Under my byline

A lot of little

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 8 April 2012

Bill Bryson, by James DawsonFrom Bill Bryson, another short history of… stuff

A colleague and I came to blows over this book. It happened like this: I said “Bill Bryson doesn’t know how to write,” and she hit me with her copy of At Home. It isn’t a slim paperback.

As it turns out, we were both right. (more…)


Above and beyond

Posted in Books, Health, Profiles by Rrishi on 16 August 2011

Maj. H P S Ahluwalia in front of his beloved hospital - H P S Ahluwalia CC BY-SA 3.0Tea with BS: Major H P S Ahluwalia

It is a large room, and he a figure behind a broad desk at the far end. The wall to the right is a set of windows with an unusually wide door opening onto a broad balcony. On the long wall to the left is a panoramic photograph taken from the top of Mt Everest, in the snowy blue shade of morning and high altitude. On the wall nearest the entry is a mid-size oil painting of Registan Square in the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with its three tall darwazas.

But one doesn’t see all this, not at first. (more…)

Business magic

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books, Living by Rrishi on 13 August 2011


Six days after it opened, three months ago, I happened by the Spell & Bound Bookshop & Café in SDA Market, a prosperous corner of South Delhi. The market has restaurants and coffee places and one of the better-stocked thekas in the city. Primed by years of Harry Potter products, my eye was instantly captured by Spell & Bound’s forest-green and olde-worlde facade, with its promise of cosiness and warm bookery. (more…)

Turning the page

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 23 July 2011

The old-style generalist bookshop is under threat. For the moment it is holding its own against competition from big chains and online retailers — but can it survive into the next generation?

It’s as familiar and as timeless as morning chai, this kind of bookshop: owned by three generations of the same family; current owner-manager elderly, knowledgeable and forgiving; opened its doors before the British departed; a short roster of illustrious customers and regulars tending toward the cultured rather than the merely famous; stacks of eccentrically placed books making it not terribly easy to find the book you want, but that book not being the point of your visit… (more…)

Written in stone

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 15 May 2011

Walking to Mount Kailash, Colin Thubron climbs out of his comfort zone

Of course this is a pilgrimage. Colin Thubron walks two weeks from remote western Nepal to the Tibet border, is carried by SUV to the foot of Mt Kailash and then performs the kora or circumambulation of that holy mountain. He says he is impelled by a cold secular fact — the recent death of his mother, his last living relative — rather than religious awe and a desire to gain merit. He is a travel writer, one of the very best; so, add professional curiosity. What is unusual about multiple motives? (more…)

Denis the blessing

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books, Living, Profiles by Rrishi on 8 January 2011


September 1998 was a good month. That month, Google first went live. Already by the end of the year it had been praised by PC Magazine as having “an uncanny knack for returning extremely relevant results”. Also in September 1998, the Arts & Letters Daily website went live. ALDaily, too, was a near-instant hit.

Google quickly became as commonplace as furniture, as useful and almost as invisible. That was its success. ALDaily, however, I fell hopelessly in love with. (more…)

The winner’s a loser

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 25 December 2010


The last passenger into the plane had a large carry-on bag — large enough that there was no space left for it. An airhostess trotted up to ask him to let the staff put it in the hold instead. The passenger looked like an office-goer in his late thirties. He took the standard recourse of the thwarted Indian: milking his status. He looked down at her and spoke loudly, demanding to know why the check-in staff had not told him about this, and how inconvenient it was to be held up at arrival by having to wait for his luggage at the carousel. (more…)

Before and after

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books, Living by Rrishi on 11 December 2010


There are few things as instantly arresting as the before-and-after photograph pair. Two photos side by side become an essay in images: the beginning and end are before you, and the story lies in between. Usually one can easily fill in the story: a person has aged or had a makeover, a place has been revitalised or destroyed and rebuilt, a forest is now a shopping mall, a snowfield is now a desert… (more…)

