Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

I went to the beach today, after more than six months. I had to buy something from the store, and I thought why not make it fun by going to the beach 😊 I got some popcorn at the beach and settled down on the sand to watch the waves. The sky was grey and the sea was grey too, but there were a lot of people there, and the energy and excitement was infectious. Young people were playing cricket and other sports, young lovers were taking pictures of each other, moms were taking pictures and videos of their babies, and there was happiness all around. It made me think of the old times, when I used to go to the beach often. It is after all just five minutes walk from my home. I remember the first time I saw the sea at the beach near my home. It was a profound experience. Romain Gary wrote about it beautifully in his memoir ‘Promise at Dawn‘ –

“My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful, living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips. I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.”

I felt exactly like that, though I wish I could write as well as Gary.

Today’s visit also made me think of all the beach visits during old times. When my mom was still around and my mom, my dad, my sister and her husband and me used to visit the beach and sit there till late. I remember once sitting there after the sun had set and the moon had risen and the waves started coming closer and closer and at one point, it started getting us wet. We saw with our own eyes that the waves rose high and came closer and closer when the moon rose. Sometimes friends and relatives used to visit and we all used to go to the beach. We were the only people in our circle who lived near the sea, and so we used to get a lot of guests. One of my friends used to visit regularly, but the visits went down across the years and now he has moved to the north east to live near the beautiful Himalayas. Before leaving, he visited one day late in the night. We talked for a while and then he left. I didn’t know it then, but now I realize that he had come to say farewell. Our paths have diverged so much since our younger days and now we live on opposite sides of the country. I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again.

We always think that when we part with friends and loved ones and kind strangers we’ll always meet them again and relive old times and renew our acquaintance. But most of the time, the parting is final. Our paths drift apart never to converge again. These days, thanks to social media, we can keep in touch and share our experiences, though we may never meet again in real life.

Today, my mom is gone, my dad has stopped going to the beach, my sister and me aren’t talking, my friend has moved on and we’ll probably never meet again. The sea though, is still there. It has been there for millions of years, since the time of the dinosaurs, and it will continue to be there, long after I am gone and long after the human race had become extinct. The waves will still be lapping at the shore, the sand will sparkle like gold, and the sunrise and sunset will be incredibly beautiful. There will be no one to see it. If Mother Nature is kind, there will be lions and lionesses and tigers roaming around the beach, frolicking with their adorable cubs.


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One of my schoolmates shared a vintage Indian ad for a bicycle. It triggered off some nostalgic memories for me.

A vintage Indian ad showing an Indian woman in a sari riding a bicycle

I learnt how to ride a bicycle when I was around ten years old. When I was around twelve, my dad got me my own bicycle. During those days, the bicycles which were popular among pre-teens and teens were the models made by Hero and BSA. These models were cool and stylish and used to come in many colours – red and blue used to be favourites among young people. There were other brands which were popular among older people, like Hercules and Atlas and Philips which were heavy and sturdy. When my dad decided to get a bicycle for me, he took my uncle along. My uncle said that the best bicycle out there was Humber and the second best was Raleigh. Everything else was third. The prices seemed to indicate that – Humber was the most expensive and the second most expensive was Raleigh. I wondered why, because I couldn’t tell the difference between them and other brands. I had never heard of Humber or Raleigh before and none of my friends had them. Later I discovered that my uncle’s bicycle was a Humber. My dad asked me which one I wanted. Those days Indian kids were taught that they shouldn’t choose the best or the most expensive, because they didn’t deserve them, and they also shouldn’t choose the cheapest one because the quality of that wouldn’t be good, and so they should follow Aristotle’s golden mean and choose the one in between. So for me, Humber was out, and most other models were priced low and so they were out too. So Raleigh, it was. This is the kind of weird decision that people like me made those days, never comparing products and their features but using Aristotelean logic. None of my friends had a Raleigh bicycle or seen one, and as long as I had it, I was the only person I knew who had a Raleigh. Recently one of my schoolfriends told me that his grandfather had a Raleigh and he gifted it to my friend later.

I later discovered that Raleigh was a British company which was more than a century old and was a leader in bicycles once upon a time. Even decades after the British had left India, Indians continued loving and admiring British products and that showed in my uncle’s admiration for Humber and Raleigh. I wonder now whether the model I had was the original nineteenth century one and whether this was the bicycle Jerome K. Jerome wrote about in ‘Three Men in a Bummel‘.

Vintage British ads showing a young people riding Raleigh bicycles

The Raleigh bicycle that I got was heavy, but once I got used to it, it was good and I loved it. I started going to school in it and later to college. My first school was probably five kilometres away from my home and my second school was probably around ten kilometres away. Just cycling to school meant that I got a lot of exercise done naturally and it kept me very fit. I also went to the library and read a lot there, visited bookshops, went to movies, and helped my mom in buying groceries or for getting money for her from the bank. I didn’t do anything fancy with my Raleigh bicycle, but I took long rides in it, sometimes to travel from one place to another and sometimes for fun. It opened up new worlds for an introvert like me. I remember once I even took a ride on it to the university which was probably more than twenty kilometres away and another time I took a ride to the Agricultural college which was also of similar distance. My Raleigh almost never broke down when I was riding – it was sturdy and smooth and tough. A BSA bicycle which looked cool and stylish wouldn’t have been able to withstand the stress that I put my Raleigh through. Of course, the occasional issue cropped up. There were always tyre punctures which I had to contend with and once in a while there were major problems for which I had to take it to the bicycle service shop. The bicycle repair guy would tell me to come back after a couple of hours and collect my bicycle, but I would always stay and watch him work. When he removed the wheel and the inner parts of it and a lot of bearing balls came tumbling out, it was fascinating to watch! I didn’t know that a bicycle had so many intricate parts! The bicycle repair guy almost became my friend because of my visits to his repair shop and he taught me a lot of things about bicycles. When my sister got married, I invited him to the wedding. He didn’t come through. He knew what I didn’t know when I was young – that we were on different sides of the social divide and he would feel extremely awkward if he had come. I always felt that socioeconomic divides never mattered in a friendship and this is probably true when we are kids, but unfortunately, between grownups it always comes in the way at times, and makes things awkward, even if someone like me didn’t care about it.

There used to be bicycle races in my locality during festival times, when I was in my teens. These were not regular bicycle races, but were called ‘slow-cycle’ races. The competitors would ride a bicycle, but the winner would be the guy who rides his bicycle so slow that he comes last. The rules were simple – once you are on the bicycle, you can’t come off it or touch the street with your feet, and your bicycle has to be in continuous motion. It was a very tough competition, and most of the participants gave up halfway through, because they broke one of the rules. A guy called John was an expert in slow-cycle racing and he used to win every year. It was amazing to watch him expertly keep the bicycle balanced while at the same time riding it really slowly. We flocked every year to the street which doubled as the racing track to watch him showcase his brilliant skills and cheer him.

I had a few close shaves while riding my Raleigh. Once a bus came in front from the opposite direction and I swerved to one side to avoid it and I fell on the side of the road on top of some stuff which was piled up there. My hand was sprained and I had to get a plastercast which stayed for a month. Another time a bus came very close from behind me and it was speeding and it hit my hand which was holding the bicycle handle and nearly knocked me off. My hand was in pain for days after that. The third time, I nearly got caught between a bus and a lorry – I was trying to overtake a bus which had stopped at a bus stop, but the bus suddenly started and accelerated and a lorry was coming on the opposite side, and I nearly got caught between them. I don’t know how I survived that day. I have to thank my lucky stars.

I also met one of my best friends of that time because of my Raleigh. I was going to college one day and when I turned into the main road, my neighbour was walking. It looked like she had missed her bus to her office. I asked her if I could help and drop her at her office as it was on my way and she was happy to take my help. As our leaving times coincided in the morning, at some point we started leaving together in the morning and I started dropping her off at work everyday. We had many wonderful conversations on the way. She had been working for a few years and so was a grown-up while I was a student and so still a kid from her perspective. She became a big sister and mentor to me. My own sister became jealous of this friendship and tried putting spokes in it and it was funny for me to watch, because my own sister never bothered spending time with me before.

