Writing

Saanuk Oriental Bistro & Lounge

Luxe Buddhas and a killer deal ♦

In the early days of Time Out food reviewing, there were no quaint little tea rooms or reservoir-facing bistros popping up every other week. You were lucky if you got to go to a hotel once in a while; otherwise, a high percentage of the free dining experience consisted of resto-bar visits or dhaba dives, interspersed with liberal doses of immodium.

Of course new resto-bars are still as common as hipster boîtes, and we were wary at first of Saanuk’s “Bistro & Lounge” tag and its location in Kailash Colony Market, which – though it has a history of diamond-in-the-rough eating joints – is still a little on the rough side. Then, it’s owned by Sanjha Chulha, a Punjabi chain that’s been around since 1975, but has only ever had a small Chinjabi section among its tikkas and curries. Saanuk’s two floors of dark granite tables, red velvet benches, occasional flatscreens and Buddha accents follow the dictats of the resto-lounge aesthetic, but it is spic-and-span and the ambience grew on us.

Currently, Saanuk’s main draw is not the upstairs lounge (liquor license pending), but the insane meal deal: a soup or mocktail, a starter, a main course, noodles or rice, and dessert, all for the princely sum of Rs249 (vegetarian) or Rs349 (non-vegetarian) per person. If two people order, the price is Rs449 (veg), Rs 649 (non-veg). And we’re not talking piddly little plates of last year’s momos, but full-fledged entrées, garnished with nested strands of beetroot or carrot, fresh ingredients and above-average taste.

There’s a good selection and everything we ordered was available and customisable (we asked them to hold the cabbage). True, the strips of tofu in the hot and sour soup were just a little paneer-like, and the fried aubergine a bit on the salty side, but these are minor quibbles when you’re digging in to minty popiah, pak choi and broccoli sautéed with garlic, and the most yummy discovery – chilly-honey glazed, battered and crispy fried water chestnuts – all for less than you’d pay for one prawn entrée at Speedy Chow or Asian Box down the street.

Special mention must be made of our waiter’s masterful command of the menu (down to informing us which three mushroom varieties were in a soup) and grace under pressure when the first crème brûlée he brought us turned out to be randomly spiked with salt. When we asked for a little soy sauce, he got the chef to whip up a fresh black bean sauce, with whole black beans.

You could do a lot worse than Saanuk if you’re in the area, looking for affordable grub, and don’t mind a little Enrique while you eat. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for a market-busting drink deal, and applaud this resto-lounge for doing its bit to improve the reputation of its kind.

Saanuk HS-36 Kailash Colony Market (97171-81583).

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 19, 2013

A Conversation With: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

A Conversation With: Literary Critic and Novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi ♦

faruqiIndia’s literary establishment is abuzz about the recently published novel “The Mirror of Beauty,” a 984-page fictional account about the life and times of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famed Urdu poet Daag Dehalvi, set mostly in Delhi and its environs during the 19th century. A beautiful and spirited woman, Wazir mingles with the noblemen of the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the English officers of the East India Company, the poets of the age and a whole panorama of other unforgettable characters.

“The Mirror of Beauty” is a translation of the original 2006 Urdu-language novel “Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan” by its author, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Mr. Faruqi, 78, who retired as a top bureaucrat in the Indian Postal Service, is a leading figure of Urdu literary criticism. He spoke to India Ink in Delhi about how he created the world of 19th century Delhi for “The Mirror of Beauty” and what he hopes young readers will get out of the book.

You live in Allahabad, a relatively smaller city, and your work has mostly been read by those within the Urdu-speaking or academic world. Suddenly you have a celebrity author like Orhan Pamuk calling your book “an erudite, amazing historical novel.” What’s it been like to step into the global literary spotlight?
I feel uncertain about all this. I am not sure that I really deserve all this attention, all this lionizing. I told my editor that I feel small, knowing that you guys are building me up so much, like a colossus. I am now long past those things. I have faced so much criticism in my life, from my own people, and also I have earned praise, love and appreciation. It makes no difference to me whether it is the global environment or the backwater of Allahabad. If Orhan Pamuk writes well about me, I’m happy; if he didn’t write well, I wouldn’t mind.

Writers in English can usually assume a global readership. Though Urdu was a lingua franca, at least in India, 150 years ago, its contemporary literature has a more specific audience. How did the shift in audience affect your translation?
The novel is slightly longer than the Urdu version, because I had to explain certain things. And of course translating two lines of verse in Urdu might expand to four or five lines in English. One theory of translation is that it is worthless unless it sounds like translation. I really don’t agree with that at all, because when you are transferring a certain kind of cultural code and symbolism, which is so utterly alien, it is unfair on the reader to make her feel, all the time, that “yes, I am reading something in high Urdu in the English form.” Like some English woman wearing Indian dress.

