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India Through Foreign Eyes

Stimes Review

My latest review in the Sunday Times is of Sam Miller’s “A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes”. You’ll find the original here. Or here’s the text.

A Strange Kind of Paradise India Through Foreign Eyes by Sam Miller

Cape £18.99/ebook £9.99 pp421

Ringo Starr couldn’t stomach Indian food. In 1968 he arrived with his fellow ­Beatles at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh in northern India lugging a suitcase of Heinz baked beans. Paul ­McCartney’s ­reaction to India’s ­poverty was “stoical” — he insisted that handouts to beggars were not the answer. George ­Harrison was instantly enamoured  of the culture, and referred to naked ­sadhus in the holy city of Varanasi as “really spiritual”. After the Maharishi made a pass at Mia Farrow, John ­Lennon left in disgust, penning the lines, “Maharishi, what have you done / You made a fool out of everyone”, although later he replaced “Maharishi” with “Sexy Sadie”.
The Beatles were hardly the first westerners to find India challenging or to form conflicting or half-cocked opinions about the place. They were merely the hippest in a long line of foreigners promoting a faddish impression of the country to the outside world — in their case as the land of “spiritual harmony”, the sitar and Ravi Shankar.
The imagery of India that author Sam Miller grew up with in Britain, however, was very different. The so-called “raj revival” of the 1980s that he remembers from his twenties was fostered by television adaptations of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown and MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions (the latter “the purest bilge”, according to ­Salman Rushdie) and Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, with its “romanticised tribute to the steam train and the Indian countryside”. Consequently, when Miller married an Indian and started visiting her homeland in the early 1990s, eventually settling in Delhi, he began a process of “unlearning”. His unusual book is a revealing juxtaposition of his wanderings, alongside the fascinating history of what ­millennia of foreigners have made of this ­
baffling country.
Miller, who says he knows “quite a lot about India, the kind of facts that might win a pub quiz”, follows in the footsteps of everyone from Vasco da Gama (who takes the prize for “the most foul-tempered and unperceptive visitor”) to the serial 11th-­century invader Mahmud of Ghazni (definitely “the most unpopular”). Fawning fans have included Mark Twain, who eulogised endlessly about “the land of tigers and ­elephants”, but definitely not VS Naipaul, who became obsessed “with the subject of shit”. Miller ­visits the tomb of Jesus in Kashmir, or so the locals assure him; spots the Kama Sutra pop-up book at New Delhi airport; encounters the Goddess of English; and visits the Hindu temple that inadvertently inspired the X-Men character, ­Juggernaut.
In sifting through such improbable cultural detritus, Miller illustrates how the world’s perceptions of India have oscillated wildly. To the ancient Greeks it was “an unknown land at the edge of the world” populated by giant, gold-digging ants. Muslim and European invaders slavered over its tantalising loot. And more recently, the Slumdog Millionaire generation has perceived it as a nation of extreme poverty and call centres.
The British relationship with India proved no less predictable. The East India Company’s nabobs ­merrily plundered the land, yet its servants “busied themselves…with the task of classifying everything and everybody”. William Jones, the 18th-century polymath and founder of the Asiatic Society, recognised
the common linguistic ancestry of ­Sanskrit with Greek and urged Europeans to stop seeing “India through a glass darkly”, and to develop an appreciation for its “thousand ­little nuances”. But that appeal went mostly unheeded. Although many in Britain, including Queen Victoria, positively thrilled to India’s exoticism, the infamy of the Black Hole of Calcutta and the 1857 mutiny conspired to perpetuate an impression of barbarism.
The emergence of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and ­Jawaharlal Nehru on the world stage improved India’s standing, but Miller quotes a survey conducted in the US in the late 1950s among “influential Americans” that revealed little in the way of erudition when it came to matters Indian. Clearly, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with its monkey brain-eating Kali ­worshippers, didn’t help bridge that ­cultural divide.
It is a pity that Miller doesn’t dig deeper into the psychology behind why the country remains such an enigma for most outsiders. He is ­dismissive of Apple founder Steve Jobs’s astute observation that Indians are guided more by intuition than westerners, but offers no alternative view on what drives Indian culture to stand apart. However, for those he comes across searching for the “real India” (as opposed to the one of mega cities and shopping malls) Miller offers percipient advice: don’t generalise about this vast, extraordinary country. “India,” he writes, “has everything that is old…modern, and everything in between…enough to challenge and surprise me intellectually, aesthetically and existentially for many lifetimes.”
 + Available at the Sunday Times Bookshop price of £15.99 (including p&p) and £9.99 (ebook) on 0845 271 2135



