Tag Archives: delhi

Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi by Swapna Liddle

chandni-chowk Title: Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi
Author: Swapna Liddle
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386050670
Genre: History and Politics
Pages: 196
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Cities have always intrigued me – more so their existence and how they came to be. Within cities sometimes you end up finding smaller cities that have their own tales to tell, provided people listen. Chandni Chowk of Delhi is one such city within a city. I also remember the first time I visited Chandni Chowk after much hesitation (I am from Bombay. I was born and raised in South Bombay. You can’t even begin to imagine the level of being a snob) and I was honestly mesmerized by it.

Initially, I didn’t think or make much of it, till I walked around in the snake-like lanes, made peace with all kinds of smells around me – from food that was being cooked to an open window of someone’s house from which there were other smells to finally the smell of comfort. I think a place like Chandni Chowk sinks into you only if you allow it to or else it will never become a part of you.

The book by Swapna Liddle is a historic tribute to Chandni Chowk and its formation over the years – from being a part of Shahjahanabad to how it came to be what it is today, over centuries. Liddle’s research is partly through the archives and mostly through what she conjures through her experiences. The book is rich with anecdotes – it chronicles the life of a city through its trials, tribulations and what it has seen through the years. My favourite part of the book was the cuisine of Chandni Chowk and how it has grown over the years. At the same time, the history of Chandni Chowk through all the wars and battles is staggeringly astonishing and deserves a read for sure.

“Chandni Chowk” is draws on a lot of sources as the story of a place progresses – from newspaper articles to accounts of Mughal chroniclers, travelers’ memories, poetry, and government documents (I was fascinated by what I read in this book. It opened a new side of this place for me). What I also felt most sad about is how this place has somehow lost its significance over the years and is lost in the hustle and bustle of the capital city. Perhaps, it will change as more people would want to know more about it. This book is the best place to begin that journey.

Swapna’s writing will compel you to visit Chandni Chowk the next time you are in Delhi (if you’re not from there), and if you are from Delhi, then it will make you want to go there again and again and discover the true essence of what was it and how it is today. Liddle’s writing is nuanced and at the same time full of brevity – she doesn’t cramp too much and that makes it way easier to read about a place. If you like reading about places, their history, their present and what they mean in today’s times, then you must include this one in your reading list.

Interview with Karan Mahajan

Few books enter your soul and manage to shake and stir it. Those books remain with you, no matter what. “The Association of Small Bombs” by Karan Mahajan has been one such book for me this year. I am dazzled by it and will remain so for a long time to come.

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I was excited to get a chance to be able to interview Karan and here is the interview. The review to the book is here. Please do read the book. It is beyond super.

Keeping in mind the title of your book, why are small attacks not remembered? Why do you think they erase themselves so quickly from memory? What are in fact, small attacks through small bombs?

They’re not remembered because we have a limited bandwidth for tragedies that involve others. Modern India is a feast of tragedies. It’s not surprising that the smaller bombings are covered for a couple of days and than overridden by larger fires, train collisions, scandals, terrorist attacks.

The book is all about people who are affected by a small attack or lead to a small attack’s occurrence. How did the story come about? I know it is a rather cliché question, but we sure would like to know.

All good novels come from a mysterious emotional source. I must have felt, at the time when I started writing the book, all the way back in 2009, that my personal experience resonated with the pain felt by the parents, the Khuranas, in the opening of the book. I remembered the Lajpat Nagar bomb vaguely from my childhood but it came rushing back to me with a great violence soon after the 26/11 attacks. In a way, it was a sort of gift—a negative gift. Suddenly I had this thing—this world at my disposal. I spent the next five years figuring out what it was trying to say to me.

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You bring out the real and human and very insipid daily acts of terrorists in the book. Why did you do that? Did you want to show them as more human than they really are? Do we in our need to objectify confuse humaneness with just being a human being?

I like the word “insipid” in this context! Basically, I wished to erode the negative glamor around terrorism. I wanted to say: these are the banal steps that lead to a bombing. Don’t be in the thrall of these figures: they are often bumbling, sad, confused. That said, I don’t downplay the evil of terrorists. Their actions are inexcusable. But it’s possible to be evil and petty at once, or to be evil and stupid. It’s our collective imagination that transforms terrorists into these god-like masterminds.

I was most taken in by the family that disintegrates because of the terror attack. Were they always dysfunctional? Were the cracks always there but never seen?