How did you go about researching and reinventing the worlds of 19th century Delhi — from the descriptions of carpet-weaving to courtly etiquette?
I didn’t do any systematic, formal research. As I wrote, I did consult a few books when I needed to verify some particular detail, dates mostly. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the novel had always existed in my head as an amorphous, identity-less entity. Facts, memories, impressions — and of course my reading before I’d began to compose the novel — it was all there — a chaos, especially because I didn’t have anything like an idea to write a novel with Wazir Khanam as the chief character.

Of course, I was incomparably enriched by my love for pre-modern Persian and Urdu poetry. Later, what went into my unconscious, more than I realized, was my reading of the Dastan of Amir Hamza, a series of loosely linked oral romances whose 46 volumes and 42,000-plus pages and more than 20 million words I read, and in some cases reread, since about 1980. I’ll always remain obliged to Frances Pritchett [professor emerita at Columbia University] who directed my attention to the Dastan.

For both Urdu and English novels, you restricted yourself to words from the 19th-century lexicon. “The Mirror of Beauty” is very readable, but is the original book a challenge for native Urdu speakers?.
People have been admiring it for sheer size and expanse, but everybody has complained: you didn’t give a glossary, you should have given the Farsi [Persian] in translation. Even in Pakistan, people complained. Not that it was not popular – it went through two editions in four years or so, which is somewhat remarkable for an Urdu novel. I made it the way it is quite consciously, writing in a register which is no longer spoken — archaic Urdu which is unfamiliar to most people. I didn’t care. I was doing my thing. I had to be faithful to my own vision.

There’s a strong rapport between Indian and Pakistani authors writing in English – they review each other’s books, travel to each other’s festivals, make the same award lists. What about Indian and Pakistani writers in Urdu?
On a personal level, there is a lot of friendliness, a lot of coming and going and writing and reading, but it’s not wholehearted promotion. I can promote a Pakistani writer or book wholeheartedly, but the Pakistani literary establishment is reluctant to promote Indian writers so strongly. Almost every important writer who died in Pakistan or is taken as a Pakistani now – take Faiz [Ahmad Faiz], Rashid, [Saadat Hasan] Manto – everybody has written about them in India. You can’t find a comparative example [in Pakistan]. Otherwise, they are extremely cordial; they will feed you, they will wine you, they will dine you.

You’ve mentioned your interest in the historical fiction of A.S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd, among others. Are there any fictionalizations of India, particularly its Mughal history, that you looked at?
In English, Amitav Ghosh’s novels, which I have read and admired: “Sea of Poppies,” followed by “River of Smoke.” A lot of history has gone into them, although it is a history of a very narrow area, that is Bengal of the early 19th or late 18th century, particularly the opium trade. He certainly has full grasp on the material.

You’ve suggested that you wrote “The Mirror of Beauty” not just as a pleasant trip back through time. Could you talk a bit more about that?
I was hoping that if young people read this book, they will learn more about themselves – where they came from, how they were formed — the pain of separation, of discontinuity [from] what the world was before 1857. Though it was already crumbling, they had a world which was self-conscious, which was sure of its self-worth, which could match with any other culture or any other society anywhere – but for the adverse information and propaganda handed out to us by our colonial master.

In any case, every past is worth revisiting, even if it is the dirtiest possible past. But this past is not dirty. This past is honorable. And this past is more literate, more cultured, more sophisticated than today’s present. I am hoping people who take the trouble of reading it will find it an easy book to read, in the sense that the story goes along and keeps you interested, and ultimately they will know where they came from, what they were.

Originally published in The New York Times“India Ink” blog, July 17, 2013.

Published: July 17, 2013

Portrait of a lady

The last century of Mughal rule comes to life in The Mirror of Beauty, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s compelling picture of Delhi and its wider world ♦

 

 View as PDFThe Mirror of Beauty

Beloved of poets and coveted by kings, conquered and constructed again and again, Delhi in its present avatar is a tough city to love. Yet many still regard it with affection, looking through the rosy veil of nostalgia at the capital’s embarrassment of ruins: from the tiny, pipal-shaded shrines in Shahjahanabad courtyards, to the Kalan Masjid, steeply soaring out of a narrow alley near Turkman Gate. What would it be like to see the city’s empty palace rooms and silent tombs fill with life again?

It is to this Delhi of the past, specifically the 19th century, that Shamsur Rahman Faruqi allows the reader to travel in his monumental 2006 Urdu novel Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aasman, now reworked in English as The Mirror of Beauty by the author himself. The pinnacle of its creator’s fictional oeuvre, this novel sits atop a lifetime’s worth of work in Urdu literature. Faruqi, who ideally should need no introduction to the English literary scene, was born in 1935 and lives in Allahabad. A respected Urdu critic who also writes poetry and fiction (and had a career in the Indian Postal Service), he is that rare literary figure who is both steeped in the culture of his own language and well-versed in other traditions. For example, the novel’s envoi is taken from “The Traveller”, a 1763 poem by Oliver Goldsmith who writes of being, “Impelled, with steps unceasing to pursue/ Some fleeting good that mocks me with the view.” In The Mirror of Beauty, Faruqi finally captures that view – of India seen through the portal of its capital city, during the period when “The Company may have been ruling, but it did not reign”. And he does so in gorgeously detailed miniature style, with figures of complex hue, set against both urban and natural landscapes. At the very centre of the frame is Wazir Khanam, a woman so beautiful that “you would feel that the Tailor of Eternity had cut all dresses for her and her alone”. As a miniaturist illustrates myth, so Faruqi fictionalises history: Wazir Khanam was in fact the mother of the poet Dagh Dehlvi and eventually the wife of an heir apparent to Bahadur Shah Zafar.