I rode my Raleigh for many years starting from my pre-teens till my middle twenties. Even after I finished college and went to work, though my office was too far to ride by bicycle, I used to ride it in the evenings or during weekends, going here and there. Then I left work and went to college again. That was the last time I rode my Raleigh, though I didn’t know it then. When I finished my second degree and came back home, it was gone. My dad told me that one of our neighbours had asked for it, and as I was away and the bicycle was gathering rust, he had sold it away. I felt sad. I had never had a pet, though I loved cats and dogs, and my Raleigh was the closest to a pet that I had ever had. I had never given it a name, like people do these days to their bicycles. I wish I had. I mourned the passing of my old friend which had served me loyally for many years.

When I was a kid, bicycles were a common sight in India. Most families had one. Sometimes they had more than one. Boys and girls had different kinds of bicycles. Young women wore saris and salwars and rode their bicycles to school or college or work. Women riding a bicycle wearing saris was a sight which was unique to India. But with the passing of time, things changed. Italian mopeds and scooters and Japanese bikes started arriving in India. While in Italy, mopeds were regarded as fun vehicles which one rented and rode during the holidays while going to the beach, in India they became vehicles which people used for regular transportation, for going to school and college and to work. People graduated from bicycles to mopeds to scooters to motorbikes. And later when the small cars of Italian or Japanese design arrived, those who could afford them, got them. Once upon a time Indian roads were filled with bicycles, and every street corner had a bicycle repair shop. But with all these big changes happening, and with more and more people able to afford these bigger faster vehicles, both bicycles and their repair shops disappeared. Bicycle manufacturers closed down or they started making motorbikes. Today, there is a motorcycle repair shop near my home which services fancy bikes like Harley Davidsons and Triumphs and KTMs, but there is no bicycle repair shop.

A bicycle was never a lifestyle thing in India, except maybe among teenagers. People didn’t ride it because they would stay fit. People rode it because it was a medium of transport which was very affordable. It turned out that it also helped them stay fit. But with other modes of transport becoming affordable, the bicycle died a quiet death. I have heard people from my parents’ generation say that things were better during old times. I generally don’t agree with that sentiment – as humans we always have a tendency to be nostalgic about our childhood or our teens and say that it was a golden era. But on one thing, I would say that things were better during old times. There were bicycles around then and most people learnt to ride them. Bicycles provided exercise without us even realizing it. I cycled 20 kilometres to my school and later to my college everyday. I didn’t do any other exercise. I hated doing exercise. But I loved cycling. And it kept me fit, as it did millions of others. I miss that.

In recent years, when the Tour de France became suddenly popular in India, there was a brief revival of cycling in India. But the people who were doing it were different from those who cycled during old times. These new guys were corporate types who admired Lance Armstrong and other Tour de France winners and imagined themselves in their shoes. These were the guys who never rode a bicycle in their lives before and who probably regarded a bicycle and it’s rider with contempt, but who now wanted to do it, because it was regarded as cool. They started posting pictures in social media with captions like ‘Me and my Bike’. So suddenly new types of bicycles started making an appearance on the roads with gears and reflectors and riders who wore helmets and sunglasses. International bicycle companies realized that there might be a market in India and they brought their overpriced racing bicycles here. One of my book club friends had three of them, and the highest priced bicycle he had cost as much as a small car. But like all fads, this one also died after a while. The new bicycle shops which sold fancy bicycles and accessories started closing down.

I never owned a bicycle again. I rode my friend’s bicycle a couple of times, but otherwise I haven’t even ridden one in years. I hope I haven’t forgotten how to ride. Sometime back I thought I’ll revive my bicycling. I don’t think I have the confidence now to ride on main roads or highways, but I thought I’ll take rides in my locality and maybe go to the beach. I went to the bicycle shop and checked out different models. I told the guy there that I’ll think about it and get back soon. But I procrastinated for too long and the shop closed down. Maybe I’ll try again when normalcy resumes. It will be interesting to see how this second innings of bicycling goes.

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I recently read Claire’s (from Word by Word) interesting post on Hugh Schofield’s provocative article in BBC News – “Why French Books Don’t Sell Abroad?” Claire shared her thoughts on French literary culture and she was also kind enough to share Laurence Marie’s wonderful reply to Schofield’s article (aptly called ‘Why Do French Books Sell Abroad?’), in which Marie quotes facts and figures which are totally at variance with what Schofield says and gently lobs the kitchen sink at Schofield as any self-respecting window-smashing French intellectual would do. I thought I will also add my little thoughts to the debate and do my bit to bolster Marie’s case and undermine Schofield’s 🙂 A debate is always fun, isn’t it?


One of the first sentences in Schofield’s article starts like this.


France once had a great literary culture, and most French people would say it still does. But if so, how come their books don’t sell in the English-speaking world?


The implication here, of course, is that because French books don’t sell that much in the English-speaking world as they used to, French literary culture is no longer great. In my opinion, that is an extremely weak and spurious argument. Using sales of a book to judge literary merit – when did literary critics start doing that? If this were the case, romance novels and crime fiction would occupy the top positions in terms of literary merit. Because they always sell well and will continue to sell well. Critics can just forget about every other kind of novel.


In a later sentence, Schofield says this :


And how come the French themselves read so many books that are translated from English and other languages?


This seems to imply that if a person reads a lot of translated fiction, it means that the literature of their own language is not great. This is another spurious argument. French readers and writers have always promoted good literature, irrespective of the language in which a book was originally written in. For example, Edgar Allan Poe was virtually unknown in his own country and he died penniless, while he was translated in France by the poet Charles Baudelaire and his works were celebrated. The first ever European translation of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (‘Arabian Nights’) was done by Antoine Galland into French in the early 18th century. English translations followed only more than a century later. You can’t blame a reader or a country for loving good literature, irrespective of its origin.


Schofield’s article quotes David Rey (who manages the Atout Livre bookshop in eastern Paris) in which Rey says this :


French books are precious, intellectual – elitist. And too often bookshops are intimidating. Ordinary people are scared of the whole book culture.


This seems to imply that French readers don’t read French books and are intimidated by French books. This sentence is a total contradiction to a sentence which comes earlier in the article, which goes like this :


The French take huge pride in their literary tradition – it’s been calculated that the country has a staggering 2,000 book prizes.


How can the French be very proud of their literary tradition, have thousands of literary prizes, buy a lot of books (the article says that Marc Levy’s books have sold more than 40 million copies) and probably read most of them and also be scared of the whole book culture and find bookshops intimidating and refuse to step into them? (Did the editor check this article for inconsistencies?)


The article also talks about the French policy of not allowing the sale of discounted books. This is what it says :


The French have preserved a nationwide network of small bookshops, mainly as a result of a system of protection. Books cannot be sold at a discount


A law passed earlier in the year that prevented online retailers from discounting books led to complaints from Amazon that it was being discriminated against.


From my perspective, I understand what the French government is trying to do here. It is trying to help the publishing industry and writers. Writers have been poorly paid across the years and the centuries and there is nothing wrong in protecting their interests by not allowing discounts on their books. To buy books at a discount, French readers visit secondhand bookshops and bouquinistes. Personally, when I buy a new book at a discounted price, there is always a conflict going on in my heart – I love the fact that I got a beautiful book at a discounted price, but I also know that books which are discounted are typically books that don’t sell well, which means that the concerned writer is already not making money, and this makes the situation worse and there is a deep pain in my heart when I think about that.


I also found this sentence totally irrelevant to the main topic of the article :


the sale of e-books is a fraction of what it is in the US and UK.


What is the connection between this and the question asked by the article – ‘Why French Books Don’t Sell Abroad’ – I have no idea on that. This sentence just implies that French readers like reading paper books over e-books. I find nothing wrong in that. This situation is true across the world – inspite of the e-reader phenomenon, a majority of readers across the world still prefer reading paper books.


