Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Andaleeb Wajid - More than Just Biryani

Published by Amaryllis

Food is a big part of our lives.  We eat, at the very least, three meals per day.  It can get very mechanical  at times to prepare the same few dishes over and over again. What keeps the cook going is the promise of praise at end of a meal.  The promise of praise also eggs the cook on to hone the recipe and make it her (or his) own.  So, a particular dish becomes attached to a particular cook, "Oh! No one can cook Biryani like Tahera."  Such recipes, particular to a cook, often have an interesting story behind it.  Every clan abounds in such stories.  Some recipes are shrouded in secrecy, "I never found out the secret ingredient that your grandfather used in the chicken, but it tasted out of the world."

Andaleeb Wajid introduces us to the world of three women, Ruqayya, Tahera and Zubi.

Ruqayya is a young bride in the 1950s in Vellore, deeply in love with Omar, her handsome husband.  The rest of the household puzzles her.  There are a lot of women in the house, busy working most of the time. Ruqayya hates cooking and knows nothing about it. How does she make a place for herself in this food proud, bustling household?

Tahera is the self assured, well beloved wife of Bilal. Her world revolves around her husband and her children.  She lives to cook and feed her little family. Will she be able to cope with a loss that threatens to send her spinning out of control?  She is so mired down, will she ever be able to pick herself up again?

Zubi has everything a heart desires. A small nest, a doting husband, a cute child. Why is she so anxious all the time? Why does she keep pushing away happiness?

Sonia Kapoor sets out to write a recipe book but is far too intrigued with the life of the cook.  She cannot keep the book within the limits of a cut and dried catalog of recipes.  She finds herself too involved in the world of her subject, Zubi, and there is danger she may cause irreparable damage.

The story crisscrosses across Vellore, Bangalore and Hong Kong. It covers the life of three generation of women  Ruqayya (the grandmother), Tahera (the mother), and Zubi (the daughter).  Food and the love for cooking is the constant in the lives of the women.  We also learn how the women pass on their fears and their learnings to their daughters.

Andaleeb Wajid rushes in where most authors fear to tread, right inside the hearts and minds of her protagonists.  We get a fascinating glimpse into the lives of women as it was in during the 1950s upto the current decade. (The 2010s).

The book disorients the reader at times when the author steps backwards and forward into time.  She picks up the story of a character and then drops it - rather abruptly.  Right when we are involved in the story of Tahera, we are led into the story of Ruqayya and then on to Zubi.  The last story is a quite depressing, and Zubi seems fixated on remaining unhappy.  It comes together beautifully in the end though.

You will find a lot of frank and forthright writing in here, and also some recipes that cry to be tried out.  You will also come out a lot wiser about the lives of women and their quest for love and happiness.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Muriel Spark - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Published by Macmillan
Bought @

Muriel Spark never disappoints. Her novels always have beguiling  content and a depth.  We are taken on a roller coaster ride through the minds of her characters.  I took some time to finish this book, not because I found it difficult, but because I did not want it to end.  Half way through the book, switching from reading it on my desktop's mobi-reader to my kindle reader, I found myself repeating several chapters.  Rather than skipping the portion I had already read, I elected to savor them again.

Miss Jean Brodie teaches at the junior section of Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh. As the book opens, she has taken six girls under her wing.  The girls are ten years old at the time. They are, Monica Douglas, Rose Stanley, Eunice Gardiner, Sandy Stranger, Jenny Gray and Mary MacGregor. These girls are, as Miss Brodie describes them, crème de la crème.  They spend time with Miss Brodie, get to hear all about her life, and get special instruction from her. Miss Brodie is bent upon influencing the girls with her thoughts.

How these interactions and the subsequent happenings affect the lives of the girls, is what the book is all about.  The chief plot of the novel is the mystery surrounding the identity of the girl who betrayed Miss Jean Brodie to the headmistress, leading to her removal from the school.  Apart from that the novel follows the happenings at the school, the love life of Miss Jean Brodie and the development of the six girls from callow young things to mature women leading their lives.

The story begins during the 1930s when the girls are still in the junior school and ends at various stages of the girls' life.  It was an interesting time, with the rise of the fascists and Nazis in Europe and war hovering in the horizon.  Feminism was rearing its head. Modern thinking was being ushered in.  Miss Jean Brodie brings new ideas into the lives of the girls and they are left to make of them what they must.  The book takes a deep look at how teachers and education influence the lives of pupils.  The Brodie set, as the six girls are known, never shake off the influence of Miss Brodie on their minds.

The story moves forward and backward in time.  We know right away that Miss Jean Brodie was betrayed by one of her set to the headmistress, but other details of the event are not revealed till the end.  We know that Miss Jean Brodie had an affair with the singing master, Gordon Lowther, and that Mr. Teddy Lloyd was the love of her life.  But we find out how consequences of the affairs much later. This forward and backward technique keeps us supplied with tantalising bits of information, and keeps us turning the pages.