mirrorYet in Faruqi’s portrait of her, Wazir is more than simply wife, mother, daughter or lover. He brings the interior life of this otherwise peripheral person to the fore, with finesse. She does not necessarily control her destiny – no character really has that kind of power – but she pushes against fate. While she accepts the fact of her beauty, even uses it to her advantage, Wazir’s spirit yearns to transcend the societal expectations of her sex. In a telling moment, British Resident William Fraser, who was murdered in 1835 (a death Faruqi vividly brings to life), woos Wazir and mistakes her for a mere nautch girl: “In spite of his vast experience and natural capacity for discerning subtleties,” Faruqi writes, “Fraser missed out completely at judging Wazir and did not appreciate that her own sense of self was that of a refined woman of good family, though of decidedly liberal views.” In Faruqi’s sensitive delineation, Wazir is neither stereotype nor anachronism.

Around this extraordinary woman circle the men of the story: her lovers, her husbands, her son Dagh, her forefathers in Kashmir and Rajasthan. Then there are saints, soldiers, scientists and, most of all, the poets, who form a colourful crowd behind Wazir. Dagh and Mirza Ghalib are two of the book’s most verbose verse-mongers, but for many characters, poetry itself is the medium through which their most emotional conversations take place. Faruqi, whose many poetry-related accomplishments include a four-volume project on Mir Taqi Mir, presents the conversation between 19th-century poets and those who preceded them as a continuum, running through public performances and secret notes, in royal chambers and chai-stalls. Summoning the spirit of the Persian mystic poet Hafiz, an augur tells Wazir: “If you read his poetry, imagining that those words have just been uttered by him, and uttered for you alone, then… The poet never dies. He’s present through his words: it is just that he… talks to us in twig and branch, in garden, park and meadow, in palace and the poorest alley, in castle and tent…” Sometimes the couplets studding The Mirror of Beauty can be opaque in translation (Romanised Urdu footnotes would have been brilliant), but they still imply a world where literature was not quite so set apart from life.

Literature is but one element in the backdrop of this portrait of a woman, her city and times. The scalloped arches, domes and minarets of Delhi’s architecture are also visible in “the city which ceases to remember past sorrows in the shortest possible time”; which proclaims “its undying youth and beauty through the… towering spire of Qutb Sahib… the power and grandeur of Muhammad Tughlaq’s mausoleum… through the mellifluous sounds of the reciters of the Quran or the Primary Declaration of Faith in the ancient mosque attached to the meeting house at the effulgent mausoleum of Nizamuddin Auliya… through the grey blue pigeons which roost at the two-toned dome of Shahjahan’s mosque… through the sudden starting up of the fountain in savan bhadon, the large six-sided tank in the Haveli [the Lal Qila]…” Built into these stone, brick and marble structures is the city’s social fabric. When Wazir first leaves Delhi to live in Jaipur with an Englishman, she recalls “the whispers, the silences, the intimate conversations, the exchange of quick, friendly phrases, the faces showing through narrow windows at the back that provided safe communication between homes, the phrases sweet and musical like the trill of the harmonicon – a small little interior hutch of one’s heart in spite of lives lived together in narrow houses. All that was Delhi…” There are perhaps even a few glimpses of the modern city presaged in its past: even then Dilliwalas are “past masters in fashioning rumours, making and exchanging news, flying every kind of kite in every kind of weather…” And when Wazir worries about “having to return alone after nightfall” from a party on the Pahadi (The Ridge), the contemporary reader can sympathise with her plight.

In language that can be flowery or formal but is always unselfconsciously literary, Faruqi fills in the nuances of Delhi life with a fine brush. Subtleties of fabric and dress are laid out in long passages describing outfits down to their transparency and regional provenance. There are long honorific titles, much capitalised, referring to kings and other important men. The dialogue reads appropriately to its era, with little flourishes like the Nawab of Loharu’s taqia kalam, or pet word, “bhaiwallah”, and Welsh adventurer Fanny Parkes’ spirited memoirs through her one-sided conversation with Wazir. There are passages describing diet and Unani medicine, highly refined codes of hospitality and etiquette, and the various arts – from music to painting to carpet-weaving. The chapters describing a journey through Thuggi territory are gripping, suspenseful, and creepy as hell. This isn’t a subaltern history as such, but by describing in detail the lives of a society’s consumers, Faruqi gestures at the whole world of creative, small-scale production supporting it.

