Seven Cities of Delhi by Rajiv Chopra

 

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On my first visit to Delhi, almost thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of monuments there, such as the Red Fort and Purana Qila. I found the area around Paharganj to be chaotic and exciting and everything an inquisitive Westerner could wish for – a mixture of smells of food and incense and, yes, sewage. A mixture of ugly concrete buildings and beautiful dilapidated buildings left over from the British Raj and often much earlier. Milling crowds of people and cows and rickshaws and bicycles and autos, and history, history, history.

Chadni Chowk was incredibly crowded, the Lodi Gardens completely deserted. The Jama Masjid crowded by tourists and worshippers alike, the Janta Manta often almost empty.

There is so much history everywhere you turn in Delhi.

Other Westerners I met tended to be highly disparaging of Delhi, which was something I couldn’t completely understand since many of these same Westerners seemed to praise Mumbai and Kolkata for the very reasons they hated Delhi.

Yet Delhi is, I think, one of the most exciting and interesting cities I have ever visited. From a historical viewpoint alone, it has over ten thousand listed monuments.

Ten thousand!

Rajiv Chopra is a Delhi based photographer with a passion for recording both the historical Delhi and the street life he comes across from day to day. In this book, he has combined his photographs with a little of the history of the seven historical cities that constitute Delhi, and also a perspective of the differing processes that photography has passed through from its invention up to the present day.

To illustrate all these factors, his book is split into seven sections – one for each of the historical periods – and in each section he has outlined one of these photographic processes so that, for example, in the section covering the first city, Mehrauli, he speaks of daguerrotypes. And then his own photographs he processes through Photoshop to simulate the effects of these processes.

This is not a long book, but it does not pretend to do more than act as an introduction to the history of Delhi. And in this it certainly whets the appetite for more, and then for anyone with even a passing interest in photography it gives a concise and potted description of these photographic processes. Finally the photographs themselves complement the text perfectly.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know a little of the history of Delhi, and who enjoys photographs that give a real flavour of the history of that magnificent city.

Five stars out of five.

You can find Rajiv’s website and blog here

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Review – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

 

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Late in the year 1327 Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, and Adso, a Benedictine novice, arrive at a monastery in Northern Italy. Winter is rapidly approaching, and so is both a legation led by a notorious inquisitor and another that contains that inquisitor’s implacable enemies. William is to speak in intercession between them.

But once they arrive at the monastery, a series of brutal murders begins, and, at the request of the Abbot, William and Adso are drawn into the investigation.

Every detective story needs a detective, and in The Name of the Rose it is William of Baskerville, who indeed uses logic and observation to make deductions, much like a medieval Sherlock Holmes.

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As the plot develops, there are long theological debates centred around both the poverty of Christ and the question of whether Christ laughed. Questions I have little knowledge of, but which read as authentic to me. But these debates are central to the plot. On the interpretation of Christ’s poverty alone, men and women are accused of heresy and burnt at the stake.

But everything is centred upon the monastery’s library. This library is the greatest library of its time in Europe, containing innumerable rare, important and beautiful volumes. At the centre of the story lies a mysterious and forbidden book, and this book lies at the centre of the labyrinthine library where only the Librarian and his assistant are permitted. But are the murders being committed to get hold of this book or is there another reason? Could they, in fact, be connected with the predictions in the Book of Revelations?

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This is such a well-known book that I found I forgot it was a translation from the original I was reading. Much like the Bible, of course, which point is salient to the monks, and certainly in medieval times this interpretation was a matter of life or death to thousands.

But the translation of  prose does not pose the same problems as the translation of verse, and I don’t suppose the English translation is any different from the Italian original. But the potentials made me smile

As a long book, it provides a canvas for long descriptions, both of the abbey and the associated buildings – essentially a castle – and of the long debates between the monks and the other players. At times there is undoubtedly a temptation to skip some of these, but the reader is adequately rewarded for persevering in that the descriptions paint a powerful picture of the place and time, while the debates tell much about the importance of religion and the ridiculous interpretations of every word of the Bible that quite literally governed the lives and deaths of everyone at that time.

A word about the pace of the book, though. Some readers may find it a little slow (although if those readers skip the debates and longer descriptions it is as fast-paced as any other), but remember it is not just a detective story, it is also a historical novel and moves at the pace one would expect of a book of that genre.

I read this a very long time ago, and although I remember it as having been a very good book, I had forgotten just how good. I will unhesitatingly give it five stars.

And the meaning behind the title? Well, you need to wait until the end to find out, and then you need to understand Latin…

Starless and Bible-Black – Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

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After my previous post, it seems entirely apt to post a review, today.