The book brings out the complexities of life itself.  On one level Miss Jean Brodie is an intelligent teacher, on another level, she is just a woman looking for love and companionship.

The book is beautifully written.  The thinking patterns of the girls change as they grow up from ages 10 to 18 in the school, and later, as adults.

I am a fan of Muriel Spark.  So far, I have read The girls of slender means, The Public Image, The ballad of Pekham Rye. I have loved them all, and intend to re-read and review them here.

This book was made into a movie starring the now famous Dowager of Downton Abbey - Maggie Smith - as Jean Brodie.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Paul Gallico - Mrs Harris goes to Paris, Mrs. Harris goes to New York

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs Harris Goes to New York (The Bloomsbury Group)Mrs Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs Harris Goes to New York by Paul Gallico
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Bought @ Kindle Store,

This is a fascinating series by Paul Gallico. The books read like young adult books. They are written in simple prose that should appeal to younger readers.

Yet, the heroine of the series is not a young person. She is a 60 year old charwoman in London, Mrs. Ada Harris. She is a wrinkled old woman with the spirit of a 16 year old. She is forever ready to go off on a new adventure. She gets into frightful muddles, yet survives them to come out on top. This is the London of mid to late 1950s.

What brings her out of her messes is her charm. She never pretends to be anything that she is not. Her dropped aitches, her rough hands and old clothes topped with a battered hat are all a part of her and she does not try to mask herself. She presents herself as she is, and that invariably wins her detractors over. Despite being a charwoman she makes friends with the best of people, the Marquis de Chassagne is a particular friend of hers. The Schreibers, an American couple who employ her, are also in thrall of her.

Her best friend Violet Butterfield lives in a house close by and works as a cook. She likes her life as it is, and is terrified by the adventurous spells of Mrs. Ada Harris. She gets sucked into them at times, but mostly she stands on the sideline feeling timorous.

This book has two adventures of Mrs. Harris. The first one is Mrs. Harris goes to Paris. In this book, Mrs. Harris is bitten by the bug of acquiring a Dior dress, when she spies one in the wardrobe of one of her clients.

How she travels to Paris in quest of one, gets into a scrape and how she manages to come out it, constitutes the story of this book.

In Mrs. Harris goes to New York, Ada is trying to help an orphan child in her neighbourhood to look for his father. Little Henry Brown's father is an ex-GI living in USA. Mrs. Harris is determined to find him and end the torture that little 'enry is subjected to by his foster parents.

Again, things do not go as Mrs. Harris planned and she winds up putting her near and dear ones in serious trouble. But it is still the end of 1950's and things are simpler.

I read one more in the Mrs. Harris series when I was young. It was called "Mrs. Harris, M.P." and it is just as charming as the rest in the series.

I love these books for their old world charm, the simple language and the way it makes small things in our life so important. A good cup of tea at the end of the day makes Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Butterfield happy. A trip to the 'flicks' is how they like to spend their day off.

Notwithstanding Mrs. Harris's grandiose adventures, the tale is told in a very unassuming style which makes it seem like an young adult novel. Mrs. Harris may well be a girl out of Enid Blyton books who has grown old, but not lost any of her zest for adventures.

The books are precious and worth reading.

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

Armistead Maupin - Tales of the City

Tales of the City (Tales of the City, #1)Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published by Harper Collins
Bought @ Kindle store,

Mary Ann Singleton comes to San Francisco for a vacation and never leaves. She rents an apartment in 28 Barbary Lane. Now, this is no ordinary house. This set of apartments has a sweet landlady, Anna Madrigal, who grows marijuana for personal consumption. She is generous in doling out weed for her beloved 'family' of tenants as well.

Apart from Mary Ann, there is Mona Ramsey, Micheal Mouse, Brian Hawkins and the secretive Norman Neal Williams. These are all the part of Anna's family at 28 Barbary Lane. Apart from this, there is Edgar Halcyon who employs Mary Ann and Mona. He is connected to Anna in a mysterious way.

Mary Ann has some trouble settling in, when she finds herself at odds with people around her. She does not like her co-tenants much at first. She finds them weird and is un-used to their ways. How she finds her feet in San Francisco is the central theme of the novel.

The characters are all eccentric yet charming. The things that happen to them are unusual. The realistic, matter of fact narration of these events makes it seem quite commonplace.

Armistead Maupin gives us a glimpse of how San Francisco was in the '70s, with its hippies, its citizens very open about their sexuality, the happy lower classes, the unhappy rich people.

The episodic way in which the book progresses can be attributed to the fact that it was originally a series that were published in San Francisco Chronicles. The series has nine books in all, I expect I shall read them all, in time.

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