This way of life is threatened by the creeping influences and sometimes violent impositions of British might. Despite its romanticising tendency, The Mirror of Beauty is not a self-Orientalising book, but one attempting to show how an entire world was destroyed from the inside out. “The Firangee mind was by nature haughty, tyrannical and overbearing,” muses Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, Delhi’s “Rhazes and Avicenna”. Mughal heir apparent Mirza Fakhru realises that there was “an alien presence in their midst… impinging not on just economics, trade and money… The Firangees impact changed the values that attached to art, poetry, social conventions… They were increasingly successful in teaching the Hindustani that the values that he loves, the lights which he hopes to lead him into worldly success and Heavenly favour, are wrong, or at best outdated.”

Ultimately the question of whether a decline in Indo-Islamic culture was inevitable “absent the political pressure and military conflicts of those times” is at the heart of The Mirror of Beauty, and it is referenced in the novel’s first book (there are seven). These early chapters, the book’s “frame”, narrate the discovery of a portrait of Wazir Khanam in a London museum by her descendent Wasim Jafar, who shares it with Dr Khalil Asghar Farooqui, a retired opthalmologist. In a description that could apply to Faruqi himself, Farooqui writes of Jafar: “Old pictures, books, documents, manuscripts, were thus milk and bread to him.” It is the English reader’s good fortune that Faruqi decided to share this knowledge (even incorporating primary sources in translation) in such tantalising form. “The people of today are developing the habit of forgetting,” he notes, introducing a chapter related to Madhava Rao Sindhia, “The dust and smoke of modern life are busy obliterating, or at least dimming, many such events hidden in the mazes of family stories and even the histories of nations.”

Recuperating these histories is difficult, but not impossible. Like Jafar, Faruqi rejects “the notion that the past is a foreign country and strangers who visit there cannot comprehend its language… old words can be narrated in new words…” Putting the notion to practice in his translation of a verse by Hafiz, Faruqi describes a beauty so deep and complex that her reflection “sends the mirror to sleep”. We may never see more than a reflection of the past we’ve lost – that fleeting good that, in Goldsmith’s words, “allures from far, yet as I follow, flies”. But the reflection itself is such a beautiful dream that we are lucky to have seen it at all.

The Mirror of Beauty, Hamish Hamilton, ₹699.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 15, 2013

A room on the roof

Notes from the last barsati ♦

BannerDelhi, early morning. The sun burns through the haze, like a lighthouse lamp growing brighter as the bustling port of waking life approaches, pulling the tides of thought out of the ocean of dreams and towards the shores of reality, where I find myself cast up, suddenly solid, embodied. My eyes open to a view of pirate-black plastic water tanks, glinting like crows’ nests, and beige and ochre rooftops like ships afloat in a sea of green leaves, hugged by low white mist. The clouds come down to lightly kiss the ground and dissolve into dew.

It’s a different world up here in this tree-house of a barsati – a magic faraway world. I moved in two years ago and for the first half of my stay, most mornings were like this – a view of light softly stealing over sleepy streets, pale green foliage, the neighbours standing and blinking in their balconies. Then, the house opposite this one came down, and in a matter of months, my picture windows looked out onto the grey prospect of a mountainous slab of concrete. Yet I always knew that those mornings sailing above the Delhi madness were moments snatched from the city’s onward, upward march. The dark mark had long been set above my little barsati as well, and finally, after half a century, its date with a wrecking ball too draws close.

The romance of the room on the roof is related to the trope of the artist in a garret or the musician in a garage – but it has its own special, archetypical place in the blueprint of urban Indian culture. In instances too numerous to recount here, literature and cinema use the barsati as shorthand for the lushness of new love, creativity in full spate, and independence from the stifling air of social propriety below decks. In the memory palaces of Delhi’s older generations, the barsati is a room crammed with nostalgic recollections of youth and of freedom without responsibility.

There have even been attempts at barsati tourism in the city, but of course I’m convinced, like the rest of us living the high life, that mine is the best, and the last. It has had everything a tenant could ever want – not just in terms of physical layout and dimensions. My dear landlord, overturning every stereotype related to his station, certainly never put a price on my soul, allowing me to pay quite possibly the kindest rent in the colony – fulfilling a social obligation more than generating an income. He used to live up here himself during the early days of his marriage and smiles fondly when recounting moving in on his wedding night.

The barsati exudes a pleasant sense of history too, shaded by a tall Ashoka tree, supposedly one of the city’s oldest specimens. Prabuddha Dasgupta had a darkroom here some years ago, and before that the room sheltered Afghani doctors who came to the city as refugees. As the house comes down, inevitably giving way to a more vertically oriented city to house its citizenry, another little edifice of local history will be consigned to dust.

