“India Becoming” by Akash Kapur

Note: I won this book on LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India is a book about India in transition, especially after the economy was liberalised in 1991. It’s written by Akash Kapur, who grew up in India, spent his early adulthood in the United States, and then returned to live in India. His hometown and the surrounding areas and cities have changed a lot, and he talks to a bunch of different people to figure out how their lives have changed. Sathy is a landowner in a village, which was formerly a position of power, but is quickly becoming irrelevant. Banu, his wife, is struggling to balance her career and her family. Hari and Selvi are recent college graduates from small villages, finding their place in a Westernised corporate world. Veena is an ambitious career woman that is flouting tradition by divorcing her husband and living with a boyfriend. There are a few more people interviewed, like Jayevel the cow-broker and Das the Dalit businessman.

The book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on the good; the burgeoning middle class, the proliferation of women in the workplace, the new businesses and construction and culture. The second part talks about the destruction and disarray that accompanied them – for instance, people’s livelihoods and homes getting destroyed, people that are unsure of their place in the new world.

The stories made interesting reading, but I don’t think they were more than a series of vignettes. It’s true that India is rapidly changing. This means that people can aspire to much more than the government jobs that used to be the only recourse in socialist India, and that Western culture is pervasively affecting Indian youth. India’s economic development is completely ignoring sustainability and damage to the environment. There is still enormous poverty, despite more and more people being successful. I think that’s what Kapur aims to show us with all these stories.

I’m not entirely sure why this book left me so ambivalent. I did enjoy reading about the people. I guess I was hoping for more insight or theories about how India might evolve in the future. I already know that there is a lot of change in India, both constructive and destructive, so I didn’t really learn much from the book. I know that we are neglecting our poor, but that we’re also becoming more individualistic and free, all because of globalisation. Kapur didn’t offer any analysis of this – just platitudes about how nothing is what it seems to be like on the surface. He doesn’t offer any answers or suggestions as to how India might achieve a better balance, he just points out the flaws.

The blurb for this book says:

India Becoming is essential reading for anyone interested in our changing world and the newly emerging global order. It is a riveting narrative that puts the personal into a broad, relevant and revelational context.

I don’t think I’d take it quite so far, but it’s a decent portait of a few lives coping with a country that is rapidly changing.

India Becoming by Akash Kapur
Riverhead Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books was not the kind of book that I thought it would be. I assumed that it would be the story of the girls that got together to read every Thursday, and that the mention of Lolita in the title was for shock value, since it’s such a controversial book. I should have taken the subtitle (A Memoir in Books) more seriously, since I think it is a great description. The book is Azar Nafisi’s memoir, which includes the story of her Thursday morning classes, and a healthy dose of literary analysis.

Azar Nafisi went from a revolutionary Iranian student in the U.S. to being a professor of English literature at the University of Tehran just after the revolution. She describes how the revolution changed Iran and herself, using liberal comparisons and allusions to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James and Jane Austen and The Great Gatsby. She is extremely frank about her life, even about her initial naivete and her constant confusion about her life.

Once I’d gotten over my expectations of what the book was going to be, I started to enjoy the book. It was still pretty slow reading; I couldn’t focus on the book for long stretches. I think it was because of a few reasons. The first is that life under the Iranian regime sounded very tough, and I couldn’t take reading about it for too long. Secondly, Nafisi’s writing is very poetic, but also quite disjointed and jumps around a lot. Third, she was analysing a few books I hadn’t read, and it seemed a bit dense to me. None of these reasons is a bad thing, of course.

I think that Nafisi’s way of writing really describes her very well – she frequently mentions being confused about what actions to take next and how to counsel her students, and her writing reflects that. She jumps between different time periods and between her interactions with different people. Her constant allusion to books, passages, quotes, characters, etc. was also really interesting – it is clear that she is a professor of literature through and through. As a person who has read a lot but has never taken a college English class, I found those sections of the book fascinating.

I would have liked to read Henry James’ books and The Great Gatsby before reading this one, since they’re now fully spoiled for me. I would’ve gotten a lot more out of the analyses. I did enjoy the analysis of Lolita, and was disappointed that the “Austen” section didn’t really talk much about her books.

This is book 17 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Random House, 2003 | Buy the book

“Fannie’s Last Supper” by Christopher Kimball

Cover for Fannie's Last SupperI’m a big fan of America’s Test Kitchen, and I love reading about food and history, so I was really looking forward to reading Fannie’s Last Supper by its host and founder, Christopher Kimball.The book’s tagline is “Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook”, and is (purportedly) about recreating an elaborate dinner party from Victorian-era Boston, based on the recipes of Fannie Farmer, a famous cooking teacher and businesswoman from the time.

About the title – although Kimball was certainly inspired by his discovery of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, I would not go as far as to say his meal was a recreation. He does not seem to respect Farmer as a cook or as a person, which makes for odd reading. His reactions to exact recreations of her dishes range from “inedible” to “truly horrible” to “rather uninspired” to “second rate.” (There is the occasional “good”, but it is rare.) This means that pretty much all of the recipes were changed quite a bit. A few of the recipes were even sourced entirely from other books, after Farmer was deemed unsatisfactory. This is all fine, but it seemed like false advertising.

The book is peppered with fascinating facts and insights into the world of the 19th century cook. The industrial revolution was changing cooking at an extremely rapid rate, plus domestic servants were no longer common. Kimball likens it to a music aficionado in the late 1990s (p. 193):

who used a turntable for his LP collection while relying on a large group of CDs and then a smattering of digital downloads from iTunes on his MP3 player.

I loved that description (although, what about cassette tapes? that’s what I used in the 90s) – I think it’s a great analogy.

