swedish book we had read recently. Fredrik  BackmansMy Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises‘ (American title ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She Is Sorry’) translated by Henning Koch, was delightful, quirky, poignant, full of humour and throughly enjoyable. 

Seven year old Elsa is precocious to the hilt and  her Grandmother is her superhero because to her ‘a grandmother is both a sword and a shield’. Her school and her mother think Elsa needs to learn to ‘fit in’ but her grandmother knows that she is perfect and introduces her to an entire land of the imagination where currency is not coins but good stories. Elsa and her grandmother are not just inhabitants of this land together but friends in real life. When her grandmother dies she entrusts Elsa with the task of delivering a series of letters, personally, to various people that takes her on a journey of discovery. 

PS: Often stories get lost in translation.No matter how good the translation is, it is not possible to bring out the nuances of one language in another. But strangely we didn’t even realise that this was a translation. 

LL: I think I was initially too absorbed by the craziness of the grandmother who fires paintballs from her balcony and breaks into the zoo in the middle of the night and assaults beleaguered police officers with animal poop. 

PS: Any child who has read ‘superior literature’ would want a Grandmother who can argue the merits of Spider-Man vis a vis Harry Potter. 

LL: The book is full of blurring of lines between being a child and being an adult, reality and fantasy, goodness and evil and death and life and all of this somehow combines to make a story that sharpens the focus on life. 

This is a book about accepting people and their eccentricities. And about how the circumstances of life can effect people differently: “Because not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.” It is also about finding unlikely companionship in a journey dealing with loss. Ultimately we were a little envious that Fredrik  Backman, being so young (in his early thirties when he wrote this book), can write so insightfully.

The taste of it all

Not surprisingly, in any situation, food is what draws people’s interest. Ultimately it’s not the mystery in murder mysteries, not the thrill in the thrillers, the magic in the fantasies or the science in the sci-fi that readers remember the most from books. What sticks in the readers mind will be the hunk of bread and cheese, stew or the elvish bread that the protagonist eats at the edge of a battle field after a gory and protracted battle or while trying to hide from the sinister eye on top of the tower, amongst other dire situations.The sense of comfort in a much besieged character having the opportunity to tuck into something as simple as a scotch egg or even the horror at the ability of a character to enjoy a dainty lemon cake in the midst of murder and mayhem remains with reader long after the book itself has been digested.

The food in fiction is the one reality everyone can identify with. It makes the characters more empathetic and relatable and somewhere along the line, authors, probably besieged by questions of ‘Why that particular dish?’ or ‘Do you have the recipe for…’ decided it’s easier to come out with spin off cookbooks that deal with people’s food obsessions, no matter how bizarre some of the recipes may sound. Ultimately the fun in these spin off cookbooks is not necessarily in the cookability of the dishes or accessibility of the ingredients but instead it lies in the little quips and quotes from the characters that pepper each recipe. And if one is actually able to cook using the recipes, there is a sensory transport of the reader to the world of the book. After all, part of the appeal of Universal Studio’s Harry Potter World is the tasting of Butterbeer, Pumpkin Juice and Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans. 

Here is our list of literary cookbooks which we have read and enjoyed and also some which are on our wishlist. 

  1. Brunetti’s Cookbook by Roberta Pianaro and Donna Leon (A Taste of Venice-At Table with Brunetti). Full of the recipes of the scrumptious food described in Donna Leon’s commissario Brunetti Mysteries. The are all eminently cookable and enjoyable. Even if one doesn’t enjoy cooking it’s a feast just to read. 
  2. Nanny Oggs Cookbook by Terry Pratchett, Tina Hannan and Steve Briggs. Written in the typical, naughty, Nanny Ogg style with common sense advice mixed in with rude songs and plenty of double entendres thrown in to spice it up. The bawdy witch from Discworld makes hilarious reading. 
  3. A Feast of Ice and Fire -the Official Game of Thrones Cookbook by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer The medieval kitchen via Westeros is beautifully illustrated. We haven’t as yet gotten around to getting hold of this one but it seems the recipes are not too outlandish and include little descriptions of the authors cooking the dishes. The Authors had been blogging (innatthecrossroads.com) for some time about the food in Game of Thrones before compiling the book. 
  4. The Shire Cookbook – also by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel. The Hobbits were exceedingly fond of food and it’s about time that a book with the Shire foods mentioned in Lord of the Rings was brought out. We can’t wait to get hold of this one. 
  5. Roahl Dhal’s Revolting Recipes – we love this one just for names like Snozzcumbers, Mud Burgers and Stinkbug Eggs. It’s just the regular stuff with lots of food colouring and a practical guide on how to make them. Delightfully disgusting. 

Then there are of course numerous unofficial cook books based on well loved literature, like The Little House Cookbook, The Jane Austen Cookbook, The Pooh Cookbook, The Ann of Green Gables Cookbook and so on. It just goes to show that readers are keen to savour the food eaten by their favourite characters. 

The ones we are still waiting for are the Chocolat Cookbook by Joanna Harris, the authorised Asterix Cookbook (with inputs from Druid Getafix and none from the fish monger Unhygienix’s wife), the authorised Enid Blyton Cookbook and the Extremely Indulgent Lockwood Cookbook by Jonathan Stroud.