‘First, they laugh at you’

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 27 November 2010


So nice of President Obama to have talked to us about Mahatma Gandhi. Unfortunately he’s not in a position to do as Gandhi. Someone who is, ironically, is the future king of England. Prince Charles has a new book out, called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, and in it he lays out his version of a Gandhian approach to saving our planet and civilisation. (more…)

Imperial summitry

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 30 October 2010


Obama meets PM. Sarkozy meets PM. Medvedev meets PM. Wen meets PM. Cameron already met PM. That makes all five heads of permanent Security Council states guests of India within a year. Good thing we did some housecleaning for the Commonwealth Games.

Historically, this is very unusual. Before modern times, rulers rarely ever met except in victory and defeat. Humayun met the Shah of Persia, but only after Sher Shah Suri had snatched his kingdom. Alexander met Porus, rajas and sultans regularly met their usurpers, the British King-Emperor received his subject Indian princes… (more…)

Ambani, Season 2

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 25 September 2010
Ambani & Sons - Hamish McDonald

Ambani & Sons, by Hamish McDonald, Roli Books, pp 408

Hamish McDonald wrote The Polyester Prince in 1998, on the rise of Dhirubhai Ambani. Legal threats kept it out of the Indian market — but now there is a sequel. An interview with the author.

What is new in this book?

A third of the new book is about events since the old book finished, which was ’96-’97, so it gets the last years of Dhirubhai, including the oil refinery at Jamnagar and the jump into telecom, and then the split [between Mukesh and Anil], and it runs up until the Supreme Court judgement in May this year. It contains a lot more analysis and opinion and delves into the myths and counter-myths and tries to explore the issues this ascent has raised for India, particularly the relationship between big business and government. (more…)

Land ho

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 18 September 2010


Did you know that the Godavari once flowed northward into an ocean, and that the river is thus older than the subcontinent? That “stupendous” volcanic activity once blocked rivers in peninsular India, creating swamps in and around which all sorts of ancient species lived, died and were squashed into the soil? That the Deccan once stretched from Kachchh to Rajahmundry and even to land now 1.5 km below the Arabian Sea? That whales were once wolf-sized land-based carnivores? That all sorts of interesting things are going on in the ground beneath the industrial belt of Jharkhand? That — and this was a real surprise — a hill near Vadodara “comprises a unique succession beginning with ankaramite at the base, followed upwards successively by mugearite, hypersthene-basalt, olivine-basalt, andesite with rhyolite and tuffs at the top”?

All right, that last one was unfair. (more…)

Love of the land

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 11 September 2010

A historical romance set in colonial Coorg wins NRI author Sarita Mandanna lavish praise. But has she acknowledged all her sources?

Sarita Mandanna’s Tiger Hills was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Not only was it championed by David Davidar, until recently a big wheel at Penguin, it also won the attention of David Godwin, a top literary agent. UK rights were quickly picked up by Kirsty Dunseath of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, who compared Tiger Hills to Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. (Early reviewers said its heroine Devi recalled Gone with the Wind’s immortal Scarlett O’Hara.) And in April 2009 Penguin paid a huge sum to acquire India rights to this debut novel. Trade rumour says the sum was around Rs 35 lakh. (more…)

Lone ranger

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 4 September 2010


For a man who spent 40 years’ worth of working days seated at desk K.1 in the Reading Room of the British Museum in London — the room that once harboured Marx and Lenin — Eric Partridge was unusually alive and kicking. (more…)

The game of life, translated

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 21 August 2010


Wiping away tears, I’m thinking in amazement: “This really shouldn’t work.” But it does. I’ve just finished reading the death of the hero in Premchand’s novel Rangbhumi. The blind beggar Surdas dies like a saint, with forgiveness for those who once beset him, and with humility. Almost his last words are “Ram-Ram”. His village mourns him, and when his body is mounted on its funeral pyre every man, woman and child is there. (more…)