The article also makes this interesting comment about French book covers.


The books themselves are not made to look appealing. New novels have the same cream cover, with a standardised photo of the author. Design does not seem to be at a premium.


I have no idea how this is connected to the main topic of the article on why French books don’t sell abroad. I won’t say anything more about this, but I will point you to Claire’s wonderful reply to this point in her post in which she beautifully explains why French books have a similar cover and what could be the reason behind that.


The article also says this about French nonfiction books :


And compared to the UK, there is a glaring lack of offer in certain genres – popular history, popular science, biography, humour, sport.


Here too, I have no idea on how this is connected to the main topic of the article. However, I would like to add a comment here. One of my favourite historians is French. His name is Fernand Braudel. He was one of the important members of the Annales school, which pioneered the use of social scientific methods in history and published books on history from the perspective of the normal man / woman. Though Braudel was a ‘proper’ historian, his works are accessible to a general audience. His work ‘The Mediterranean is brilliant and his ‘Civilization and Capitalism’ and ‘Identity of France are masterful works. If you love history, these are all must reads.


The article also quotes writer Douglas Kennedy as saying this :


French novel-writing has never recovered from the experimentation of the post-war era.


“It’s ironic because it was the French who invented the social novel in the 19th Century. But after World War Two, that tradition disappeared. Instead they developed the nouveau roman – the novel of ideas – which was quite deliberately difficult.”


This is the kind of wrong perception which is prevalent among some people now, and I have to write a long rant about it. But I will try to make it brief.


Some of the writers who pioneered the ‘nouveau roman’ were the OuLiPo writers. I have read a few of them and know about a few of them.


Raymond Queneau was one of the founding members of the OuLiPo group and he mostly wrote experimental novels. One of them is ‘The Flight of Icarus’. From what I know, it was the first instance in which a character from a book steps out into the real world and talks to real people or disappears from the book and the writer goes in search of that character. (If I am wrong in this, please do let me know, because I am not able to discover this idea in a book which pre-dated this.) This idea later inspired Woody Allen when he wrote his short story ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ in which Madame Bovary steps out of the book and falls in love with a reader. Allen later used this concept in his movie ‘Purple Rose of Cairo in which a character steps off the screen into the real world – a scene which has been copied in countless advertisements. This idea has inspired countless books which were published recently, including Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’ (and other books in that series), Cornelia Funke’s ‘Inkheart’ (and other books in that series) and Jodi Picoult’s and Samantha van Leer’s ‘Between the Lines’. Of course, no one gave credit to Queneau. Queneau also wrote another book called ‘Exercises in Style’, in which he told one short story in one page and then retold it in many different ways 98 more times. ‘Exercises in Style’ is totally unique and the first of its kind and it is used as a textbook in creative writing courses today.


Other famous OuLiPo authors include Georges Perec, who didn’t use the letter ‘e’ in his famous novel ‘A Void’  and Italo Calvino, who told a whole story in the second person, in his book ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ – probably the first time it has ever been done (Calvino wrote in Italian though). Marguerite Duras also wrote in the nouveau roman style. She pioneered the minimalist novel form in which two characters have a conversation for the entire duration of the story, a structure which was unheard of before, and which has subsequently inspired countless novels and movies including the Richard Linklater movies ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’. (if you know of a writer who wrote in this style before Marguerite Duras, please do let me know. I will be glad to change my thoughts on this.)


In my opinion, the ‘nouveau roman’ didn’t lead to the decline of French literature. Because other writers borrowed the ideas first introduced by the ‘nouveau roman’ writers and used them in their own popular novels. Jasper Fforde did that. So did Cornelia Funke. And Jodi Picoult. The popular success of their novels shows that the ideas first explored in those nouveau romans are alive and kicking and thriving today. And readers who read in English love those ideas first explored in the nouveau roman form which is why these popular novels are successful today. Readers who read in English are not just plot-loving-readers as the article seems to imply. They are more complex and more interesting than that.


French writers have always been pioneering in exploring new ideas, new ways of telling a story, experimenting with plot structure, extending the definition of the novel and exploring themes which are controversial and which haven’t been explored before. French literary culture has always given them the freedom to do that.


For example, from what I could tell, the first novel to explore adultery from a woman’s perspective was ‘Madame Bovary’. (Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ tells me that ‘Madame Bovary’ was inspired by ‘La Femme de Trente Ans’ by Honore de Balzac. That doesn’t change my main argument though –  Balzac was still French 🙂) It probably inspired other books which came later and which explored the same theme like Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, Theodor Fontane’s ‘Effi Briest’ and Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’.


Another example is the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. Though the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode is synonymous with the writings of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf today, the first person in modern times to use that was the French writer Édouard Dujardin in his book Les Lauriers sont coupés. James Joyce is reported to have read that, years before he wrote ‘Ulysses’. Marcel Proust also used this narrative mode in his magnum opus ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Of course, critics have written papers to show why Marcel Proust’s style was not the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style 🙂


The surrealist style novels were pioneered by French writers, the most famous of which was Andre Breton’s ‘Nadja’. My own favourite is Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’, which is a beautiful, surreal, aching love story.


Modern science fiction was pioneered by French writers. Jules Verne is the father of modern science fiction. I sometimes laugh when I read that H.G.Wells and Hugo Gernsback are also regarded as fathers of modern science fiction. Jules Verne wrote his first science fiction novel before either of them was born (Wells was born in 1866 and Gernsback was born in 1884. Jules Verne wrote his first science fiction novel in 1863.) His only sin was that he was French and so he has two other Anglo-Americans competing for the honours. In my mind, there is no doubt. Jules Verne is the father of modern science fiction. Thank you very much.


J.K.Huysmans’ fin de siecle novel, ‘Against Nature’, is one of its kind and is regarded as the ultimate example of ‘decadent’ literature – a novel in which the main character shuts himself up in his castle and admires his works of art and his possessions and treasures and lives a rich interior life and avoids human contact.


I want to conclude with one last example. Patrick Modiano’s ‘Missing Person’ is about a man who can’t remember his past. When he goes on a quest in search of his true identity and his past story, he discovers first that he is one person and then he is another. This continues till the end of the story. We, of course, are familiar with this story, through the Bourne series by Robert Ludlum. Modiano’s book was published before Ludlum’s. I suspect that Ludlum got inspired by Modiano’s book.


The French literary landscape and culture has also inspired writers from other countries to come and write in French and experiment in their works. One famous example is the Irish Nobel prize winner, Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote most of his famous works in French. His famous absurdist play ‘Waiting for Godot’ was written in French and was first performed in front of a French audience. More recently, Jonathan Littell, who was born American but who now holds French citizenship also, published his first novel ‘The Kindly Ones’ in French. It went on to win the Prix Goncourt. In case you are curious, it is a holocaust novel told from the perspective of a German SS officer who worked in the Eastern front. As you can guess, that would be pretty controversial.


Schofield’s article also ignores French books which are written by authors who are not French – typically authors who are Canadian or North African or Caribbean. Two of my favourite authors who write in French are Canadian. Nicole Brossard has written some very beautiful novels including ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’, which is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. Nancy Huston, who was born Canadian and who lived and wrote from there before she moved to France, wrote the beautiful ‘The Mark of the Angel’ – a novel about love, war and the Holocaust, a novel which has a German heroine who is married to a French musician and who falls in love with a Hungarian Jewish man.


One other thing that the article is silent on is French comics. French readers love comics and even though I am an outsider, I have loved French comics since I was a child. (When I say ‘French’ with respect to comics, most of the time I mean Franco-Belgian, because the comics were created by Belgian writers with various European artists and published in French) And I am not talking about just the Tintin and the Asterix series which are world famous. But also the ones which are less famous among English-reading readers – like ‘XIII’, the Lucky Luke series, the Blueberry series, the Largo Winch series, the adventures of Ric Hochet, the Wayne Shelton series and others. Two of my recent favourites are these : the first one is ‘Western’ which is by my favourite comics writer Jean Van Hamme and is an achingly beautiful ‘western’ love story. The second one (which I am still reading) is ‘Batchalo’ which tells the story of the Roma community in France during the Second World War. Unfortunately, this has not been translated into English.