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Kashmir Gastronomical Adventure

Wazwaan-2-22Late last year I took my family up to Srinagar, Kashmir to attend a three-day wedding. Our hosts were old friends and it was lovely to spend time with them. But the trip also helped me realise a long-held ambition: to eat a full Wazwaan meal.

Kashmiri food is some of my favourite. A little heavy for some perhaps – you’ve certainly got to enjoy your meat! – but absolutely delicious.

You can read my article in National Geographic Traveller India about the King’s Feast here.


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Delhi, National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Nat Geo DelhiMy piece on my relationship(s) with Delhi will appear in the January issue of National Geographic Traveller UK. You can read it in advance here.

Otherwise here’s the text:

When I was posted to Delhi in the mid-1990s it was a sleepy, parochial backwater.  There were no imported cars, and the Ambassador, which was modelled on the post-war Oxford Morris, still ruled the roads.  Non-Indian restaurants were few and far between.  If you wanted a change from chicken tikka and dosas, you invariably ended up in one of the luxury hotels, or Rodeo, a Mexican joint where the Indian waiters were an incongruous site in Stetsons and the enchiladas were essentially rotis rolled into wraps.  The city’s cultural life was equally limited.  Jaded intelligentsia gathered regularly at the same old cultural centres where the staid atmosphere was indicative of the malaise that gripped the country.

Still, there was plenty for me to explore.  Delhi’s history is unparalleled, dating back at least two and a half millennia.  British ‘New’ Delhi, which became the capital in 1911, is but its eighth avatar. The landscape is dotted with the domes, battlements and mausoleums of conquerors, emperors and saints.  During time off from work as a journalist, I would take long walks along the leafy avenues of this former colonial capital, with its whitewashed bungalows and columned edifices.  I would root around in ‘Old’ Delhi, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s walled citadel with its magnificent Red Fort standing sentinel over a warren of frenetic bazaars. And I will never forget the first time I visited the colossal red sandstone tomb of the Emperor Humayun and was mesmerised by its calming symmetry.

But I didn’t feel any great emotional connection to Delhi.  And had a certain Indian-American woman not walked into my office one afternoon, I doubt I would have remained beyond the length of my employment contract.

Anu was 23 at the time with short black hair, dark, intelligent eyes, and a playful, beguiling laugh. It wasn’t long before I found myself hopelessly in love. Suddenly Delhi was a special place – our place.  Riding in the back of three-wheeled auto rickshaws was no longer a tedious, bone-rattling experience, but one softened by entwined fingers and whispered sweet nothings.  We would spend afternoons lolling on the lawns between the 13th century tombs in Lodi Gardens; eat bathure chhole and gulab jamuns at Nathu’s in Bengali Market; and although the cinemas generally offered the cheesiest Hollywood and Bollywood had to offer, it no longer mattered just as long as we could secure two quiet seats together.

I had a flat in one of Delhi’s posher areas, but started spending all my free time at her pad in Amar Colony, a busy, congested quarter inhabited by boisterous Punjabis.  On our first Holi, the spring festival, we spent the day fighting with water balloons and packets of powdered colour out on the street along with all the neighbours.  On Diwali, when the place erupted with fireworks and diyas appeared on balconies and in doorways, the landlady invited us in for chilli pakoras and spicy green chutney, and we played cards with her extended family late into the night. I attended engagements, weddings and even the odd funeral.  And gradually, with Anu as my guide, I came to appreciate – even relish – what north Indians refer to as tamasha, the unending chaos and spectacle of the place.