Yes, the family was always dysfunctional, in my mind. Vikas Khurana has never resigned himself to the bourgeois trappings of his life—his extended family, his kids, his wife—though that is his life. He sees himself as an artist primarily, but the lie of that premise is already showing through when the novel starts. The bomb widens that gap. Deepa and the kids live in a stalemate alongside Vikas’s brooding. We tend to believe that the best parts of people can emerge during a tragedy but I wanted to show how the worst parts can come out too.


What were your favourite books growing up? Did they have any impact on “The Association of Small Bombs”?

I’m sure they did have an impact. “Growing up” isn’t quite the right place to look—I’m sure reading PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie affected my prose style, but I don’t think they’ve had a bearing on other aspects of my sensibility. I think Naipaul, Narayan, Hemingway, Bellow, Conrad, Ozick, some of (Arundhati) Roy, Philip Roth, Yashpal, Rushdie—these have loomed larger as influences. I tend to find Naipaul a bit chilly for my tastes, but I love the speed of “Half A Life.” It’s a book with an actual narrative—which a book like “A Bend In The River” lacks (with every year it seems more like an academic text than a novel to me). I connect with RK Narayan’s humanistic humor—particularly in books like “The Vendor of Sweets” and “The Painter of Signs.” Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” is brilliant, but again, quite sluggish to read. I took some of his world-weariness but threw away the odd sensation that the narrative isn’t moving forward. I aspire to the loose, conversational style of Bellow. I don’t like it when writers lyrically sermonize from a mount. The key is to be intelligent, direct, musical, conversational—and to appear to do so without effort.

There are a lot of observations throughout the novel – either first person or third person based. Sometimes from a vantage point and others in close quarters. How do you bring that in your writing?

Instinctively. There are some moments that require a zoom lens and others that require an aerial view. Let’s take grief. We can obviously empathize with a couple that has lost two kids in an attack. So there’s no need to remain yoked to their perspective the entire time. It might be more interesting to view the social context around their grief or even the strange ways in which their moods shift. I guess POV is a way of deciding what’s interesting in a moment and going boldly toward it.

Male friendships are a major part of the book. Why do you think they needed to be there? Any specific reason?

Terrorist groups, religious groups—these tend to be crowded with men and divided by sex. Religious individuals are often uncomfortable with people of the opposite sex—it’s the job of religion to divide the sexes. So showing male friendships in all their complexities was necessary.

How is your writing schedule like?

I write best in the mornings and I tend to research or write non-fiction in the afternoons.


How is Karan the reader and the writer? Do you get critical when reading?

Being a writer has ruined reading fiction for me. I can only focus on fiction when it seems it might feed my work, which is unfortunate: a lot of great books have fallen by the wayside. But I find it easy to get lost in non-fiction and films: these are the two mediums I enjoy the most. And yes: I hate the critical part of my brain when I read. To open my own novels is to experience tremendous pain. I know exactly how I would have rewritten or improved every sentence. I have no choice but to close my eyes and live with a million imperfections.

So this was the very erudite Karan Mahajan on his book “The Association of Small Bombs”. It is definitely the read of the year.

Tharun James Jimani’s Favourite Bombay Books

I love asking authors such questions or wanting them to write about their favourite books so that their readers and fans can read a lot more than just being stuck to the said author’s works. I honestly believe that authors must constantly recommend books that they have enjoyed and loved reading. That way readers get to explore so many books.

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Here are Tharun James Jimani’s (author of the newly released Mornings After and Cough Syrup Surrealism, both of which are must reads in my opinion) favourite 5 books on city by the sea and I love how he has put his emotions in words. A little about Mornings After though: It is the kinda book that is perfect for our times, it is about gender roles and how the line is so blurred when it comes to identity and what it means to be urban. I loved every bit of it. A longer review a little later.

mornings-after

Tharun’s 5 favourite Bombay books:

This is kind of an awkward question to answer because it implies some deeper understanding and/or experience of the city because of my having read –and, I suppose, written- stories set in Bombay. And even more difficultly, of being able to rate the Bombay-ishness of said novels by authenticity; to distinguish “first copies” from the real thing. The problem is you and I could spend a hundred years in the same city and experience entirely different Bombays depending on who we are and what we’re drawn to.

Whereas as I’ve grown older –and perhaps because of all the many ways cities have become more and more like each other in the last couple of decades in which I did all my growing up- I find it increasingly difficult to buy into the city-as-character trope, especially in literature. (The visual medium is a different story.) Could some stories have only happened in certain places? Maybe. Could the same story have happened to another group of people in the same city? I’m not so sure. So maybe it’s just the characters after all?

This is also the sentiment I set out to express with Mornings After: “Bombay will hug to her bosom, take to her grave, tales of love and despair, of life and longing, because cities are really just the secrets they keep. And because cities—and Bombay—are not dreams or abstractions or joy or melancholy, the easiest way to put yourself in a city’s shoes may just be to put yourself in the shoes of its residents.”