The article also says this :


French authors routinely appear in the English-speaking world’s lists of the best novels ever – Voltaire, Flaubert, and Proust… sometimes Dumas and Hugo too. But when it comes to post-war literature, it’s a different story. Even voracious readers often struggle to name a single French author they have enjoyed.


Well, this is not true. Though I am not a French literature expert and I am just a fan, I have my own list of favourite French authors from the post-war era. Here are some of them (Take that, Schofield 🙂 This is me throwing the kitchen sink!) I have added links to my reviews of these novels with brief excerpts from my reviews of what I thought of them.


(1)   Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard“The thing which I totally loved while reading the book was Brossard’s gorgeous prose. It was sublime, lush, delightful, transcendent, luscious, intoxicating. After reading a particular passage and falling in love with it, I thought that this was it. Now Brossard will get back to business and get on with the story. And then followed another intoxicating passage. And then another. And another. It was the kind of intoxication that one gets while listening to classical music, the kind which is pleasurable but on which one never gets drunk. Nicole Brossard is also a poet and it shows in her prose. I want to read this novel again just for Brossard’s prose.”

 Yesterday At The Hotel Clarendon By Nicole Brossard


(2)   The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston“Nancy Huston’s prose is very conversational and in many places she talks to the reader directly while telling the story. It is like sitting in front of the fire on a winter night, listening to a story told by our favourite aunt. There is also a gentle sense of humour throughout the book, even when it talks about serious topics like war, the holocaust, violence and death. The way the book weaves the stories of Saffie, András, Emil and Raphael and the people in their lives with the story of the fight for Algerian independence and the way it shows how the weight of history changes and distorts individual lives is quite interesting. It also made me feel sad, because it showed how difficult it is to find happiness and freedom in the world, even if we try our best.”

 The Mark Of The Angel By Nancy Huston


(3)   The Square by Marguerite Duras“I liked the way the story explored the characters’ interior worlds through conversation and dialogue and when we think that there is nothing happening in the story – there are no events, only conversations – we realize, when we reach the end of the story, that a lot has happened in the characters’ interior worlds and the characters have undergone subtle and sometimes strong changes which have transformed them in very important ways. The way Marguerite Duras brings out the intensity of emotion and feeling of her characters not by describing them but through conversations and how through this conversational window she gives us a peek into the core of her characters’ hearts is a defining feature of this story.”

 Four Novels By Marguerite Duras


(4)   Foam of the Daze by Boris Vian“‘Foam of the Daze’ is a fascinating, surrealistic, fantastic love story with a heartbreaking ending. It addresses all the great themes – youth, loss of innocence, love, loss, death, the soullessness of mind numbing but inevitable work – and it does all this in an inventive, imaginative, novel, unique and original way. If you like stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new, you should give Boris Vian’s book a try. It will reward you for taking the risk with a rich reading experience.”   

 Foam Of The Daze By Boris Vian


(5)   Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux“‘Simple Passion’ is an interesting book. There is not much of a plot here – the plot can be told in two lines. The book is mostly about the narrator’s thoughts on life, love, longing, waiting, the agony of parting. Annie Ernaux’s prose is spare and simple, but there are beautiful sentences in every page. Though I read it in one sitting, I read it very slowly and enjoyed lingering over those beautiful sentences. ‘Simple Passion’ is a beautiful, slim gem. It is a book to be savoured over a winter evening warming oneself next to a fire having a drink. Or alternately, it can be savoured on a warm summer evening, watching the sun set, while sitting outdoors in the garden and sipping a delicious cup of tea.”

 Simple Passion By Annie Ernaux


(6)   Missing Person by Patrick Modiano“‘Missing Person’ is not just the search of the main character for his past, but it is also a meditation on identity and what makes a person who he or she is. It asks interesting questions on what and who we are – whether we are the products of our past, or whether we are what we do and think in the present or whether we are a summation of our future potential. It is a fascinating philosophical question that is explored in the book through the search of Guy Roland for his past.”

 Missing Person By Patrick Modiano


(7)   Trap for Cinderella by Sebastien Japrisot“‘Trap for Cinderella’ is a page turner. It is not very thick – the edition I read had 171 pages – but I read it slowly and enjoyed reading each page and passage and sentence. The revelations come slowly and suddenly. We see the story and the world through an amnesiac’s eyes and mind and it is quite surprising and scary. The mystery gets revealed in the last page…It is a noir thriller, which holds its own when compared with the best works of James Cain and James Hadley Chase. It is a masterful exhibition of what can be done with just a few characters in a crime novel, and a masterclass in crime fiction writing.”

 Trap For Cinderella By Sebastien JaprisotGR



I want to write about one last thing. Most of the time when I want to explore new French writers, I ask Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ for suggestions. You can find her reviews of French books here. Sometimes I also check the reading lists of Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’. You can find her French reading lists here – Reading List 1 and Reading List 2. You can also find Emma’s reviews of French books here. Stu from Winstondad’s Blog mostly reads and reviews translated fiction. His blog is a rich source of reading suggestions of not just French fiction, but also translated fiction from all languages. You can find his reviews of French books here. I also sometimes check the book ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance-Donaldson Evans. It is a rich source of reading suggestions spanning the entire history of French literature. You can find my review of the book here.


In conclusion, French books are not elitist but are accessible. French books come in all sizes and shapes and genres as do books in English and in other languages. French readers read translated fiction. That doesn’t mean that they don’t like fiction written in their own language. They love French fiction. French writers are pioneering innovators and in many cases others are just catching up with them. It might be true that less French books from the post-war era are getting translated into English. It doesn’t mean that they are not good. They are brilliant. If they are not translated it is a big loss for English-reading readers. It is not a loss for French writers. French books are written not only by French writers. They are also written by Canadian, North African and Caribbean writers. Comics are a big part of the French literary tradition. French writers and publishers are supported by the policies of the French government.


That is all I have to say 🙂


What do you think about this topic? I would love to hear your thoughts. Even if you have a different point of view, I would still love to hear it.

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Most of us who read a new translation of an old classic, sometimes ask ourselves, which is the best translation available of this book. We discuss with our reading friends and fellow bloggers about the merits of different translators and translations. Frequently, a new translation of a classic makes a big splash and many times becomes the definitive translated version of the original. I remember when the new translations of the Russian classics by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky came out, they were received enthusiastically. Most readers felt that theirs was the best translation of ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ yet. I also remember when Lydia Davis’ translations of ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Swann’s Way’ (the first volume of ‘In Search of Lost Time’) came out. They were received with a lot of affection and enthusiasm and readers, reviewers and critics lost no time in saying that these were the best translations of those books ever. It makes us think on how one compare the merits of different translations and decide which one is the best.


One simple way of doing that is hailing that the latest translation is always the best. Because new things are always more appealing than old ones. A child always likes a new toy more. So a Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation will always score over a Constance Garnett translation. A Lydia Davis translation will always score over a Scott Moncrieff / Terence Kilmartin translation. A new translation of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Susan Bernofsky is coming out next year. It is already being hailed as the best. Of course, this way of judging a translation is not satisfying. The latest is the best is not a good or a logically strong argument.


Another way of comparing translations is to take a particular sentence from a book, read it in the original language (if we know the language) and compare translated versions of that sentence. And pick the one that we like the best. When we do this, sometimes we discover that the most literal translations are not the best ones or the most artistic ones. There is a Wikipedia page which does this with respect to Homer’s epics, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’. Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life did that wonderfully with a couple of German classics – Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice and Jeremias Gotthelf’s ‘The Black Spider’.