Delhi is where I proposed marriage (in a private dinning room in the Oberoi hotel); it’s where we eloped (secretly before a disapproving judge and two cuffed local thieves); and where we are now raising our two children.  It’s also where I’ve set a series of novels starring a Punjabi detective whose resemblance to some of Anu’s uncles is by no means coincidental.

Since our courtship and the reforms to the economy, India’s capital has experienced rapid change.  Its population has more than doubled.  Its concrete sprawl of suburbs have grown exponentially with clusters of office towers, apartment blocks and metro lines marching out into the retreating farmland.  Every day, thousands of people pour in from rural India searching for work. For every new golf course, there is a slum to match it in size, if not allure.  The Ambassador is now an endangered species, replaced by plenty of Toyotas and even the odd Ferrari.

For the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, life is complex and tough. Corruption and sheer negligence make living in Delhi often frustrating, sometimes dangerous.  But there’s nowhere I would rather be.  Asia is resurgent and I wouldn’t miss this show for the world.  Besides, as a mystery writer, there’s always something new to discover: from Kathputhli, an entire neighbourhood inhabited by street magicians, to the new microbreweries of Gurgaon.  And just occasionally, when we want a break from the kids, the power cuts or the maddening bureaucracy, Anu and I can always jump in an auto-rickshaw and hold hands all the way to Lodi gardens.

© Tarquin Hall, 2103

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How Indian Pulp Fiction Got Respectable -The Times

Published by The Times on June 15, 2013



“I am like Colgate: a reliable brand name,” beams Surender Mohan Pathak over a large “peg” of acrid Indian whisky in the bar of the Delhi Press Club. The self-proclaimed grandmaster of Hindi crime fiction has written 250 novels and boasts sales of 25 million. Yet not one of the 73-year-old’s novels has ever been reviewed. The reason, he says, has little to do with the fact that he pens pulp fiction novels (many featuring anti-hero Vimal, a bank robber who invariably finds himself “playing a deadly game” against a “kingpin of the underworld”).

Rather, Pathak claims, he is a victim of language bias. “Educated people in India don’t want to read Hindi and they would certainly not be seen dead with one of my books,” he says. “Newspapers are also hypocritical. They always review Bollywood films and carry all the gossip. But they take only writers working in English seriously, like that Arundhati Roy.”

A visit to bookshops in India’s new malls leaves no doubt about the reading habits of its burgeoning middle classes. Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh’s books are prominently displayed. Aside from the crowds of motivational business manuals, the greater share of the remaining space is given over to European and American thrillers – and the obligatory Agatha Christie.

“Popular fiction [in English] comes from elsewhere,” says Mukul Kesavan, a historian and critic. “There is no desi [Indian] Nick Carter, no James Hadley Chase, no dime-novel equivalents.”

Punters seeking sex, violence and racy plots in the vernacular must venture to the traditional point of sale for Indian pulp fiction: the same frenetic railway platforms where Kipling’s first collection of short stories, Plain Tales from the Hills, was sold for one rupee. Amidst jostling crowds, baggage coolies, chai stands, fortune-telling cum weighing machines and the odd band of robber monkeys, the 1,500 stalls and carts belonging to the venerable A. H. Wheelers groan with India’s answer to the penny dreadful. Priced at just 60 rupees (roughly 70p) and printed on grainy pulp, the covers are nonetheless hard to miss. Bold, gaudy and rendered in the style of pre-90s hand-painted Bollywood posters, they invariably feature a busty sari-clad damsel, a turbaned goonda [thug] with blood-shot eyes and at least one fiery explosion.

“These books have a very devoted readership amongst the rickshaw wallah and the vegetable seller, and you’ll see them reading them in third class on the long train journeys from the city back to the village,” says the critic Mrinal Pande. “There’s a lot of violence in small-town India, with kidnappings and killings, and so they can relate to the plots – only they want a hero going against the system who wins.”