Writers rely upon reviews to sell books. To spread the word. And I am conscious how bad I am at leaving reviews – mainly because I’m not very good at writing them. But I Shall Try To Do Better!

To start with, this is the review I left on Goodreads some time ago for a book that is already very well-known.

This book begins, then, full of rich, playful language as it sets the scene and gradually introduces the players.

To begin at the beginning:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’ -and -rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfounded town are sleeping now.

I have heard poems by Dylan Thomas read by Richard Burton – the actor, not the nineteenth century explorer – and his warm, mesmeric, lilting tone suits the poetry like no other voice I could imagine. Now, I cannot read any Dylan Thomas without hearing it read in his voice.

(I want my work read like that. There is a man I know with a wonderful voice; mellifluous and rich and deep, like Burgundy and dark chocolate. Not Welsh, but very English, who I shall attempt to trick into reading one of my poems or short stories out loud, one day.)

So, to the poem, or play, if you will, for it is a play, first and foremost, told as a prose poem. The play is full of wonderful voices, the voices of a plethora of small-town characters; all of them realistically drawn with their dreams and vices and foibles, and depicted with great humour, but also with sadness. Sadness, for there is resolution for most of the characters, and for some their dreams come true, but others are disappointed.

All of these characters love and hate and desire each other, they reminisce, they have ambitions. In this play, they all have their day. In this place, each one gets to tell their story, or have it told for them.

From the very beginning, the language is rich like double cream and brandy butter; too rich, perhaps, for certainly by the time I had begun to near the end it had become too much. I found myself yearning for more plain, simple language. I wanted a few bread and water phrases.

But the words invite you to savour them slowly – in fact, they demand it. Perhaps the secret, then, is to read this little and often; to dip into it and immerse yourself in the language.

I really wanted to give this masterpiece four and half stars out of five, but without that option, I give it five, although with the caveat above.

Who’s That Trip-Trapping Over My Bridge?

It’s a troll!

Okay, I know. The troll was under the bridge and it was the Billy Goats Gruff doing the trip-trapping.

Whatever.

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Where was I last post? Oh yes, poor quality self-published books.

A little while ago a blogging friend of mine reviewed a self-published book on Goodreads, and gave it three stars out of five, on the basis that the book was full of editing errors. For this, she was then trolled by another member – not the author in question, but I suspect she was a friend of the author, although it is not impossible it was just someone out to cause trouble.

This troll was furious that anyone would mark down a book for being poorly edited and poorly formatted. She then went on to personally attack the reviewer. I don’t know the outcome, but I certainly hope a complaint was made and the troll blocked from Goodreads.

I wonder, have we really got to a point where it is considered perfectly acceptable to publish something of poor quality and no one is allowed to point out this fact? Is this another consequence of the self-publishing phenomenon coupled with many people’s unwillingness to tolerate any views other than their own?

Launch of ‘The Happy Bus’ by Louisa Campbell

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a great evening of performance poetry at The Java Bean cafe in Tunbridge Wells, for the launch of the new pamphlet by Louisa Campbell, a member of my local writing group.

Supported by published poets Ira Lightman and John McCullough, both of whom gave great performances, Louisa’s was easily the standout set for me.

A natural performer, she read a selection of poems from The Happy Bus, Published by Picaroon Poetry, which is a collection she describes as ‘charting the journey through anxiety and depression and on to peace and joy’.

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This is not to suggest that her poetry is all dark, for that is certainly not the case. Each one bristles with hope and determination, and frequently humour – for Louisa does humour very well – and had the audience frequently chortling (we chortle a lot in Tunbridge Wells. We also chunter about stuff, but there was none of that last night).

And, let’s face it, how often do you get to see a poet declaiming a couple of their poems in a wolf onesie?, or getting an audience in Tunbridge Wells to yell out a chorus of ‘Bugger!’?

Below, an extract from the pamphlet:

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To get your copy, click on either of the links below.

Amazon UK

Lulu

 

Wow, What a Book #3, #4, #whatever

Well, Saturday already. Seems only yesterday it was Friday *sigh* I suppose I’d better get on with it.

I don’t think I’ll do ten of these after all, because I rather run the risk of listing books just because I like them, rather than because they have had a real and measurable influence on me. So today I present the final three.

1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

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I read this book when I was in my mid twenties, and it really did open my eyes to what we as a species were doing to the planet. Up until that point, I had not really understood the impact that we were having on the environment. Shocked, I became interested in learning more, and then even more shocked as I learned what food and drink manufacturers put in their products for us to consume. At that time, one of them was the nasty compound dropped by the Americans on Vietnam during the Vietnamese War; a defoliant that was known to be carcinogenic.

It was used as orange food colouring.