Sometimes we might read a book and unexpectedly discover the author or one of the characters talk about a translator affectionately. It happened to me a couple of times – when Michael Harvey talked about Richmond Lattimore’s translations of the Greek epics in his thriller ‘The Chicago Way (I hadn’t heard of Lattimore before I read this book. I want to check out his translated version one day. The translation of Greek epics currently favoured by readers seems to be the one by Robert Fagles) and Dan Brown talked about Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ in his novel ‘Inferno’ (I have a soft corner for Mandelbaum as I have read parts of his translation of ‘The Odyssey’ and liked it very much).


Out of these my own preferred way of comparing and analyzing different translated versions is the second one – comparing translated sentences together and alongwith the original. But most of the time, it is impossible or hard to do that, because we don’t know the original language and can’t judge how accurate or faithful a translation is.


I wanted to look at translations from a different perspective. Or more precisely, look at the translator more closely than at the translation. And as this is German Literature Month, I want to do that to the German books I have read in the past few years. My basic assumption is this. I don’t know German (Okay, I know ‘Guten Morgan’ and ‘Danke Schone’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ but that doesn’t count.) So, it will be very difficult for me to compare two different translations of the same German book. Also, with respect to contemporary fiction, normally there is only one translation available. No one has done a second translation of Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’ or Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ or Peter Stamm’s ‘Unformed Landscape’ or Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. Chances of a new translation of any of these books coming out is extremely remote. Maybe it might happen fifty years from now, but it is definitely not going to happen now.  So this model of comparing different translations, though good in theory, is difficult to apply in practice to contemporary German fiction. So I decided to look at it from a totally different angle. During my love affair with German Literature these past few years, I discovered that there were some books that I adored, there were others towards which I was lukewarm and there were others which I was indifferent to. And I discovered that I tended to like books translated by some translators consistently while it wasn’t the case with other translators. I thought to myself – is it possible for me to look at translators that way? Is there a connection I feel with some translators, with respect to literary taste, than with others? Can I say that because my reading taste consistently matches with what one particular translator is translating, I can blindly pick any book that this translator has worked on? Looking at it from this perspective, can I say that I have a favourite translator?


I was quite excited when I thought about it this way. I thought it was time to investigate.


To start with, I made a list of German books I read. I didn’t include the classics (like Thomas Mann’s ‘Death of Venice). I included only contemporary works. And I didn’t define what constituted a contemporary work before proceeding. I decided very arbitrarily and subjectively whether a book was a contemporary work or not. Then I grouped them under translator’s names and tried to see whether a pattern emerged. This was how the list looked like (it is not in any particular order).


Carol Brown Janeway


Mrs.Sartoris by Elke Schmitter


Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach


The Reader by Bernhard Schlink


Michael Hofmann


Unformed Landscape by Peter Stamm


Seven Years by Peter Stamm


The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller


Shaun Whiteside


The Wall by Marlen Haushofer


The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink


Sorry by Zoran Drvenkar


Anthea Bell


Rain by Karen Duve


The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach


Three Bags full by Leonie Swann


John E. Woods


Perfume by Patrick Süskind


The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind


Amanda Prantera


The Loft by Marlen Haushofer


Michael Bullock


The Thirtieth Year by Ingeborg Bachmann


Barbara Harshav


Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier


Michael Henry Heim


Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink


Chantal Wright


Tell Me What You See by Zoran Drvenkar


Looking at the list, we can immediately see that the first four are all big names and they all seem to be translating a lot of work now. We keep stumbling upon them again and again as their range is wide. We stumble upon the others when we are looking for the books of a particular author. When I look at the top four, this is what I think.


Carol Brown Janeway – She translates from a wide range of works. (What’s with Janeway and authors whose second name starts with ‘Sch’? J) In the above list one is literary fiction, another is real-world crime and the third one straddles the fine line between literary and popular fiction. One thought which straightaway jumps at me is that I loved all of her translations that I had read. Every one of them. And unfailingly, all of them had big and beautiful fonts and thick paper. That is always an added bonus.


Michael Hofmann – Looking at the authors Hofmann has translated, it looks like he translates mostly highbrow award winning fiction. No crime novels or popular novels for him. I liked very much all his translations that I read but not in the same way as those of Carol Brown Janeway. Janeway’s translations had that extra little something.


Shaun Whiteside – For me, Whiteside is the dark horse and is the most difficult to classify. I adored one of his translations (Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’), didn’t like another of them (Schlink’s ‘The Weekend’) and liked another of them in parts (Drvenkar’s ‘Sorry’). He has hit on all parts of the spectrum and his translations seem to be a microcosm of the world itself – there seem to be room for all kinds of books there. But he has translated ‘The Wall’ and that is one thing that towers over every other book here. I think I can say that it is the best German book I have ever read. And Whiteside translated it. That is something. And looking at the fact that he has also translated Pascal Mercier’s ‘Perlmann’s Silence’ (which I haven’t read yet, but I love Mercier), I think there are going to be more Whiteside translations that I am going to adore.


Anthea Bell – She is tricky, like Whiteside, but in a different way. Looking at her translations, one feels that she is adventurous with respect to the books she translates. ‘Rain’ is an unconventionally bleak novel – though it has many fans I didn’t like it much. I liked ‘The Collini Case’ though. And I was totally charmed by ‘Three Bags Full’ which is a murder mystery in which sheep are detectives. She is a translator who surprises us with her unusual, adventurous choices.


Out of the rest, John E. Woods is interesting because he has translated two of Patrick Süskind’s works. I loved both of those books. He looked like a one author translator to me till I discovered that he has also translated Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Flights of Love’. I am keeping away from Bernhard Schlink for a while (after the disaster of ‘The Weekend’) but I hope to get to this book one day. If I like it, that will be one more feather on John E. Woods’ cap. Amanda Prantera, like John E. Woods, seems to be a one-author-translator. She has translated two of Marlen Haushofer’s works. I have read one of them – ‘The Loft’ – and it is excellent. It has to be, because it is a Haushofer novel. It will be interesting to find out which authors Prantera chooses to translate in the future.


The other translators are all one-book-wonders (by ‘one-book-wonder’ here, I mean that I have read one translation of theirs. Not that they have translated only one German book. It has more to do with me than with them. I apologize if you thought I was using this phrase in the popular way it is used) and though I liked all those books very much, I can’t arrive at any inference from that.


So, in conclusion, I can say this. I will read any translation of Carol Brown Janeway. I loved all her translations, though they were of different literary genres. If I want to read highbrow literary fiction, Michael Hofmann is the person I will look to. I will keep an eye on Shaun Whiteside, purely for the fact that he translated ‘The Wall’. If he can get hold of another book which is close enough, it will be a great day. Anthea Bell is an adventurous risk-taker. It is always wonderful to find out what she is up to. Anyone who translates ‘Three Bags Full’ must be a charming, fun person. I will also keep an eye on John E. Woods and Amanda Prantera. If I can add one more name – I am reading Jamie Bulloch’s wonderful translation of Katherina Hagena’s ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds’ now. When I finish it, I am sure Bulloch will be a wonderful addition to my list of favourite translators.


Do you like some translators more than others? Especially for quirky, subjective reasons like mine? Who are your favourite translators translating German fiction into English?

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An Elegy to my Angel

I read a book called ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ a few months back. It is a memoir of the author Joan Didion and how she coped with grief when she lost her husband. The first lines of the book were : “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Didion goes on to describe the initial feeling of denial that she experienced. Didion says later in the book : “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be…Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxyms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves”. I cried when I read Didion’s memoir. Little did I know then that I would be thinking about it and crying a few months later.