Pande, who unlike most of her peers grew up reading Hindi pulp fiction as well as the English classics, says the characters have adapted to the times: “Up until the 1970s there were a lot of Anglo-Indian women with names like Miss Lily who danced and smoked. The bad guys were all nawabs and maharajas and evil colonels. Now the hero often finds himself pitted against politicians, local mafia and terrorists. One of the bestsellers of all time was thinly based on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.”

American-born Rakesh Khanna stumbled across this literary phenomenon almost by accident when he came to work in Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras. “When I was looking at Indian literature, I felt like the fun stuff was missing, the pulpy stuff that was there in all the regional languages,” he says, “I used to see all this Tamil pulp on the racks – ‘timepass fiction’ they call it – and loved the covers. Although I could barely read them, I wanted to know more.”

Khanna wasn’t to be disappointed. Tamil pulp is an eclectic mix of racy thrillers, science fiction, hardboiled detective novels and steamy vampire serials. Tantric temptresses, murderous robots and vengeful goddesses abound and there’s not always a clear line discernible between the genres. There is also no shortage of material; 60 per cent of all the books sold in India are written in regional languages.

“The output of some of these writers is insane,” says Khanna, citing the example of Rajesh Kumar, one of the most prolific authors of all time. “He’s written more than 1,300 novels. On average, he writes a new one a week. In the 80s and 90s they were printing a million of his books a month.”

Khanna, who had no former publishing experience, made it his mission to make Indian pulp fiction available to an English-reading audience, not just internationally but also in its homeland. Blaft, the house he co-founded in 2008, has brought out two English anthologies of Tamil pulp fiction so far. Three of Surender Mohan Pathak’s novels are also available in English, including his all-time bestseller, The 65 Lakh Heist.

Pande is concerned that Indian pulp fiction is being presented as “cute, exotic writing”. However, others such as Kesavan welcome the development. “Like many Anglophone Indians I find reading in an Indian language a chore,” he writes. “The reason our reading lives aren’t nourished by popular novels set in locales we know is not because they aren’t written, but because they aren’t translated.”

Blaft’s Tamil anthologies have sold respectably well in the wealthy neighbourhoods of Delhi and Mumbai. Handpicking the material, however, has not been without its challenges. The world of Indian pulp-fiction publishing can often prove as shady as its plotlines, says Khanna, who claims that plagiarism is rampant, especially in northern India. “They’ll take a [foreign] novel and change all the names so it’s set in Bombay,” he says. “Suddenly after ten pages they’ll then splice in some of their own material. The legalities are kind of scary.”

Pathak, like the characters of his potboilers, is blunter still. “Indian publishers are cheats,” he says, tucking into a plate of the Delhi Press Club’s spicy aloo chaat. “They lie about sales, lie about royalties. Most don’t even read the manuscripts they publish. Writers are like the hired help.”

He takes some consolation from the fact that many of the publishers who flourished during the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of Indian pulp fiction, are going under. Satellite TV channels with their so-called “saas-bahu” (mother versus daughter-in-law) soap operas are cited by commentators as the main culprit. Still, Pathak, who first started writing while holding down a job as a bureaucrat in government offices – “where no job is demanding” – continues to churn out a novel every few months. Sales are down, but the initial 10,000 print run of any of his books soon disappears off A. H. Wheelers’s stands.

“My fans scoop them up from the railways platforms within hours,” he says. “They pay 60 rupees, read the book and, 400kms down the line, cash it in for 30 rupees so they can buy the next one.”

With the English translations of his books now widely available, Pathak is also getting the publicity that has long eluded him. “I wrote for 44 years and no journalist ever called on me,” he says with a smile. “They translate three of my books into English and now I am a famous personality.”


From The Secret of Commercial Novel Writing (1933) by Sudhandhira Sangu

1. The title of the book should carry a woman’s name – and it should be a sexy one like Miss Leela Mohini.

2. Your story must absolutely include a minimum half-dozen lovers and prostitutes [and] preferably ten or a dozen murders.

3. If you try to bring any social message, forget it. Beware! You are not going to lure your women readers.

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