It’s as if the house knows that its tryst with developer destiny is nigh and won’t go down without complaint. The ceiling fan, from the 1960s, whines and squeaks with insistent regularity. In the bathroom, a petulant tap drips all day, the toilet’s tank fills, then sometimes suddenly overflows, exhausting the supply of the Sintex tank above. The other day, a power surge knocked out every light bulb and fried the Internet router. Out on the terrace, the terracotta pots – thick with tomatoes and lettuce all winter – have dried up and gone to seed. The last rainfall brought down a deluge of plaster flakes in the stairwell. The geckos have left, but in the rolled-up chiks, two turtle doves carry on their romance, fluttering incessantly and shredding the tatting to build their own nest, hopefully at a safe distance.

Pretty soon, the house will be reduced to yet another heap of rubble surrounded by piles of grit and sand that cradle the colony’s yellow pye-dogs by night. In time the building will rise again – likely gleaming, probably partitioned into neat little boxes. But by then, I’ll be long gone.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 6, 2013

Song of the open road

Street music ♦

Concerts go down in history for attracting record crowds, for the debut of a groundbreaking work, or the return of a long-absent musician to the gig circuit. Rarely are they remembered for being completely ignored. Yet a performance by American violin virtuoso Joshua Bell became legendary precisely for that reason – and for what it revealed about context and the perception of talent.

In 2007, on a chilly winter morning in Washington DC, the Grammy-awarded musician played at a subway station in an experiment with The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten. But Bell’s deft rendition of technically difficult passages of Bach and his interpretation of the soulful strains of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” fell on deaf ears. Hundreds of harried commuters rushed by, barely registering the musician the Post described as “a heartthrob” and his multimillion-dollar Stradivarius. Few people tipped, only one recognised Bell, and just a couple stopped to listen at all.

Living in the capital of the USA or India, it’s not cynical to acknowledge that aesthetic discrimination is a socially learned, even marketable, value – that taste is based more on trends than judgement. People are busy and context matters, whether it’s a violin prodigy in a subway station, or Rajasthani folk musicians playing Defence Colony bar. As discussed in this issue’s cover story, performance is increasingly moving to ticketed venues and private funding. We ought also to pay attention to music (or the lack thereof) in public.

The street musician has been a familiar fixture in Indian literature and cinema long before the little Lata singing for her supper in Bombay Talkies. In the film, the child sounds like she’s in a studio rather than on a pedestrian overpass, but her song’s uncluttered mastering does suggest one truth about the unexpected encounter with street music: it can take the listener out of his immediate surroundings, lifting life to the realm of the cinematic, creating narrative where before there was only noise.

The beggar girl singing “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh” also speaks to a truth about Mumbai – that street musicians are still relatively audible in that city, particularly in and around its commuter trains. There’s even an initiative called National Streets for Performing Arts, founded last year, which collaborates with the Railways to bring music to the tracks and other public spaces. Artists recruited for the program have played everything from didgeridoo and djembe to dholak in public.

Programmed in detail and supported by a mutual fund, NSPA is perhaps less indie than some like their buskers to be – but it fits with the way street performance is regulated in cities around the world. The paragon is Music Under New York – going strong for nearly 30 years – with blogs and books written about its roster of auditioned artists. Occasionally a charismatic performer almost makes the city’s subway system seem too efficient. There are also freelancers; once, when riding the NYC subway on John Lennon’s birthday, I heard a long-haired guy with a guitar whose simple cover of “Imagine” had more than a few passengers sniffling surreptitiously into their sleeves.

Elsewhere in India there are some efforts to promote street music. I spent a pleasant morning in a public park in Panaji recently, listening to a Goa Tourism-sponsored performer cuing up Chris Perry and Lorna hits with a young girl from the audience joining in. But what of Delhi? I’ve seen maybe a couple of folk musicians out and about – and no sponsored artists, except maybe at fairs or Dilli Haat.

Yet there is music on the streets, ranging in scale from pure cacophony to passable melody. Religious music crackles out of the inner courtyards of Sufi shrines, gurudwaras and mandirs, or blasts from MP3 CD shops. There are the outdoor speakers of Delhi’s various temples to hedonism too. Bandwallas blow away at “Tequila” and “Gangnam Style”. My favourite – as someone who’s lived a long time in the zipped-lips, eye contact-avoiding USA – are snatches of singing by random passersby. No soundtrack is a success until its hits are being belted lustily by every third hero that walks by.

Maybe the fact that walking isn’t much encouraged in Delhi is one reason why its street music scene isn’t thriving. Women rarely amble, and everyone else is too busy trying not to get run over or dehydrated. What public space exists is regulated by systemic corruption. Every day, more of it vanishes into malls with canned pop piped in alongside central airconditioning, or it disappears under another road for cars blasting electronica late at night. There are some free concerts in parks – but few initiatives that actually bring music to those who don’t seek it. How brilliant if the Delhi Metro hosted a series of performances. Or DTC buses. Who knows? The next Bell or Mangeshkar could be out there, just looking for a platform.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2013.