On Saturday morning, Amma (my Mom) passed away. She was a little unwell for the past week, but it was nothing serious. The doctor had said that she was fine and with some medication she would be back to normal after a few days. It was not to be. She fainted in the morning, and when the ambulance came home, it was too late. The monitor which displayed her heartbeat, showed a straight line. It all happened too fast for me to believe it to be true. The initial feeling of denial set in – friends and relatives who came to pay her their last respects said that she looked as if she was sleeping. It was easy to delude myself that, that was indeed the case. I was trying to keep a normal face, like it was a normal day, throughout the wake. But after a while, the waves and paroxysms of grief came in. And they kept coming and coming…

Amma was my angel and inspiration with respect to books. She showed us the treasures between the covers of books. She also single-handedly revived the old-time tradition of telling stories around a fire or around a dinner table. She inspired us to read books by telling stories to me and my sister when we were young – some of the Shakespeare plays (‘Hamlet’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ were my favourites), books by Dickens (‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was Amma’s favourite and it was my favourite too at that time), swashbuckling adventure stories by Alexandre Dumas and R.L.Stevenson, ‘Jane Eyre‘, books by Mark Twain, tragic stories from Greek mythology, historical novels in Tamil by Kalki (we used to pester Amma to tell us the story of ‘Parthiban Kanavu’ again and again during dinner), and stories by women authors like Lakshmi, Anuradha Ramanan, Sivasankari, Vaasanthi and Ramani Chandran. Amma told her tales when we were having lunch and dinner, and she was such a wonderful storyteller that she inspired me to read my first classic when I was seven (it was Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’). I have loved books since then. Amma’s favourite stories when she was younger were classics in English and romantic, historical and social novels in Tamil. We used to read comics together too, and have discussions on James Bond stories and her favourite comic heroes – ‘Irumbukkai Mayavi’ (Louis Grandel) and Lawrence and David. Of late her interest in standard romantic Tamil novels had gone down and she had started reading more literary fiction. She also loved translated works of classics written by Premchand, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bankin Chandra Chatterjee and V.S.Khandekar.

In addition to books, Amma was a big movie fan. She took us to see many movies when we were young. We used to go and watch movies at the theatre even during examination time – some people might say that she was an irresponsible mother for doing that, but for us she was a cool mom. She inspired in us an everlasting love for movies. In addition to popular movies, Amma loved offbeat and artistic movies, which was quite interesting because none of her friends liked those movies. We enjoyed watching some of these movies together and discussing them. In addition to her literary and cinema interests, Amma took care of her family quite well and also socialized with friends and made new friends quite easily. She also loved going to temples and singing songs and doing pooja.

Amma was a role model in many ways. She spent a lifetime showering love and affection on others. Anyone who was touched by her – her family members, brothers and sister and their families, friends, neighbours – loved her. She was innocent like a baby and could see only the positive qualities of others – sometimes I got annoyed with her for trusting people too easily. When I think back I remember that I was like her till I went to work – it looked like she had passed on a little bit of her most desirable quality to me.

Amma also never got angry – I have seen her mildly annoyed only four times in her whole life – a couple of times with me, once with my dad and once with her sister. I have done so many things to make her annoyed and angry and my dad did something everyday to annoy her, but I don’t remember her getting annoyed anytime. I wish I were like that – I wish I never got angry.

Amma was also young at heart – she loved reading comics till the end and guests who visited us used to be puzzled with it.

In this moment filled with grief, I keep asking myself – why was there no time to say a farewell?  Why was there no time to try out her favourite things for the last time – to finish the book she was reading, to see one of her favourite movies one more time, to take one last bite of a juicy mango (her favourite fruit), to have one last boxing match with me? Why, why, why…

One part of my heart feels exactly as Auden has expressed in his poem ‘Funeral Blues’ :

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

But another part of my heart tells me that Amma’s time in the world was a celebration of life. Amma’s life is an inspiring example – of being kind to people, of never getting angry, of being innocent, of being young at heart, of treating family and friends with love and affection and of never giving up one’s passions in literature and movies. So, though I want to continue crying, I am going to think about how Amma inspired me in celebrating life, and what I can do, to do justice to that inspiration.

Farewell Amma, my Angel of Books and my inspiration! Hope you are observing us from your heavenly abode, smiling gently at us as we stumble through our imperfect lives, and hope you bless us always with that pure heart of yours.

Amma with dad and me during old times

Amma showing the glories of the Indian sari to an Ethiopian family friend

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I was watching the Champions League cricket semifinal between New South Wales and Victoria today. The first wicket fell – David Warner who was playing brilliantly, unfortunately, got run out – and I was waiting for one of my favourite players, Simon Katich, the captain of the New South Wales team, who was all padded up, to walk in. But Katich decided otherwise. He sent one of his younger players, Daniel Smith, who was the wicket keeper, to go in and express himself. Katich disappointed fans like me, but he was merely doing something that he had done during the previous few matches. 

Katich’s puzzling  move

Watching Katich’s captaincy in this tournament, made me think about a few things. In his team’s first match, when the opponents and the conditions were uncertain, he came in to bat at No.3, after the loss of the first wicket. He was the best batsman in his team, and this is the position that the best batsman of a cricket team typically plays in. In that match, he changed the momentum of the game with a few strokes. He created gaps where none existed and teased the ball around for runs. When he was around, the pitch looked different and the bowling looked average. Then, after having nearly done his job, he got out to a loose shot. A Katich fan like me, felt disappointed, because the innings was primed up for the frenzied hittings of the last overs. Fortunately, New South Wales’ bowling attack was world-class (they had four bowlers who played for the Australian team) and so they won the match. I waited for the next match to watch Katich bat again. But in the next match against Sussex, Katich sent the younger players in to bat, to give them an opportunity to prove themselves in foreign conditions, while he enjoyed their displays from his team’s dugout. He continued doing this in subsequent matches – except for playing a brief cameo in the match against Somerset to take his team past the finishing line. Today’s match was a big game for his team. It was the semifinal of the tournament, and so though he sent one of his team members above the order, he himself came in after that and delighted fans like me by playing a beautiful cameo.

Some precedents

Katich was doing something, which managers do all the time in the corporate world. He was trying to be a team player. He was trying to reduce his team’s dependency on himself and make his team run on autopilot mode, by giving the young players more opportunities and exposure, getting them into the limelight, empowering his players and building their confidence while he himself stayed in the background. However, he chipped in with crucial runs and made crucial decisions when his team needed them. I have seen a few other cricket captains do it – Viv Richards who used to bat at No.3 till he became captain, promoted younger players after he became captain and continued doing that till he retired. There were matches where he batted as low as No.7, while greenhorns batted above him. When the going got tough, he opted to come in earlier and blasted the bowling of the opposition. Another captain who did this was Imran Khan. Many times he gave the ball to the rookies or the younger players, while he fielded at slip or at midon and watched the proceedings quietly. When the going was not good for Pakistan, he took the ball from the youngsters, bowled at a blistering pace, fired out a few of the best opposition batsmen and then handed back the ball to the rookies and went back to his perch at midon. It made for interesting viewing.

The question

The question is this : Is what Katich did or what Viv Richards and Imran Khan did in the olden days, the right thing to do? Is it a good idea to take the back seat, when one is the best player in the team, and give opportunities to the young guns? Is it really a good idea to be a ‘team player’? It is an interesting question.

In the corporate world

If one puts the above question to a corporate manager, the answer that would come back would probably be ‘Yes’. The manager’s job is probably to reduce the dependency on himself / herself and make the team run on autopilot mode. That way the manager can take on new responsibilities and move up the ladder. It will help his / her teammates move up the ladder too, when they learn how to delegate responsibilites themselves.

It is quite interesting to look at the other side of the equation too. What happens to the manager’s skills when he / she delegates most of the core work? After this happens, the manager probably makes plans with deadlines and keeps track of the deadlines. The manager allows his / her teammates to do most of the work. After sometime the manager loses touch with the core technical part of his / her field. The manager’s skills in his / her area becomes rusty and after some point of time they become useless. The only thing that the manager can do is negotiate, make and track project plans and assign tasks to teammates. This might even have negative repercussions on the manager’s resume value in the job market. It might also increase the risk to the project, because the core of the project will be managed by people down the line, while the manager plays the role of a figurehead. The COO of the company that I used to work for, thought on these lines, and decided that if things continued in this way, the potential risks to projects were too high. He decided to introduce technical tests for middle and senior managers in the company. It was no surprise when a significant proportion of middle and senior managers failed in this test.