I think the structure of the book could have been easier to read – part of it deals with the evolution in cooking methods and ingredients in the US, some of it is about how Boston’s food culture and how that changed (including random little details like the price of gelatin), some of it is about Fannie Farmer’s life, and then there’s the story of Kimball’s journey to making this dinner, testing recipes, finding silverware, etc. The trouble is that each chapter contains a bit of everything. I think it would’ve showcased the material far better if it had been better structured, although it is still really interesting.

I also appreciated a lot of the trouble that they went to to make the dinner accurate – mock turtle soup using calf-brains, and making gelatin from calf-feet stand out. It sounded like a horrendous amount of work.

Apparently PBS did a special to accompany the book (or vice versa), also called Fannie’s Last Supper. Here is the trailer for it. I really want to watch it, but I’m not sure how it can be obtained.

This is book 10 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Fannie’s Last Supper by Christopher Kimball
Hyperion, 2010 | Buy the book

“Two Lives” by Vikram Seth

Cover for "Two Lives"Two Lives: A Memoir is the first Vikram Seth book I’ve read (I seem to be making a habit of introducing myself to authors who primarily write fiction by reading their non-fiction work; the only Barbara Kingsolver book I’ve read is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and On Writing is the only Stephen King book in the house, although I haven’t read that one yet.) I found the title of the book slightly misleading – while the book is certainly about Seth’s uncle Shanti and aunt Henny, it’s also very much about his relationship with them.

The book is divided into five independent parts, each approaching different facet of the story. It starts off with the young Vikram Seth arriving to live with his aunt and uncle while he attends school in England, and his perceptions of them. Then, we learn about Shanti’s life, then Henny’s, then their life together. I was expecting the book to be more narrative than it was; a large portion of it quotes various interviews and letters. Much of the narration that accompanies the quotes seems more like annotation or clarification of context. At first, I found this annoying, but I got used to it.

The story of Shanti and Henny is certainly makes fascinating reading. Shanti is a Hindu from India who studies dentistry in Germany, and Henny is the daughter of the Jewish family he boards with while doing so. However, their love story blossoms in England. Both of them are remarkable people in their own right – Shanti is a much-loved practising dentist, even though he lost one of his arms in World War II. Henny’s story is quite tragic; her mother and sister do not make it out of Germany, and she has to face many truths about her family and friends after the war is over. I think her correspondences were the most interesting part of the book – we got an intimate look at how she coped with a tragedy of the magnitude of the Holocaust. She always remained incredibly dignified and restrained, though.

At times, I found myself wishing that the book was a little more focused. It seemed like Seth structured the book around trying to present every bit of information that he had (especially about Henny), rather than build a cohesive narrative. At other times, I appreciated the tangents and extra details about the couple’s family and friends.

I also had mixed feelings about the author talking about his own feelings at various points in the book. On the one hand, they made it feel more intimate – he is in fact, writing about the aunt and uncle that he loves and respects, so it’s nice to see that come through. On the other hand, some of the things he said seemed superfluous and distracting; for instance, he talks about the different areas of the world and technologies that Germany has had an impact on (including some thoughts on the future.)

This is book 9 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth
Harper Perennial, 2006 | Buy the book

“Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” by Lizzie Collingham

Cover of "Curry" by Lizzie CollinghamA lot of the non-fiction that I’ve been reading lately has been about food and Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham is the latest in that trend. It describes the history of Indian food and how it was influenced by various invaders and immigrants. Collingham makes the argument that “authentic” Indian food has never really existed and shows the evolution of various Indian cuisines, both in cooking styles and use of ingredients.

I thought that this book would have a lot of speculation and conjecture, but it is actually meticulously researched – almost every paragraph contains a citation or two. Consequently, the book is a little bit prosaic, although it flows quite well and the wealth of information that it contains certainly makes the dryness excusable. The book starts off with a description of Indian cooking as described in early Ayurvedic texts, and then talks about how the Mughals, Portuguese and British, in particular, changed these methods.

It’s amazing to think about how many common Indian foods (potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, corn, custard apples, pineapples, chillies) are from the New World or Europe and were introduced to India in the seventeenth century or even later. I was especially surprised that chillies weren’t always part of Indian cuisine (although apparently chillies were adopted by Indians so quickly, that by the time they spread to some parts of Europe – Germany, Hungary etc. – they were believed to be indigenous to India.)

Another thing I found astonishing that the British had to set up a marketing campaign to get Indians to drink tea, given that India is currently the world’s largest producer and consumer of tea. They set up an Indian Tea Association, that among other things, went door-to-door demonstrating the proper preparation of tea, and during the Second World War, had “tea-vans” that provided Indian soldiers with tea and letter writers to keep in touch with their families while at war.

The book also details the culinary lives of the British living in India (“Anglo-Indians”) and to a lesser extent, other cultures. I found the change in British fashions absolutely fascinating – from authentically prepared curry, to the excesses of burra khana, to tinned salmon. The influence of Indian food all over the world (the West Indies, Pacific Islands, Japan) was also something I didn’t know much about, and I am glad it was included.

A couple of minor nitpicks – the notion of not eating food prepared by (or even come into contact with) an “impure” person (i.e. of a lower caste/different religion) seems incredibly archaic to me, but seems to have been pretty prevalent, according to Collingham. As an Indian, I would’ve liked it if she had been clearer that it is a relic of the past. Perhaps I’m just being too touchy, considering that this is a book dealing with history.

I also found the mention of the British divide-and-rule policy annoying, since it was only talked about in one paragraph, and I would have liked to hear more about the “apparently benign acts of cultural accommodation” by the British with regards to segregating food service by religion.

This is book 3 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham
Oxford University Press, 2006 | Buy the book