Published: May 20, 2013

Asharq Al-Awsat

A worthy detour on the road to Damascus ♦

We don’t often find ourselves in Sarita Vihar, but Surya Sweets – a restaurant run out of a budget hotel for Middle Eastern medical tourists – was always reason enough to navigate the truck traffic and the potholes. On a recent expedition to the rapidly urbani­sing area behind Apollo Hospital, we were confronted by a shuttered door to the large basement room, which once boasted wall-to-wall prints of Damascene plazas, counters full of baklava, nuts and bread, hookahs, and seating arrangements of office chairs and tables. Happily, we were directed to the rooftop of the hotel next door where Asharq Al-Awsat is a hub of activity in an otherwise quiet back alley.

The small indoor area and large terrace are reminiscent of Indian Coffee House, with a view that is  unromantic, but sublime: half-built flats sprawling out to one side; sporadic clumps of greenery and the defunct Ferris wheel built to emulate the London Eye dotting the vista towards the Yamuna riverbed. The name translates to “The Middle East”, but the simple description is apt. The staff, some familiar from Surya Sweets, are from various countries – Iraq, Jordan, Syria – though most are Palestinian.

Make your way through the menu with the help of a smartphone, gestures and a healthy sense of adventure; most staff don’t know much English or Hindi as the patrons are mostly Arabic-speaking hotel guests. Ask for the fabulously buttery, tahini-spiked fava (“ful”) dip if they have it. Otherwise, the fries are crisp, the hummus fresh, the salads (fattoush, tabulah) large, citrusy and beautifully garnished, the moutabel (eggplant dip) sharp and garlicky, and the falafel, without reservation, the best in the city.

We’ve consistently found the vegetarian fare better than the non-veg, but certainly some of the meat dishes are worth trying; they are unlike anything you’ll find at a typical multi-cuisine restaurant that purports to serve Middle Eastern food. There’s soupy meat and chicken tashrib, upside-down rice and meat dishes called maqlubah, coal-grilled chicken called farooj mashwi, and other tikka-style meat plates. Like offal? Try the sheep liver sautéed with tomatoes and onions. Call in advance or order out (you’ll pay taxi charges) to try the stuffed lamb dish (mahshi kharoof).

Cap your meal with a cup of tea – even the Taj brand brew tastes unfamiliar – or linger over the smoothest shisha in town with friends. Getting to “The Middle East” is a bit tricky. Go south down Mathura Road, turn left towards Noida after the Jasola-Apollo Metro station and flyover, take a U-turn, and then the second left. Turn at Aggarwal Sweets and keep an eye out for the Om Palace sign to your right. Bon voyage, and bon appetit.

Asharq Al-Awsat Om Palace, 61-B Madanpur Khadar, near DDA Janta Flats Sarita Vihar (2994-9376).
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2013.
A worthy detour on the road to Damascus

Published: May 10, 2013

Fodor’s Essential India

Guidebook ♦

essential indiaI wrote several chapters for Fodor’s Essential India guidebook and helped update others for the second edition. This included articles on Indian history and culture, food, archaeological monuments and Delhi.

You can preview some of the content here.

Originally published in 2011, updated in 2012.

Published: May 8, 2013

Take notice

Resignedly yours ♦

cakeLeave-taking has been on my mind lately, and my thoughts found their reflection in a photo currently making the social media rounds. The picture shows a resignation letter in edible form: a passion cake (prosaically: carrot cake) with white icing, over which is piped a letter by one Chris “Mr Cake” Holmes, formerly of the St­­ansted Airport immigration control force. “Today is my 31st birthday,” Holmes neatly scrawls, “and having recently become a father I now realise how precious life is and how important it is to spend my time doing something that makes me, and other people, happy.”

Holmes may not have anticipated his letter going viral after his brother-in-law tweeted the picture. But a plug in the note for his new cake company garnered the most brilliant word-of-mouth publicity he could ever have hoped for – closing out one career while launching another. The photo’s virality speaks not only to the widespread love of cake but also to that other universal desire – niggling in some people, burning in others – to dig into one’s passions with both hands, or possibly head first.

Following one’s dreams is a sentiment common to the resignation letter genre, which surely deserves recognition as a literary form. As with Holmes’ epistolary cake, it often consists of self-reflective stock-taking; it offers the writer a chance to articulate feelings about a new beginning in a semi-public way. A foot-long cake isn’t always required; sometimes a short note has more impact. Famously, though probably apocryphally, when travel writer Bruce Chatwin resigned from London’s The Sunday Times to finally chase the open road, he did it via telegram, simply telling his editor he had “Gone to Patagonia” for a few months and never coming back.