In cricket

If we apply this reasoning to cricket we can say this : if Katich (or Viv Richards or Imran Khan) keeps following this strategy, his cricket skills might rust while his players will love him for giving them more opportunities. There might come a time when he might owe his place in the team more to his team’s loyalty rather than to his performance. Then a day will come when he will be ejected out of the team. This has happened many times before. (Imran Khan retired before his skills rusted, but Viv Richards was rusty in his last few matches and the West Indian selectors couldn’t wait for him to retire. It happened to Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh too). Is that a good state of affairs? Another way to look at it would be from a fan’s perspective. As a Katich fan, I was looking forward to watching him bat in every match. But because he wanted to give more exposure to the young guns, I could watch him in just a couple of matches. Isn’t that unfair to a fan like me?

A personal experience

I had an interesting experience on this front, when I was working with a team on a project once (this was during my study days). Our team had around six to seven members, it didn’t have stars, one of our teammates was a dissident, but the others bonded well. I did most of the organizing, always came prepared for meetings, bunked classes so that I could research and get information from the library for our project meetings, performed all the chores that teamwork demands and offered the limelight to other teammates. One of my  teammates was shy to get on stage. We groomed him for a few weeks and built up his confidence. He did a good job when our final presentation had to be made. There were other teams which made flamboyant presentations, but our team came first. I think the reason for that was that we jelled as a team and brought the power of teamwork to the stage. Was what I did – being selfless and doing the grunt work and leaving the limelight to the others – the right thing? Was it good being a ‘team player’? It definitely was good for the team. It definitely helped my team’s performance. Was it good for me? I am not sure. I definitely missed an opportunity by giving the limelight to my other team members. The exercise showed me in good light as a team member, but it didn’t improve my presentation skills. My professor even asked me why I wasn’t part of the group which presented the team’s findings in public.

Finding the balance

So, what is the answer to the question – in cricket and in life? I think, looking at both sides of the equation, reducing the team’s dependency on stars and making the team run on autopilot mode, where everyone stands on his / her own legs knows his / her responsibilities and the team runs like a well-oiled machine, does seem to be a good thing, because it reduces the dependency of the team on an individual. On the other hand, it should probably be done without sacrificing individual brilliance or without allowing any individual player’s skills to become rusty. If this happens then the concerned individual player doesn’t add value to the team. I think sacrificing one’s individual interest for the team is like using a knife which cuts both ways. It should be done with care.

So, how does one find the balance between mitigating risk and encouraging individual flair and brilliance? That is a very interesting and a million-dollar question 🙂 It is a question for cricket team captains and managers to ponder.

What do you think?


Postscript : For the record, Katich’s batting doesn’t look like it is going to get rusty in the near future 🙂 He is one of the best batsmen in the world, going by his present form and is a breathtaking fielder (the best in the world, if you ask me!) and an interesting unconventional bowler. He is also a brilliant captain. How the Australian selectors missed giving him a longer run and elevating him to the Australian captaincy (after Ponting) remains a mystery. How can the selectors allow such breathtaking talent to not flower to its potential? It boggles the mind!

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My sister had come home for Diwali, and yesterday, on Diwali day, she suggested that we explore some bookshops where she could get some books and magazines which will help her in her research. So, after finishing the sumptuous Diwali lunch, we went out and explored a few bookshops. There was not a soul on the street in many places – people were probably taking an afternoon siesta, after the hectic schedule in the morning, or were probably watching one of the Diwali programmes on TV. I have been trying to avoid bookshops for sometime now – because my book-buying had gone up but my book-reading had gone down (Some of my fellow bookbloggers compute something called a book-reading to book-buying ratio every month. I think I should start doing that now!). So, yesterday, I knew that I was in ‘trouble’ 🙂
Both of us got ourselves a juicy drink and some delicious milk chocolate and then went to my favourite bookshop. My sister got many magazines and a few books which she thought would help her in her research. I selected two books. One of them was about the important ideas of mathematics and another was ‘The Lives of Muses : Nine women and the artists they inspired’ by Francine Prose (this is an exciting book and so I will write about it separately). When I decided that I am not going to get any more books, a book from the top shelf jumped into my view, grabbed my attention and refused to relinquish it. I took it down from the shelf, browsed it and fell in love with it. For a change, I decided that I will resist it, and put it back on the shelf. But I couldn’t resist it for long. When I showed it to my sister, she told me (in that bullying voice that she used when I was a kid :)) to keep that book back on the shelf, and I wouldn’t have any use for it. But by that time my affection for that book had grown considerably, and so I put it together with the other books that I had planned to buy.
The book that won my affection is called ‘Seductions of Rice’ by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. It is a book on food – specifically it is about rice. Generally, I don’t buy books on food – I seem to remember just two that I have got in all my years of book buying. This is odd, because I love reading descriptions of food in newspaper articles and in books. This book was special. I loved everything about it starting from the title (‘Seductions of Rice’ – it is beautiful, isn’t it? Who can resist such a title :)) The book was not just about recipes to make different dishes using rice. It describes the rice culture in different traditions –  Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Central Asian, Persian, Mediterranean, Senegalese, North American. It also describes different varieties of rice – of different colours (white, brown, black), sticky and non-sticky varieties, short pudgy grains and thin long ones, plain ones and fragrant ones – how they are cooked and different dishes which go along with rice, in different traditions. The book also has interesting anecdotes based on the writers’ experiences during their rice adventures across the world. Thus, it is a book on history, culture, traditions and recipes all combined into one. When I showed it to my mom yesterday, it piqued her curiosity so much, that she immediately picked a recipe that she wanted to try soon.
Rice is something that I have been eating forever. I never thought someone could take something which is so mundane and commonplace and write about it affectionately and create a romantic and beautiful book out of it – like a work of art. One of my friends once said that Pablo Neruda wrote beautiful poems about everyday subjects – this book does that to rice. Marcel Proust once said “The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I think the same is true about the food we eat everyday – we probably need to see it with new eyes to discover the romance, beauty and history behind it. I realized it after browsing through this book. I am looking forward to reading the book soon 🙂
I am giving below an excerpt from the ‘Preface’ to the book. Hope you enjoy reading it.

      Our favourite way to eat rice is out of a bowl, the way it is commonly eaten in China. We also like eating rice from a small dinner plate using a dessert spoon to pick it up, Thai style. And when we are in South India, we eat it from a banana leaf with our hands, and then we think that is the best way.
      But at home we like to use a bowl, a largish one the size of a cafe-au-lait bowl. We scoop out a generous helping of plain rice from our reliable rice-cooking pot using a wooden rice paddle, and then reach for something flavorful to eat over it : chopped fresh tomatoes from the garden mixed with basil and Vietnamese coriander, or roasted sesame seeds ground with coarse salt, or spicy Sichuan tofu left over from the night before, or a hot Thai curry. We always have on hand a few different condiments to pull out from the refrigerator : nam pla prik from Thailand, Japanese pickles, a Chinese jiao jang.
      This big bowl of rice is our everyday lunch; occasionally it’s dinner, sometimes it’s even a midmorning snack. It’s our comfort food, and we never get tired of it. It is, in many ways, what this book is most about.
      We didn’t grow up with rice, we came to know it through travel in Asia, like people who travel to France for the first time and there discover good cheese and good wine. But it took a while for this discovery to happen. We were without all the little sensibilities that people have when they grow up eating rice as a staple food. It took years for us to really appreciate the smells and textures of diffferent varieties, and to have a sense of why one should be cooked one way and another a different way.
      Somewhere along the line we found outselves hooked on rice, on good rice, that is, and on rice as a way of preparing meals. Just like in millions – maybe hundreds of millions – of homes all around the world where rice is a staple food, we fell into the habit of putting rice on to cook first thing in the kitchen. It’s effortless. Then we would start thinking about what to serve with the rice, but we’d already be well into preparing our meal.
      If you weren’t raised with rice, this might sound a bit monotonous. But good rice is just like good bread. It always tastes real and it always sparks an appetite. In fact, this is even truer of rice, as it goes so well with a staggering number of different foods, from Senegalese peanut stew to Yunnanese spicy ground pork. And unlike bread, which requires a grain that has been ground into flour, and that flour transformed into bread, rice is simply cooked!