Either way, a beautifully written vignette of city life is a joy to read, and the books I’ve listed below contain some of my favourite stories set in Bombay.

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie

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This book is especially dear to me as it was the first I’d read anything like it- my first Rushdie. And to make things even more interesting, it was set in two cities – Bombay (which I had never visited at the time) and Cochin, Queen of the Arabian Sea! As a fifteen year old living in Trivandrum, it was almost a privilege to read (parts of) a story set in a city you knew inside out. I’d read The God of Small Things before this, but Roy’s Kerala was one I was familiar with. Rushdie’s Jewish Cochin of generations ago, not so much. Add to the mix the dark, dark genius of Aurora- the Moor’s talented, conflicted mother- and the alternative universe of her art that she prefers to validate her offspring through, and you’ve got one of those “What were you doing when..?” reading experiences few books can boast of. Coming back to Bombay, it’s Rushdie’s descriptions of the Ganesha festival (and Aurora’s annual dance against the Gods as the procession passes by their house) that linger in memory, but it was the interweaving of the very real terror the city was reeling from and the obvious references to Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray that titillated at the time. I’ve always been fond of real life signposting in my own fiction, and looking back it’s not hard to imagine the Moor played his part in shaping that sensibility.

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

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A group of kids born at the stroke of Indian independence or within the next hour, all with different super powers? The narrator as telepathic moderator of their “midnight parliament” to find out what it all means? Rushdie was doing the Wachowskis before the Wachowskis knew it was a thing! Before this descends into total fanboy fare, Midnight’s Children was more accessibly Bombay than The Moor’s Last Sigh for me, perhaps because it was also a story of growing up – both of the narrator and his country. Pop culture references and geographical quirks aside, who hasn’t visited South Bombay and wished for a funtabulous falooda or at least bhel puri served up Bombay style?


Serious Men – Manu Joseph

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We need to talk about caste, guys. A theme that could have easily petered out into Good vs. Evil blooms instead into a sublime –if ridiculous- battle of wits in this hilarious Bombay novel that pits an astute Brahman scientist against his Dalit assistant. I read somewhere that the author himself was resident in a poorer part of Mumbai as a young journalist, and it shows in his descriptions of Worli’s chawls. No clichés or poverty porn; just one man’s very understandable itch to get out of his damn cage. Teach a man to fish, right? Well, Manu Joseph gave his Dalit protagonist agency. Score.

Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto

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How I Met Your Mother, but in the form of a series of conversations between a suicidal matriarch and her two kids in the psychiatric ward of a Bombay hospital. In a wonderfully concise, beautifully illustrated novel (no prolonged eight seasons of shoddy story-telling here). Em and the Big Hoom’s courtship is glorious in its details, and Em’s madness is the incessant black drip that holds together and drives this family nuts at the same time. But what stood out for me was the cultural context: the characters’ Goan-Catholic heritage (Maka Paao, as they’re referred to in some parts of Bombay) and the sheer delight in picturing the characters utter the very relatable turns of phrase ( I took to using “this-thing” in conversation for a good couple of months) Pinto puts in their mouths.

Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry

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Like with Pinto’s novel and its Goan heritage, what screamed out at me from the pages of Family Matters was the cultural setting – Bombay’s Parsi community and their fears, inhibitions and humanity. But equally telling is the novel’s exploration of that most middle class of maladies – the economic and social burden of caring for one’s parents in their old age in a community that puts family above all else. The elderly, Parkinsons-afflicted patriarch flailing about in the tiny flat his daughter shares with her equally well-intentioned husband and kids pictures the claustrophobia of Bombay’s tiny middle class abodes in a way that moves and makes you want to move at the same time.

Thank you Tharun for doing this. I know it must not have been easy for you but thank you so much for this.

In the City of Gold and Silver by Kenizé Mourad

In the City of Gold and Silver by Kenize Mourad Title: In the City of Gold and Silver: The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal
Author: Kenizé Mourad
Translator: Anne Mathai in collaboration with Marie-Louise Naville
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609452278
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I love books set in the period when India had just begun fighting for their independence or had started again way back in the 1940s. Historical fiction has always been close to my heart and will continue to hold that spot – whether the books are set in India or any other country.

“In the City of Gold and Silver” by Kenizé Mourad was the first historical fiction novel read this year and I was completely taken in by it. Set in Awadh during the time of the first Mutiny in India – this book traces the life of the fourth wife of King Wajid Ali Shah – who ultimately had to give up on Awadh when it was annexed by the British like most other princely states and territories in India during the East India regime.