Yet these parting missives often have a purpose beyond declaring one’s dreams. As a rare type of written expression relatively free from payment or patronage, resignation letters are among the most honest forms of communication. Some veer toward whistle-blowing, like the Goldman Sachs executive who published an account in The New York Times last year, describing why, after over a decade, he was leaving his employer. Such leave-takings of conscience ring with a noble self-righteousness.

But there is also plain, old-fashioned bitching, moaning and damning – the sheer joy of crafting a parting shot that vents all the pent-up frustration of working life. One of the most devil-may-care letters I’ve read is by William Faulkner, quitting his position as postmaster at a US university: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people,” he acknowledges. “But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.” One might argue that 90 years later, Holmes’ cake-letter contains the same basic sentiment – just extremely well sugar-coated.

Some letters damn with faint praise – and it’s not surprising that George Orwell’s resignation from the BBC is a masterful example. In his 1943 letter, he thanks his employer for its “very great latitude” and “generous attitude”. He continues with a confessional critique: “I have been conscious that I was wasting my own time and the public money on doing work that produces no result. I believe that in the present political situation the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task… I could be occupying myself with journalism which does produce some measurable effect.” For its part, the BBC released him with a gracious assessment: “He is of a rare moral dignity: his literary and artistic taste is unerring.”

A less coherent resignation is found in Upendranath Ashk’s short story “Letter of Resignation” (see p71), in which a sub-editor says he’s quit a national daily due to “the sorrowful condition of my grandfather… the terrible ill health of my wife… I’ve started to suffer from insomnia… I’ve developed bleeding haemorrhoids from sitting in a chair all the time and diabetes is eating away at my insides.” In another medium, Cy Twombly, king of doodlers, echoes this process of revisionist justification in a drawing series called “Letter of Resignation”, consisting mostly of enumerated lists with scratched-out entries. Some gems have floated through my inbox too – one in particular cited an employer’s “panopticon gaze” and overbearing emphasis on deadlines as the excuse for not being able to adhere to them.

The reason I’ve been thinking about resignations and goodbyes is that this is in fact my last issue as the editor of Time Out Delhi. As I leave, I won’t start confessing, grousing or enumerating my motivations here (unfortunately they don’t involve cake), but I would like to thank the magazine’s readers, long-time contributors and my colleagues for making working on a total of 108 issues very much worth writing home about. All the best – and a happy May Day to all the workers of the world.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 26, 2013

Hats and Doctors

Daisy Rockwell’s translation of the late Upendranath Ashk ♦

hatsDaisy Rockwell’s translation of Hindi-Urdu writer Upendranath Ashk’s short stories is more of a teaser than a complete introduction to the Jalandhar-born author. Rockwell, who also edited the collection, had the fortune to meet Ashk a year before he died in Allahabad in 1996. She admiringly characterises him as idiosyncratic and hostile, an outlier in a field that was already being marginalised.

Rockwell is working on a translation of Ashk’s 1947 novel Girti Divarein, a major work, and she implies in the introduction that Hats and Doctors is a somewhat random assortment of stories – some of them in debatably “final” form as the author used multiple drafts and on occasion even supplied his own translations. Through colourful anecdote, she also tells us that Ashk himself tasked her with the translation, if in a somewhat oblique manner.

This obliqueness is a feature of the stories here as well, and Ashk’s subtle satire comes through more clearly in some than others. In some, it is the protagonist or narrator’s discomfort that rises to a near-fevered pitch: a newly promoted bureaucrat in “Brown Sahibs” and the hypochondriac of “Hats and Doctors”. Other memorable characters include an irritable train passenger in “The Cartoon Hero” and a miserly yet bombastic family of tourists in Kashmir in “The Dal Eaters”. Though relatively restrained, several of the stories approach the grotesque: “Dying and Dying”, set in another train compartment, juxtaposes the memory of a nuptial night with an intimation of mortality; “Mr. Ghatpande” captures life and death in a tuberculosis ward (Ashk himself spent time in one). Ashk’s concern with writing about the unfortunate members of society comes through in many stories: “The Aubergine Plant” underscores the worth of one man’s life compared to another’s.

The reader will find something to like in the 16 stories here. Rockwell has previously written a critical biography of Ashk, and the casual reader may wish for more insight into his life and philosophy than is given in her fun but slightly flippant introduction to Hats and Doctors. The stories too may have benefited from a more introductory context. Still, if the book leaves one wanting a bit more, there’s the assurance that more is on the way: Rockwell is hard at work on Falling Walls (no publication date yet though); meanwhile she hopes “that some of these stories will induce a few readers… to turn their feet towards a Hindi bookshop one day.”

Upendranath Ashk’s Hats and Doctors Penguin India, ₹299.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 16, 2013

Going off script

A cross-border blog spreads the word of South Asian literature ♦

Shiraz Hassan

Shiraz Hassan

In India, Pakistani writers in English are considered common property. Their books are often published here first, and writers like Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeem Aslam frequent our literary festivals. But when it comes to contemporary Hindi or Urdu fiction crossing the border, the script barrier can be more difficult to surmount. Shiraz Hassan, an Islamabad journalist with the Urdu daily Jehan Pakistan, decided to start transliterating and posting Urdu and Hindi stories online last August. He told us about the challenges and rewards of running Kahani Khazana, a literary blog in the two languages.