I got hold of a list of all the ‘E’ numbers that were permitted additives, and which the industry certainly didn’t want us to know about. Certain ones were very nasty indeed. It was at this point that I became very keen on reading the labels on food and drink packaging.

I became involved with various pressure groups, such as Greenpeace.

That book changed my life.

2. The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham.

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In some ways, this could lay claim to be the book that has had the greatest influence on my adult life, but in a different way to Silent Spring.

I’d always tried to be a reasonably decent human being, but reading this made me rethink the way that I wanted my life to be. It is the story of a man who returns from the first world war and begins to question his place in society. He finds the trappings of modern western life, and its values, empty and meaningless – its focus on making money, selfishness and greed. He then searches for something meaningful in his own life, through education, religion and travel, and explores his relationships to others.

The message in this book immediately resonated with me; that there is much more to life than the pursuit of money, essential though some of it it might be to my survival. Other people mattered. Helping others was important. What is called the spiritual life, whether or not you believe in a god or not, was an important part of us all.

5. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.

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Are you serious? you ask. How could this book be an influence on your life? One of the first science fiction books, and admirable for that, but an influence?

Well, it is easily told, and the answer will probably surprise you. This book provided the initial impetus for me to become a vegetarian.

Yes, a vegetarian. There is a passage in the book where the narrator recoils with disgust as the Martians take the blood from still-living humans for their nutrition, but then comments that it was probably the same reaction as an intelligent rabbit would feel observing our own eating habits. That made me consider whether it was necessary for me to eat meat, and I came to the conclusion that no, it was not.

Wow, What a book #2

To continue with the 10 books that have most influenced my life.

My second choice is The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien.

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I suspect that very few readers are unaware of the story of The Lord of the Rings, having either read the book, seen the film, or both. And at this point, it might be a good idea to just make it clear that I am talking about the book here, and not the Peter Jackson films, or even the ill-fated attempt at animating the entire book in 1978, an attempt that got as far as the first book, and was, to be honest, rather dreadful. Let me content myself by just saying it was a bit ‘Disney’. I’m not that mad on the Peter Jackson films either, to be honest, but back to the book.

So, I’m not going into any great detail about the story, but, in a nutshell, it involves a quest to destroy a ring that gives great power to the wearer, but inevitably corrupts and destroys them. It’s maker, Sauron, is attempting to find it, and the free peoples of the world must not only keep it from him, for if he recovers it it he will then have power to enslave the entire world, but also take it to the fiery mountain, Mount Doom, where it had been forged, to cast it into the flames and destroy it.

Mount Doom is, inconveniently, inside Sauron’s heavily fortified and guarded kingdom.

Elves, dwarves, men, wizards, hobbits, orcs…you all know it, don’t you?

As readers, we are all different. Some of us like a plot that gallops along so fast that we can barely keep up, with writing that limits itself to the action and no more than the minimum descriptions necessary.

Others, like me, enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the described world almost as much as the plot itself – join the Slow Book Movement now! Just send a completed application form to…sorry, wrong place. Where was I? Oh yes, most readers like a mixture of the two, of course.

But as one of these Slow Readers, there is a massive amount in this book that appeals to me. When I read descriptions of the hobbits setting off to walk through woods and fields as the sun comes up through early autumn mists, I might have been reading a description of a morning when I had done just that whilst wild camping in the countryside in my part of England. I have always loved walking on footpaths and through fields and woods, and disliked roads and towns.

The countryside Tolkien described around the Shire – the home of the hobbits – might have been my countryside. there were chalk downs and woods and streams, even one or two names (for example Michel Delving) that could have been local.

There were other woodlands in the book, and if they were described as magical, then that was little more than I naturally felt about woodlands anyway. Aren’t they all magical?

And, on top of all that, there were mountains. Today, I love mountains! But I had never seen one at this point, and suddenly I wanted to go and climb one. There were inns and beer, adventure and song, friendship and dangers. What was not to like?

The whole book is really made up of three books, and the first book, which has always been my favourite, is the one which is mainly set in this land that I could almost identify. This was not the first fantasy book that I had read, but it was, and still is, the one whose descriptions have the greatest power to draw me in. It is the one that, to me, seems the most real.

All of this, with the themes of courage and friendship, self sacrifice and loyalty, and the message that good will eventually triumph over evil, come together in a mixture that is in just the right proportions to appeal to me.

But how has it actually influenced me?

For a start, when I began to write, everything that I wrote seemed to be influenced by that book. This was not actually a good thing, because other than The Lord of the Rings, I don’t really enjoy fantasy! But I wrote that way for a long while.

Today, though, what remains is the descriptive writing. I wonder whether I might otherwise have been a very different reader and writer, since before I read LOTR, I read mainly detective stories and adventure novels.