What is different about this story though is that the book doesn’t end with Wajid Ali Shah being exiled, but begins with Begum Hazrat Mahal taking charge of the affairs in the state of Awadh and how she seized control of Lucknow.

The book to me beautifully charts a part of history – which isn’t forgotten but is often not spoken of. Yes, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 is linked to this region as well and is fleetingly mentioned in the book – but the book is mainly about the king Wajid Ali Shah and his wife – Hazrat Mahal – the formidable, strong and independent woman that she was.

Mourad’s writing is in third person and she does a clever job of introducing her characters and etching them. The fluidity of language and perspectives of each character blends in beautifully – from Wajid Shah to Hazrat to the deputy in charge of playing the middleman between the king and the Governor General to the farmers and the sepoys, Kenizé takes you back in a place and time that you cannot imagine and yet as you turn the pages, they come alive.

The book in a sense is a big fat historical lesson – in how one woman succeeding in changing the face of Awadh in troubled times and how she rose from being a courtesan to the fourth queen. That to me in the true sense of the word is “feminism” – how she refused to back down and let go. I think more than Wajid Ali Shah, of course the focus was on her and her story – which is how the book delivers and stays on target with it.

“In the City of Gold and Silver” is a book that will educate you, will make you wonder, will also make you feel really sad for the sovereign and hoot out loud for Begum Hazrat Mahal. I recommend this book very highly if you want to know more about that era or you just want to start reading some good historical fiction.

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan Title: The Association of Small Bombs
Author: Karan Mahajan
Publisher: 4th Estate, Harper Collins
ISBN: 9789351777878
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I finished reading “The Association of Small Bombs” two weeks ago and I am still reeling from its effect. Sometimes you know when you love a book too much and you also know that you can read it fast and finish it but you want it to last longer, so you don’t finish it really fast. Ever get that feeling? Happens to me all the time when I am reading a book I’m really enjoying and that has occurred after a long time with this second novel by Karan Mahajan.

At this point, let me also tell you that I had read and not thought much of Karan’s first book “Family Planning” at the time of reading it (I am being extremely honest. Please don’t kill or hate me for it Karan). I will for sure go back to it after some time. For now, let me share my experience of this literary stunner of a book “The Association of Small Bombs”.

You will one way or the other get the title relation once you read the book, so I will not talk about it. Let me instead go straight to the plot: It all begins with a bombing that takes place in Delhi’s crowded Lajpat Nagar. The year is 1996 and it is not a big bombing. It is a small bombing. Lives are lost – and amongst those lost lives two belong to the Khuranas’ sons Tushar and Nakul. There is also Mansoor; their friend who accompanies them to get the Khuranas’ repaired TV home and while he is alive, he is scarred for the rest of his life by the incident. The book in short may seem about this but there is so much more to it. In fact, there is so much more that I do not know what to include and what to omit from this review.

So I will start with it all. The Khuranas’ live with their guilt for years and Mansoor lives with that terrible memory and how he is physically and emotionally damaged by it. There is also the terrorists’ (so-called) side of the story (which isn’t all that much but when you read it in the context of the plot – it makes so much sense and is needed there). The empathy, the rawness of the writing and above all the precision with which every detail is explained – you cannot help but fall in love with the book.

The book begins in 1996 and ends in 2003 (I assume because there is nothing more after that). Mahajan’s capturing of the seven years throughout the novel and its protagonists (there is more than one) is magnificent and taut. For instance, the relationship between the husband and the wife after the sons’ death is something that I still think of – the edge of the relationship ,the brink of it which they face and sometimes only to go back because there is nowhere else to go. Mahajan is a master of his craft.

I have so much to talk about this book and I know that words will fall short. I will not be able to explain what I felt every time some stunning paragraph or line hit me. A small detail you would have not paid attention to in your daily routine shines in the book. The mere simplicity and elegance of writing is what will make you turn the pages and not stop. I will not be able to put that in words – because you have to feel it as you read and wade through this one – hoping it will not end. All that I can say is: READ THIS BOOK NOW!

Here are some of my favourite parts from the book. There are a lot more but for now I will list these:

“It was as if, having failed to protect them in life, they felt double the responsibility to fulfill their duties in death.”

“The station was so bloated with people that the loss of a few would hardly be tragic or even important”

“The May heat was horrifying, violating the privacy of all things while also forcing you into yourself.”

“She was aware, suddenly, that the death of her children was not a metaphysical event, but a crime. A firecracker set off by uncaring men in a market. She did not trust the government or the courts to do anything.”