How did you come up with the idea for a Hindi-Urdu exchange?
The idea developed when I started studying Hindi in Punjab University, Lahore. In Pakistan, though many people understand Hindi – as Bollywood films and TV soaps are quite popular – Devanagari is considered “alien”. As far as the film or TV industry is concerned, it isn’t an issue, but for literature lovers it’s the biggest hurdle. So I learned Devanagari and tried to read Hindi stories. After reading “Naukar Ki Kameez” by Vinod Kumar Shukla in Urdu, I thought more Hindi stories should be translated. So, I just started, keeping in mind that there is a treasure of stories written in Hindi and Urdu, both in India and Pakistan, by well-known, lesser-known and even unknown authors. Most of these stories are a mirror image of the prevailing circumstances of the people living in the two countries, which comprise a common South Asian culture. The readers may appreciate that there are barely a handful of words that need actual translation.

Why short stories?
We deliberately chose stories and not poetry, as poetry can still be shared through mushairas. In this regard Ilmana Fasih, an India-born friend based in Canada helped me kick off this project.

What were the technical difficulties of setting up the blog?
Managing a blog in Urdu is very hectic, as Windows systems do not support Urdu script well. We have to use Unicode scripting, which is hard to read for some. People suggested using JPEGs of the Urdu in Nastaliq, which is easy to read. But then there were problems in designing the web page. In Pakistan, Hindi typing software is not available, so I have to rely on Google transliterate. For Urdu I use Urdu InPage software, then convert the text into Unicode for web. The idea is to put the same story in both Devanagari and Urdu in a single post.

What are your editorial criteria?
The basic criterion is writers who started writing post-Partition. Most people in India and Pakistan know about Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Munshi Premchand, Krishan Chandra, Ismat Chughtai and others. But what happened after that – how prose literature developed in India and Pakistan – is a big gap. In Pakistan, literature about Partition is just one aspect. We saw the fall of Dhaka, martial law, political turmoil and terrorism – all these have their effects on literature. What Hindi writers wrote post-Partition, and are writing nowadays, we have no idea. When I got the chance to read the Hindi stories, I found that they are very much like ours. The stories I picked for Kahani Khazana are mostly narratives of our society – the political turmoils, poverty; few of them are related to India-Pakistan relations. After reading Wajahat Asghar’s “Aag”, one cannot identify whether it is a Pakistani story or an Indian one.

Who are the authors so far?
I selected Rasheed Amjad, Mirza Athar Baig and Muhammad Mansha Yaad – renowned and well-established Urdu writers, but not many people know them outside Pakistan. Selecting Hindi stories was a hurdle. Several Indian friends suggested names. I found the short stories of Wajahat Asghar, Vishnu Prabhakar, Usha Priyamvada, Anindita Basu, Sushant Supriya and Anand very catchy and relevant.

Did you consciously decide not to include English translations?
The prominent names of Urdu and Hindi literature have been translated into English. Contemporary literature has also been translated, and many Indian and Pakistani writers write in English. My idea was to explore Hindi and Urdu contemporary literature without killing the taste of the language. If you are reading a Hindi story in Urdu, it is almost 100 per cent what the writer wrote and wanted to say; it’s just like reading the original text.

Do you think Hindi (and Urdu) in India and Urdu in Pakistan face similar challenges?
In Pakistan, Urdu literature is being ignored at several levels. Though Urdu is compulsory until 12th grade, it is not a breadwinner language like English. But there are still many writers who are writing in Urdu. I can say that Urdu is facing almost the same kinds of challenges Hindi is facing in India. At the recent Lahore Literary Festival, almost all the sessions were in English, most guests were English-writing and speaking, and just a couple of token sessions were dedicated to Urdu.

Do you know other online cultural initiatives that connect people across borders?
The Internet has opened wide the doors on both sides of the border. Sometimes, some random person messages you, saying that he read your articles and it’s his first time interacting with a Pakistani. It happens. Social media has provided this opportunity for people to share thoughts. Aman ki Asha [The Times of India and Jang Group’s campaign] also played a good role in this regard. Other than that, Pul-e-Jawan (across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan), Romancing the Border and Folk Punjab are online groups that are playing a commendable role.

How do you plan to keep Kahani Khazana going?
Kahani Khazana is running on a volunteer basis. I am translating more stories, Ilmana is helping, and some friends proofread the Hindi. I would like to include Punjabi stories also, as Punjabi in Pakistan is written in Shahmukhi, and the Gurmukhi script is used in India. It’s just a matter of time until you see Punjabi stories in both scripts at Kahani Khazana as well.

Kahani Khazana is online at www.kahanikhazana.wordpress.com.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 12, 2013