      We sometimes laugh when we think about the food we eat at home. It’s as unlike the food we ate growing up as any could possibly be. We eat curries from India and tofu dishes from China, seaweed from Japan and little dried fishes. We eat tiny bird chiles – and have a fit if we run out. We have a pantry that looks like a United Nations banquet. But the most exotic food is rice. Without it, none of the other ingredients would be there in our kitchen. It’s the great facilitator, unrivaled.

Hope you enjoyed reading the excerpts from the book.

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I discovered a YouTube channel recently on the origin of English words. It features a beautiful and attractive Russian girl, called Marina Orlova, who takes a word each time and describes its origin and how it has evolved. (For example to know more about the the word ‘pampered’ you can check out this video. You can also check out Orlova’s site here).

When I was looking at some of Orlova’s explanations, I also remembered that I had got a book sometime back on word origins, which had unfortunately gone into the bottom of one of my book piles. So I searched for it in my book piles and fished it out. It is called ‘Kick the Bucket and Swing the Cat : English Words and Phrases, and their Curious Origins’ by Alex Games and Victoria Coren. It seems to be based on a BBC TV series called ‘Balderdash & Piffle’. I read a bit of the foreword and browsed through the book here and there. The foreword was quite interesting and so I am giving part of it here.

When I was a child, I made a list of my favourite words. Ferret. Tinsel. Quagmire. They were my top three.
      I made the more traditional lists too : boys I liked, Barbie outfits, revenges to be exacted on horrible schoolteachers. But, while teachers and Barbies dominate our lives for a limited period of time, and boys become far less enigmatic with exposure, words remain mysteriously fascinating for ever. I still think I picked a good three. Ferret, tinsel, quagmire, all of them strange and perfect in their various ways. ‘Ferret’ squirms slightly as you say it : a mischievous, wriggly little word. ‘Tinsel’ is sharp and silvery against the teeth. You can get bogged down in ‘quagmire’, with its juicy start and claggy centre.
      This is why there is no such thing as a perfect translation. The precise relationship between a word or phrase and its meaning is peculiar to every language.
      You might say to a friend, ‘I’ll see you at teatime’, meaning only an approximation of four o’clock. But tucked away inside the word ‘teatime’, to a British ear, is a chill winter afternoon : darkness outside, a little orange glow around the streetlamps, and a pile of hot buttered crumpets on a table by the hearth. (And tucked away inside the word ‘crumpets’ is a little parade of Victorian prostitutes, from the time when the word came to mean an attractive woman, for reasons which I can’t possibly spell out here.)
      Your plan, when you meet this friend at teatime, may involve neither chill winds nor tea, and I certainly hope it doesn’t involve prostitutes. But every time you use an English word, it whispers a little story. Words are like the best sort of grandparents : still engaged and busy in the modern world, but full of colourful tales about the place they were born, the years of their youth, and the job they used to do. The question is, are we always listening?

Hope you enjoyed reading the above extract. Will write more about the book, when I get around to reading it.

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I read an interesting article on British pubs by a columnist called Bill Kirkman recently. You can read it here.

Bill Kirkman normally writes about education, culture and politics and so it was interesting to read his article on  pubs. He has positioned it as an article on culture, which is quite smart on his part 🙂 
The article reminded me of my own favourite pubs and bars, across the years.
There was the ‘House of Jazz and Blues’, in Shanghai, where Sam Hooper played his jazz guitar wonderfully, like a master. When I was in Shanghai, I never missed Sam Hooper’s  performance, whenever he was in town. Sam Hooper was a genius in jazz – in both singing and playing the jazz guitar – and the crowd on Friday and Saturday nights always asked for an encore, when he finished his performance. ‘House of Jazz and Blues’ was the only place that I know that had James Bond’s favourite drink ‘Vodka Martinishaken not stirred’ 🙂 It is good, but I think it is an acquired taste 🙂  Another interesting memory for me, about ‘House of Jazz and Blues’ was that once I met an English airline pilot there, who spoke in Tamil and who said that he knew how to make idli and dosa! We had quite a fascinating conversation! There was the ‘Cotton Club’ which my dear friend Jai introduced to me. It was also a jazz bar, where the  lead guitarist wore a long pony tail, and who strummed the jazz guitar to melodious music. I love jazz bars, but for some reason I haven’t been to the jazz bar in the ‘Peace Hotel’. Then there was ‘Woodstock’ which was my favourite bar for a long time – for its lighting, the right kind of crowd, and the classic rock music that was played there. It was also a place where I met many interesting people. One of the people I met here called herself ‘Lemon’! I have never known anyone with a first name of ‘Lemon’ before! Another person I met was an artist, who liked painting David Beckham! Then there was ‘Little Cayman’ which at some point of time, was a home away from home, for me. The manager, bartender and waitresses were warm and friendly and the waitresses sometimes used to sit with customers and play board games or tile games (like ‘Jenga’ or a version of ‘Andantino’) and beat the hell out of them 🙂 When I asked the manager once, is despair, when I was going to win my first board / tile game, she used to encourage me by saying that I will become better with practice. When the manager was not smiling, I knew that business was not good that day. (more…)

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Recently, I got in touch with one of my childhood friends, after more than 20 years. While talking about many things, he mentioned to me that he had been to Ethiopia recently and had a wonderful time there. He also introduced me to modern Ethiopian popular music, which was melodious and wonderful.
Listening to it, reminded me of the old times when we lived in Ethiopia in the middle of Addis Ababa – of our home in a street filled with bars (there was one in the front of our apartment complex itself!), of the bar girl who was tall and beautiful, who befriended our family and whose favourite I was (I was later shocked when I discovered her profession), of a tall, friendly man who used to roam the street talking to everyone (his height was under dispute in our family – estimates varied from 7 feet to 20 feet!), of the coups that happened, when soldiers with stenguns used to knock at our door in the middle of the night and search our house, of handsome strangers who used to admire my sister and try to befriend her when we were on our way to school (they were all harmless, innocent admirers, of course), of my Ethiopian friend called Mamush (all young Ethiopian boys were called Mamush then) who said that he was always in fourth grade (he gave the same answer, when I was in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades!), of Tzigay, a dark and beautiful girl, who was another of my Ethiopian friends, with whom I used to play and fight every weekend, of the watchman of our housing complex and a good friend of mine, Assefa, who had the biggest biceps I have ever seen and who introduced me to ‘Thalla’, an Ethiopian drink which tasted like beer, of Injira and Shuro – the delicious Ethiopian national dish, of my street friends who used to roll old socks to the size of a football and then play a football game on the streets dribbling the makeshift football like Maradona (I was the worst player there – I could only admire them. How does one dribble a football made of socks?? It takes the likes of genius, which my street friends really were, to do that!), of our family friends Almaz, Nami and their mom who liked wearing Indian sarees (my mom used to lend them) and who used to lend me Tintin comics (that is how I discovered Tintin), of Amon, my Ethiopian friend, who started smoking when he was in 4th grade (I tried it too, but didn’t like it), and who had an Italian stepfather who had a World War II motorcycle (it was better than a Harley Davidson, an Enfield or any of the Japanese bikes!) which he used to oil and get ready once in a year and then ride it on the street with all the boys including me, cheering and running after him – those were wonderful days 🙂
Thought I will share the Ethiopian song, by singer Berhanu Tezera, that my friend sent me. It is there at :



Hope you enjoy listening to it.

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