And I explored a lot of the Middle English literature that influenced Tolkien, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I suppose not too many people do today.

I visited mountains because of that book.

And a measure of how strong this appeal was (and remains) is that I have probably read the book about twenty times. The last but one time, though, was around twenty years ago. When I decided to re-read it last year, I did wonder whether I would be disappointed. I strongly suspected that I might have ‘grown out of it’.

I needn’t have worried.

I enjoyed it just as much as I ever had; I noticed one or two details I had either forgotten or never really noticed in the first place, and I found myself drawn in every bit as strongly as I had been before.

I loved it.

Wow, What a Book! #1

I thought that I would pick out what might be the 10 books that have most influenced my life. Well, I say 10 books, but I may tire of this long before I reach 10, so let’s just see what happens.

You see, these are not really reviews, although it is necessary to give some idea of the plot of each book, it is more about how they have influenced me, and I may decide after a while that I’m just giving away too much about myself.

Or that I’m just going over and over the same ground.

Okay, then. Let’s get on with it. The rules:

Firstly, I must have read the book more than 5 years ago. I know this is an arbitrary figure, but any book that I have read recently is likely to be clearer in my mind, and so appear a little more important to me than it really is. It needs time to settle.

Secondly, I need to be able to demonstrate to myself exactly how it is that the book has influenced me. Just to say ‘it was important to me’ will not be enough. That would be little better than just saying ‘I like it’. Perfectly valid, but hardly the stuff of a blog post. This is another reason to impose the 5 year rule – there must have been enough time elapsed to see the influence.

So I’ll start today with Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.

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Sometimes, you get the feeling that some people have just been born into the wrong century. Not that they would prefer dressing in cravats or crinolines, although they might anyway, or that they have a hankering after a little piracy or bubonic plague, but rather you can see that they don’t fit in with the pace of modern life, or much like the ethos of the times.

There must be quite a few people like that, which must partly explain the immense popularity of Steppenwolf both when it was released, and then especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It was the second book by Hesse that I had read, after cutting my teeth on ‘The Journey to the East’ as a teenager, and I was a little unprepared for its message.

Whereas ‘The Journey to the East’ felt like a bit of drug-induced fantasy, although a very clever and readable one, without any obvious message beyond ‘free yourself from the conventions of society, man’, Steppenwolf clearly had a more serious message to convey.

It begins with the protagonist, Harry, contemplating taking his own life, because he sees himself as a serious writer both at odds with the world that he lives in (Germany, post WWI), whose values, especially the bourgeois ones, he despises, but also with his inner alter ego, the very opposite of the sophisticated artist that he sees himself, which he calls the Steppenwolf – or the wolf of the steppes. He hates and fears this alter ego, who he feels he cannot control, and who sneers at everything that Harry holds dear.

It is whilst Harry is contemplating suicide, that he comes across a booklet entitled ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ and as he reads it, he discovers that it is about himself. the booklet talks about Harry and his alter ego, but also explains that there are many, many more of these other sides to his character.

Through the rest of the book, Harry learns how to reconcile these many sides of himself and, more importantly, how he can manage to live in this world that up until then, he sees no value in.

When I read the part of the book that consisted of the treatise on the various different natures that made up the protagonist of the novel, it was the first indication to me that we really do have these different sides to our characters; sides that do not need to be in conflict with each other, but can coexist quite peaceably. As a typical young man, I knew that there were parts of me that yearned for safety, parts that simply wanted to rebel. Parts that enjoyed home life and parts that wanted nothing more than to wander the world with my possessions in a rucksack. There was the aesthete and there was the lover. The artist and the fighter.

Until then, the rebel in me had sneered at the home lover, and the artist seemed to be in perpetual conflict with the fighter. I had felt embarrassed by parts of my character and, just as did the hero of Steppenwolf, rather tried to repress them.

What this book did was to show me that it was natural to feel like that, and that the secret was to accept all of these sides of me, and allow them to all have their moments of dominance, and their moments of passivity. They did not need to be in conflict.

It completely changed my outlook on life.

What a great review for Making Friends with the Crocodile!

 

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Somali, at: Somali K Chakrabarti has put up such a generous review of my book, Making Friends with the Crocodile, that I am going to spend the rest of the day puffed up with most unreasonable pride! It comes as I battle with the various internet demons to put up a version on Kobo (ready in a couple of days, I hope), and, finally, a Print On Demand version for sale in India.

My biggest worry when I published the book, was that as a Western male writing in the voice of an Indian female, I would not be able to make it sound realistic, but I finally feel reassured by Somali’s review.

It can be found here: Making friends with the Crocodile